The final “Big Three” meeting between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain takes place towards the end of World War II. The decisions reached at the conference ostensibly settled many of the pressing issues between the three wartime allies, but the meeting was also marked by growing suspicion and tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.
On July 17, 1945, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam to discuss issues relating to postwar Europe and plans to deal with the ongoing conflict with Japan.
By the time the meeting began, U.S. and British suspicions concerning Soviet intentions in Europe were intensifying. Russian armies occupied most of Eastern Europe, including nearly half of Germany, and Stalin showed no inclination to remove his control of the region. Truman, who had only been president since Franklin D. Roosevelt died three months earlier, arrived at the meeting determined to be “tough” with Stalin. He was encouraged in this course of action by news that American scientists had just successfully tested the atomic bomb.
The conference soon bogged down on the issue of postwar Germany.
The Soviets wanted a united but disarmed Germany, with each of the Allied powers determining the destiny of the defeated power. Truman and his advisers, fearing the spread of Soviet influence over all Germany–and, by extension, all of western Europe–fought for and achieved an agreement whereby each Allied power (including France) would administer a zone of occupation in Germany. Russian influence, therefore, would be limited to its own eastern zone. The United States also limited the amount of reparations Russia could take from Germany. Discussion of the continuing Soviet occupation of Poland floundered.
When the conference ended on August 2, 1945, matters stood much where they had before the meeting. There would be no further wartime conferences. Four days after the conference concluded, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan; on August 9, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. World War II officially came to an end on August 14, 1945.
On July 17, 1945, President Harry S. Truman recorded his first impressions of Stalin in his diary. Truman described his initial meeting with the intimidating Soviet leader as cordial.
“Promptly a few minutes before twelve” the president wrote, “I looked up from the desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway. I got to my feet and advanced to meet him. He put out his hand and smiled. I did the same, we shook–and we sat down.”
After exchanging pleasantries, the two got down to discussing post-World War II policy in Europe. The U.S. was still engaged in a war in the Pacific against Japan, and Truman wanted to get a read on Stalin’s plans for the territories that he now controlled in Europe.
Truman told Stalin that his diplomatic style was straightforward and to-the-point, an admission that Truman observed had visibly pleased Stalin. Truman hoped to get the Soviets to join in the U.S. war against Japan. In return, Stalin wanted to impose Soviet control over certain territories annexed at the beginning of the war by Japan and Germany. Truman hinted that although Stalin’s agenda was “dynamite” or aggressive, the U.S. now had ammunition to counter the communist leader. Truman had refrained from informing the Soviet leader about the Manhattan Project, which had just successfully tested the world’s first atom bomb, but knew that the new weapon strengthened his hand. Truman referred to this secret in his diary as
“some dynamite which I am not exploding now.”
After their meeting, Truman, Stalin and accompanying advisers”had lunch, talked socially, [and] put on a real show, drinking toasts to everyone” and posing for photographs. Truman closed his entry for that day on a note of confidence.
“I can deal with Stalin,” he wrote. “He is honest, but smart as hell.”