Biographies & Memoirs


It would be the thesis of some historians that the atomic bomb figured importantly at Potsdam as Truman’s way of putting pressure on the Russians. But except for his private show of bolstered confidence after hearing Groves’s report, Truman neither said nor did anything of consequence to support this theory and the whole idea would be vigorously denied by those who were present and witness to events. Once, sometime before the test at Alamogordo, Truman reportedly remarked to some of his aides that if the bomb worked, he would “certainly have the hammer on those boys,” but whether by this he meant the Russians or the Japanese was unclear, and there was no intimation ever of a “hammer,” no flaunting of power, in his dealings with Stalin. “The idea of using the bomb as a form of pressure on the Russians never entered the discussions at Potsdam,” wrote Harriman. “That wasn’t the President’s mood at all. The mood was to treat Stalin as an ally—a difficult ally, admittedly—in the hope that he would behave like one.”

At the conference session preceding Truman’s disclosure to Stalin of the bomb secret, the Generalissimo had been as “difficult” as at any time thus far. Truman was firm in his positions, yet never belligerent or reproachful. He had no intention to make reflection upon Stalin or his government, he stressed. The sharp exchanges were between Churchill and Stalin—Churchill having at last recovered much of his old spirit.

The topic on the agenda was the admission to the United Nations of Italy and the Balkan states formerly allied with Germany, the so-called “satellite countries.” It was the American and British position that Italy should be admitted but that Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary (all now firmly in Russian control) should not, until democratic governments were established. Stalin observed that since no democratic elections had been held in Italy either, he failed to understand this benevolent attitude toward Italy. The difference, said Truman, was that everyone had free access to Italy, while for the Western Allies there was no free access to the Balkan countries. (It was a point that Byrnes, too, had been making in meetings of the foreign ministers.)

“We are asking for the reorganization of the satellite governments along democratic lines as agreed upon at Yalta,” Truman said.

Stalin’s calm rejoinder was very simple: “If a government is not fascist, a government is democratic,” he said.

Churchill pointed out that Italy was an open society with a free press, where diplomatic missions could go freely about their business. At Bucharest, by contrast, the British mission was penned up as if under arrest. An iron fence had descended, said Churchill darkly.

“All fairy tales!” exclaimed Stalin.

“Statesmen may call one another’s statements fairy tales if they wish,” answered Churchill.

As Bohlen was to write, no moment at the conference so revealed the gulf between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies.

Taking Churchill’s side, Truman said that difficulties encountered by the American missions in Romania and Bulgaria had also been cause for concern. (That night Churchill would go on at length to Lord Moran about his admiration for Truman’s plain, direct way with Stalin. “The President is not going to be content to feed out of anyone’s hand; he intends to get to the bottom of things,” Churchill would say, rubbing his eyes as if to remind himself he was not dreaming. “If only this had happened at Yalta.” But then after a pause, he added sadly, “It is too late now.”)

Truman tried to salvage the afternoon with progress in another direction. The previous day he had formally introduced his plan to internationalize the world’s inland waterways, rivers, and canals, including the Danube, the Rhine, the Dardanelles, the Kiel Canal, the Suez and Panama canals. All nations, including Russia, were to have access to all the seas of the world. “I do not want to fight another war in twenty years because of a quarrel on the Danube,” he had said. “We want a prosperous, self-supporting Europe. A bankrupt Europe is of no advantage to any country, or to the peace of the world.” Stalin had said he wanted time to consider. So now Truman brought it up again, hoping for the best. Clearly it was important to him.

Stalin cut him off, declaring, “The question is not ripe for discussion.”

On Wednesday, July 25, the conference was put on hold. Churchill was about to leave for London to face the final results of the general election. Anthony Eden and others of the British delegation were also to depart, as well as Churchill’s opponent in the election, the quiet, mousy Clement Attlee, who dressed in a three-piece suit, despite the summer heat, and who seemed as convinced as everyone else that Churchill was certain to win and would return in a matter of days.

Churchill, privately, was full of foreboding. He had had a dream in which he saw himself lying dead beneath a white sheet in an empty room. He knew who it was, he told Moran, because he recognized the protruding feet.

“What a pity,” Stalin said at the close of that morning’s session, when Churchill announced he had no more to say.

Outside afterward, by the front door of the palace, Churchill, Stalin, and Truman posed for a final portrait. Truman, looking very much the American politician, stood in the middle with crossed arms, shaking hands with both men at once, smiling first at one, then the other, as a battery of photographers and newsreel cameramen recorded the moment. Even Stalin broke into a grin.

