“To the victor belong the spoils.”
– Sen. William L. Marcy (1828)
It had been perhaps the strangest coalition in human history – the foremost democratic, colonial, and communist powers in the world, rallying together to defeat a nation antithetical to all of them, despite their immense differences.
Fear of defeat had united them; the prospects of victory had already been slowing dividing them. By the time the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union had gathered in mid-July of 1945 at Potsdam in Germany, their once-unified vision for the brave new world that would emerge from the carnage of war was breaking apart. While there was still plenty of fighting to do to bring the last of the Axis powers down, the democratic and Wilsonian ideals pushed largely by the United States were quickly buckling under the weight of political reality.
The hopes of avoiding another Versailles-like post-war environment were fading. The victors were eagerly eyeing their spoils. And the red-hot war that had engulfed the globe was freezing over into a cold one.
The world – and the participants – had looked much different just five months earlier at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945.
Despite an Allied victory in Europe looking all but assured, the Big Three of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had still been in a semi-compromising mood that February. Roosevelt had been pushing for a Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific; Churchill wanted to push for democracies in Eastern Europe; Stalin wanted Soviet satellite states for protection against a Western Europe that had twice invaded, and devastated, Russia in 25 years. Each relented from a showdown, making empty promises or pushing false hope for a unified front after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
At the crux of the burgeoning disagreements was the West’s future relationship with the Soviet Union. Churchill repeatedly tried to push Roosevelt to strike a hard line against the Communist state, while Roosevelt held out hopes that the newly formed United Nations would pacify the man he called “Uncle Joe.” “I think that if I give [Stalin] everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return…he won’t try to annex anything,” Roosevelt naively stated about the Soviet dictator, “and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”
Stalin’s version of peace most assuredly did not include democracy. “A strong, free and independent Poland” was an acceptable public relations stance, as was Stalin’s promise for free elections, as long as the Soviet-sponsored Polish provisional government kept tightening their grip on power. Stalin was also happy to eventually declare war on the Japanese, negotiating in return Mongolian independence from China which would provide the Soviets an Asian puppet. Coupled with claims on territory taken from Tsarist Russia after the 1905 war with Japan, Stalin was expanding the Soviet Union’s territory and influence in the East with nary a formal peep from the Allies.
If Yalta provided the blueprint of the post-war world, Potsdam was intended to be first layer of cement. There would be a number of cracks in the foundation.
The players themselves had changed. The Big Three would start with a new addition – President Harry S. Truman, elevated to the post with the sudden death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that April. Truman was much more wary of Stalin than his predecessor, stating after meeting FDR’s “Uncle Joe” that “Stalin enabled me to see what the West had to face in the future. Force is the only thing the Russians understand.” As such, Truman and Churchill had much in common, and coupled with Truman’s immense respect for Churchill, it appeared that the West might be diplomatically united to try and blunt the Soviets at Potsdam.
The dynamic wouldn’t last. The Conference, begun on July 17th, 1945, did so in the shadow of the British parliamentary elections which had begun voting on July 5th. While a number of districts had yet to vote, and the outcome was assumed to be an overwhelming Conservative victory, Churchill had invited his opposition’s leader, Clement Atlee, to attend the Conference. Atlee’s foreign policy was cut much more from a Roosevelt-like cloth, believing that currying Stalin’s favor was the key to a lasting peace. It hardly seemed to matter. The Conservatives had been in control since 1931, albeit without an election since 1935.
On July 26th, the votes were finally counted. Clement Atlee’s Labor Party had crushed Churchill’s Conservatives, who lost 190 seats. A united front against Stalin now disappeared as Atlee was more focused on creating the modern British welfare state than opposing the Soviet Union’s designs on Eastern Europe.
Churchill’s insistence on Eastern European democracy, particularly that Poland’s exiled government be recognized in Warsaw, vanished with the change of government. A “Provisional Government of National Unity” would take it’s place – in essence, the Soviet-dominated proxy government. Those Poles formerly in the government or military who returned home found themselves politically exiled. Others, like Polish Home Army General Leopold Okulicki, who had organized a resistance army of anywhere from 200-400,000 individuals, the largest resistance movement in Europe, was arrested and quietly murdered in prison.
