198 The Potsdam Conference

31.7.5: The Potsdam Conference

In July 1945, Allied leaders met in Potsdam, Germany, confirmed earlier agreements about post-war Germany, and reiterated the demand for unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces , specifically stating that “the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

Learning Objective

Analyze the relations between the Allied nations at the Potsdam Conference

Key Points

  • A few months after the surrender of Germany and the end of the war in Europe, te Allied leaders from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom met in Potsdam, Germany to confirm the agreements decided at the Yalta Conference and discuss other post-war issues.
  • America had won decisive battles against Japan, but the Pacific war still continued.
  • Since the Yalta Conference, Harry S. Truman succeeded Roosevelt after his death and Clement Attlee succeeded Churchill after the 1945 general election in the UK, shifting some of the existing dynamics among the nations.
  • The Potsdam Agreements resulted in the military occupation and reconstruction of Germany and the entire European theater of War territory. It also included Germany’s demilitarization, reparations, and prosecution of war criminals.
  • Truman mentioned an unspecified “powerful new weapon” to Stalin during the conference, a reference to the nuclear bombs just developed by the U.S.
  • Towards the end of the conference, Japan was given an ultimatum to surrender or meet “prompt and utter destruction,” but Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki did not respond.

Key Terms

Clement Attlee
A British politician who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951, taking over from Winston Churchill at the end of World War II.
Yalta Conference
A meeting in February 1945 between the three heads of the main Allied forces in WWII, intended mainly to discuss the re-establishment of the nations of war-torn Europe.
Manhattan Project
A research and development project that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.


The Potsdam Conference was held at Cecilienhof, the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm in Potsdam, occupied Germany, from July 17 to August 2, 1945. Participants were the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The powers were represented by Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and, later, Clement Attlee, and President Harry S. Truman.

Stalin, Churchill, and Truman—as well as Attlee, who participated alongside Churchill while awaiting the outcome of the 1945 general election and then became prime minister after the Labour Party’s defeat of the Conservatives—gathered to decide how to administer defeated Nazi Germany, which had agreed to unconditional surrender nine weeks earlier on May 8 (V-E Day). The goals of the conference included the establishment of post-war order, peace treaty issues, and countering the effects of the war.

After the war, the Soviet Union converted the other countries of eastern Europe into Soviet Satellite states within the Eastern Bloc, such as the People’s Republic of Poland, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, the People’s Republic of Hungary, the Czechoslovak Republic, the People’s Republic of Romania, and the People’s Republic of Albania.  The Soviets later formed the puppet state of East Germany from the Soviet zone of German occupation.

Relationships Among the Leaders

In the five months since the Yalta Conference, a number of changes had taken place that greatly affected the relationships between the leaders. By July, the Red Army effectively controlled the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, and fearing a Stalinist take-over, refugees were fleeing from these countries. Stalin had set up a communist government in Poland. He insisted that his control of Eastern Europe was a defensive measure against possible future attacks and claimed that it was a legitimate sphere of Soviet influence.

President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, and Vice President Harry Truman assumed the presidency; his succession saw VE Day (Victory in Europe) within a month and VJ Day (Victory in Japan) on the horizon. During the war and in the name of Allied unity, Roosevelt had brushed off warnings of a potential domination by a Stalin dictatorship in part of Europe. While inexperienced in foreign affairs, Truman had closely followed the Allied progress during the war. George Lenczowski notes “despite the contrast between his relatively modest background and the international glamour of his aristocratic predecessor, [Truman] had the courage and resolution to reverse the policy that appeared to him naive and dangerous,” which was “in contrast to the immediate, often ad hoc moves and solutions dictated by the demands of the war.” With the end of the war, the priority of Allied unity was replaced with a new challenge, the nature of the relationship between the two emerging superpowers.

Truman was much more suspicious of communist moves than Roosevelt had been, and became increasingly suspicious of Soviet intentions under Stalin. Truman and his advisers saw Soviet actions in Eastern Europe as aggressive expansionism, which was incompatible with the agreements Stalin committed to at Yalta the previous February. In addition, at the Potsdam Conference Truman became aware of possible complications elsewhere when Stalin objected to Churchill’s proposal for an early Allied withdrawal from Iran ahead of the schedule agreed at the Tehran Conference. The Potsdam Conference marks the first and only time Truman would ever meet Stalin in person.

A photo of Joseph Stalin, Clement Attlee, Harry S. Truman at the Potsdam Conference.
Potsdam Conference: The “Big Three”: Clement Attlee, Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, circa 28 July – 1 August 1945

Potsdam Agreements

At the end of the conference, the three heads of government agreed on the following actions. All other issues would to be answered by the final peace conference to be called as soon as possible.

  • Allied Chiefs of Staff at the Potsdam Conference would temporarily partition Vietnam at the 16th parallel (just North of Da Nang) for operational convenience.
  • It was agreed that British forces would take the surrender of Japanese forces in Saigon for the southern half of Indochina, whilst Japanese troops in the northern half would surrender to the Chinese.
  • Issuance of a statement of aims of the occupation of Germany by the Allies: demilitarization, denazification, democratization, decentralization, and decartelization.
  • Division of Germany and Austria respectively into four occupation zones (earlier agreed in principle at Yalta), and the similar division of each capital, Berlin and Vienna, into four zones.
  • Agreement on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.
  • Reversion of all German annexations in Europe, including Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, and the westernmost parts of Poland
  • Germany’s eastern border was to be shifted westwards to the Oder–Neisse line, effectively reducing Germany in size by approximately 25% compared to its 1937 borders. The territories east of the new border comprised East Prussia, Silesia, West Prussia, and two thirds of Pomerania. These areas were mainly agricultural, with the exception of Upper Silesia which was the second largest centre of German heavy industry.
  • “Orderly and humane” expulsions of the German populations remaining beyond the new eastern borders of Germany from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, but not Yugoslavia.
  • Agreement on war reparations to the Soviet Union from their zone of occupation in Germany.
  • Ensuring that German standards of living did not exceed the European average.
  • Destruction of German industrial war-potential through the destruction or control of all industry with military potential.
  • A Provisional Government of National Unity recognized by all three powers should be created in Poland.
  • Poles who were serving in the British Army should be free to return to Poland, with no security upon their return to the communist country guaranteed.
  • The provisional western border of Poland should be the Oder–Neisse line, defined by the Oder and Neisse rivers.
  • The Soviet Union declared it would settle the reparation claims of Poland from its own share of the overall reparation payments.

Truman’s Secret Weapon

Truman mentioned an unspecified “powerful new weapon” to Stalin during the conference. Towards the end of the meeting, Japan was given an ultimatum to surrender or meet “prompt and utter destruction,” which did not mention the new bomb. Prime minister Kantarō Suzuki did not respond. Therefore, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The justification was that both cities were legitimate military targets to end the war swiftly and preserve American lives. However, to some the timing has suggested that Truman did not want Stalin involved in the terms of Japan’s surrender. It is important to note that Truman delayed the Potsdam Conference in order to be sure of the functionality of this “powerful new weapon.” Notably, when Truman informed Stalin of the atomic bomb, he did not explicitly mention its atomic nature. Stalin, though, had full knowledge of the atomic bomb’s development due to Soviet spy networks inside the Manhattan Project, and told Truman at the conference to “make good use of this new addition to the Allied arsenal.”



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