Dividing the Spoils

Michael Beschloss re-creates the 1945 Potsdam Conference at which Harry Truman found his presidential voice and determined the shape of postwar Europe

conference session
A conference session including Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, Joseph Stalin, William D. Leahy, Joseph E. Davies, James F. Byrnes, and Harry S. Truman. Wikimedia Commons

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.”

The car pulled up at Hitler’s chancellery, near his underground bunker. Truman refused to go in, saying that he wouldn’t want any of “those unfortunate people” to think he was “gloating over them.” But he muttered acidly to Byrnes that he wasn’t sure the Germans had “learned anything” from the Nazis’ miserable end.

Truman returned to his villa that evening deeply depressed. He wrote to his wife, Bess: “This is a hell of a place—ruined, dirty, smelly, forlorn people, bedraggled hangdog look about them. You never saw as completely ruined a city.” In his diary, he wrote that the “absolute ruin” of Berlin was “Hitler’s folly. He overreached himself by trying to take in too much territory. He had no morals and his people backed him up.”

On Tuesday, July 17, at noon, the President was working in his study when, “I looked up from the desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway. . . . We had lunch, talked socially, put on a real show drinking toasts to everyone, then had pictures made in the backyard. I can deal with Stalin. He is honest, but smart as hell.”

Over lunch, Byrnes, who had joined them, asked Stalin how he thought Hitler had died. The Marshal speculated that the Führer was still alive—“in Spain or Argentina.” Stalin may have been putting forward the idea of a living Hitler in order to license harsher measures against Germany or, as the historian Alonzo Hamby notes, to deflect attention from his own aggressive ambitions.

Truman told Stalin that he was “very anxious to get the German setup in operation” so that the Allied Control Council could “govern” Germany “as a whole.”

The first formal conference session was at 5:00 p.m. July 17 at the CecilienhofPalace, built in 1917. To demonstrate their equality, in a great-power minuet, Truman, Stalin and Churchill entered simultaneously through separate doors.

Seated with his allies at a burgundy-draped round table, Truman recalled the tragedy of Versailles in 1919, when the treaty’s vindictive exactions left Germans impoverished and bitter, and, many believed, opened the way for Hitler’s rise. This time, he said, any final German peace conference should be “prepared beforehand by the victor powers.” He proposed that the groundwork be laid by a Council of Foreign Ministers, composed of the Big Three—the United States, Britain and Russia—plus France and China.

Stalin complained that the French were U.S. lackeys and that the Chinese should not be involved in “European problems.” Truman and Churchill compromised by excluding the Chinese. Stalin joked that if foreign ministers were to do the work, “we will have nothing to do.” Truman said, “I don’t want to discuss. I want to decide.” He hoped they could start early tomorrow morning. To Truman, Churchill jovially promised to “obey your orders.”

Stalin said that since Churchill was in “such an obedient mood,” he wished to know whether the British would “share the German fleet with us.” Churchill said that perhaps the armada should be destroyed. Weapons of war were horrible things. “Let’s divide it,” Stalin suggested. “If Mr. Churchill wishes, he can sink his share.”

On Wednesday afternoon, July 18, Churchill noted that his partners kept using the word “Germany.” He asked them, “What is now the meaning of ‘Germany’? Is it to be understood in the same sense as before the war?”

Debate on postwar Germany’s borders began. At Yalta, six months before, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed that a line drawn after World War I would be Poland’s eastern border with the Soviet Union. The three leaders had also decided that Poland should be compensated with “substantial” German territory to its west.

Stalin felt that Poland deserved all of Germany east of the Oder and NeisseRivers. This would force millions of Germans westward and strip Germany of some of its richest farmland. As far as Stalin was concerned, this was a fait accompli: “Germany is what she has become after the war,” he announced.

But Truman refused to consider the matter settled: “Why not say Germany as she was before the war, in 1937?” he asked. Stalin replied, “As she is—in 1945.” Truman reminded Stalin that Germany had “lost everything in 1945,” and that at Yalta, the Big Three had agreed to defer such questions until there was a final peace conference on Germany. Impatient, Truman wrote in his diary, “I’m not going to stay around this terrible place all summer just to listen to speeches. I’ll go home to the Senate for that.”

