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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Returning to Washington, Byrnes dutifully held a press conference praising the Yalta agreements. Then he quit government, assuring Roosevelt that he was “not mad at anybody” about the vice presidency. After Truman became President, overimpressed by Byrnes’ presence at Yalta and mindful of his prestige in the Senate, he appointed Byrnes to his secret “Interim Committee” on how a successful atomic bomb should be used. Exhilarated by the new weapon, Byrnes advised the President that it “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.” When Truman began preparing for the conference, he tapped Byrnes to be his Secretary of State. He was sworn in on July 3, only two weeks before leaving for Potsdam.

Monday, July 23: Byrnes expressed Truman’s concerns about reparations to Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Byrnes suggested that each power take reparations from its own zone and that the British and Americans would be inclined to give their share to victims of the Nazis. Molotov volunteered to reduce Soviet demands by 20 percent, if they could claim a portion of spoils from the industrially rich Ruhr. 


On Wednesday, July 25, Stalin told Truman and Churchill that “if the Ruhr remains a part of Germany, it must supply the whole of Germany.”

The Americans blanched. Charles Bohlen (the President’s Russian interpreter) of the U.S. delegation privately warned that Stalin would use such leverage to “paralyze the German economy” and push the defeated nation “toward communism.” The potsdam conference recessed on July 25 while Churchill returned to London to await announcement of the results of the British election.

Truman flew to Frankfurt to visit Eisenhower at the former headquarters of I. G. Farben, one of the German war-making enterprises investigated by Senator Truman during the war. “The big towns like Frankfurt and Darmstadt were destroyed,” Truman wrote his mother and sister Mary, “but the small ones are intact. It is awful to see what the bombs did to the towns, railroads and bridges. To think that millions of Russians, Poles, English and Americans were slaughtered all for the folly of one crazy egotist by the name of Hitler. I hope it won’t happen again.”

In London, Churchill learned that despite his triumphant role in ending the European war, British voters, focused now on domestic problems, had turned out the Conservative Party and the new Prime Minister would be Clement Attlee. Churchill’s aides complained of the English people’s “ingratitude,” but Churchill, though despondent, replied paternally, “I wouldn’t call it that. They have had a very hard time.”

Saturday, July 28: Molotov reminded Byrnes that it had been agreed at Yalta that the Soviets should take “as much reparations as possible from Germany.” Byrnes parried that things had changed: German devastation was greater than originally thought. He pointed out that the Soviets had already given Poland a large and valuable chunk of German land. 

On Sunday, July 29, Truman wrote his wife that if he could make a “reasonably sound” deal on reparations and the Polish-German border, he could “wind up this brawl” and head home.

Sunday, July 29: Molotov conveyed to Byrnes that the Soviets wanted a percentage of German wealth from the other zones as well as $2 billion of industrial equipment from the Ruhr. Byrnes did not want to put a specific dollar amount on any reparations and instead offered a percentage of equipment from the Ruhr, which the Soviets would barter for with supplies from their own zone. On Monday afternoon, July 30, Byrnes relayed to Molotov that the United States would go along with giving some German territory to Poland temporarily and would grant diplomatic recognition to Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Finland. But having made two concessions, Byrnes would not yield to Stalin’s demand for a dollar amount. 


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