Potsdam Conference: First Steps on the Way to Confrontation
Yuriy RUBTSOV | 22.07.2015 | FEATURED STORY

Potsdam Conference: First Steps on the Way to Confrontation

The leaders of anti-Hitler coalition gathered for the Potsdam (Berlin) conference (July 17 - August 2, 1945) to draw a line under World War II. It was the third conference between the leaders of the Big Three nations and the last postwar event in this format. Only six months had passed since the previous conference in Yalta but many urgent issues surfaced to be addressed without delay. 

The Soviet Union was represented by Joseph Stalin, Britain by Winston Churchill, and the United States by President Harry S. Truman. This was Truman’s first Big Three meeting. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died in April 1945, attended the first two conferences–in Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in February 1945. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was not present for the closing ceremonies. His party lost in the elections in the United Kingdom, and he was replaced midway through the conference by the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.

The very spirit of talks and the sentiments of participants also changed. The victors were nations with different social and economic systems pursuing different geopolitical goals. The gap became wide as the WWII victory approached and it became even wider after the war ended.

The most pressing issue was the postwar fate of Germany. Despite numerous disagreements, the Allied leaders did manage to conclude some agreements at Potsdam. For example, the negotiators confirmed the status of a demilitarized and disarmed Germany under four zones of Allied occupation. According to the Protocol of the Conference, there was to be «a complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany»; all aspects of German industry that could be utilized for military purposes were to be dismantled; all German military and paramilitary forces were to be eliminated (including regular military, Gestapo, SS, SA and SD); and the production of all military hardware in Germany was forbidden. 

Furthermore, German society was to be remade along democratic lines by repeal of all discriminatory laws from the Nazi era and by the arrest and trial of those Germans deemed to be «war criminals». The German educational and judicial systems were to be purged of any authoritarian influences, and democratic political parties would be encouraged to participate in the administration of Germany at the local and state level. The reconstitution of a national German Government was, however, postponed indefinitely, and the Allied Control Commission (which was comprised of four occupying powers, the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union) would run the country during the interregnum.

Unlike at Yalta, the issue of partition was not on the agenda. The allies said they did not intend to enslave German people. Their goal was to ensure that Germany «would never again threaten its neighbors or the preservation of world peace».The further partition of Germany was initiated by the West, not the Soviet Union. This is an indisputable fact.

The payment of reparations was a divisive issue. The United States and the Soviet Union worked out a compromise decision. The USSR was allowed to take reparations from the Soviet Zone, and also 25% of the industrial equipment of the western zones as reparations (10% of the industrial capacity of the western zones unnecessary for the German peace economy should be transferred to the Soviet Union within two years). America and Britain could take reparations from their zones if they wished. Stalin proposed and it was accepted that Poland was to be excluded from division of German compensation to be later granted 15% of compensation given to Soviet Union.

Defining new western borders between Germany and Poland was an issue hard to solve. Back in Yalta the allies agreed that Poland was to get new lands in the north and west with a final decision to be taken at a peace conference. 

In Potsdam the United States and Great Britain tried to deviate from the previously reached agreement. The tough position of Western states on the issue was influenced by the fact that the United States had conducted a successful nuclear test. The US President said he won’t agree on the Polish western border as this issue was to be tackled by a peace conference. He was insincere as Truman knew for sure there would be no peace conference ever. 

To bolster his position at the conference Truman told Stalin on July 24 that the Unites States possessed «a new weapon of unusual destructive force». Stalin showed no special interest. Long debates ensued. Finally, the conference decided that Poland’s western border was to be shifted to the Oder-Nesse line.

Truman was not interested in deepening the existing divisions as he wanted the Soviet Union to join the Pacific war against Japan as soon as possible. Some say that by the time of Potsdam conference the United States lost interest in having the USSR involved. It's not true. On the first day of the conference after the Soviet Union confirmed its commitment to join the war against Japan (it actually did on August 9, 1945) Truman admitted in a private letter that he got what got what he came to the conference for without strings attached. He wrote, «...I've gotten  what I came for - Stalin goes to war [against Japan]... I'll say that we'll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won't be killed!»

