Harry Truman and the Potsdam Conference
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.
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
- 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.
Read these documents
concerning the Potsdam Conference noting important details about Truman's
character and the rhetoric used.
of the document to each student to read. Ask students to answer the following
- What is the purpose
of this document?
- What is Manhattan?
- 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."?
- What does P.M.
- Stalin controlled
all media in the Soviet Union, so why did he profess a "gross misunderstanding
of Truman in Russia"?
- Why was Truman
writing from Berlin? Note the date of the letter.
- Who is Bess?
- Who are Byrnes,
Molotov, Atlee and Bevin?
- 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.
- What were the results
of the English elections in 1945? Why did they anger Stalin?
- 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.
- 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?
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
agreement to find your answer. Argue for or against it.
- 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?
Create a chart
that compares and contrasts Truman's diary entry to his letter. Note
similarities and differences in diction, style, and content.
- Create a chart
comparing the advantages and disadvantages of diaries and letters as
pieces of historical evidence.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
Consider some of these
questions with your class.
- Why did Truman
make so many demands at the Potsdam Conference? Was he justified in
- 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?
- 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?
- Could President
Truman have averted the Cold War? If yes, what should he or could he
have done to prevent it?
- 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?
Hamby, Alonzo. 1995.
Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford
1992. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Stimson, Henry L.
1947 "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb," Harper's, vol. 194
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.
Back to student
activities using primary sources
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.
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.
decision to drop the Atomic Bomb- Archival materials related to President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb.