The Potsdam Conference

The next meeting of the Big Three took place in August 1945 at Potsdam, just outside Berlin.

Clement Attlee, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin meet in Potsdam, Russia controlled Germany, to discuss the post-war settlement agreed at Yalta

The main objective of the Potsdam Conference was to finalise a post-war settlement and put into action all the things agreed at Yalta.

While the meeting at Yalta had been reasonably friendly, the Potsdam Conference was fraught with disagreements, which were the result of some significant changes that had taken place since the Yalta Conference.

A new US President

The US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, had died and been replaced by his Vice-President, Harry S Truman. Roosevelt had believed that co-operation with Stalin was essential, not only because he needed the USSR to join the war against Japan, but also because he wanted the Soviet Union to be part of the new United Nations organisation. However, Truman was not so keen to work with Stalin. Truman made little secret of his dislike for communism and for Stalin personally. He quickly ended the economic support that the Americans had been giving the Soviets through the Lend-Lease programme during the war. Although Truman began the conference with a positive view of Stalin – he is believed to have stated I can deal with Stalin - he became more impatient with the Soviets after the news of the atomic bomb emerged.

Stalin vs Truman

Nuclear Threat

Image of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon conducted as part of the Manhattan Project.
The first detonation of a nuclear weapon conducted as part of the Manhattan Project

Just before the Conference began, on 16 July 1945, the USA had successfully exploded an atomic bomb at their test site in the New Mexico desert. When first told about the success of the experiment, Truman is said to have remarked: if it works ... I’ll sure have a hammer on those boys. At Potsdam, Truman chose to inform Stalin that the US possessed ‘a new weapon of unusual destructive force’.

Expansion of Communism

Despite agreeing at Yalta that free elections would be held in Eastern Europe after the defeat of Nazi Germany, there was little evidence at Potsdam that Stalin intended to allow them. In fact the Red Army was in control of Poland where the USSR was in the process of setting up a communist government.

Outcome

Little real progress was made at Potsdam beyond an agreement to put into action the commitments made at Yalta.

The Yalta and Potsdam conferences

Revision recap

The main points of the two Conferences are summarised in the table below. You can use the acronym PEER – People, Elections, Europe, Reparations to remember the main points.

PEER is an acronym for- ‘People, Elections, Europe, and Reparations’ an easy way to remember the main outcomes of the Tehran, Yalta and Postdam conferences
YaltaPotsdam
PeopleParticipants: Churchill, Roosevelt and StalinParticipants: Atlee (who replaced Churchill midway), Truman and Stalin
EuropeGermany to be divided into four zones of occupation - Berlin to also be dividedArguments over where the boundaries between the zones would be drawn
ElectionsStalin to have a ‘sphere of influence’ over Eastern Europe but all countries freed from Nazi occupation would be allowed free elections to choose their own governmentsThere was no sign of Stalin allowing free elections in Eastern Europe and a communist government was being set up in Poland
ReparationsThe USSR would be allowed to take reparations from defeated GermanyArguments about how much the USSR should be allowed to take in reparations. It was agreed that the Soviets could take whatever they wanted from the Soviet controlled zone and 10 per cent from the Western zones. This remained a source of disagreement, with the Western Allies worried that they were repeating the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles after World War One
  • List the Big Three at the Potsdam conference and what each one’s main priority was.
  • Explain how the Big Three needed each other to fulfil their priorities.
  • Explain how the priorities of the Big Three might have been difficult to fulfil at the same time.
  • Consider TWO big differences about the way that the Grand Alliance worked at Yalta and how it worked at Potsdam.