Soviet leader Josef Stalin and President Harry S. Truman meet for the first time, during the Potsdam Conference in Germany, at the “Little White House,” the residence of President Truman during the conference. Left to right: Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet foreign minister; Secretary of States James Byrnes; Charles Bohlen, interpreter for President Truman; President Truman; Admiral William Leahy; V. N. Pavlov, interpreter for Stalin; and Josef Stalin, 17 July 1945. NATIONAL ARCHIVES.

The Potsdam Conference, held in 1945 in a suburb outside Berlin, was the occasion for the World War II Allies to focus on ending the war and to plan for the future. Leaders discussed possible strategies for an invasion of Japan, the reconstruction of Europe, and German reparations for the war. They also discussed the founding of the Council of Foreign Ministers, which included China.

Held at Cecilienhof Palace outside Berlin, the Potsdam Conference (17 July–2 August 1945) was the final of several meetings of Allied leaders during World War II. Present at Potsdam were the “Big Three” heads of state: U.S. president Harry Truman (1884–1972), Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), and British prime ministers Winston Churchill (1874–1965) and Clement Attlee (1883–1967). (Churchill played a major role at Potsdam but was replaced by Attlee at the end of July after the Labor Party’s victory in the British general elections.) Potsdam was the first conference held since Germany’s surrender on 8 May 1945, but World War II continued in Asia. U.S. victories at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in June had positioned the Allies for a planned invasion of Japan. Divergent national interests and competition, however, made consensus difficult. Many analysts point to the Potsdam Conference as a harbinger of the Cold War.

On 1 August Allied leaders agreed to the twenty-one-part “Protocol of the Proceedings.” Foremost were the procedures for the reconstruction of Europe, particularly Germany. The Allies divided Germany into four zones for the purposes of disarmament and demilitarization, called for the destruction of Nazism, and proposed trials for major war criminals. The controversy over German reparations was settled by giving the Soviets access to resources both inside and outside their zone, while the United States and England renounced claims to German assets in Soviet-controlled areas. National borders throughout Europe, with the notable exception of western Poland, were established in order to facilitate the resettlement of populations. The Allies also created the Council of Foreign Ministers, comprised of representatives of the five World War II allies—China, France, United Kingdom, United States, and the USSR—which would meet no later than 1 September 1945 to discuss many unresolved issues, such as peace treaties for Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Finland; the disposition of colonies of former Axis states; and the withdrawal of Allied troops from Iran.

The conclusion of the war with Japan was the subject of the Potsdam Declaration of 26 July. At the earlier Yalta Conference (February 1945), U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) had negotiated Moscow’s declaration of war on Japan and a joint invasion scheduled for August. Truman, who sought to limit postwar Soviet involvement in Asia, was bolstered by the news on 17 July of a successful test of the atomic bomb at the Trinity Site in New Mexico. Nevertheless, given the uncertainty of the new weapon, Truman forged ahead with the plans conceived by Roosevelt for an Allied attack. The final section of the Potsdam protocol demanded Japan’s surrender: “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

Further Reading

Feis, H. (1960). Between war and peace: The Potsdam Conference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McCullough, D. (1993). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mee, C. L., Jr. (1976). Meeting at Potsdam. New York: Dell Publishing.

Paterson, T. G. (1972). Potsdam, the atomic bomb, and the Cold War: A discussion with James F. Byrnes. The Pacific Historical Review, 41(2), 225–230.

Source: Grasso, June. (2009). Potsdam Conference. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1790–1791. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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