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World War II: The Postwar World

Ending the Conflict


World War II: The Postwar World

Prime Minister Clement Attlee, President Harry S. Truman, and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, July/August 1945.

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center
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The Yalta Conference

As the war was winding down, the Big Three met again at the Black Sea resort of Yalta from February 4-11, 1945. Each arrived at the conference with their own agenda, with Roosevelt seeking Soviet aid against Japan, Churchill demanding free elections in Eastern Europe, and Stalin desiring to create a Soviet sphere of influence. Also to be discussed were plans for the occupation of Germany. Roosevelt was able to obtain Stalin's promise to enter the war with Japan within 90 days of Germany's defeat in exchange for Mongolian independence, the Kurile Islands, and part of Sakhalin Island.

On the issue of Poland, Stalin demanded that the Soviet Union receive territory from their neighbor in order to create a defensive buffer zone. This was reluctantly agreed to, with Poland being compensated by moving its western border into Germany and receiving part of East Prussia. In addition, Stalin promised free elections after the war, however this was not fulfilled. As the meeting concluded, a final plan for the occupation of Germany was agreed upon and Roosevelt obtained Stalin's word that the Soviet Union would participate in the new United Nations.

The Potsdam Conference

The final meeting of the Big Three took place at Potsdam, Germany between July 17 and August 2, 1945. Representing the United States was new President Harry S. Truman who had succeeded to the office following Roosevelt's death in April. Britain was initially represented by Churchill, however he was replaced by new Prime Minister Clement Attlee following Labor's victory in the 1945 general election. As before, Stalin represented the Soviet Union. The principal goals of the conference were to begin designing the postwar world, negotiating treaties, and dealing with other issues raised by the defeat of Germany.

The conference largely ratified many of the decisions agreed to at Yalta and stated that the goals of the occupation of Germany would be demilitarization, denazification, democratization, and decartelization. In regards to Poland, the conference confirmed the territorial changes and gave recognition to the Soviet-backed provisional government. These decisions were made public in the Potsdam Agreement, which stipulated that all other issues would be dealt with in the final peace treaty (this was not signed until 1990). On July 26, while the conference was ongoing, Truman, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-Shek issued the Potsdam Declaration which outlined the terms for Japan's surrender.

Occupation of the Axis Powers

With the end to the war, the Allied powers began occupations of both Japan and Germany. In the Far East, US troops took possession of Japan and were aided by British Commonwealth forces in the reconstruction and demilitarization of the country. In Southeast Asia, the colonial powers returned to their former possessions, while Korea was divided at the 38th Parallel, with the Soviets in the north and the US in the south. Commanding the occupation of Japan was General Douglas MacArthur. A gifted administrator, MacArthur oversaw the nation's transition to a constitutional monarchy and the rebuilding of the Japanese economy. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, MacArthur's attention was diverted to the new conflict and increasingly more power was returned to the Japanese government. The occupation ended following the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty (Treaty of Peace with Japan) on September 8, 1951, which officially concluded World War II in the Pacific.

In Europe, both Germany and Austria were divided into four occupation zones under American, British, French, and Soviet control. Also, the capital at Berlin was divided along similar lines. While the original occupation plan called for Germany to be ruled as a single unit through the Allied Control Council, this soon broke down as tensions rose between the Soviets and the Western Allies. As the occupation progressed the US, British, and French zones were merged into one uniformly governed area.

On June 24, 1948, the Soviets initiated the first action of the Cold War by shutting down all access to Western-occupied West Berlin. To combat the "Berlin Blockade," the Western Allies began the Berlin Airlift which transported desperately needed food and fuel to the beleaguered city. Flying for almost a year, Allied aircraft kept the city supplied until the Soviets relented in May 1949. That same month, the Western-controlled sectors were formed into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). This was countered by the Soviets that October, when they reconstituted their sector into the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). This coincided with their increasing control over governments in Eastern Europe. Angered by the Western Allies' lack of action to prevent the Soviets from taking control, these nations referred to their abandonment as the "Western Betrayal."

As the politics of postwar Europe were taking shape, efforts were made to re-build the continent's shattered economy. In an attempt to expedite economic regrowth and ensure the survival of democratic governments, the United States allocated $13 billion to the rebuilding of Western Europe. Beginning in 1947, and known as the European Recovery Program (Marshall Plan), the program ran until 1952. In both Germany and Japan efforts were made to locate and prosecute war criminals. In Germany, the accused were tried at Nuremburg while in Japan, the trials were held in Tokyo.

As tensions rose and the Cold War began, the issue of Germany remained unresolved. Though two nations had been created from pre-war Germany, Berlin technically remained occupied and no final settlement had been concluded. For the next forty-five years, Germany was on the front lines of the Cold War. It was only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the collapse of Soviet control in Eastern Europe that the final issues of the war could be resolved. In 1990, the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany was signed, reunifying Germany and officially ending World War II in Europe.

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