Allied leaders meet around a large circular table

Episode 5 – Urgent Summons

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series

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About the Episode

In July 1945, Truman - only three months into his tenure as President of the United States - traveled to the Berlin suburb of Potsdam to meet with the other Allied leaders, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. While the least experienced in his role, Truman sought to maintain the position of strength gained by the US throughout the course of the war. In his first meeting with the other heads of state, both of whom guided their countries through the war to that point, Truman was unfamiliar, and his approaches unknown, to the other Allies. Within a few week’s time, however, Clement Attlee ousted Churchill from his office of Prime Minister, and Attlee joined Truman as an additional new head of state to negotiate terms at Potsdam.

This week’s episode, written and narrated by the Museum’s Dr. Kristen Burton, opens and closes with audio excerpts from Truman’s address to the nation following the Potsdam Conference. In this address, Truman details the devastation of Germany’s cities and towns, as well as the need for the German people to atone for their crimes. He follows these remarks by giving his thanks that the United States was not among the countries that bore the direct brunt of the fighting, leaving American cities spared from similar destruction.

While the Potsdam Conference occured to determine the specific ways the Allies would divide power in the post-war occupation of Germany, Truman’s primary concern remained centered on ending the war against Japan. This required the help of the other Allies, primarily Joseph Stalin, who Truman sought to convince to declare war and open a new front against Japan. The conference ultimately culminated in the Potsdam Declaration, which called for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Empire. Underlying the political jockeying that occurred at Potsdam was Truman’s knowledge of the successful Trinity Test that occurred days before the conference began. With the Potsdam Declaration, Truman and the Allies offered Japan its final opportunity to end the war. When the political and military leaders of Japan refused, Truman had his answer - the United States was going to drop an atomic bomb on Japan.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • The Potsdam Conference in July 1945
  • Clement Attlee’s defeat of Winston Churchill
  • Denazification and organizing the occupation of post-war Germany
  • The Trinity Test and Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs
  • The influence of the Battle of Okinawa on Truman’s decision
  • The Potsdam Declaration and Japan’s refusal to surrender

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Featured Historian

Ed Lengel, PhD

Edward G. Lengel is Senior Director of Programs for The National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. He received his PhD from the University of Virginia, where he was a full professor and directed the Washington Papers Project for many years. He then served as Chief Historian of the White House Historical Association, and wrote the new history of Colonial Williamsburg as a “Revolutionary in Residence.” Also a professional author, speaker and battlefield tour guide, Lengel has written 14 books on American history, including To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 and Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion. Lengel is a co-recipient of the National Humanities Medal and has won two writing awards from the Army Historical Foundation. He has made frequent television and radio appearances on The History Channel, Fox News, SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and the World War I Centennial Commission’s weekly podcast.

View More from Dr. Ed Lengel

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"To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.


Archival Audio - Harry S. Truman Radio Address to the Nation on the Potsdam Conference

My fellow Americans:

I have just returned from Berlin, the city from which the Germans intended to rule the world. It is a ghost city. The buildings are in ruins, its economy and its people are in ruins.

Our party also visited what is left of Frankfurt and Darmstadt. We flew over the remains of Kassel, Magdeburg, and other devastated cities. German women and children and old men were wandering over the highways, returning to bombed-out homes or leaving bombed out cities, searching for food and shelter.

War has indeed come home to Germany and to the German people. It has come home in all the frightfulness with which the German leaders started and waged it.

The German people are beginning to atone for the crimes of the gangsters whom they placed in power and whom they wholeheartedly approved and obediently followed.

We also saw some of the terrific destruction which the war had brought to the occupied countries of Western Europe and to England.

How glad I am to be home again! And how grateful to Almighty God that this land of ours has been spared!

Dr. Kristen Burton

By July 1945, fighting in Europe had come to a decisive end, and the signing of the Charter of the United Nations set the world on a new path toward cooperative international peace. However, the war was not yet done as fighting continued to rage in the Pacific. The Battle of Okinawa, which lasted from April to June in 1945, shocked Truman and the American public. The fighting on Okinawa led to staggering losses, with 12,000 American servicemen, 93,000 Japanese, and 140,000 indigenous Okinawans losing their lives over those three months. The brutality of the fighting became a frightening preview of what was to come should American forces invade Japan itself.

