Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Student Activity
Harry Truman and the Potsdam Conference

[potsdam picture]



Big ThreeIntroduction

On May 8, 1945, the Allies accepted German surrender terms at the conclusion of the European conflict of World War II. A new job to Harry Truman, the presidency had been one long struggle after another and he quickly nicknamed the White House the "Great White Jail." The focus of the United States was now on the Pacific as Americans were storming the beaches of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. By June, with these victories secure, the United States was in air striking distance of the Japanese mainland. It would only be a matter of time (August 15) before the Soviets planned to enter the war. Bombing raids coupled with a naval blockade had begun to decimate the Japanese population. Still, the Japanese resolve was hardened, even resolved to fight to the end. The war was nearing an end, but heavy costs of man and might would be incured to secure peace.

Truman in July 1945 had begun to look toward the postwar world. The United States was faced with the realization that the Soviet and communist ideal were gaining increased support across the globe. According to several senators that had recently toured postwar Europe in a meeting with President Truman, " . . . Their song was that France would go Communistic, so would Germany, Italy and the Scandinavians, and there was grave doubt about England staying sane." The Potsdam Conference, a meeting of the victorious leaders of the Allies in Europe, attempted to confront the delicate balance of power of the opposing governmental structures, democracy and communism. Held in an unbombed suburb of Berlin, it commenced July 17 lasting to August 2. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and President Truman began the conference for their respective countries. On the agenda was the partitioning of the postwar world and resolving the problems of the war in the Far East. This included hammering out the details regarding the division of Germany; the movement of populations from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Italy; the creation of a Council of Foreign Ministers to administer the agreed upon zones of occupation; and issuing a proclamation demanding unconditional surrender from the Japanese government. Truman, despite his relative inexperience in dealing with foreign diplomats, was holding a trump card that would give him confidence in making demands of the other leaders. . .the atomic bomb. The most powerful and destructive armament to date, the atomic bomb was solely in the hands of the United States government.

President Truman recalls many of the successes and problems of the Potsdam Conference and the postwar world in his diary entries and letters to his wife, Bess Wallace Truman. Harry Truman was very much a nineteenth century man of letters compiling more than thirteen hundred to Bess in his lifetime. Living on a farm in rural Grandview, Missouri, three miles away from his boyhood sweetheart, he began a life of writing. These documents offer great insight into the life, career, and character of Harry Truman. Detailing everything from his disdain for the White House to waiters wiping imaginary bread crumbs from a table setting, Truman divulges an insight into the man behind the presidency. Most of these letters are still preserved at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri.



limey king
slang for the British king

the booty taken in war, or the gains of corrupt officials

Short for the Manhattan project, it was the first successful operation to create a working atomic bomb by any government. Run by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer under direction of the United States military, the project took four years and two billion dollars to complete.
Fully attended or constituted as in an assembly or meeting, wrap-up session.

Primary Sources

Read these documents concerning the Potsdam Conference noting important details about Truman's character and the rhetoric used.

Document Survey-Diary

Distribute copies of the document to each student to read. Ask students to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this document?

  2. What is Manhattan?

  3. What did Truman mean by, "I'm not going to stay around this terrible place all summer just to listen to speeches. I'll go home to the Senate for that."?

  4. What does P.M. stand for?

  5. Stalin controlled all media in the Soviet Union, so why did he profess a "gross misunderstanding of Truman in Russia"?

Document Survey-Letter

  1. Why was Truman writing from Berlin? Note the date of the letter.

  2. Who is Bess?

  3. Who are Byrnes, Molotov, Atlee and Bevin?

  4. What did Truman mean by, "I have an ace in the hole and another one showing--so unless he has threes or two pair (and I know he has not) we are sitting all right."? Note the date of the diary entry.

  5. What were the results of the English elections in 1945? Why did they anger Stalin?

  6. What was the Polish situation in 1945 at the end of World War II? Why were Great Britain and the United States against a Bolshevik backed Poland? Be sure to analyze the situation in Poland in 1939 and the flight of the government-in-exile to Great Britain.

Follow-Up Questions

  1. What is Truman's view of Stalin in the journal entries? What is Truman's view of Stalin in the letter to Bess? How are they similar, different?

  2. Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, and Hungary were all seeking entrance into the United Nations at the end of World War II. The United States supported Italy as a U.N. member, while the Soviets supported the others. In a Potsdam plenary meeting, Stalin stated, "If a government is not fascist, a government is democratic." Why was this statement made? Examine the Yalta agreement to find your answer. Argue for or against it.

  3. Select a quotation from either the letter or the diary entry. What does it tell you about the United States at the time it was written? What does it say about President Truman's character? Have our values as Americans changed over time, giving new meaning to the events of the 1940's?

  4. Create a chart that compares and contrasts Truman's diary entry to his letter. Note similarities and differences in diction, style, and content.

  5. Create a chart comparing the advantages and disadvantages of diaries and letters as pieces of historical evidence.

  6. In either diary or letter form, reconstruct a Truman presidential event using your own unique perspective to engage your audience. If writing a letter, be sure to create candid portrayals of the event for Bess and Margaret. For help in choosing a topic, check the Truman chronology.

  7. Examine the Potsdam Declaration specifically looking at the Allied demands of the Japanese. Did the United States expect too much in demanding unconditional surrender? Write an essay that supports or refutes the declaration.

  8. Research the Potsdam Conference and the postwar power struggle in depth focusing on the issues that were important to the Big Three. Divide the class into three groups, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Debate the primary issues that face the three nations. Be sure to discuss Poland; German reparations and division; acceptance of Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria into the United Nations; how to end the war in the East; the movement of populations from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Italy; and the creation of a Council of Foreign Ministers to administer the agreed upon zones of occupation. Record your decisions in your own classroom Potsdam Declaration. Have the students each write an essay on how similar or different their declaration turned out.

Discussion Questions

Consider some of these questions with your class.

  1. Why did Truman make so many demands at the Potsdam Conference? Was he justified in doing so?

  2. In what ways did the Potsdam Conference promote a spirit of cooperation between Great Britain, Soviet Union and the United States? In what ways was this conference a precursor to the Cold War?

  3. What did President Truman tell Stalin about the atomic bomb before dropping it? Should he have told him more or less than he did? Why or why not?

  4. Could President Truman have averted the Cold War? If yes, what should he or could he have done to prevent it?

  5. Imagine you were Truman, Stalin, or Churchill (Atlee) following World War II what are your priorities and in what area of the world will you focus your resources?

Further Reading

Hamby, Alonzo. 1995. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCullough, David. 1992. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Stimson, Henry L. 1947 "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb," Harper's, vol. 194 (Feb.), 97-107.

Truman, Harry S. 1980. Off the Record: The Private Paper's of Harry S. Truman. New York: Harper & Row.

Truman, Harry S. 1983. Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess 1910-1959. New York: W.W. Norton and Sons.

Internet Resources

Back to student activities using primary sources

Truman Library -This is the web page for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. It includes a number of resources, activities, and links about Harry S. Truman.

Project Whistlestop - This web page (funded through a U.S. Department of Education Challenge Grant) currently hosts more than 10,000 documents, photographs, political cartoons and speeches related to President Truman. You will find sections on the atomic bomb, the Berlin Airlift, the campaign of 1948, desegregation of the armed services and many more.

The decision to drop the Atomic Bomb- Archival materials related to President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb.