The Cold War's Pattern Emerges
At the Potsdam Conference, Stalin reaches and the West resists
BOSTON — WRITING about the Potsdam conference in 1949, four years after the event, Adm. William D. Leahy, who was then and had been chief of staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, said: "It was the beginning of the 'cold war.' "
"Potsdam had brought into sharp world focus," the admiral wrote, "the struggle of two great ideas - the Anglo-American democratic principles of government and the aggressive and expansionist police-state tactics of Stalinist Russia."
To translate that into specific terms, Potsdam, Germany, was where the two Western Allies, Britain and the United States, learned that Stalin intended to convert the liberated countries of Eastern Europe into possessions of the Soviet state ruled by Communists hand-picked in Moscow. And since Soviet troops occupied all of those countries, there was nothing the British and Americans could do except refuse to recognize the puppet governments installed by the Soviets.
The first round of the cold war was Stalin's demand at Potsdam for recognition of the satellite governments of Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary and the refusal of President Truman to agree. Truman insisted that the West would only recognize and admit to membership in the prospective United Nations governments that had been fairly and democratically elected.
Stalin came to Potsdam for the final meeting of the wartime "Big Three" knowing precisely what he wanted as his share of the spoils from Germany's defeat. The Americans and British were dismayed and resistant. Stalin not only wanted to consolidate his control over Eastern Europe, he intended to run his zone of occupation in Germany as though it were another satellite state.
In addition, he asked for a share of Italy's colonies in North Africa and control of all shipping through the Dardanelles (between the Aegean and the Black Sea).
Stalin also wanted the kind of reparations from Germany which, if granted in full, would have prevented its economic revival for a long time. Wherever Truman could, backed first by Winston Churchill, then by Clement Attlee (after British voters unexpectedly turned out Mr. Churchill as prime minister), he refused to agree to these demands. Stalin reached for everything he could think of wanting. Britain and the United States refused what they could refuse. Where they had no power they could only submit, but not recognize. That was to be the pattern of the "cold war" - Moscow reaching for additions to its empire, the West resisting where it could.
But this was not the whole story of the final meeting of the great figures of World War II, nor was the story fully perceived at the time. The official communique at the end said the meeting "had strengthened the ties between the three governments" and that they looked forward to "the creation of a just and enduring peace." Mr. Attlee wrote to Churchill from Potsdam saying that the three leaders had parted "in a good atmosphere." On the last night, Truman said he hoped there would soon be another meeting of the three, to which Stalin replied, "May God grant it."
At the time, what the US got out of Potsdam was more important to it than what Stalin wanted. Truman recorded that the main reason he wanted to go to Potsdam to meet Stalin was to make sure that the Soviets would, as they had promised at Yalta, come into the war against Japan.
On that subject there was no problem. There were staff conferences between the Soviet and Western military people that went extremely well. It was obvious that Stalin was intending fully to join in the war against Japan and instructed his military people to agree to virtually everything the US wanted in the way of facilities in Siberia. So the US got what it wanted most out of Potsdam while declining to give Stalin all that he wanted from Germany.
The biggest controversy was Poland's frontiers. Stalin was determined to push Poland westward, taking for Russia a large slice of eastern Poland and compensating the Poles with a slice of Germany - which happened to produce about a third of Germany's food and a large part of its coal. It was also home to some 3 million Germans.
These territorial changes were something the West could not prevent. The British and American delegations were extremely unhappy about them, particularly the British, who had gone to war to try to save Poland from the Nazis. But Stalin's troops possessed all of Poland and eastern Germany. He could do what he liked.
US Secretary of State James Byrnes did, however, extract one gain out of this issue. He never approved of the Polish territorial changes, but, in effect, he acquiesced to them while extracting a reparations formula that spared the Americans from what happened after World War I. Then, reparations had been so arranged that, in the end, the US taxpayer provided the funds with which Germans paid reparations to France, Belgium, and others.
Surprisingly, the personal atmosphere at Potsdam was excellent. Truman, Stalin, Churchill, and then Attlee, were cordial. The dinner parties given by the three in turn were friendly, even genial. Truman went away saying he rather liked "Uncle Joe." The Americans did not blame the Russians for getting all they could out of Germany, nor were they surprised that Stalin intended to keep the small countries of Eastern Europe. But both the British and Americans felt that the meetings in the Cecelienhof Palace in Potsdam exposed the fact that a lot of trouble lay ahead from Stalin's eagerness to expand Russia's frontiers of power as far as possible.
During the plenary session of the conference on July 24, Truman strolled over to Stalin and casually mentioned that the US had "a new weapon of unusual destructive force." Stalin "showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear of it and hoped we would make good use of it against the Japanese." We now know that Stalin was well informed about the Anglo-American nuclear program, but at the time his casualness led Truman and Churchill to think that he was unconcerned and unimpressed. He was a skillful poker player; he kept his own hand concealed. He must have realized that the new weapon had changed the balance of power in the world. He would have been foolish to show that he knew his bargaining power had gone down from that moment.
The news of the bomb changed Truman's attitude toward the Soviets in the Pacific. Until Truman learned of the success of the bomb, he had been eager to bring Russia into the Pacific war. Once he knew the bomb worked, he tried to discourage Soviet participation.
It was too late. Stalin had been told he could have Manchuria and much more. He had no intention of taking less than he'd been promised.
The Potsdam conference began July 16 and ended Aug. 2. It redrew the map of Central Europe. It provided for the successful conclusion of the war against Japan, and it exposed that, as Admiral Leahy wrote, "the Soviet Union emerged at this time as the unquestioned all-powerful influence in Europe." It was "inescapable that the only two major powers remaining in the world were the Soviet Union and the United States."
"Whether a way could be found to bridge the chasm between the ideas and policies of these two nations remained to be seen," according to Leahy. "At Potsdam the only possibility of agreement would have been to accept the Russian point of view on every issue."
*Other articles ran Jan. 30, Feb. 13, March 6, April 10, May 5, and June 12. Joseph C. Harsch covered World War II for the Monitor from Washington, D.C., the Pacific, and Europe.