tv The Presidency Potsdam Conference 75th Anniversary CSPAN August 15, 2020 12:00pm-1:01pm EDT
announcer: next on the presidency, we hear from michael neiberg, war studies chair at the u.s. army war college, about the personalities and stakes involved at the 1945 potsdam conference convened near the end of world war ii. president truman had just assumed office after the death of franklin d. roosevelt when he met with britain's winston churchill and the soviet union's joseph stalin. it was during these meetings from july 17 until august 2 that mr. truman informed his soviet counterpart about the new u.s. super weapon. it would soon be unleashed on the japanese cities of hiroshima and nagasaki. the truman library institute provided this video. prof. neiberg: we are at the 75th anniversary of the potsdam conference. big numbers like a 75th anniversary or 100th anniversary are always occasions for looking back and drawing attention.
i think there is another reason to look back at potsdam, as we are reentering a world of great power competition and reentering a world where geopolitics seems to have come back to the fore of international relations thinking. so it is well worth us coming back to this subject. i am glad to have a chance to talk to you about it. i wish it was in person in kansas city. i wish that we were able to do this face-to-face, but we will do the very best that we can. the key thing here that i want to return to throughout this presentation is shown by this photograph here of winston churchill, harry truman, and joseph stalin smiling and shaking hands. and the point that i really want to reiterate here is that these three men and most of the advisors around them did not believe that what they were doing at potsdam was laying the seeds of a cold war. we know from the scholarship of the 1960's, 1970's, and beyond,
a lot of historians read potsdam backwards. that is to say they read it as a start of the cold war. but these three men and their staff came to potsdam not to begin a cold war amongst themselves, but celebrate, really, the end of the war with germany, figure out what the post-war world was going to look like, and plan for the final victory over japan in the pacific theater. this photograph very much reflects the spirit of potsdam, which i will talk a little bit more about in a bit, which was happy, which was victorious, which was joyful, which was really celebratory in the way that they were looking at the post-war world. although they had suspicions about one another, and their countries certainly did not share all interests, very few people left potsdam believing that relations were going to be very difficult going forward. that illusion is going to get shattered very quickly, i would argue within weeks or months. but the mood at the conference itself is very different. mostly what they are trying to do, and this is the second theme i really want to talk about
in tonight's lecture, most of what they are trying to do is avoid what they believe had been the mistakes of their predecessors 25 years earlier. they wanted to avoid the mistakes that the treaty of versailles had committed. i will talk a bit about what those were. what they really want to do is leave europe in a better foundation and leave it in a better position than woodrow wilson did in the generation of 1919 in paris. they did not know the future of course, but they did know the past. another theme i was interested in in shaping this book and thinking about writing this book, is the way these men of 1945, and they were all men, looked back at 1919, and what they saw and why it mattered to them. my favorite example of this is what happened to harry truman on june 28, 1919, the very day the treaty of versailles was signed in the palace just west of paris. harry truman hopefully was not thinking about international relations very much, because it is the day that he got married.
and this is a reminder too that these leaders are people. i wrote in the book and i stated this, that while one can imagine winston churchill or joseph stalin in 1919 would one day lead their countries, it is hard to believe that this guy thought on june 28, 1919, that he would one day lead the government of the united states. yet there he would be down the road. at the moment of the treaty of versailles, of course the world is in the same kind of flux it has been in in 1945. there is the same level of confusion, the same power competition, the same question of whether an alliance that won a war can also function into peace. so all these things are coming back. and as i will cover also in this lecture, i would argue that the major big exception of the atomic bomb, all the issues they discussed at potsdam would have been quite familiar to people who attended the paris peace
conference in 1919. the fundamental issues had not changed. this is something they were all aware of. the other thing i want to stress before we go any further, is that with the exception of harry truman, many of the senior people and joseph stalin who attended the potsdam conference had actually been at the versailles peace treaty, or who had been there for the peace conference. they include the american secretary of state james byrnes, who may have been the person who convinced woodrow wilson to go to paris in person. they included churchill, who was quite disappointed with the treaty. they included the great british economist john maynard keynes, who was at both potsdam and the paris peace conference. for those people, the paris peace conference is not something they read about in history books, or something they had a vague memory of. these were fundamental shaping
events in their own lives and their own political careers, and they believed that the reason they were here fighting a second world war is because of the mistakes that were made at the end of the first. and all of them understood this when they came to potsdam in 1945. the very first thing harry truman said in his role as president of the u.s. was a warning to everyone seated around the table not to repeat the mistakes of 1919. before going to potsdam, joseph stalin said the same thing to the american representative joseph davies, that the one thing they had to do was make sure they did not make the same mistakes. so what mistakes did they make? again, this is one of those things that to me was very interesting, because virtually every body who came to potsdam had their own view of what they thought had gone so badly wrong a generation earlier. john maynard keynes said to the
american secretary of state the mistake had been imposing reparations on germany. that germany proved unable to pay. that disrupted the european economy, and that forced the united states, in james byrne's view, to put money into the european system so that some other form would benefit. there was also the argument that shaping the borders that you see here, this is a map of europe in 1919 after the paris peace conference, that putting a map like this together had also been a mistake. that trying to draw lines around people where they live had produced states that were either economically unable to feed themselves, unable to contribute to the overall security of the continent, and in some cases creating entities like yugoslavia and prolonged that were too wealthy to support any kind of reasonable politics going forward. a third argument, and this is particularly a soviet one, is
