Sunday, July 17, 2016

Today in History

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Today in 1945, the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain met in Potsdam, Germany for the start of the final conference of World War Two. This was the third conference of the Big Three with the intent of discussing the post-war disposition of the world, the previous one having been held in Yalta in February of 1945.

Previous conferences of the three major powers had been with Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin.

But Roosevelt had died in April, after Yalta, and his Vice President Harry Truman had taken over and overseen VE-Day (Victory in Europe - May 8) and was anticipating victory in Japan within the year. However, during his presidencey Roosevelt had kept Truman out of the loop, and although Truman had taken over the reins of the war capably with the help of the cabinet and the his generals, Roosevelt had kept his notes on the previous conferences so private that Truman never saw them. In fact they were not even able to find the official copies of the minutes of the Cairo, Tehran, and Yalta conferences.

As the conference began, the British general election was also underway, and both Winston Churchill and his rival Clement Attlee* were in attendance. The election results were known on July 26, mid-way through the conference which ended Aug 2. Churchill gave Attlee a much better transition and Britain offered a unified front throughout.

In my opinion it was a very good thing for the free world that Truman was in charge during this final conference. Roosevelt appeared to view Stalin with affection, and following Yalta he declared that his strategy was going to be to offer Stalin everything he asked for and ask for nothing in return and he expected that as a result Stalin would not annex territory and work with him toward world peace.

Truman, in contrast, was highly suspicious of both communism and Stalin. He saw Stalin's moves in Eastern Europe since Yalta to be signs of expansionism contradictory to what he had agreed to in the earlier conference. Potsdam was the only time Truman with ever meet with Stalin. If you're interested, a good book that covers the Roosevelt to Truman transition is From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War by Wilson Miscamble (check your library).

So what happened at Potsdam. In a nutshell, they decided how they would deal with post-war Germany. Poland got a raw deal. They divided up Indochina (Vietnam). Wiki has the demographics map they used during the conference.

Also, on July 26, Churchill, Truman, and Chiang Kai Shek issued a declaration calling for Japan's unconditional surrender. This ties in to something interesting about the A-bomb. Truman had delayed the conference until he could get confirmation that the A-bomb was working. During the conference he told Stalin the US had a new and very powerful weapon without saying what it was, although Stalin already knew from his spies of course. The conference ended on August 2, and on August 6 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later was Nagasaki. On August 15th, Japan surrendered. What's interesting is that the timing suggests that Truman did not want Stalin involved in Japan's surrender, and they were not.

The Potsdam conference shows that when freedom and world peace is on the line, you need a leader who knows how to make a good deal.

*Errata: We originally had the wrong given name for Attlee, and misattributed Churchill's quote "sheep in sheep's clothing" as referring to Attlee, when in fact he was referring J. Ramsay MacDonald. Apologies for the mistake and many thanks to sharp-eyed reader and excellent historian Markham Shaw Pyle for spotting it.

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