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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Ernest Bevin, the new British Foreign Secretary, replied, “If there is any doubt about Hess, I will give an understanding that Hess will be handed over—and we will also be sending a bill for his keep!”

Stalin said he would be satisfied by listing “just three names” of German war criminals. Briefed on Stalin’s view that Hitler might still be alive, Attlee suggested that they start with Hitler. Stalin said they did not have Hitler “at our disposition,” but he would be willing to name him. The Big Three finally agreed to publish a list of top German war criminals within a month.

That evening at 10:40, Truman, Stalin and Attlee signed the Potsdam Declaration. “The German people,” it said, “have begun to atone for the terrible crimes committed under the leadership of those whom, in the hour of their success, they openly approved and blindly obeyed.”

The victors did not wish to “destroy or enslave” the Germans, but to help them “prepare for the eventual reconstruction of their life on a peaceful and democratic basis.” Allied policies toward the Germans would be uniform, “so far as is practicable.”

During occupation, “Germany shall be treated as a single economic unit.” Each occupying power would take reparations from its own zones. Beyond that, the Soviets would take 15 percent of industrial equipment that was “unnecessary for the German peace economy,” in exchange for food, coal and other goods. They would also receive an additional 10 percent for free. The Council of Foreign Ministers would draft a peace treaty “to be accepted by the government of Germany when a government adequate for that purpose is established.”

After the document was signed by all three leaders, Truman pronounced the conference “adjourned until our next meeting, which I hope will be in Washington.” Stalin smiled and said, “God willing!”

Truman wrote his mother, “You never saw such pigheaded people as are the Russians. I hope I never have to hold another conference with them. But of course I will.” He was wrong. Because of the deepening Cold War, Truman never saw Stalin again.

Monday, August 6, Truman was recrossing the Atlantic aboard the Augusta when he was handed a message over luncheon. An atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and was “successful in all respects.” The war against Japan would soon be won. The President said, “This is the greatest thing in history.” After a second report, declaring “complete success,” Truman leapt to his feet and told Byrnes, “It’s time for us to get home!”

Three days later, on Thursday, August 9, the United States closed its victory over Japan with a second atomic bomb, dropped, under existing orders, on Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito secretly decided to “bear the unbearable” and meet the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender.

But Truman did not know that yet. That evening, he addressed Americans by radio on his European trip: “I have just returned from Berlin, the city from which the Germans intended to rule the world.” He reported that Hitler’s capital was now a “ghost city. . . . How glad I am to be home again—and how grateful to Almighty God that this land of ours has been spared!”


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