the big mistake they had made in 1919 was to take into account the views of all the people who lived on this map. stalin was fond of saying that states were not virtuous simply because they were small or new. in his view, would have to happen with the great powers simply had to take control of this conference and not allow the voices of people from all over the world to play a role. so unlike the paris peace conference, which involved people from literally every corner of the globe, in potsdam, the faces will be 95% either soviet, british, or american. as i mentioned earlier, all of these issues that they are dealing with in 1919 come up again in 1945. what to do with germany? whether the great powers should reconstitute germany, or whether they should enact heavy reparations against germany that germany becomes economically barren at the end of the war? how to handle the ethnic map of europe? what role should the u.s. play, and what role should multilateral organizations play? all of these questions come up in 1919 and again in 1945, and i would argue that in many cases in 1945, they would take almost
a 180 degree opposite tactic to the one they took in 1919. another thing that is very different of course is the condition of germany itself. this is a photograph --- two photographs taken from roughly the same angle. the building on the far right of the right-hand picture is in the new u.s. embassy just outside the brandenburg gate on the side that had been east berlin. the kind of canopy-looking thing in the background is the potsdam place. the picture on the left is taken in about the same place in 1945. one clear difference within the germany of 1919 and the germany of 1945 is that in 1919, german nationalists could argue they had really not lost the first world war.
they had been undercut at home and the army returned undefeated in the field. it is impossible to make that argument in 1945 for the reasons you can see here. this is done on purpose. the soviets wanted the germans, especially the berliners, to feel the pain of the war. the devastation created here in berlin was so intense that they there were many observers who came to potsdam that thought it could never be rebuilt. it might be better to bulldoze the city and move the german capital someplace else. there were people, including the american treasury secretary, who wanted almost exactly that future for germany. he wanted to de-industrialize it. he wanted to take so much money out of it that it could not rebuild its economy, and he wanted to turn it into a federal system where power would be in the german states and very little power would be in the central government. there are legitimate questions being asked in berlin in 1945. can the germans live better than the russians, the french, the poles? how can they possibly be allowed
to live better than the jews who had survived the concentration camps and were now wandering europe with no place to go? fundamentally, the other question that involves history here, that to me was very interesting, what did the people of 1945 think caused this war? is it something that is fundamentally wrong with the germans themselves? if it is, then a long occupation will be necessary. is it simply the bad legacy of versailles and the great depression, which is what john maynard keynes believed, if that is the case, then reparation is a terrible idea. what is the problem of the balance of power in europe? can it simply get to the point where no one could contain or encircle germany? what you might want to fix going forward in 1945. what you are going to have to do, of course, is make clear to everybody that this time, germany is completely and utterly defeated. and they will do this at potsdam, not merely by holding the conference in the suburbs of berlin, but by ensuring that
there are no german faces whatsoever. potsdam is emptied of germans by the red army before the conference begins as another symbol that this is over, that the german power is over. potsdam is quite symbolic because frederick the great's capital is there, and it was where the order was signed to take germany to war in 1914 is also in potsdam. to the conquering allies, potsdam has the symbolism. it is the place where german militarism began. in their view it is the place where the first world war began. it will not be the place where the second world war, at least in europe, will come to an end. and i cannot prove it, but i think the russians arrived at the conference late in order to make sure the americans and british saw berlin for themselves. he did not want his heart to grow hard. what stalin wanted was for the american and british leadership to see berlin for themselves.
see as much of germany for themselves as they could. again, this produces different reactions depending upon one's definition of history. should the allies, the british, french, and soviets put money into germany to rebuild the devestation, or should they leave germany as one soviet observer put it, at the margins subsistence for a significant period of time? this is downtown berlin. this is potsdam, the lovely, elegant suburb in which this conference is going to happen. potsdam has this old tradition of being the home of the prussian aristocracy. it is also the place where the german film industry had its headquarters. it is the hollywood of germany. for those of you who may be watching the television series babylon berlin, the second season largely takes place in potsdam. the great movie studios of germany hosted several of the parties that the attendees went
to here in 1945. so it has an image of both an old center of german power, and a new bourgeois center of power. for that reason, potsdam is very important. the u.s. tried to get this in either alaska or washington dc to get the soviets could -- soviets to come to the u.s., because president roosevelt had to make that incredibly arduous trip to yalta. the soviets were insistent it would have to happen only at a place for a red army could ensure security. it was built in the middle of world war i, which i find incredible. for the crown prince and his wife. they were to move into it at the end of the first world war. this was to be their home. even while germany is fighting the first world war and trying to win that war, it builds this massive palace to the crown prince. this building will become the center, really, of the conference. it is relatively modern. it has electricity in every room, it has modern kitchens, it
has enough space that the british, american, and soviet delegations can all setup offices, which i will show you in just a bit. when the three powers came to the conference, they saw what you see here. it is still there, that gigantic red star that the soviets had planted to greet the great powers as they showed up. inside potsdam and a neighboring town, the soviets divided those two areas into three sectors. an american, soviet, and british sector to house the great vip's that had come. this is the back of the palace that looks out onto a lovely lake. no expense was spared to make this conference the best it could be. one of the things i enjoy going through, the papers of a woman named joan bright who was the protocol director. and all the effort that she went to to make sure this conference went just right on the british side. the soviets brought in the heads of their major hotels to make sure all the hospitality was there. absolutely no expense spared.
