Dividing the Spoils

In a new book, historian Michael Beschloss re-creates the 1945 Potsdam Conference at which Harry Truman found his presidential voice and determined the shape of postwar Europe

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In early February of 1945, when the defeat of Germany was finally a foregone conclusion, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Premier Joseph Stalin met in the Crimean city of Yalta, on the Black Sea, to consider the future of Europe and set the stage for a later meeting at Germany’s Potsdam, whose name would become synonymous with statecraft of the highest order.


At Yalta, the leaders of the “Big Three” confirmed they would accept nothing less than Germany’s unconditional surrender; demand that Germany pay reparations to the victors; and divide the defeated nation into four zones, occupied, respectively, by the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. FDR, whose resolute authority was crucial to forging the accords, would not live to see the war’s end. On April 12, less than three weeks before Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered, FDR died in Warm Springs, Georgia. Vice President Harry S. Truman, who had little experience in foreign affairs, was sworn in as President.

In The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany 1941-1945 (just published by Simon & Schuster), historian Michael Beschloss draws on recently opened U.S. and Soviet documents to describe the diplomatic maneuvers. Beschloss, the author of six other books, believes that Roosevelt and Truman had to wrestle with a central question: “Did they presume that Germans, humiliated by their defeat, would soon turn to another Adolf Hitler—or had they fought World War II with the belief that German history could be diverted in the direction of a lasting democracy?” A similar question confronts the U.S. administration today as it contemplates an Iraq after Saddam Hussein.

The following excerpt from Beschloss’ book portrays an increasingly self-confident Truman sparring with Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam, site of the 17-day conference held in July and August to refine the Yalta plans.

Truman had never met Churchill before Potsdam. He wrote in his diary that when the Prime Minister called on him at his villa on Monday morning, July 16, Churchill “gave me a lot of hooey about how great my country is and how he loved Roosevelt and how he intended to love me.” As Truman recalled in 1954, “I liked him from the start. . . . I think he was surprised and pleased when he met me. Of course, he had been informed of what an inadequate chief of state he had to deal with. But I think he changed his mind.”

Truman was told that Stalin would be late reaching Potsdam. With time on his hands, the President decided to tour Berlin. Conquerors like Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar, whom Truman had read about so voraciously as a boy, staged vast pageants in which they viewed their vanquished lands on horseback. Had Franklin Roosevelt achieved his dream of touring a conquered Berlin, he would almost certainly have arrived in Hitler’s capital with theater and ceremony.

But Truman was more modest. Along with his new Secretary of State James Byrnes and Chief of Staff William Leahy, he simply climbed into the backseat of his Chrysler convertible and had his driver start up the autobahn. Along the roadside he saw “a long, never-ending procession” of men, women and children, “all staring straight ahead.” Ejected from their homes by the Russians, they were “carrying what they could of their belongings to nowhere in particular.”

The sight of defeated Germans and their victims reminded Truman of his Confederate grandmother and her family after the Civil War: “Forced off the farm by Yankee laws,” they had wandered for weeks “along the hot Missouri roads until they found a safe place to stay.” He thought of the “millions of people who were like her in Europe now.”

Touring Berlin’s ruins, the new President smelled the stench of rotting corpses and saw the blackened Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building. “It is a terrible thing,” he said of the bleak scene, but “they have brought it on themselves.” He imagined what a victorious Hitler might have done to Washington, D.C. He felt “thankful” that Americans had been “spared the devastation.”


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