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Ghosts of Past Summits: Yalta and Potsdam

Ghosts of Past Summits: Yalta and Potsdam
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry S.Truman, and Soviet Premier and Supreme Commander Josef Stalin in Potsdam, Germany, on July 23, 1945, during their meetings at the Potsdam Conference. (AP)

By Thursday, 16 July 2020 11:04 AM Current | Bio | Archive

­­­­Seventy-five years ago, the Allied victory against the Axis was on the horizon. The crisis in international relations was only beginning. For almost 100 years, the world suffered under what international relations scholars clinically refer to as a "multi-polar" world system. Prior to that, there was a brief period of stability with the Pax Britannica from 1815 to 1871. Taking the long view of history, minus the brief period of British stability, the world had 1,500 years of great and small power conflict, starting with the fall of the Roman empire. This "system" of constant warfare, chaos, lawlessness and violence came to a crashing end in 1945 when the world experienced, arguably, for the only time in world history, a bipolar division between the USA and the USSR.

Two allied conferences occurred in the late winter and mid-summer of 1945. These conferences were designed to end the war and to sow the seeds for the future world system. The failure of the United States at Yalta pre-determined a problem at Potsdam and should remind us that when a liberal (Wilsonian) view of diplomacy is held, the interests of the United States are never met. This can best be translated by the idea that when the deal itself becomes more important than the mission, the United States always loses. We can see this conflict dynamic today over Iran created by the Obama administration and North Korea, created by the Clinton administration and the overall liberal failures regarding relations with Russia and China. Those forces that seek victory through a declaration of a deal versus those who see victory through American interests.

In February 1945, the sickly Roosevelt attended his last conference at the Crimean resort of Yalta. He believed he needed the Soviet Union to defeat the Japanese and therefore issued his call for free elections in Europe merely as a face-saving device; he received a promise from the Soviet Union that it would enter the U.N.

Roosevelt believed that a Soviet sphere of influence was a reality and opposing it was not worth the risk of the Soviet Union not entering the U.N. or the war against Japan. He saw few alternatives, as he did not believe the American public would accept more casualties over a war with the Soviets. Roosevelt's obsession with the Grand Alliance blinded him to the future catastrophe that awaited the United States during the Cold War and beyond. Roosevelt's obsession over the ideal of the deal, for him, the U.N., blinded him to the reality on the ground. His insistence on unconditional surrender had merit until opportunities in Germany in 1944 presented a different picture. Roosevelt's doctrine of fighting in Europe first, then Japan, made grand strategy sense, as did his use of the presidency to rebuild the U.S. military as much as he could before the war started. His role as a wartime leader is untarnished, but his view of grand strategy was mixed and murky.

Roosevelt's appeasement of the Soviets at Yalta led to the problems of Potsdam. He traded liberalism and realism like a horse broker, compromising over Poland to get Soviet promises over Japan and the United Nations, arguing to advisers that he could "work with Stalin."

The infamous Yalta Conference Declaration was made on February 11, 1945. Although it reiterated unconditional surrender and the need to punish the evil of the Nazis, it also guaranteed that liberated Europe would be treated under the terms of the Atlantic Charter. For all of FDR's railing against appeasement, Yalta seemed to appease the Soviets.

FDR was attempting to lay the foundations for the Grand Alliance to outlast the war and thought that accommodating the Soviets was worth this price. This strand of thought continued throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, with those advocating accommodation to get some perceived concession by sacrificing American values.

The new U.N., FDR's ultimate legacy of liberal internationalism, was supposed to be an "instrument of American leadership." Mirroring Wilson, FDR seemed to be willing to sacrifice genuine issues, such as Poland, on the altar of international organization participation. FDR saw the so-called four policemen dividing up law and order for the world with Great Britain in Western Europe, the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, the United States in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific and China in the rest of Asia. These spheres of influence would contain Germany and Japan and also solidify American internationalism. Wilson had conducted even worse diplomacy to get international support for the League of Nations, arguably sowing one of the major seeds causing the Second World War.

Harry Truman became president because of the death of FDR in April 1945. Truman immediately faced two immense national security decisions, one of which — the decision to use nuclear weapons — no leader and no human had ever faced before. The other was the Potsdam Conference from July 16 to August 2, 1945. The "Big Three" were Truman, Stalin and Churchill, who was replaced by Atlee. The only person to have attended all of these was Stalin. When Truman was vice president, he had been locked out of national security and foreign policy decisions by FDR, and he was only allowed to meet with FDR twice.

Potsdam was a strange conference in that it occurred after the German defeat but prior to the surrender of Japan, which many did not foresee until 1947. During the Potsdam Conference, Truman was informed about the successful test of the atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Truman informed Stalin that America had a superweapon, not realizing that Soviet intelligence had already provided Stalin with more information than Truman probably had. The result of the Potsdam Conference was the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945, calling for the unconditional surrender and occupation of Japan. It promised that if Japan did not surrender, "the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction."

The Potsdam Conference sowed the seeds of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union by dividing Germany and Austria into four occupation zones and doing the same for the city of Berlin. It pledged to treat Germany as a single nation and to de-Nazify the government and society. The failure of the Japanese to accept the conditions of the Potsdam Declaration led Truman to authorize the dropping of the only remaining two atomic bombs that the United States possessed — on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki on August 9. There were reasonable military and political reasons to use the bombs.

Truman's radio report on August 9, 1945, to the American people, after Potsdam illustrated the initial goals of the U.S. national security policy, his desire to work hand-in-hand with the U.N., his frustration over past conference agreements (especially over Poland) and his defense of using the atomic bomb:

"We must do all we can to spare her from the ravages of any future breach of the peace. That is why, though the United States wants no territory or profit or selfish advantage out of this war, we are going to maintain the military bases necessary for the complete protection of our interests and of world peace. Bases which our military experts deem to be essential for our protection and which are not now in our possession, we will acquire . . . The question of Poland was a most difficult one. Certain compromises about Poland had already been agreed upon at the Crimea conference. They obviously were binding upon us at Berlin . . . Our victory in Europe was more than a victory of arms. It was a victory of one way of life over another. It was a victory of an ideal founded on the rights of the common man, on the dignity of the human being, on the conception of the State as the servant — and not the master — of its people. A free people showed that it was able to defeat professional soldiers whose only moral arms were obedience and the worship of force."

He believed at Potsdam and afterward that the only thing the Russians understood was force.

Truman salvaged FDR's titanic mistakes at Yalta as best he could. In 1947 he declared what became known as the Truman Doctrine, which combined American realist interests with its democratic values righting the ship of state and creating the only successful template for American national security. Truman's legacy has guided successful foreign policy since that time, namely a foreign policy that confidently faces the future based on robust strength, clear national interests and democratic values.

Dr. Lamont Colucci has experience as a diplomat with the U.S. Dept. of State and is today a Full Professor of Politics and Government at Ripon College. He has published two books as the sole author entitled "Crusading Realism: The Bush Doctrine and American Core Values After 9/11," and a two-volume series entitled "The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future." He was contributing author of two books entitled "The Day That Changed Everything: Looking at the Impact of 9/11 at the End of the Decade" and "Homeland Security and Intelligence." He is also Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, Senior Advisor in National Security for Contingent Security, Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs, to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and member of the National Task Force on National and Homeland Security. Find out more at lamontcolucci.org. Read Dr. Lamont Colucci's Reports — More Here.

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The failure of the United States at Yalta pre-determined a problem at Potsdam and should remind us that when a liberal (Wilsonian) view of diplomacy is held, the interests of the United States are never met.
potsdam, yalta
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2020-04-16
Thursday, 16 July 2020 11:04 AM
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