milk was brought in from the u.k. hams were brought in from yorkshire. when harry truman did not like the sheet music in the palace, he had a u.s. air force bomber fly to paris and bring him back sheet music. so whatever they wanted, they could have. they were literally the conquerors coming to rule over. no german faces anywhere to be seen in potsdam. this is the room that stalin used as his office. for most soviet leaders, and the soviets are the hardest group to read here, because many of their archives aren't open, and even if they are open, they are in russia. but from what we can tell from the contemporary primary sources, the fundamental problem that the russians saw in the paris peace conference in the treaty of versailles, was the failure to build states on the board of russia that could act as buffers.
so this time what the soviets want are stable, reliable countries that will serve as a buffer not just between the soviet union and germany, but the soviet union and a west that is still seen as a potential security threat to the soviet union and the post-world war. the second thing they wanted were reparations. they wanted to take as much money and as much industrial assets as they could out of germany. and eventually they will take anything they can get their hands on. they turn entire infantry divisions, 20,000 men strong, and give them the mission of taking everything that they can get their hands on. and they did this in potsdam itself at the end of the conference. they took books, light fixtures, everything that they could from the nearby houses and villas. what they did not want, they threw into the lake behind the palace. literally anything they do not want, they would just throw it away. so the germans would not get it at the end of the war. they are most concerned with making sure that another invasion does not happen.
this is the office from the study that harry truman used. truman is a particularly sympathetic figure to me, because when he became president of the united states in april of 1945, despite the bad health that president roosevelt was in, truman is kept almost completely in the dark on what american policy is. in fact when he became president, he asked to see the transcripts of the yalta conference so he could figure out what the united states had agreed to do, only to find that those transcripts apparently did not exist. so truman is having to figure out what america agreed to at yalta by talking to people who were there and getting contradictory information and reports. truman as a senator had found it a gap in the u.s. defense department's budget that he challenged the u.s. army on. he challenged the secretary of war on. stimson told him he understood
truman was a senator, but could not share with that was for. it is only after truman became president that he pulled him aside and explained to him with what the manhattan project was. that is what truman had stumbled on earlier. one thing harry truman is interested in is trying to get a handle on what his responsibilities are. he is interested in what we would call a reset of relations with the soviet union. truman thinks if he can look the soviet leaders in the eyes he can deal with them. he wants soviet help in defeating japan in the pacific theater. he wants to be sure the soviet union will participate fully in the united nations, and some of the other organizations the u.s. is trying to build. and he wants to create a balanced europe that hopefully means the u.s. will not have to send an army back to europe for a third world war. it is for this reason that truman tried to delay the potsdam conference for as long as he could, both to give himself time to get up to speed on these issues, and hopefully to give the scientists in new mexico a little bit more time to work on the manhattan project. the weakest of the three great powers is undoubtedly the
british. and i love this photograph, because it is taken at a rather silly moment when they lay out three chairs as you see here for the press to take pictures. originally, churchill was supposed to have the middle chair, when the photographers told him he had to move to the chair you see occupied on our left. he did so quite grudgingly. and as you can see, he began to move his chair closer and closer and closer to truman. what he wanted to send it was a message -- and this is not the only time he did this -- that there is an anglo-american unity here, and the u.s. and britain are on the same page. you can see the look in harry truman's eyes, he is having none of it. so he started to move his chair closer to the center. churchill was aware that america's and britain's interests were beginning to diverge. they would have to spend resources to rebuild, something
the u.s. under roosevelt and truman said they were not interested in doing. britain wants to be sure that the united states will commit to europe at all. at potsdam, truman says repeatedly he does not want the united states to have a long-term permanent presence in europe. he wants to help the europeans get themselves back on their feet, then he wants the united states to go to our side of the atlantic ocean. it's also the case that truman knows that there's a war still to be won with japan, and american military force will have to be diverted to do that. it's stalin who decides where this conference will be. it's truman who decides when this conference will be. the only thing churchill is able to decide is the codename of the conference, which he decides will be codenamed terminal. it is also true that churchill tried everything he could to get truman to come to london first before going to potsdam. and truman repeatedly refused. at one point he said he would not allow the conference to be simply a continuation of anglo-american discussion. so churchill is trying to, as
