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Truman At Potsdam
His newly discovered diary reveals how the President saw the conference that ushered in the Cold War
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
For the past year and a half, Robert H. Ferrell, a diplomatic historian at Indiana University, has been at work among President Harry S. Truman’s newly opened private papers at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. Early last year, working with Erwin J. Mueller, an extraordinarily able library archivist, he uncovered a hitherto unknown personal journal kept sporadically by the President during the 1945 Big Three Conference at Potsdam, Germany. Scribbled on miscellaneous scraps of paper—White House stationery, lined sheets from a tablet, note paper picked up aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, the cruiser that took Truman to Europe—it is reproduced here for the first time and in its entirety.
Although the journal had been among the President’s papers for more than thirty years, no other scholar had ever seen it. The reason should be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office: it had been misfiled. Upon his return to Washington from Potsdam, Truman lent it to his old friend and press secretary, Charles G. Ross. The President evidently forgot about it, and sometime before Ross’s death in 1950 it was given back to the President’s secretary. She, in turn, slammed a staple through the middle of the bundle of scraps, then put them, sheets askew, into a folder marked “Ross, Mr. and Mrs. Charles G.” There they sat until Erwin Mueller and Professor Ferrell finally found them.
The Potsdam Conference, which ran from July 17 to August 2,1945, was the last three-power meeting of World War II; it may also have been the most important. Here Allied harmony ended and the Cold War may safely be said to have begun. The first generation of postwar historians tended to blame Soviet aggressiveness for the failure of the wartime Allies to remain united in peacetime. Later, revisionists cited aggressiveness in our own actions, an aggressiveness which they believed basic to capitalism.
A central element in any satisfactory explanation, of course, is an understanding of the particular cast of mind of Harry Truman, the determined Missourian who had become President three months before the Conference began. The newly discovered Truman journal, Professor Ferrell believes, sheds important new light on that crucial question. In it, he writes, “there are several revelations.
“First, it is clear from the diary that Truman was more deeply concerned about the atomic bomb and its awful potential for destruction than many historians believed he was.
“Second, there is the obvious fact that Stalin greatly impressed Truman even after the conference was well under way. An unsent letter, written to Dean Acheson a dozen years after the conference [and also published below for the first time], shows that Truman knew he had been fooled.”
Finally, Ferrell explains, in recent years there has been considerable academic and political controversy as to what finally ended the war in the Far East. Some scholars have argued that it was the impact of Russia’s entry into the war that compelled Japan to surrender on August 14, and not the atomic bomb that cost perhaps 100,000 lives at Hiroshima alone. The decision to drop the bomb, according to this view, was therefore a tragic, callous redundancy. Soviet historians, of course, favor this view, in part because it suggests that Russia should have had a share in the occupation of Japan. At earlier Allied conferences, Stalin had vowed to declare war on Japan three months after the war’s end in Europe—and the Soviets did, in fact, come into the Asian war on August 8, three months to the day after V-E Day. But, as the diary shows, on July 17 Stalin told Truman that the Russians would not enter the war until the fifteenth. Stalin’s subsequent—and unexpected—change of heart suggests strongly that, rather than a literal fulfillment of the dictator’s earlier pledges, it was the Hiroshima bomb on August 6 and his own fear that the fighting would end before the Soviets could get into it that made Stalin speed up Russian entry.
We have included every word of the Truman diary. Professor Ferrell has provided explanatory material where necessary, but for the most part Harry Truman is allowed to speak clearly and forthrightly for himself.—The Editors
The journal begins on the evening of July 7,1945, aboard the Augusta as it steams toward Europe from Newport News.
Had two rather full and interesting days. Received a committee of Congressmen and Senators who are members of the Lions Club. They presented me with an honorary membership, all framed etc. and a scroll on principles of ethics. It was stated to them, by me, that business ethics would settle most trade difficulties and do away with courts of equity etc.
A couple of nice children gave me a plaque commemorating $715,000,000.00 in bonds sales by the school children. The nice boy made me a speech. At his age I’d have surely passed out, if I’d had to make a statement, similar to his, to the town mayor let alone the President of the U.S. He didn’t seem to be much bothered or impressed. These modern kids are something to write home about even if they can’t spell or find a word in the dictionary or tell what 3 x 3 equals.
On the 7th I saw Sens. [Burton K.] Wheeler, [Ernest W.] McFarland, [Albert W.] Hawkes, and [Homer] Capehart. They’d been overseas, had seen Germany, France, Italy—and knew all the answers. Smart men I’d say. Since Julius Caesar such men as Charlemagne, Richelieu, Charles V, Francis I, the great King Henry IV of France, Frederick Barbarossa, to name a few, and Woodrow Wilson and Frank Roosevelt have had remedies and still couldn’t solve the problem. Maybe these historical characters didn’t have the brains and background of the four “able senators.”