This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of two of the three allied tripartite heads of government conferences held during the second world war. What happened at these summits, and how was the UK Parliament kept updated on these key milestones 75 years ago?
The alliance between the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union had initially operated via correspondence and a series of bilateral conferences. As the war progressed, however, plans were made to bring the heads of government of these three allied powers together to discuss key issues arising from the conflict.
The Tehran conference, held in the Iranian capital between 28 November and 1 December 1943, saw UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin meet together for the first time in person to discuss military strategy and the post-war world order. Churchill had met with Roosevelt and Stalin separately on earlier occasions, but the summit marked the first personal encounter between the US and Soviet leaders. The three premiers discussed military issues such as the establishment of a second front in Europe and the timing of a Soviet entry into the war against Japan. Amongst other issues they also discussed the institutional design of a new organisation to maintain international peace and security after the war, the case for which had been agreed in principal at an earlier meeting of foreign ministers.
The Yalta conference, held on the Crimean coast between 4 and 11 February 1945, saw the three premiers meet in person for a second time. With victory for the allies in the war in Europe in sight, discussions focused on the reorganisation of the continent following the war’s conclusion. The allies reiterated their intention to pursue Germany’s unconditional surrender and to divide the country into zones of occupation afterwards. Other issues considered included denazification and the punishment of war criminals; German reparations; the shape of the future international organisation set to replace the League of Nations—what would become the United Nations; the voting procedures for such a body; and the war in Asia. With hindsight, many historians have regarded Yalta as one of the wartime meetings with the most controversial legacy due to the compromises reached—particularly those relating to eastern Europe.
The last of the three major war summits took place in Potsdam, to the southwest of Berlin, after Germany’s unconditional surrender. The longest of the three, the Potsdam conference was held between 17 July and 2 August 1945. It saw discussions between Stalin, who remained in power in the Soviet Union, and new US and UK leaders. The US was represented by President Harry Truman, who had come to office on Roosevelt’s death in April. The UK was represented by the successive UK prime ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, the change taking place midway through the conference after the 1945 general election. Discussions centred around questions arising from Germany’s defeat, while participants also considered the continuing war against Japan. In relation to Germany, provisional agreements were reached on a range of matters, including the redrawing of borders and the transfer of German populations. In relation to the ongoing war in Asia, the US and UK issued a separate declaration in late July, alongside China, demanding Japan’s immediate and unconditional surrender. (The Soviet Union would declare war on Japan in August). This warned that the alternative would be “prompt and utter destruction” for the country.
Foreign Secretary Antony Eden updated the House of Commons on decisions reached in Tehran shortly after his return to London. In an adjournment debate that took place over the course of 14 and 15 December 1943, he spoke of the “complete agreement” that had been reached as to the scope and timing of future military operations against Germany—adding that these would soon be “unrolled on the fields of battle”. Mr Eden also spoke about the foundations that had been built for a post-war international order to ensure peace and progress after hostilities had ended. Viscount Cranborne updated the House of Lords on developments at the Tehran conference the following day.
On his return from Crimea, Prime Minister Winston Churchill updated the House of Commons on the Yalta conference at the outset of a three-day debate that took place between 27 February and 1 March 1945. During a two-hour speech, he updated MPs on various matters covered in the talks, including the future of Poland. He concluded his remarks by speaking to the plans for a new international organisation to maintain peace and security after the war’s end:
I trust the House will feel that hope has been powerfully strengthened by our meeting in the Crimea. The ties that bind the three great powers together, and their mutual comprehension of each other, have grown. The United States has entered deeply and constructively into the life and salvation of Europe. We have all three set our hands to far-reaching engagements at once practical and solemn. United we have the unchallengeable power to lead the world to prosperity, freedom and happiness. The great powers must seek to serve and not to rule. Joined with other states, both large and small, we may found a world organisation which, armed with ample power, will guard the rights of all states, great or small, from aggression, or from the gathering of the means of aggression. I am sure that a fairer choice is open to mankind than they have known in recorded ages. The lights burn brighter and shine more broadly than before. Let us walk forward together.
In July 1945, the Times reported that the first state opening of Parliament following the general election of that year had been postponed: from 8 August to 15 August. This was in order to “give the prime minister [Clement Attlee] more time to complete the new government and to formulate their programme”, after his return from Potsdam. The delay allowed Mr Attlee to inform the House of Commons of the terms of Japan’s surrender before the King’s speech. He quoted the text of the Japanese Government’s announcement, which stated that Emperor Hirohito had “issued an imperial rescript regarding Japan’s acceptance of the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration”.
Image of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta conference from the Imperial War Museum.