The next day from London came the stunning news that the Labor Party had won, Churchill was defeated, Clement Attlee was the new prime minister. Hardly anyone could believe it, but the Russians seemed most upset of all. How could this possibly be, Molotov kept demanding. How could they not have known the outcome in advance? Stalin postponed the conference for another few days and was seen by no one.

First Roosevelt, now Churchill, Truman noted privately. The old order was passing. Uneasily he wondered what might happen if Stalin were suddenly to “cash in” and a power struggle convulsed the Soviet Union. “It isn’t customary for dictators to train leaders to follow them in power. I’ve seen no one at this Conference in the Russian lineup who can do the job.” His feelings about Churchill were mixed, as much as he liked him. It was too bad about Churchill, he wrote to his mother and sister, but then he added that “it may turn out to be all right for the world,” suggesting that this way, without Churchill around, he might make better progress with Stalin.

That same day, July 26, at the island of Tinian in the Pacific, the cruiser Indianapolis delivered the U-235 portion of an atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy.” That evening, Byrnes and Truman decided to release the Potsdam Declaration.

Phrased as a joint statement by Truman, Attlee, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, it assured the Japanese people humane treatment. They would not be “enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation.” Once freedom of speech and religion were established, once Japan’s warmaking power had been eliminated and a responsible, “peacefully inclined” government freely elected, occupation forces would be withdrawn.

The words “unconditional surrender” appeared only once, in the final paragraph, and then specified only the unconditional surrender of the armed forces, not the Japanese nation. The alternative was “prompt and utter destruction.”

The fate of Emperor Hirohito was left ambiguous. He was not mentioned. Nor was there any explanation of what form the “prompt and utter destruction” might take.

The declaration was picked up by Japanese radio monitors at six in the morning, July 27, Tokyo time, and Prime Minister Kautaro Suzuki and the Cabinet went into an all-day meeting. Meanwhile, over Tokyo and ten other Japanese cities, American planes were dropping millions of leaflets with a printed translation of the declaration.

Suzuki’s decision was to ignore the matter. The declaration, he said at a press conference, was nothing but a rehash of old proposals and as such, beneath contempt. He would “kill [it] with silence,” he said.

Clement Attlee and his new foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, arrived at Babelsberg the night of Saturday the 28th and Truman was impressed with neither—a couple of “sourpusses,” he decided. Bevin looked as though he weighed 250 pounds.

Mr. Attlee is not so keen as old fat Winston and Mr. Bevin looks rather rotund to be a Foreign Minister [Truman wrote to Margaret]. Seems Bevin is sort of the John L. Lewis type. Eden was a perfect striped pants boy. I wasn’t fond of Eden—he is a much overrated man; and he didn’t play fair with his boss. I did like old Churchill. He was as windy as Langer [Senator William Langer of North Dakota], but he knew his English language and after he’d talked half an hour there’d be at least one gem of a sentence and two thoughts maybe which could have been expressed in four minutes. But if we ever got him on record, which was seldom, he stayed put. Anyway he is a likeable person and these other two are sourpusses. Attlee is an Oxford graduate and talks with that deep throated swallowing enunciation same as Eden does. But I understand him reasonably well. Bevin is a tough guy. He doesn’t know of course that your dad has been dealing with that sort all his life, from building trades to coal mines. So he won’t be new.

“We shall see what we shall see,” he wrote to Bess.

Secretary of the Navy Forrestal, who had only just arrived, found Truman in an optimistic mood concerning the Russians, in contrast to others in the delegation. Harriman was “very gloomy.” Byrnes was “most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.”

All messages to the President from the War Department came in to Babelsberg a half block down the street from Number 2 Kaiserstrasse at the Army message center, where they were immediately decoded. From there they were taken to Number 2 Kaiserstrasse, to the officers on duty in the Map Room, who would give them to the President.

Late on Monday, July 30, another urgent top-secret cable to Truman was received and decoded, but held for delivery until morning in order not to disturb the President’s rest. It was from Harrison in Washington:

The time schedule on Groves’ project is progressing so rapidly that it is now essential that statement for release by you be available not later than Wednesday, 1 August….

The time had come for Truman to give the final go-ahead for the bomb. This was the moment, the decision only he could make.