On Friday, July 20, Truman joined Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley to watch the official raising of the Stars and Stripes over the American sector of Berlin. Speaking without notes, Truman told the crowd of American soldiers, “We are not fighting for conquest. There is not one piece of territory or one thing of a monetary nature that we want out of this war.”

Exactly one year had passed since German Army Col. Claus von Stauffenberg had tried and failed to kill Hitler. If any of the Americans remembered the anniversary, they did not mention it in public. At a moment when they were trying to establish collective guilt for Hitler’s horrors, they did not wish to confuse the issue by reminding the world that some Germans had risked their lives, however belatedly and for whatever reasons, to stop the Führer.

The next day, Saturday, July 21, Secretary of War Henry Stimson brought the President an urgent message. The plutonium implosion bomb tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico, five days earlier had been “successful beyond the most optimistic expectations of everyone,” Stimson said. Truman told his aide that the news gave him “an entirely new feeling of confidence.” He knew that if the United States were sole possessor of a successful atomic bomb, it would be poised to end the Japanese war fast, without Soviet or British help, and exercise American will on the postwar world. That afternoon, Truman complained to Stalin that the Poles had been effectively assigned a zone of Germany “without consultation with us.” Were the three leaders going to “give away Germany piecemeal”? Truman warned Stalin that it would be hard to agree on reparations—monetary and other payments by the defeated Germany to the Allied victors—“if Germany is divided up before the peace conference.”

Stalin replied, “We are concerned about reparations, but we will take that risk.” He insisted that giving German land to Poland should be no problem because no Germans were left in the region. “Of course not,” Leahy whispered to Truman. “The Bolshies have killed all of them!”

Churchill noted that “two or three million Germans remain” in the area Stalin wanted to give Poland. Removing the area from Germany would remove a quarter of Germany’s farmland, “from which German food and reparations must come.”

“France wants the Saar and the Ruhr,” said Truman. “What will be left?” Churchill warned that if Germany lacked sufficient food, “we may be confronted with conditions like those in the German concentration camps—even on a vaster scale.” Stalin said, “Let the Germans buy more bread from Poland!”

Churchill demanded that the food supply of all Germany, according to its 1937 borders, be available to all Germans, “irrespective of the zones of occupation.” He complained that Poland was already selling German coal to Sweden, while the British people faced “a bitter, fireless winter, worse than that experienced during the war.”

Stalin retorted that the coal was being mined by Polish labor. As for the Germans, “we have little sympathy for these scoundrels and war criminals,” he said.

Churchill noted that Stalin had earlier said that “past bitterness” should not “color our decisions.” Stalin reminded him that “the less industry we leave in Germany, the more markets there will be for your goods.”

Truman warned that he could not approve eastern Germany’s removal from “contributing to the economy of the whole of Germany.” He later wrote Bess: “Russia and Poland have gobbled up a big hunk of Germany and want Britain and us to agree. I have flatly refused.”

Churchill attributed the President’s new boldness to the bracing news from Alamogordo. “When he got to the meeting after having read this report, he was a changed man,” the Prime Minister said to Stimson. “He told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting.”

As the sole proprietor of the atomic bomb, President Truman had just become the most powerful man on earth. And possibly the most homesick. Even before the success at Alamogordo, he had longed to get back to America and his wife. Still smoldering over Stalin’s defense of his “Bolsheviki land grab,” Truman wanted his counterparts to approve a plan that would punish the Germans, quash their ability to start another global war and still feed and warm all Europeans. Now, with the atomic weapon in his arsenal, Truman asked James Byrnes to put on pressure to wind the Potsdam meeting up fast. Truman knew that the new Secretary of State felt he should be President instead of Truman, but the President believed that if Byrnes could be made to defer to his authority, he would be a tough diplomatic bargainer and a powerful Congressional champion for Truman’s postwar programs.

