The final conference of the Allied leaders continued in Potsdam Berlin. Events far away from the conference table were to have a far reaching effect on the post war world, and most of those around the table were to be very surprised by the way they turned out.
The most senior U.S. delegates had now received confirmation of the success of the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico. The whole question of how they might deal with Japan now took on an entirely different character. For the moment Truman had only told Churchill but not yet Stalin.
It was thought that the news would be a stunning revelation to Stalin, especially given the implications of such a weapon being held by western democracies. In fact Stalin was very much better informed, through his spies, of the state of nuclear research, than either Churchill or Truman could possibly imagine.
There was also a ripple of uncertainty was running through the British camp too. At home the British were conducting a General Election to choose a new government. Churchill had been assured by his Conservative Party officials that they were on course to another victory and that he would soon be formally re-instated as Prime Minister.
As a gesture to the electoral situation that they found themselves in, Churchill’s principal opponent in the election, the Leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee had been invited to the conference as part of the British delegation. At this time, within British party politics he was also known by the title “The Leader of the Opposition”.
Churchill recalls some of the atmosphere of the conference in his memoirs:
Frustration was the fate of this final Conference of “the Three”. I have not attempted to describe all the questions which were raised though not settled at our various meetings. I content myself with telling the tale, so far as I was then aware of it, of the atomic bomb and outlining the terrible issue of the German-Polish frontiers. These events dwell with us to-day.
It remains for me only to mention some of the social and personal contacts which relieved our sombre debates. Each of the three great delegations entertained the other two. First was the United States. When it came to my turn I proposed the toast of “The Leader of the Opposition”, adding “whoever he may be”. Mr. Attlee, and indeed the company, were much amused by this. The Soviets’ dinner was equally agreeable, and a very fine concert, at which leading Russian artistes performed, carried the proceedings so late that I slipped away.
It fell to me to give the final banquet on the night of the 23rd. I planned this on a larger scale, inviting the chief commanders as well as the delegates. I placed the President on my right and Stalin on my left. There were many speeches, and Stalin, without even ensuring that all the waiters and orderlies had left the room, proposed that our next meeting should be in Tokyo.
There was no doubt that the Russian declaration of war upon Japan would come at any moment, and already their large armies were massed upon the frontier ready to overrun the much weaker Japanese front line in Manchuria.
To lighten the proceedings we changed places from time to time, and the President sat opposite me. I had another very friendly talk with Stalin, who was in the best of tempers and seemed to have no inkling of the momentous information about the new bomb the President had given me. He spoke with enthusiasm about the Russian intervention against Japan, and seemed to expect a good many months of war, which Russia would wage on an ever—increasing scale, governed only by the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Then a very odd thing happened. My formidable guest got up from his seat with the bill-of-fare card in his hand and went round the table collecting the signatures of many of those who were present. I never thought to see him as an autograph-hunter! When he came back to me I wrote my name as he desired, and we both looked at each other and laughed. Stalin’s eyes twinkled with mirth and good—humour.
I have mentioned before how the toasts at these banquets were always drunk by the Soviet representatives out of tiny glasses, and Stalin had never varied from this practice. But now I thought I would take him on a step. So I filled a small-sized claret glass with brandy for him and another for myself. I looked at him significantly. We both drained our glasses at a stroke and gazed approvingly at one another.