5-172 Editorial Note on the Potsdam Conference

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Subject: World War II

Editorial Note on the Potsdam Conference

July 6-18, 1945

Since early May, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been pressing President Truman to hold a Big Three meeting in Berlin soon. He was especially worried about the likelihood that British-American military power in Europe would quickly decline: “Time is on his [Stalin’s] side if he digs in while we melt away.” Churchill had already begun to talk about an “iron curtain” that excluded non-Soviet influence from areas occupied by the Red Army. Truman and Stalin, however, preferred a mid-July meeting. (Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conference of Berlin [The Potsdam Conference], 2 vols. [Washington: GPO, 1960], 1: 5, 9, 10, 85-87, 90-93.)

Even more than February’s conference in the Crimea, the conference in Berlin would be almost entirely political, as few crucial military decisions remained to be made. (See the list of agenda items agreed to by President Truman in William D. Leahy, I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time [London: Victor Gollancz, 1950], pp. 454-59.) Stalin had assured Harry Hopkins on May 28 that Soviet forces would be ready for operations in the Far East by August 8. (Foreign Relations, Potsdam Conference, 1: 42.) The Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that a Soviet attack in Manchuria was not essential to victory over Japan, but it might be the final evidence needed to convince the Japanese that surrender was necessary, and if not it would tie up Japanese resources and manpower, thereby reducing U.S. invasion casualties.

The chief unresolved military issue between the United States and the British Commonwealth was the extent of the latter’s participation in the final attack on Japan. Marshall, consequently, doubted that the Combined Chiefs of Staff needed to or ought to go to the Berlin meetings, in part because Stalin might not approve of their presence. Only on June 24 was it certain that Stalin approved of the C.C.S.’s coming. The British and American chiefs of staff agreed to bring only small staffs. (Ibid., p. 110, 125, 133.)

The president and his party left Washington, D.C., on July 6, taking the heavy cruiser Augusta to Antwerp and flying on to Berlin. Marshall left with General Arnold at midnight on July 10 and flew in Arnold’s plane to Mingan, Quebec, to get in a day of salmon fishing on the eleventh. That evening, Marshall boarded his own C-54 for the flight to Frankfurt, Germany, by way of the Azores. On July 13 and 14, Marshall and Omar Bradley went to Bavaria for some more fishing. Marshall arrived in Berlin on the afternoon of July 15 and went to the house on Berlinerstrasse in Babelsberg that he was to share with Arnold and their aides.

Big Three plenary sessions were to take place in the Cecilienhof Palace in heavily damaged Potsdam. Delegation housing was located across the Tetlow Canal from Potsdam in the largely undamaged resort town and film colony of Babelsberg—approximately a dozen miles southwest of the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin. Marshall and the other members of the C.C.S. attended none of the plenary sessions, spending most of their time at meetings and dinners in Babelsberg or sightseeing. Marshall also worked on his 1943-45 biennial report to the secretary of war.

The usual Anglo-American conference pattern of alternating meetings of national chiefs of staff and Combined Chiefs of Staff was followed in Babelsberg. The Joint Chiefs of Staff met on the morning of July 16 and discussed the idea of having the Soviet chiefs of staff meet with the C.C.S., France’s desire to participate in the Pacific campaign, lend-lease problems, and Pacific command—which they agreed must be reserved to the United States. At that day’s C.C.S. meeting, the conferees agreed to consider having Churchill raise with Truman the issue of the Japanese emperor’s status under the unconditional surrender policy. Marshall reported on China Theater operations, and the group talked about the Pacific war “and what we could and could not do to bring it to a close sooner.” In all, Arnold noted, the meeting was “a very peaceful one and went well, with no untoward incidents.” After the meeting, Marshall and Arnold had tea with Field Marshal Alan Brooke; afterwards they drove to Berlin to visit the ruins of the Reichstag and the Chancellery. (H. H. Arnold, Global Mission [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949], p. 583.)

At the July 17 J.C.S. meeting, Marshall pointed out that he did not want anything said publicly with regard to removing the Japanese emperor from office prior to Japan’s unconditional surrender, because Hirohito’s continuation in office might influence the cessation of hostilities in areas outside Japan. The J.C.S. agreed to have a memorandum on unconditional surrender drafted for the president that included the statement that the Japanese people were to be free to chose their own form of government. (On this memorandum, see Foreign Relations, Potsdam Conference, 2: 1268-69.) The Americans also agreed in principle to British participation in the attack on Japan—which, Brooke noted in his diary, “was far better than we had hoped for.” Regarding command in the Pacific, however, Brooke noted: “There I foresee more trouble ahead. We want a greater share in the control of the strategy in the Pacific and they are apparently reluctant to provide this share.” At the C.C.S. meeting that afternoon, the British accepted the general U.S. program for the Pacific war headed by an American supreme commander. The J.C.S. agreed that the British should appoint a corps-level commander who, with his staff, would go to MacArthur’s and Nimitz’s headquarters to discuss plans. (War Diaries, 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, ed. Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001], p. 706; Foreign Relations, Potsdam Conference, 2: 39-42.)

The July 18 Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting was the last one of marked significance at the conference. The British were pleased with the outcome vis-à-vis their role in the Pacific.  Brooke noted that Marshall made a very nice speech, pointing out the difficulties of control in the Pacific, and the desirability to simplify the control and avoid delays.  They would be prepared to discuss strategy but final decisions must rest with them.  If the plan for the invasion of the Tokyo Plain [Operation CORONET, tentatively scheduled for March 1946] did not suit us we could withhold our forces but they would still carry on.  On the whole I think that the discussion cleared the air a good deal and that the secretaries should now be able to draft out some form of agreement between us. (Brooke, War Diaries, pp. 706–7.)

The C.C.S. agreed to work out a change in the boundaries of the Southwest Pacific Area in order to give the British Commonwealth control (and responsibility for handling Dutch, French, and Portuguese requests for participation) of the mopping-up operations south and east of the Philippines.

Recommended Citation:  The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens  (Lexington, Va.:  The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981– ).  Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 5, “The Finest Soldier,” January 1, 1945–January 7, 1947  (Baltimore and London:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 243–245.




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