his foreign minister anthony eden said, win on on the power of his personality, and that will be difficult for a country that comes out of the war victorious but knows it will come out in a relatively poor position. this is a picture i also wanted to show because of the smiling faces. in the dead center is truman's russia translator and specialist. the two men on the right are the soviet foreign minister in american secretary of state. this is genuine. i do not think they are mugging for the cameras. they are genuinely delighted they are meeting in potsdam, that they have defeated nazi germany together. there's certainly a suspicion that all this loveliness and friendship and hugging and kissing might not last forever, but at least at this moment in potsdam, they see themselves as conquering heroes altogether. and the three great powers have
decided that they will be the only people that will be here. harry truman was furious with charles de gaulle for his rude treatment of roosevelt during the war. he said if i want to see de gaulle, i would send for him just as i would the head of any other minor power, which is a great line. poland is not invited either, except to give a brief statement on one day of the conference to present their various positions. so it is the great powers who are going to run this and make these decisions. this is the table in the main conference room inside the palace. it is intentionally kept small to limit the number of people who can attend. only the people who are sitting at the table are allowed really to have a voice. the people you see in the back are there to be advisors, translators, and several of them who left memoirs say they spent an awful lot of time cleaning those ashtrays. you can see the room is red. that is also by design. and you can see the way they are starting to think about what
they want, when comes to shove when setting the future of europe. the treaty of versailles as analogy is not the only one to talk about. some of the american and british hardliners also talk about the munich analogy. that they need to be very careful that what they do with the soviets is sufficiently strong so that the soviets do not take advantage of the generosity of the west. they do not want to be in a position where soviets come out of this conference too strong. and i will talk a little more about that. anyone who wants to make that point could use the dreaded word appeasement, a loaded word in 1945, a word that remains quite loaded. the big question for the united states has to be, what do we think the soviet union wants? what are they? what can we expect them to do? before becoming president of the united states, truman noted he had never even met a russian. the first russian he meets is molotov, the soviet foreign minister, whose nickname is
stone ass among the american diplomatic corps because of his ability to just sit there silently and with no emotion on his face at all when he did not want to reveal anything he was thinking. he must have been a very difficult person to pay poker against, a game that truman was very good at. truman assembled his russian team and finds there is very little agreement among even his senior soviet advisors. and you can see the three most important are sitting right there. the u.s. ambassador to the soviet union is not in this photograph. he is the hardliner of the four. there are at least three ways of thinking about what the soviet union will do in the postwar period. one way of thinking, which is expressed by robert lovitt and the so-called soft liners, is what the soviets really want is, in effect, really no different
from what the tsar are wanted in 1914. the problem is not really ideological, the problem is just like the czar, what stalin will want is security on his western frontier and access in the south. to renegotiate a convention of 1936 to allow soviet ships to pass through the dardanelles straits unhindered. so, by this logic, you do not really need to think about an ideological conflict with the soviet union, and you do not we need to worry about giving the soviet union an opening into places they are unlikely to go. the second way of thinking largely comes from chip bolin and admiral haren, who argues this is really something different. what you are seeing from the
soviet union is not like the czar's system because this is truly a different ideology, that the soviets will not feel safe until the moment when they think that most of the world agrees with them ideologically, or until they fully control them. the u.s. has to be prepared to deal with soviet expansion, it has to be prepared for the soviets to continually be testing the limits of what the west is willing to do. the third one, and i have to say, i'm still -- when i read kennen's writing all these years later, i am amazed at his ability to look forward and backwards. he wrote that the problem of the soviet system is that while the u.s. and the british will come out of the second world war feeling triumphant, the soviets will come out, despite being the great victors of the war, they will come out of the war with their paranoia vastly increased. he argued that the problem the soviet union had was not so much its geopolitical one, but that its system fundamentally does not work in peacetime. it was not working in the
1930's, and once economic conditions of the postwar world came back, the economic conditions of the soviet union not work in the 1950's and 1960's either. nevertheless, he argued because they came out of the war so paranoid and because they would have the balance of military power in their hands, any military attempt by the u.s. or great britain to force the russians into doing something that they do not want to do will be met with force. so if the united states wants to try to push the soviets around in europe, they have to expect it is going to be done with full military force in place. and that the united states cannot do. so his argument, later becomes known as the containment doctrine. his argument is what the u.s. should do is try to limit soviet influence as much as the united states can in places where it can do so relatively cheap. contain the soviet union and allow the internal contradiction of the soviet union to work against it. wait for the soviet people themselves to realize that this system is not workable. and he was aware that this could take decades to achieve.