Born Catholic in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1882, Byrnes had become a Senator in 1930. An early Roosevelt supporter, he was one of the President’s Senate stalwarts and helped Roosevelt push through the Lend-Lease Act and other aid to Britain. Roosevelt repaid him with a seat on the Supreme Court, where Byrnes predictably felt chained and miserable. After Pearl Harbor, FDR took him off the court to be his chief war mobilizer. Given the sobriquet “assistant President” by the press, which annoyed Roosevelt, Byrnes had harnessed American business behind the war effort.

Suspecting that Roosevelt might not serve out a fourth term and eager to be his successor, Byrnes schemed in 1944 to become Vice President. Roosevelt admired Byrnes but was wary of his brains, wiliness and gumption. With customary duplicity, Roosevelt told Byrnes in July 1944 that he was “the most qualified man in the whole outfit,” adding: “You must not get out of the race [for Vice President]. If you stay in, you are sure to win.”

Told by others that Roosevelt was really for Truman or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Byrnes had forced a showdown with the President in a telephone call to Hyde Park. As Roosevelt spoke, Byrnes took shorthand notes to protect himself in case the President later distorted what he said. Roosevelt insisted he was not pushing for Truman or Douglas: “Jimmy, that is all wrong. . . . I told you I would have no preference. . . . Will you go on and run? After all, Jimmy, you’re close to me personally. . . . I hardly know Truman.”

After Truman’s nomination, Byrnes was furious at Roosevelt’s “hypocrisy” but still hoped that Roosevelt would appoint him to succeed Cordell Hull as Secretary of State. Nervous about Byrnes’ willfulness, Roosevelt opted instead for the docile Edward Reilly Stettinius.

To salve Byrnes’ wounded pride, Roosevelt took him to Yalta, but when Byrnes realized that he was being kept out of vital meetings, he complained, “I did not come along for the ride.” Roosevelt caved in. When Stalin spotted Byrnes at the conference table, he thought him “the most honestlooking horse thief ” he had ever met.

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. 

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.”

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!”

He reported that the declaration signed at Potsdam was “intended to eliminate Naziism, armaments, war industries, the German General Staff and all its military tradition.” It hoped to “rebuild democracy by control of German education, by reorganizing local government and the judiciary, by encouraging free speech, free press, freedom of religion and the right of labor to organize.” German industry would be “decentralized in order to do away with concentration of economic power in cartels and monopolies.” Germans would be granted no higher standard of living than their former victims.

Truman said that the wartime allies were resolved to “do what we can to make Germany over into a decent nation” and “eventually work its way” back into the “civilized world.”

Truman’s speech largely obscured the unresolved questions and harsh compromises that were the legacy of Potsdam. The Soviets would get reparations, but the victors had still to agree on specifics or exact terms. Germany would be treated as an “economic whole,” but in each zone, the commander would have paramount authority. The defeated nation would not be partitioned; the shift of land to Poland was merely “provisional.”

As the American diplomat and scholar W. R. Smyser wrote in 1999, at Potsdam “each side paid what it had to pay to get what it wanted most.” Stalin got almost one quarter of pre-World War II German territory for Poland. Britain and America, by demanding that each victor seize reparations from its own zone, spared postwar Germany the staggering reparations and debt that in the 1920s had brought inflation, unemployment and Hitler. They had also prepared a means to protect western Germany from Soviet encroachment.

Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy knew that if Soviet–American relations deteriorated, the slash between the Soviet and Western zones would become much more than an abstraction. He wrote in his diary, “We are drifting toward a line down the middle of Germany.”

In the wake of Potsdam, Germany and Europe were divided for almost half a century as the Soviet Union and the West were engaged in a bitter cold war. In October 1990, after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany were reunited. Chancellor Kohl promised the world’s leaders that “in the future, only peace will emanate from German soil.” Today, no longer trapped behind the ugly wall, the CecilienhofPalace is a museum. Its chief attraction is the round oak table at which Truman, Stalin and Churchill once sat to decide the fate of the world.

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