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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

That night, Truman wrote in his diary that the talks were at an “impasse.” He wrote Bess, “The whole difficulty is reparations. Of course, the Russians are naturally looters and they have been thoroughly looted by the Germans over and over again and you can hardly blame them for their attitude. The thing I have to watch is to keep our skirts clean and make no other commitments.”

Tuesday July 31: Byrnes told Molotov that the American proposals on diplomatic recognition of Eastern Europe, German land for Poland, and German reparations were all one package and couldn’t be granted piecemeal. Stalin argued that because the Soviet Union had suffered such heavy losses of equipment during the war, he needed more reparations. 

That evening, Truman secretly scrawled out formal approval for the first atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan. Three days after learning of the successful Alamogordo test, the President had quietly told Stalin that the United States now had an unusually destructive new weapon. Truman did not know that Soviet intelligence had already briefed Stalin on the Manhattan Project and the test. Stalin simply replied to Truman that he hoped the Americans would use the weapon well against Japan. Now Truman specified that the thunderous event should unfold only after he and his party were safely gone from Potsdam: “Release when ready but not sooner than August 2.”

On Wednesday afternoon, August 1, while discussing German assets abroad, Stalin made a fateful suggestion. To Truman and Britain’s new Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who had taken Churchill’s place at Potsdam, Stalin proposed that the Soviet Union “regard the whole of western Germany as falling within your sphere and eastern Germany as within ours.”

Truman asked whether Stalin meant to establish a “line” down Europe, “running from the Baltic to the Adriatic.”

Stalin said yes. “As to the German investments in Europe, they remain with us, and the rest with you.” Truman asked, “Does this apply only to German investments in Europe or in other countries as well?”

“Let me put it more specifically,” said Stalin. “The German investments in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Finland go to us, and all the rest to you. . . . In all other countries—South America, Canada and the like—all this is yours.” Stalin went on, “We are not fighting Great Britain or the United States.”

They moved on to war crimes. No doubt suspicious that the United States would try to curry favor with the Germans—especially big German capitalists—Stalin complained that the Americans were unwilling to publish long lists of German war criminals: “Aren’t we going to act against any German industrialists? I think we should.” As one example, Stalin mentioned the Krupp dynasty, long known for making German arms: “If they will not do, let’s name others.”

Truman said, “I don’t like any of them!” His colleagues laughed. The President argued that if they mentioned some names but omitted others, “people may think that we have no intention of putting those others on trial.”

As at Yalta, Stalin tweaked the British by mentioning Hitler’s old underling Rudolf Hess, still imprisoned in the Tower of London: “It is surprising that Hess is in Britain, all provided for, and is not being put on trial.”

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