what he is arguing to truman is, patience, build up the west. in fact, he is arguing for creating two poles, one led by the united states, one by the soviet union. he wants to build up democratic systems of western europe and in the post-war world and later through the marshall plan, the economies of the west as well. if that means shutting the soviets out of the system, that's an outcome that is perfectly acceptable to him. the litmus test is going to be how the soviets come to potsdam on poland. what will they want to do on poland? if the soviets push for an expansive poland pushed further to the west, and if they insist on shutting the democratic polish government, the polish government in exile, a group called the london poles, if they insist on excluding them, then those will be indications the soviets are willing to play hardball. if the soviets are willing to
open up poland to fair and free elections, that is a different case. the question he asks is if they do not do with we want them to do, what choice does the united states really have on poland? if poland is the reason for britain and france to go to war in 1939, is it reason for the united states to go to war with the soviet union in 1945? all four of the men in this photograph have the same answer. no, it is not. one more thing about potsdam that to me was endlessly fascinating, i'm always interested in this question. i was trained as a social historian not to think that individuals are terribly important to the overall course of history. it is larger patterns and larger structures that are more important than individual decisions and individual bits of contingency. most of the time. and potsdam potsdam offers a really fascinating insight here.
truman becomes president upon fdr's death in april. he brings a new national security team in with him including a new secretary of state. in the middle of the potsdam conference, the votes are tabulated in the first british election since the mid-1930's. to everyone's tremendous shock, the labour party, led by this man clemet atley on the left, thoroughly defeats winston churchill's conservatives. so the conference takes a break in the middle. the british go back to london in order to monitor the results of the election. famously in number 10 downing street, they take down the battle maps of western europe, and put up the electoral maps to try to figure out how things are going. and atley wins. so the question we have here is how much do the policies then change when atlee and truman replace fdr and churchill? in my view and the view of people living through it at the time, the answer is really not very much. anthony eden, who was replaced as the british prime minister, was very attentive to this. eden was very worried because
bevin the foreign minister had very little experience in foreign affairs. eden is very concerned they're going to mess up britain's position. at the end, he writes in his diary in a very long, detailed and thoughtful explanation, that the tone might have been a little bit different, but they did the same thing that churchill and he had done, mostly because they were in the same strategic position of not having any money. the united states is going to do something a little different. truman and roosevelt before him had already planned on this. unlike woodrow wilson in 1919, who went in trying to win with the power of ideas, truman went come in with a bunch of good cards at his hand. one of them was having the united nations charter already signed before truman went to potsdam. that occurs in late june of 1945. and with the united states senate having already approved american membership. so there'll be no fight over the league of nations like there was in 1919. the difference is at this time,
the united states will have one of five security council vetoes so the u.n., unlike the league of nations, can never do harm to the united states because it has that u.s. security council veto. the u.s. also wanted to make sure the conference was held in san francisco, and that the international headquarters of the united nations would be on the east side of new york city. the united states also created monetary institutions -- this is john maynard keynes in the middle -- that are today known as the bretton woods agreements. they include what became the world bank. they include currency set to the u.s. dollar as backed by american gold, so the exchange rates are fixed. they include really the united states taking control of the global economy and moving it from london to new york. john maynard keynes in the middle, probably the most famous economist of his age, called this system a swindle. that is he knew the united states was using its military power and its diplomatic power to undercut britain's economic
power, but he was also perfectly aware that britain had no choice. famously, he said that britain could not possibly police half the world while remaining in debt to the other half. the officials of the bank of england said this was the only thing worse than losing the war, because under the system, all of the british empire, india, singapore, all of it would have to be opened to the united states on fair and equal trade terms, which in effect meant the end of the british empire at some point. the irony here is that britain being the least powerful of the big three ended up making very similar arguments that they rejected when france made them in 1919. in effect we know we are out of money, we know we do not have the military power we once had, but we sacrificed and bled on the battlefield with you. isn't that worth something? they reject that argument when the french make it in 1919. the u.s. and the soviets reject it when the british make
it in 1945. keynes is another one of these extremely perceptive people able to look backwards and forwards. he believes that the economic additions that the second world war had created might well lead to another great depression that is largely averted by the marshall plan, some good luck, and some very good thinking by some european economists. he was also aware that this likely means the end of great britain as a great power, and it likely means the end of the imperial system as the british had known it. the last card in truman's hand i want to talk about is of course the atomic bomb that is detonated in new mexico as the potsdam conference is going on. the american secretary of war slips truman a note, a poorly coded note that lets him know exactly how successful it has been. how far away the explosion could be heard and seen. truman got that note. he was perfectly well aware. they had discussed what they
would do, how they would present it to the soviets, how they would open this discussion. the decision they made was truman would go up to stalin after the end of one of the sessions and mention it without using the word atomic, and to mention it in as low-key a way as it was possible to do. now, what truman and churchill did not know, what nobody on the western side knew, is the soviets also knew how close the united states was to an atomic bomb. they, too, had discussed how stalin respond if churchill and truman mentioned the success of the alamogordo experiment to him. they agreed he would try to downplay it as much as possible and make it seem as though he did not fully understand the consequences of what they were saying. this is another thing that was very interesting. i would have thought that everybody would remember that moment when truman pulled stalin
aside because everybody knew that it was coming. in fact, people's historical recollections do not overlap terribly well, which i find very interesting. the consensus seems to be that truman mentioned the new super weapon that the united states had developed, avoiding the term atomic. stalin saying something like, that is good, we will use it against japan, or that is wonderful and walking away. truman and churchill both noted in their recollections of this that they thought that stalin had no idea what had just been told to him. again, we know that is not true. as it turns out, the conversation that they had just had was a conversation over the future of poland that had had some pretty tense exchanges. stalin read that, as he told one of his advisors, as atomic blackmail. so the nuclear age is just about to begin. truman made the decision that the united states should not drop the bomb over hiroshima until he, truman, was back at sea on his way back to the united states. he wanted to literally be at sea when it was first used. he wanted to be in a position
where he would not have to discuss this with stalin in any way. ok. so what did they decide at potsdam? one thing they decided was on the boundaries of germany. they actually divide three countries. they break three countries into pieces here. it's an afterthought. it is almost done by lower-level officials, one of the decisions is made by a colonel in washington, d.c. who later became secretary of state. his decision is to divide the korean peninsula. they also divide indochina into two. what they will do here in germany -- first where they would do is break it into three occupation zones. the soviet, british american, and french zone. and you can see the french zone is carved out of the american zone.
