The 70th anniversary commemorations of the end of the Second World War haven’t been hitting the peace-making highlights with much enthusiasm. And no wonder: in retrospect, the periods of the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War are one and the same. The so-called “Good War” did not end well. The hybrid combination in the victorious Allies of democracies and totalitarians made for vastly different aims and long-lasting effects: the Soviet Army occupied much of Eastern Europe and half of Germany because they had pushed the Nazis back that far. This was a fact on the ground only another full-scale war could possibly change.
Seventy years ago this week, the Potsdam Conference was winding up. It was a meeting between Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin to decide what do with a defeated Germany in terms of territory, reparations, and administration of the occupied zones. But things changed rapidly during the course of that meeting in the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany, from July 17-August 2.
Truman had only been President for a few months following the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12. While in Potsdam, he was told that the U.S. atomic bomb was read for use. This knowledge was held back from the Russians and A-bombs were dropped on Japan on August 6th and 9th. Churchill would lose an election in the middle of the Conference, to be replaced by the Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, who had accompanied him in case of just such a contingency. Meanwhile, their British Empire was on its last legs, fatally undermined by the war. Only Stalin remained of the “Big Three.”
Robert Cecil explores “Potsdam and its Legends.” In terms of reputation it was no Yalta Conference, which had been held in February, 1945, and was seen as another Munich, or sell-out, by the right-wing in the U.S. But it did very much fail to unite Germany, a result that pleased the Soviets and the French (Charles de Gaulle had not been invited to Potsdam and did his best to let his pique be known about this).
Thomas G. Paterson has some other legends to question in his short introduction to the origins of the Cold War. Most historians now think the Soviet threat at the end of the war was exaggerated. The U.S., meanwhile, was expanding into the vacuum of the British Empire, projecting its might all over the world, and encircling the U.S.S.R. Stalin’s brute paranoia and the U.S.’s vision of a new imperium made for years of missteps, proxy wars, and nasty little struggles in the dark of espionage.
Both these articles makes for bracing reading, as all good history should.