Throughout the course of WWII, leaders of many Allied nations met many times to discuss strategy. Then, near the end of the war, two historic conferences shaped the post-war world.
The Politics of War
In the summer of 1940, newly-elected British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had serious problems. Japan had already seized economically valuable British colonies in the Pacific. Now, Churchill watched as the Nazi war machine overran most of Western Europe, and then set its sights on England.
Churchill desperately needed help.Within days of his own election, he began writing to Franklin D. Roosevelt, trying to convince the President that without America’s involvement, Britain might be forced to surrender.
In August 1941, the two met face-to-face. Although World War II had been raging for nearly two years, America was not yet in the fight. Still, on board a ship at anchor near the Canadian coast, the United States and Britain outlined the Atlantic Charter, an eight-point statement of Allied war aims, including the disarmament of the Axis powers and the commitment to a free world after the war.
The United States finally entered WWII in December 1941, following the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Within weeks, Churchill visited Washington D.C. to begin the first of many war-time conferences to discuss Allied strategy. Different nations gathered at different times and in different places – on at least 20 different occasions. They agreed to make Hitler their top priority, just how to take back Europe and which generals should be in charge. They agreed to accept only unconditional surrender, without any separate peace treaties with Axis powers. They promised China greater influence in Asia after the war.
They laid the framework for the United Nations.And then in February 1945, with the end of the European War in sight, the Big Three – that was Roosevelt, Churchill, and Josef Stalin (the leader of the Soviet Union) – met for the second and final time to determine the fate of the post-war world.
The Yalta Conference
Each man had his own agenda when they gathered in Russia for the Yalta Conference. In reality, Stalin held most of the cards; his Red Army now occupied much of Eastern Europe where it had driven out the Nazis, and it was preparing to invade Berlin itself. And what Stalin wanted most was to spread communism. Still, Roosevelt was determined to convince the Soviets to declare war on Japan, a promise Stalin was willing to make in exchange for a greater sphere of influence in Asia.Churchill (completely uninformed of this arrangement) was most concerned about the fate of Poland, half of which Stalin intended to keep.
But Poland’s sovereignty was the reason Britain had joined WWII in the first place. Churchill couldn’t realistically force the Soviets out of Poland without a new fight, but he insisted that Eastern European nations under new Soviet influence be guaranteed free elections. Stalin agreed.Perhaps most importantly, though, the Big Three divided up Germany and the city of Berlin into four temporary occupation zones: one for each of their nations and another one for France. Other nations or regions controlled by Axis powers were also slated for occupation, including Korea.None of them could know it at the time, but the plans they made that week would dramatically shape the world for the next half century.
However, Roosevelt wouldn’t live to see any of it come to fruition; he died two months later, just a few weeks before VE Day.
The Potsdam Conference
In July 1945, Germany was defeated, but the Allied leaders still had a Pacific war to win and a lot of cleaning up to do in Europe. They met one last time at the Potsdam Conference in Germany to finish the work. The most significant outcome of this conference may have been the Potsdam Declaration, issued jointly by America, Britain and China, threatening ‘prompt and utter destruction’ if Japan did not surrender unconditionally. As for Europe, the leaders argued over treaties and borders and the redrawing of Poland, but easily agreed that Germany would be demilitarized and discriminatory laws from the Nazi era would be repealed. While a new government was being constructed, Germany would be managed via the four zones determined at Yalta.
In many ways, a major issue at Potsdam was the tension among the leaders. One awkward situation was the addition of Clement Attlee to the British delegation. The results of the July 5 Prime Ministerial election weren’t yet tallied when the Potsdam Conference opened, leaving Churchill in charge. But half-way through the Conference, it was finally announced that Churchill had lost his bid for reelection; Attlee replaced him at the negotiating table.
The United States, of course, also had a new player – Harry Truman, who had acceded to the presidency after Roosevelt’s death.Stalin tried to take advantage of the change in leadership in a thinly-veiled power grab, making territorial and financial demands contrary to the Atlantic Charter. He defended his interests as self-defense against Germany. But President Truman didn’t trust Stalin as his predecessor had, and proved to be much less willing to negotiate such issues. Unfortunately, what Truman had hoped would be a major bargaining chip (the revelation that American scientists had just successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb) turned out to be anti-climactic; Stalin had actually known about the development of the bomb long before Truman had, thanks to his spies.
It was clear that without a common enemy, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States were no longer unified in purpose. The leaders of these and many other nations had been able to talk through their differences for five years, but Potsdam concluded the wartime diplomacy. A powerful alliance turned to post-war resentment, suspicion and mistrust.
The world’s next great conflict, the Cold War, was just around the corner.
Let’s review: Even before the United States entered WWII, Franklin Roosevelt met with the Winston Churchill to produce the Atlantic Charter, establishing war aims for the Allies. Roosevelt, Churchill and the leaders of many different Allied nations met at least 20 different times throughout the war to discuss priorities and strategy. Then, as the war drew to a close in 1945, the two most significant conferences took place. At the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt, Churchill and Josef Stalin met to plan the future of Europe.
Specifically, they divided Germany into four occupation zones and haggled over the Soviet Union’s acceptable sphere of influence, including the annexation of half of Poland. At the Potsdam Conference, they made plans to remake Germany, and issued an ultimatum to Japan. But it was clear from the tone of negotiations that, with the war behind them, the Allies had come to an end.
When you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Name the three major Allied meetings during WWII
- Identify the major players at each conference
- Recognize the main negotiating points at each of the conferences