the soviets are ok with the french having their own zone of occupation as long as it doesn't come out of the soviet zone. the decision they reach is each side will take out or put into its zone whatever it wants. and the reason they are doing this is the americans fear that if germany is treated as a single unit, if it is treated as a single occupation, then the soviets will simply take advantage and take everything they can out of germany, forcing the united states and great britain to put money into germany. so in effect, the u.s. will be putting resources into germany, while the soviets take them out. this is exactly the nightmare scenario that berns thought of in 1919, and it is the scenario he does not want to see repeated in 1945. they do not envision at this point that this will become two different states. we know now of course that they do. with the united states, britain and france putting resources into the western zone of germany and the soviets taking everything they can find that is not nailed down out of the eastern sector. those of you in germany or those
of you who have traveled to germany will know this remains an issue inside germany, where the economic development of the east still lags a bit behind the west. nevertheless, the united states gets what it wants. it gets a system where it does not have to put money into a reparations scheme while the soviets pull those resources out. the second decision they make, and this is mostly a soviet one the united states has acquiesced in as it is happening, is that rather than draw lines around countries exclusively, what the red army will do is force people to move into their new ethnic areas. if you are german living in what will become poland, the red army will encourage you to leave. and this is going to happen to millions and millions of people. at potsdam, the united states knows that the soviet union is doing this. they know that in that shaded area that becomes part of poland, they are taking away lutheran churches and
sacrelizing them as catholic churches. they are taking down german street signs and putting up polish ones. for all intents and purposes, they are taking those regions and making them polish. they will do this throughout the map of europe. the soviet expectation is this is the way you're going to end the problem of what to do with displaced persons and what to do with the boundary lines. the big problem is what to do with the jewish survivors of the concentration camps, and this of course will lead into the decision to see palestine as a solution. here at potsdam, i was quite surprised by what they do not talk about. and the main thing that they do not talk about is what to do with these jews, and what to do with the future of palestine. the key thing i think is that for the people of 1945, the problem of germany had been solved as they understood it. the occupation lines had been decided, even if it was believed that those would be temporary. that would give them an ability to monitor germany. the size of germany is made smaller, mostly as poland grows a little more, and i will show you that in just a second.