The message was delivered at 7:48 A.M., Berlin time, Tuesday, July 31. Writing large and clear with a lead pencil on the back of the pink message, Truman gave his answer, which he handed to Lieutenant Elsey for transmission:

Suggestion approved. Release when ready but not sooner than August 2.

Elsey, a lanky, earnest, good-looking young officer, a Princeton graduate who had a master’s degree in history from Harvard, would not remember feeling that he was witness to one of history’s momentous turning points. “Everything seemed momentous in those days at Potsdam,” Elsey would recall. What impressed him was that Truman “didn’t want anything happening until he got away from Stalin, away from Potsdam.” All efforts now were to wind things up by August 2. Stimson was already back at the Pentagon. Marshall was to leave later that day.

The Potsdam Conference should have been a time of celebration. It should have been the most harmonious, most hopeful of the Big Three conferences, a watershed in history, marking the start of a new era of good feeling among the Allied powers now that the common foe, the detested Nazi, was destroyed. Such at least was the promise of Potsdam. But it wasn’t that way, nor in practicality had there ever been much chance it would be. At lunch the first day they met, Stalin had told Truman he wanted to cooperate with the United States in peace as in war, but in peace, he said, that would be more difficult. It was what they all knew, and the underlying tensions felt at the beginning remained to the end.

Truman had kept insisting on results, not talk, something in the bag at the end of every day, as Churchill observed—it was why he was there, Truman would say—and as impatient as he grew, he seems to have felt right to the end that he could succeed. “We have accomplished a very great deal in spite of all the talk…. So you see we have not wasted time,” he wrote to Bess just before Churchill departed. He wanted the future of Germany settled satisfactorily. Germany was the key, the overriding question. He wanted free elections in Poland, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. He wanted Russia to join in the assault on Japan as soon as possible. But only on this last item could he feel he had succeeded. For the rest he faced ambiguity, delays, and frustration, Stalin having no wish to accept any agreement that threatened the control he already had, wherever the Red Army stood. Try as he might, Truman could make little or no progress with Stalin.

Could Roosevelt have done better? It was a question Truman must have asked himself many times. Chip Bohlen thought Roosevelt would have been less successful, since, with his personal interest in earlier agreements with Stalin, Roosevelt would have acted more angrily than Truman when faced with Stalin’s intransigence. To Bohlen, Harriman, and others experienced in dealing with the Russians, Truman had acquitted himself well. “He was never defeated or made to look foolish or uninformed in debate,” Bohlen would write. And since neither Stalin nor Molotov ever tried any tricks or subtleties, but only held stubbornly to their own line, the President’s inexperience in diplomacy did not greatly matter after all. There was never any room for maneuver.

“Pray for me and keep your fingers crossed too,” he wrote to Bess as the final week began.

We are at an impasse on Poland and its western boundary and on reparations [he wrote in his diary]. Russia and Poland have agreed on the Oder and West Neisse to the Czechoslovakian border…without so much as a by your leave. I don’t like it.

But the Red Army had pushed to the Oder River and the western Neisse River and so those rivers were agreed to as Poland’s western frontier. Further, Poland was given the southern portion of East Prussia, including the port of Danzig, while the Soviet Union was granted the northern portion. As for free elections in Poland, it was agreed only that they should be held “as soon as possible,” which in reality meant the Polish issue remained unresolved.

The future of Germany’s former allies in the war—Italy, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, and Romania—was postponed, left to the Council of Foreign Ministers to resolve at some unspecified time in the future.

Germany, already portioned off into four zones of military occupation—American, British, Russian, and French—was in effect divided down the middle, between East and West. A complete demilitarization of the German state was agreed to. There was never an argument on that. Nazi war criminals were to be brought to justice. And there was no argument here either, not even over the place where the war crimes tribunal would sit—Nuremberg was the decision. And by a complicated formula for reparations the Soviet Union got the lion’s share—mainly in capital equipment—in view of the fact that the Soviet Union had suffered the greatest loss of life and property.

In some instances Stalin did not get what he wanted—Soviet trusteeship over Italy’s former colonies in Africa, a naval base on the Bosporus, four-power control over Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley. But it was the Western leaders who made the big concessions, because they had little choice—Russian occupation of Eastern Europe was indeed a fait accompli, as Leahy said—and because they hoped to achieve harmony with Stalin. It was never possible to get all you wanted in such situations, Truman would explain to the American people, trying to put a good face on the situation. “It is a question of give and take—of being willing to meet your neighbor halfway.”

