April 08, 1957

Harry Truman Looks at the Potsdam Conference Twelve Years Later: An Astonishing Appraisal of What Went Wrong

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 Early in 1957, the former State Department official, turned historian, Herbert Feis, inquired through Dean Acheson if it would be possible to see Truman’s private papers pertaining to the Potsdam Conference – Feis was writing a book which eventually received the Pulitzer Prize in History. Acheson spoke with Truman, who mulled over the possibility of Feis’ using the papers and eventually decided against it. In the course of the mulling, the president composed a handwritten letter to Acheson about his experiences at Potsdam. He kept the letter around for a while, uncertain what to do with it, and almost a month later, on April 12, wrote of his uncertainty (“I wrote you a longhand letter after I had talked to you about the Potsdam papers but I haven’t made up my mind to send it.”) Then he put the letter away. 

-Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, Harry S. Truman and Robert H. Ferrell, page 348. 

This long handwritten letter bears a striking similarity to one Truman wrote to Acheson, but did not send, on March 15, 1957. That he used some of the same language suggests that Truman was quite sure that this was the version of events which with, historically speaking, he wished to go. The view, twelve years later, was strictly revisionist, with Truman doing all the revising. Writing of himself as a naive idealist, and his once great friend, Josef Stalin, as a “little son of a bitch," Truman tells Acheson (and perhaps, indirectly, Potsdam historian Herbert Feis) what happened at Potsdam:

Truman says he “hardly ever look[s] back for the purpose of contemplating ‘what might have been’” but Potsdam makes him wonder “what might have been” had Acheson been there, as Secretary of State, instead of James F.  Byrnes. Truman mocks the Secretary he inherited from F.D.R. as “the Congressman, Supreme Court Justice, Presidential Assistant, Secretary of State, Governor of Secession South Carolina, the Honorable James F. Byrnes!” and tells a joke how the “Honorable” in front of Byrnes’ name is meaningless. At Potsdam, Truman confesses, he “trusted the ‘Honorable’ Jimmy implicitly” – although “he was then conniving to run the presidency over my head just as old Seward tried on Lincoln.” Seward learned his lesson, Truman says. “‘Hon.’ Jimmy did not.” 

Most of the Americans at Potsdam, including himself, were “Russophilic”; only Ed Pauley and “the tough old Admiral, Bill Leahy” were anti-Russian. All Russia wanted was to “take over free Europe, China and Korea, kill as many Germans, Poles and Lithuanians as possible and break up the Western Alliance.” And “Britain only wanted to control the Eastern Mediterranean, keep India, oil in Persia, the Suez Canal and whatever else was floating loose, including control of the seas of the world!” And all Truman wanted, “as a naive, innocent idealist” was “free waterways, Rhine-Danube, Keil [sic] Canal, Suez, Black Sea Straits, Panama, all free, a restoration of Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Czechs, Rumania, the Balkans, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Indonesia Indo China, a Chinese Republic, a Philipine [sic] Republic and a free Japan… A free trade arrangement between all the countries in the world and full development of their resources for the benefit of the people in these various locations.” 

“What a show that was!” Truman exclaims. “In spite of the setup a great number of agreements were accomplished only to be broken when the Dictator of all the Russias, without a conscience returned to his home dunghill. And I liked the little son of a bitch - self made of course, no reflection on his mother. He was a good six inches shorter than I am and even the great Churchill was only three inches taller than that Russian. But I was the little man present in stature and intellect! At least that’s what our ‘free press’ said.”

“Wish you’d been there,” Truman concludes – adding “tell your friend I’ll help him all I can.”

Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pages, octavo, on his “From the Desk of Harry S. Truman” letterhead, no place, April 8, 1957. To Dean Acheson.
 

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Transcript

From the Desk of Harry S. Truman
 
April 8, 1957
 
Dear Dean:
 
On March 15 I wrote you one of my long hand spasms after I’d talked to you about Potsdam and the Doctor who is interested in that phase of our foreign policy. 
 
This morning your longhand letter came with the photostat of the piece from the Manchester Guardian. I immediately dictated a note to you telling you how I appreciated the enclosure and how much I regretted missing you in D.C. the day I was there.
 
Mrs. Truman’s youngest brother was taken to the hospital yesterday and I’m told, may not go back home. So - I can understand exactly why we did not have that meeting at the noon day lunch with Charlie Murphy, Dave Lloyd, Dave Stone and Don Dawson. Of course it was a disappointment - but we’ll try to alleviate that between us when the Boss and I come to the Capital on May 3rd.
 
On May 2nd I’m lecturing the Student Body of N.Y. University on the President’s duties & prerogatives, as was done at M.I.T. – Harvard Law School and Oklahoma A.& M. recently. What a lot of fun I had at those places. Been reading your book on the Congress. Between you and Woodrow Wilson I’m learning a lot – and hope to learn a lot more!
 
I hardly ever look back for the purpose of contemplating “what might have been.” Potsdam brings to mind “what might have been” had you been there instead of the Congressman, Senator, Supreme Court Justice, Presidential Assistant, Secretary of State, Governor of Secession South Carolina, the Honorable James F. Byrnes!
 
Makes me think of a Scott Lucas story about a trial in Illinois when Scott was on one side and an astute cross examiner was on the other. One of Scott’s witnesses was an old auctioneer, who, of course was addressed as Colonel. The astute cross examiner took him over and asked, “Mr. Jones just what does that Colonel in front of your name stand for?” The old Colonel said “My friend it is just like that Honorable in front of yours it don’t mean a damn thing.” Cross examination ended there.
 
Well at Potsdam I trusted the “Honorable” Jimmy implicitly. He was then conniving to run the Presidency over my head just as old Seward tried on Lincoln. Seward learned his lesson “Hon.” Jimmy did not.
 
I had Joe Davies at that time a Russophile as most of us were, Ed Pauley the only hard boiled, hard hitting anti Russian around except the tough old Admiral, Bill Leahy. Certain things were presented because Russia had no program but to take over free Europe, China and Korea, kill as many Germans, Poles and Lithuanians as possible and break up the Western Alliance. Britain only wanted to control the Eastern Mediterranean, keep India, oil in Persia, the Suez Canal and whatever else was floating loose, including control of the seas of the world!
 
There as a naive, innocent idealist (good definition for a diplomatic darnfool) at one corner of that Round Table who wanted free waterways, Rhine-Danube, Keil [sic] Canal, Suez, Black Sea Straits, Panama, all free, a restoration of Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Czeks [Czechs], Rumania, the Balkans, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Indonesia Indo China, a Chinese Republic, a Philipine [sic] Republic and a free Japan. That darnphool [sic] wanted a free trade arrangement between all the countries in the world and full development of their resources for the benefit of the people in these various locations.
 
Well what a show that was! In spite of the setup a great number of agreements were accomplished - only to be broken when the Dictator of all the Russias, without a conscience returned to his home dunghill. And I liked the little son of a bitch - self made of course, no reflection on his mother. He was a good six inches shorter than I am and even the great Churchill was only three inches taller than that Russian.
 
 
But I was the little man present in stature and intellect! At least that’s what our “free press” said.
 
Wish you’d been there. Tell your friend I’ll help him all I can. I’m looking forward to a grand visit with you May 3rd, 4th & 5th
 
My best to Alice. Wish I could have seen her picture exhibition.
 
Most sincerely
 

HARRY S. TRUMAN