and also the ability to make sure that the economics of germany are going to work at least in the western zone the way that the united states and britain want them to work. the people that pay the price of course are the poles. and this map shows what became known as poland sliding to the west. so the map on the left here is the dark part of that is the polish boundary of 1921 at the end of world war i. the light color that is there, the line there is the new poland drawn in 1945. supposedly winston churchill demonstrated this at yalta with three matchsticks rolling to the left. the phrase that has been used ever since is poland slides to the west. that part of the east is taken away from poland, and then the part of east prussia, that is
the heartland of old germany, becomes part of poland. pozen becomes poznein. poland begins to move to the west. the americans are aware that there is not a heck of a lot they can do about this. they had hoped they could put some faith in the ability of a democratic government in poland to at least decide what kind of government poland would have. it becomes perfectly obvious at the potsdam conference that the soviets have no intention of allowing anything that would even remotely resemble free elections. i think this is one of, along with the atomic bomb, one of the two issues that creates difficulties and suspicions between the united states and the soviet union. poland pays the price. it remains under soviet dominance until the late 1980's and early 1990's. i love what george kennan said about this. he said, i wish instead of mumbling words of official optimism, we had had the judgment and good taste before silenceur heads in
before the people we helped to save from our enemies and who we cannot save from our friends. the american ambassador to poland wrote a book with this title, "i saw poland betrayed." we can fast forward to today in 2020, where both germany and poland are full members of nato, the european union, full members of an international system. if they did not exactly design it at potsdam, they would not have been terribly surprised, and i think most people outside the soviet bloc would have been very pleased with the outcome that you see here. so, this is i think a reminder that both history is always moving, it is always changing, it is always dynamic, it is never done with us. it is always a factor in the way that we have to think about the past, the present, and the future. if the leaders of 1945 did not
yet know the contours of the future they were trying to create, they very much knew the past they did not want to repeat. thank you very much, and i'll be happy to take any questions that you have. >> thank you, michael, for a wonderful presentation. if you have a question and have not added it to the q&a feature at the bottom of your screen, please do so now. you can also like a question that has already been submitted you would like to see answered. our first question is, if truman needed information about yalta, why didn't he go to london and meet with churchill before going to potsdam? prof. neiberg: i do not think it would have been possible for truman to go to london. there were arguments -- there was simply too many things truman had to do in the united states. there was a question of churchill coming to washington for roosevelt's funeral. that would have been an opportunity for the united states and british leaders to sit down. he never did explain it, but one
day churchill just told his staff, i'm not going to washington, we are not going to do that. and when churchill decided not to come to the funeral, that opportunity i think for a large gathering of a meeting of the minds would not have happened. i also think it is true that the new secretary of state, who is very close to truman at this point, they have a rupture later, was trying to make sure that whatever truman did, he did not get his information from the british. it should come from american sources. so burns takes charge. burns was at yalta. he was physically there, although he did not play a very important role. he and roosevelt had a falling out, kind of a pattern of his life. the simple answer is there was no real opportunity to do that because of churchill's decision not to come to washington. and i think burns would have frowned upon that. instead what burns does, he is the guy who ends up really taking control. this is what i remember that we
agreed to do. >> all right. our next question is from stan and says, did president truman later express any regrets about decisions made at potsdam, especially in regards to poland? prof. neiberg: he did. in his major speech on the agreement to the american people right when he came back to the united states, he comes right out and says it. the polish part is the part i was most uncomfortable with. he says to his advisors, there is nothing we could have done. the only way to force the soviets to do anything different on poland would have been to threaten the soviets with military action. and that's just not going to happen, it is not the cards. those of you who know from the movie patton, allegedly, this is what george patton was arguing. that you have to threaten the
soviets with military action, force them to go back to their border, prevent a border like this one from being created. but a, it is unrealistic, and b, not the job of a general to make those decisions. >> all right. our next question comes from elaine and says, why did they not address the issues of jewish refugees? prof. neiberg: that is really hard. truman and churchill's briefing books are both in the archives. the truman briefing book is at the truman library, and you can see exactly what he was reading. i think there are two reasons. i think one is that palestine was still a british mandate at that point. it still technically belonged to great britain. so if you are going to open up the issue of palestine, then you have to open up a whole lot of issues about the internal affairs of the great powers. and i do not think anyone wanted to cross that line at this conference. the second thing, and it is curious, when you read the initial reports of the liberation of the camps, the word jewish is not used very often. so if you read edward r. murrow,
dorothy thompson is there, the reports that they sent back do not specifically refer to jews. so there's a sense, and i'm not sure how much this is getting back to the folks at potsdam, that jewish suffering is no different from the suffering of europeans more generally. that there is not something more distinct and unique. to truman and churchill's great credit, they soon woke up to that great reality, and truman assigned earl harrison to come to europe and write a report, a famous report that he writes back to truman that says we are treating the jews the same way the nazis did except we are not killing them. we are keeping them in these camps. to their credit, they had an epiphany later, but i think largely it was the unwillingness of truman to open up, or certainly the unwillingness of churchill to open up what they saw as internal affairs of the great powers to this conference. and palestine is considered part of the internal affairs of great
britain. >> all right. our next question comes from ian and says it seems that the true take away for great power competition from potsdam is that force or the threat of force decides diplomacy. would you agree? prof. neiberg: there is a great old expression that diplomacy is the art of saying nice doggy until you can find a really big rock. at the army war college where i teach, we use a very simplified saying we called the d.i.m.e. diplomacy, information, military and economics. ideally you want all four of those to function together. military force is always there. the official motto of where i worked is not to prepare for war, but to promote peace. so the ultimate idea of where i work is to teach senior military officers the way you can use military force in exactly the way you are articulating short interests short
of violence. that is the ideal. it does not always work out that way. what we are seeing in the 21st century is states like russia and china who are using information, and in the chinese case, economics, in place of military force to support their diplomacy. this is part of the challenge i think we are dealing with in the 21st century. the tools of statecraft are different in the 21st century than they were in 1945. this, i think, is the real challenge going forward for western societies, which i think bad actors around the world have figured out is the way to exploit western societies, because of their openness. so i would say that all of those four factors, diplomacy, information, military, and economics work together. military force, the folks i work for, will say it is the ultimate thing you want to hold back. so without military power, you do not have a plan b with anything, but it should never be
plan a. you should always let the others work their way out first. >> all right. our next question comes from james and is a bit of a long one. you state that the allies in potsdam were optimistic and buoyant and celebratory, but surely if this was true, the positive and collaborative relations between them rapidly disappeared, did it not? what specific important agreements were made at potsdam rather than being defered as they were to the council and of foreign ministers because they could not agree on much at potsdam? prof. neiberg: the other thing about potsdam that truman remembered, that truman wanted to avoid was the very nasty and bitter fight wilson had over the treaty of versailles and league of nations. potsdam does not produce a treaty. for that reason, while there are eight memoirs and memoranda of each day's discussion, they do not produce a formal treaty, and that is by design.