The USSR and the Western powers had different geopolitical interests and pursued different goals. Stalin wanted East European states to join the socialist camp and become a sphere of Soviet influence. To my mind, it was not pursuing the long ago outdated goal of staging a world revolution. I believe the real motive behind his decision was quite different. Stalin wanted to expand a buffer zone for security reasons, so that an unexpected aggression against the Soviet Union would be excluded. In 1942 Sir Anthony Eden, British Foreign Minister, wrote that the Soviet Union wanted to provide maximum security at its would-be western borders. 

The Potsdam conference made come to surface the desire of participants to expand the corresponding zones of influence. Did it make the partition of Europe into two blocs inevitable? To some extent it did. I believe it was possible to avoid the Cold War going into full swing. A good will could prevent the world balancing on the brink of hot war. The geopolitical confrontation could be avoided if the problems were tackled in a civilized way.

What about the good will and the Western allies? Not later than April 1945 Churchill instructed the British Armed Forces’ Joint Planning Staff to draw up Operation Unthinkable, a code name of two related plans of a conflict between the Western allies and the Soviet Union. The generals were asked to devise means to «impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire». The plan envisioned unleashing a total war to occupy the parts of the Soviet Union which had a crucial significance for its war effort and deliver a decisive blow to the Soviet armed forces making the USSR unable to continue fighting. The British planners came to pessimistic conclusions. They said any attack would be «hazardous» and that the campaign would be «long and costly». 

The report actually stated: «If we are to embark on war with Russia, we must be prepared to be committed to a total war, which would be both long and costly». The numerical superiority of Soviet ground forces left little chance for success. The assessment, signed by the Chief of Army Staff on June 9, 1945, concluded: «It would be beyond our power to win a quick but limited success and we would be committed to a protracted war against heavy odds. These odds, moreover, would become fanciful if the Americans grew weary and indifferent and began to be drawn away by the magnet of the Pacific war».

Truman took a tough stand too. On May 12, just as soon as the last shots in the war were fired, he suddenly ordered the Lend-Lease shipments suspended. According to him, the USSR was not at war with Japan and it would be against the law to continue with Lend-Lease deliveries. Moscow objected and the deliveries were renewed but it was clear that the advocates of diplomacy based on position of strength were winning. At the time of the Potsdam conference a secret document was in works. It was called «A Strategic Chart of Certain Russian and Manchurian Urban Areas [Project No. 2532]», (30 August 1945). By August 30, 1945 — before World War II was officially over — the command of US armed forces had already taken the time to draw up a list of good targets for atomic bombs in the USSR… and even overlaid a map of the Soviet Union with the ranges of nuclear-capable bombers. The document said «The primary objective for the application of the atomic bomb is manifestly the simultaneous destruction of these fifteen first priority targets». 

The US-UK command tried to maintain some of the German potential to be used against the Soviet Union if need be. The German military was to become a third force to contribute into rapid defeat of the yesterday’s ally- the Soviet Union.

These facts give a clue to understanding why the West takes a tough stand against Russian today. It want to isolate Russia by introducing sanctions, ousting it from G8 to make it G7, excluding it from PACE and other international bodies, supporting enemies of Russia in the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine.

Western leaders would do a right thing learning the lessons of post-war history instead of escalating confrontation. They appear to be carried away by the plans to make Russian pale into insignificance. After the Potsdam conference the attempts were undertaken to intimidate the USSR with nuclear weapons and make it encircled by military bases. It led to growing might of the Soviet Union turning it into a world pole capable of standing up to the United States. 

Today the activities aimed at weakening Russia with the help of sanctions and international isolation make it reach new heights in developing economy and defense potential. The Russia’s political clout is growing along with increasing influence of BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. No international problem of certain magnitude can be solved without Russia, be it the Iranian nuclear program, the Ukrainian crisis, doing away with customs borders in the space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, you name it.

Tags: Germany  UK  US  USSR  Stalin