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Truman and the Potsdam Conference


A new face at the White House

A key figure in the early stages of the Cold War was the American President, Harry Truman. It was only through chance that he became President. As Vice President he took over when Roosevelt died in April 1945. Truman was a Democrat politician from Missouri. He had made his reputation in domestic politics. He had only been Vice President for a few weeks and he had almost no experience of international politics.


He was very different from Roosevelt and his personality played a part in the development of a tougher American policy. Roosevelt was much more diplomatic than Truman. Roosevelt was sure that the USA and the Soviet Union could remain friendly after the war. Just a few hours before he died Roosevelt sent a message to Churchill.


The British leader had been trying to get Roosevelt to take a tough line on communist control in Poland. Roosevelt replied: 'I would minimize the general Soviet problem as much as possible.' To the last, Roosevelt remained convinced that the USA would stay on good terms with the Soviet Union. Truman was less certain about Soviet intentions.


Truman takes a tough line

Truman showed his different style as soon as he came to power. In April 1945 Truman spoke angrily to the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov. He insisted that the Soviets must carry out the Yalta Agreement and allow free elections in Poland. He would not listen to Molotov's explanations. As Molotov left he said: 'I have never been talked to like that before in my life.' To which Truman said: ' Carry out your agreements and you won't get talked to like that.'


The Potsdam Conference

The leaders of the USA, USSR and Britain met at Potsdam, near Berlin, between 17 July and 2 August 1945. This was the last of the great wartime summit meetings. The membership of the Conference showed that the wartime alliance was changing. At previous conferences the American leader had been Roosevelt; now it was Truman. Churchill was replaced halfway through by the Labor leader, Clement Attlee.


At Potsdam, Truman told Stalin that America had the atomic bomb. Churchill noticed the sense of power that Truman seemed to feel now that he had this powerful weapon. Later Churchill wrote: 'Truman was a changed man. He told the Russians where they got on and off and generally bossed this whole meeting.'


The US government thought that it might take 20 years for the Soviet Union to develop an atom bomb. Truman believed that the bomb put the USA in a strong position in any arguments with the Soviet Union.


Potsdam: Areas of Agreement and Disagreement

German reparations were agreed. Each country was to take reparations from its own area of occupation. The Soviet Union was to receive some additional industrial equipment from the western zones of occupation: little of this was ever handed over.


The details of the German-Polish borders on the rivers Oder and Neisse were finally agreed. The British and Americans disliked the position of the new border but could do little about it.


It was agreed that the Nazi Party should be stamped out in all sectors of Germany.


The Soviet Union wanted to play a part in the running of the rich German industrial area of the Ruhr. The USA rejected this idea.


The Soviet Union wanted to share in the occupation of Japan. Truman firmly blocked this idea.


The USA and Britain asked for a greater say in what went on in Eastern Europe. Stalin rejected this suggestion.


The Iron Curtain

The new hostility towards the Soviet Union was encouraged by Winston Churchill in a famous speech on 5 March 1946 The speech was made at Fulton. Missouri President Truman was in the audience and had seen the speech before it was given. Churchill called for an American-British alliance to meet the communist menace. At first, some Americans felt that he was exaggerating. Gradually most Americans came to agree with him.