President Harry S. Truman's Trip to the Potsdam Conference, July 6-August 2, 1945

U.S. National Archives

Less than three months after President Harry S. Truman took office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he traveled to Potsdam, Germany to meet with other Allied leaders.

The Road to the Potsdam Conference
Following Germany's surrender on May 7, 1945, the leaders of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States met to begin the process of crafting a peaceful settlement to the war in Europe as well as plan for victory in the Pacific. They agreed to meet in Potsdam, Germany, part of the Soviet occupation sector.

On July 6, as he began his journey to Potsdam, Truman penned this diary note, describing his days before he left and anticipating some of the challenges that lay ahead. "How I hate this trip!"

After sailing to Antwerp and flying into Berlin, Truman and his party arrived at their residence for the Conference. This home belonged to a publishing family, forcibly removed from their home by Soviet occupation forces.

At 11:00 in the morning on July 16, 1945, President Truman met Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain for the first time. In his diary entry about the visit, Truman noted: "He is a most charming and a very clever person--meaning clever in the English not the Kentucky sense."

He wrote: "He gave me a lot of hooey about how great my country is and how he loved Roosevelt and how he intended to love me etc. etc." Later in the day, after a driving tour of Berlin, he wrote: "Never did I see a more sorrowful sight, nor witness retribution to the nth degree."

The next day, President Truman met Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Initially, President Truman thought rather highly of Marshal Stalin.

In his diary entry of July 17, he wrote: "I can deal with Stalin. He is honest - but smart as hell." His later experiences with Stalin would cause Truman to rethink this position.

Start of the Potsdam Conference
The Potsdam Conference took place at Ceclienhof Palace, the former summer residence of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia. 

The first official meeting of the Potsdam Conference took place at 5:10 in the evening on July 17, 1945. Stalin made the first motion, to make President Truman chairman of the Conference.

Prime Minister Churchill, President Truman, and Generalissimo Stalin posed for pictures on a number of occasions at the Conference.

The next day, Truman wrote this letter to his wife, Bess, describing the conference room and the fact that Stalin and Churchill agreed he should chair it. He wrote, "It makes presiding over the Senate seem tame."

Actions of the Potsdam Conference
Over the course of about two weeks, the leaders of the "Big Three" Allied nations tried to agree on various issues regarding the end of World War II. 

The Conference issued the Potsdam Declaration on July 26. The Declaration set forth the Allied surrender terms for Japan and the alternative of "prompt and utter destruction" if they did not surrender. Truman edited this draft, which he sent to General Chiang Kai-shek through the United States Ambassador to China.

President Truman enjoyed meeting Churchill and Stalin, but both men proved difficult negotiators, especially over the issues of reparations and open waterways in Europe.

After the discovery and liberation of the concentration camps, the calls for a Jewish homeland in Palestine increased. The British controlled Palestine and strictly limited immigration into the region. In this memo to Churchill, Truman urges swift consideration of the problems so they can move toward resolution.

Meetings of the "Big Three" leaders - Stalin, Truman, and Churchill - occurred in the evenings. Meetings of the foreign ministers and chiefs of staff of each country took place during the day.

In this letter to his wife, President Truman writes that "we have been going at it hammer and tongs the last few days..." and goes on to describe some the accomplishments of the Conference and the challenges he has faced with Stalin.

In this chatty letter to his daughter, Margaret, President Truman wrote about one of the less serious aspects of the Conference - the official dinners each leader hosted.

As Chairman of the Conference, Truman tried to make sure things stayed moving. He did not like to be away, and in one of his diary entries, he wrote, "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."

German occupation of Europe during the war and Allied efforts to defeat Germany left a trail of devastation across Europe. In addition of food supplies, coal for home and industrial use remained scarce. Truman saw this need and wrote this memo to Stalin to try and work out a joint Allied plan to provide coal for both Germany and the rest of Europe.

The specter of the atomic bomb hung over the delegations at the Conference, particularly the United States. After the successful test in New Mexico, and the rapid developments in the Far East, Truman's Secretary of War sent him this memo regarding the release of the press release about the bomb. Truman's handwritten draft reply is on the back.

The End of the Potsdam Conference
While the Potsdam Conference achieved a number of successes, it also marked the closing of a chapter of Allied cooperation during World War II and the prologue to a new drama: the Cold War.

In this pessimistic diary entry, President Truman writes about the problems he has faced with the Soviets and Stalin over reparations and Poland. He calls it "a sick situation at best."

In this letter to his wife the next day, Truman writes a slightly more upbeat, but still realistic letter describing the final difficulties of the Conference. He also writes about his eagerness to get home and see her.

The Conference agreed to the creation of a Council of Foreign Ministers to continue discussion of other issues and negotiate a peace treaty with Germany; the removal of Allied troops from Iran; and Anglo-American diplomatic recognition of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, among other issues.

By the end of the Conference, Clement Attlee replaced Winston Churchill as Prime Minister and British representative at the Conference. The Conference officially adjourned at 12:30 in the morning on August 2, 1945.

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