April 08, 1957

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

Autograph Letter Signed
8 pages
SMC 429
 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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