Poland wasn’t as much “betrayed” by the West as it was forgotten amid the negotiations at Potsdam.
Much of what was debated at Potsdam had been agreed upon – or so some of the participants thought – at Yalta.
The status of Germany after the war had seemingly been resolved five months earlier. The nation, and Berlin, would be divided into four Allied zones of occupation between the U.S., Britain, France and Soviet Union. Germany would have to pay reparations and be “de-Nazified” in addition to ceased the territory they had gained and having war criminals prosecuted. Millions of German POWs would be conscripted into forced laborers in the East where hundreds of thousands would be worked to death, and another 1.3 million would be classified as “missing” after they were suppose to be released.
Still, at Potsdam, Stalin wanted more. 10% of the industrial capacity of West Germany would be transferred to the Soviet Union. Millions of ethnic Germans living in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary would be deported to the West. The German standard of living was to forcible be kept under the European average – a systemic campaign to keep civilian Germany weak and deprived. And these were just the Soviet demands the Allies accepted.
The demands weren’t sizably different than the ones the United States had laid out in late 1944 as plan of the leaked Morgenthau Plan. The Plan called for the partition of Germany and the dismantling of Germany’s industrial capacity to make war. Major industrial regions of Germany like the Saar area, the Ruhr, and Upper Silesia would either be annexed or put under a permanent Allied occupation.
The Morgenthau Plan would fail with start of the Truman administration. Realizing that such a total breakdown of German industry would rob Germany of the ability to produce anything of value and thus anything worth trading for badly needed oil and food, Truman shelved the idea. The Allies were increasingly realizing that a weakened Germany only strengthened Soviet intentions on Western Europe.
While the seeds of the Cold War were being planted, there was still the pressing matter of actually ending the Second World War. Japan might have been under siege, but still possessed millions of men under arms and held a military empire, that while shrinking, still encompassed a large chunk of Asia and the Pacific.
For the Allies, the assumption was that Japan would have to be systemically invaded and occupied as had Nazi Germany. The forecast for such an operation, even with Soviet help, seemed terrifying with the projections of 400-800,000 American dead. And while the official Allied position was unconditional surrender, the leaders at Potsdam saw an opportunity to communicate to Japan what such a surrender would actually entail.
On July 26th, 1945, the Allies released the Potsdam Declaration – a statement that beyond the expected demands for Japan to surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction” – laid out the terms of an Allied occupation. The penalties on Japan would be harsh: their foreign territories would be lost, any war criminals would be prosecuted, and their home islands would be occupied. But there were intended carrots between the sticks – a return of democratic elections, freedoms of the press and speech, and eventual removal of Allied forces.
Left unaddressed by the Declaration was the status of the monarchy, and the fate of Emperor Hirohito. The Declaration’s phrase that “the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest must be eliminated for all time,” seemed to hold the door open to the Allies prosecuting a man viewed as a deity by Japanese propaganda. For most of Japan’s government and military, the possibility that the Emperor would be removed was non-negotiable.
In that light, it seemed obvious what Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki meant in response to the Potsdam Declaration when he merely said: “mokusatsu.” The term contained two Japanese characters – “silence” and “killing.” Or in the view of the Allied interpreters of the statement, the Japanese were not giving the Declaration any consideration. They were killing it with their silence.
But was that the message Suzuki and Japan intended to send? Mokusatsu can have two meanings – it can be dismissive or it can literally mean “we’ll wait in silence until we can speak with wisdom.” Suzuki, an old Admiral, had only recently taken the post of Premier and was trying to unify Japan’s military rivals to reach a conclusion to the war. In Suzuki’s mind, his mokusatsu was a Japanese equivalent of a “no comment” as he lacked the political post, or internal political capital among the various factions that made up the government, to accept or even appear to accept terms of surrender. For Suzuki, his mokusatsu had bought Japan time to ponder the Declaration.
To Allied ears, it was a wholesale rejection of Potsdam’s terms. And in fairness, the Allies’ proposal was a “yes or no” vote – there was no “we’ll wait and see” option provided. The planned Allied and Soviet invasions of the Japanese home islands would proceed. There was still hope that the Japanese might surrender short of such an Armageddon on their soil. For as Truman informed Stalin at Potsdam, a “powerful new weapon” was about to be unleashed on Japan.