To such experienced Soviet specialists as Harriman and George Kennan, it was foolishness in the extreme to imagine the Russians ever keeping faith with such words as “democratic” and “justice.” Or to see the arrangement agreed to for Germany as anything other than unreal and unworkable. Kennan, who was not present at Potsdam, would later despair over Truman’s naivete. Harriman, who was present throughout, found himself so shut out of serious discussions by Byrnes that he decided it was time for him to resign.

Truman’s waterways proposal got nowhere. On the next to final day of the conference, August 1, he made one last try, asking only that it at least be mentioned in the final communiqué. Attlee said this was agreeable with him, but again Stalin refused. Truman pointed out that the proposal had been discussed and that he was pressing only this one issue. “Marshal Stalin, I have accepted a number of compromises during this conference to confirm with your views,” he said, “and I make a personal request now that you yield on this point…”

Stalin broke in even before his interpreter had finished with the President’s statement.

“Nyet!” said Stalin. Then, with emphasis, and in English for the first time, he repeated, “No, I say no!”

It was an embarrassing, difficult moment. Truman turned red. “I cannot understand that man!” he was heard to say. He turned to Byrnes. “Jimmy, do you realize we have been here seventeen whole days? Why, in seventeen days you can decide anything!”

In a letter to his mother, Truman called the Russians the most pigheaded people he had ever encountered. He knew them now to be relentless bargainers—“forever pressing for every advantage for themselves,” as he later said—and in his diary he left no doubt that he understood the reality of the Stalin regime. It was “police government pure and simple,” he wrote. “A few top hands just take clubs, pistols and concentration camps and rule the people on the lower levels.” Later he would tell John Snyder of an unsettling exchange with Stalin about the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940. When Truman asked what had happened to the Polish officers, Stalin answered coldly, “They went away.”

Still—still—Truman liked him. “I like Stalin. He is straightforward,” he wrote to Bess near the windup of the conference. Stalin could be depended upon to keep his word, he would later tell his White House staff. “The President,” wrote Eben Ayers, “seemed to have been favorably impressed with him and to like him.” Stalin was a fine man who wanted to do the right thing, Truman would tell Henry Wallace. Furthermore, Truman was pretty sure Stalin liked him. To Jonathan Daniels, Truman would say he had been reminded of Tom Pendergast. “Stalin is as near like Tom Pendergast as any man I know.”

Not for a long time, not for a dozen years, would Truman concede that he had been naive at Potsdam—“an innocent idealist,” in his words—and refer to Stalin as the “unconscionable Russian Dictator.” Yet even then he added, “And I liked the little son-of-a-bitch.”

As Truman would later tell the American people, no secret agreements or commitments were made at Potsdam, other than “military arrangements.” However, one secret agreement concerning “military operations in Southeast Asia” was to have far-reaching consequences. He, Churchill, and their combined Chiefs of Staff decided that Vietnam, or Indochina, would, “for operational purposes,” be divided, with China in charge north of the 16th parallel and British forces in the southern half, leaving little chance for the unification or independence of Vietnam and ample opportunity for the return of the French. Truman so informed the American ambassador in China, Patrick J. Hurley, by secret cable the last day of the conference, August 1. At the time, given the other decisions he faced, both military and political, it did not seem overly important.

The thirteenth and concluding session at the Cecilienhof Palace that evening was devoted almost exclusively to the wording of the final communiqué and did not break up until past midnight. The struggle had come down to fine points. Molotov suggested an amendment in a paragraph that described Poland’s western frontier as running from the Baltic through the town of Swinemünde. He wished to substitute the words “west of” for “through,” Molotov said.

“How far west?” asked Byrnes.

“Immediately west,” suggested Bevin.

“Immediately west will satisfy us,” Stalin affirmed.

“That is all right,” said Truman.

“Agreed,” said Attlee.

Truman, in announcing that the business of the conference was ended, said in all sincerity that he hoped the next meeting would be in Washington.

“God willing,” exclaimed Stalin, invoking the deity for the first and only time. Then, in a conspicuously unusual tribute, Stalin commended Byrnes “who had worked harder perhaps than any of us…and worked very well.”

There was much hand shaking around the table and wishes for good health and safe journey. As it turned out, Truman and Stalin were never to meet again. Potsdam was their first and only big power conference.

In his private assessment, Stalin later told Nikita Khrushchev Truman was worthless.

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