that is 100% by design. so the council of foreign ministers, as you mentioned, they are there to kind of massage the process going forward. these specific points of disagreement for the united states especially are soviet treatment of poland and the general sort of blackout, the inability of american and british officials to move through the soviet zone of germany. to the americans the notion is that the soviets are not playing fair, they are not letting us come into the zone, they are treating it as two countries when we were supposed to treat it as one. for the soviets, it really is the use of the nuclear bombs over hiroshima and nagasaki, and the timing that the way truman did it, so there was no opportunity for negotiations, no opportunity for discussion about what will go forward. the third issue that is of great concern is the chinese civil war that is ongoing at the same time. so if you think of the world as a bipolar soviet-led one pole and an american-led other pole,
obviously the future of china will be incredibly important, as it remains today. those are the three issues that emerge very quickly. others emerge as well. i would still hold to the fact that they left potsdam. everybody that left a record of it at the time, everybody that wrote something down in august, 1945, they all right, look, we understand this will not be all champagne and strawberries, but we think we can work with these guys. we think this can work. then by 1947, late 1946, that mood is starting to change. >> i think we have time for two a few more questions. the next question is from philip and says, how long did it take for president truman to learn of the success of the nuclear bomb test in new mexico and tell stalin and churchill? prof. neiberg: it was churchill who was with truman at that point. truman has told -- one of the first briefings he gets after being sworn in as president, he
is fully read into what the manhattan project is. he is told at potsdam. i do not member the exact date, but it is early in the conference. he is handed a memo that says yeah, it worked. any soviets would understand exactly what it said. it was the most poorly coded thing in all the years of working in archives i have seen. it is no great surprise, which tells me the americans did not think they had to encode it all that much, because they did not think the soviets would understand it even if it were encoded. and they made the decision, churchill, truman and a couple of advisors met quickly and said what should we do about this, and they decided to go ahead with the plan they had gone with. so it all happens very quickly. and the key thing to me is the americans did not think the soviets would fully grasped what had happened. the soviets had fully grasped what had happened, and it is something that greatly increases that paranoia that we talked about.
>> all right. and our last question comes from claire and says, how much influence do you think burns had on truman's immediate thinking at potsdam and in the earliest days of the emerging cold war? prof. neiberg: i think burns is the second most important person that truman is talking with. the most important i think is probably george marshall, because truman revered george marshall. james burns is the only man in american history to be on the supreme court, the house of representatives, the senate, the cabinet, and a governorship, although the governorship comes after the war, governor of south carolina. so he knows everybody. he knows where the bodies are buried. he knows how to get things moved through various branches of government. everybody in 1944 thought burns would be vice president, and had that happened, when roosevelt died he would have been president.
he's whispering in truman's ear. the legend goes he was the last person in washington to stop calling him harry and start calling him president truman, because they knew each other so well and they needed each other so much that they had this in formality between them. and burns's assistant talked about the two of them on the trip back from potsdam just sitting together over a bottle of bourbon every day and talking about things every single day. so the relationship is really close. it will break down quickly. so i think burns is the most important voice talking to truman. he had been at yalta, he had been at i think at tehran, he had been at the paris peace conference. he's an unbelievably enormously influential person and i think he is probably the most important person in 20th century history that most americans do not know anything about. and he is just everywhere. and like truman, never went to college. very much a self-made, self-taught man. he is the last supreme court justice without a law degree. and a very unpleasant guy, i should say. a very accomplished guy, but a diehard segregationist.
he is one of the people who gets the dixiecrat movement going. in 1945, he is someone truman is listening to. along with marshall, very close attention. >> american history tv is on social media. follow us on c-span history. watching american history tv, exploring our nation's past every weekend on c-span three. we are looking back on this date in history. the life of every human being on earth can depend on the experience and judgment and vigilance of the person in the oval office. the presidents powerful ability and powerful destruction , the power is greatest when the
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that is why president cannot and to the passions of the moment. askpresident must sometimes for sacrifice when his listeners would rather hear comfort. the president is the servant of his true constituency is the future. ministry us on social -- social media at c-span history. u.s. dropped atomic bonds -- bombs on hiroshima and nagasaki. up next, and education director shows items in the harry s truman library collection that tells the story of president truman's decision to use the bombs including white house
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