The last wartime conference of the “Big Three”—the Soviet Union, the United States and Great Britain—concludes after two weeks of intense and sometimes acrimonious debate. The conference failed to settle most of the important issues at hand and thus helped set the stage for the Cold War that would begin shortly after World War II came to an end.
The meeting at Potsdam was the third conference between the leaders of the Big Three nations. 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.
At the Potsdam meeting, the most pressing issue was the postwar fate of Germany. The Soviets wanted a unified Germany, but they also insisted that Germany be completely disarmed. Truman, along with a growing number of U.S. officials, had deep suspicions about Soviet intentions in Europe. The massive Soviet army already occupied much of Eastern Europe. A strong Germany might be the only obstacle in the way of Soviet domination of all of Europe. In the end, the Big Three agreed to divide Germany into three zones of occupation (one for each nation), and to defer discussions of German reunification until a later date.
The other notable issue at Potsdam was one that was virtually unspoken. Just as he arrived for the conference, Truman was informed that the United States had successfully tested the first atomic bomb. Hoping to use the weapon as leverage with the Soviets in the postwar world, Truman casually mentioned to Stalin that America was now in possession of a weapon of monstrously destructive force. The president was disappointed when the Soviet leader merely responded that he hoped the United States would use it to bring the war with Japan to a speedy end.
The Potsdam Conference ended on a somber note. By the time it was over, Truman had become even more convinced that he had to adopt a tough policy toward the Soviets. Stalin had come to believe more strongly that the United States and Great Britain were conspiring against the Soviet Union. As for Churchill, he was not present for the closing ceremonies. His party lost in the elections in England, and he was replaced midway through the conference by the new prime minister, Clement Attlee. Potsdam was the last postwar conference of the Big Three.