Less than a month after the fighting on Okinawa came to an end, and the Americans victorious, Truman traveled to Germany to prepare for a conference with the other Allied leaders in the suburb town of Potsdam, located outside of Berlin. There, they intended to discuss how best to win the war against Japan. Throughout the talks that followed, Truman thought carefully about the devastation that occurred on Okinawa, but he also received news about the successful test of a bomb of unprecedented power that could prove to be the very measure through which the Allies might achieve their final victory.

Archival Audio

“I Harry S. Truman do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Dr. Kristen Burton

You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and this is episode 5, “Urgent Summons.” I’m your host, Dr. Kristen Burton.

This week we return to Germany, where Truman and the other Allies met to figure out how to end the war once and for all.

Archival Audio - Newsreel of Truman’s Visit to Potsdam

(Upbeat orchestral music begins to play)

President Truman nears the end of his sea voyage on the USS Augusta commanded by Captain Foskett. Accompanying the President on the history-making trip to Potsdam is Secretary of State Byrnes. During the voyage up the English Channel, the British cruiser Birmingham and several destroyers provide an honor escort. Mr. Truman debarked at Antwerp, Belgium, and was flown to his momentous conference near Berlin where he met Prime Minister Churchill and Marshall Stalin.

(Lively brass music plays)

The President thanks officers of the Augusta for his pleasant trip, which was made in exceptionally fine weather. Never out of touch with the nation’s affairs, he watches the White House mail pouch taken aboard from a courier boat.

(Brass horns play in a lively manner)

Prior to landing, Mr. Truman confers with Secretary Byrnes and Admiral Leahy, who will be his two chief aides in a meeting which may well determine history for generations. However, the President takes time out to enjoy some of that good Navy chow with the seamen.

The man on whose shoulders rests the crushing responsibilities of the coming conference and the winning of a war against Japan, takes time to eat and chat with American sailors. He is the President of a democracy!

(Upbeat music concludes)

Dr. Kristen Burton

Just three months into his presidency, Truman arrived in Potsdam to meet with the other two, far more experienced, Allied leaders, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Truman, still settling into the role of President, held ambitious goals for the conference at Potsdam. First, he was to negotiate the delicate division of power between the Allied forces during the post-war occupation of Germany. Second, and perhaps most importantly he needed Stalin and Churchill’s support to end the war against Japan, all while maintaining the dominant position held by the United States in the final months of fighting.

Joining us once again is Dr. Ed Lengel, Senior Director of Programming at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.

Dr. Ed Lengel

Truman didn’t have any significant experience in foreign policy. He didn’t really have any significant executive experience either, or diplomatic experience. He was a self-made man from Missouri, a career politician. His only real engagement with the world in the past had been his service in the First World War as a captain of artillery in France in 1918.

So he was a man who had to really make do on the fly at Potsdam, dealing with, on the one hand, Joseph Stalin, who had been in power now for a good 15 to 20 years depending on how you estimate it, who was an absolute dictator in his own country, the Soviet Union, a man of unquestioned authority; and on the other hand, first Winston Churchill, who had been involved in politics and diplomacy for the better part of two generations.

Truman learned pretty quickly that he was going to have to rely, on the one hand, on the force of his own personality and—and bluster—and he certainly had plenty of that—but on the other hand, on his expert advisors.

And the most remarkable thing was the confidence that Truman showed from the very beginning, confidence that wasn’t necessarily backed up by—by experience, but it certainly was backed up by raw ability.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In spite of his limited executive experience, Truman still sat at the head of the most powerful nation on the globe. He knew he had to keep the US as the leading superpower, but he also knew he needed the other Allies to win the war against Japan, and maintain peace in Europe. Roosevelt had developed a close friendship with Churchill, but Truman lacked this important bond going into the talks.

Above all, Truman knew he needed to make a strong impression with the Soviet premier as the threat of Communism continued to spread. Potsdam offered the two heads of state their first meeting. Truman noted in his diary on the first day of the conference, “I can deal with Stalin. He is honest - but smart as hell.”

Years later after leaving office, Truman recalled his first impressions of Stalin.

Archival Audio - Former President Truman Discusses the Potsdam Conference

I was the first one to arrive. Winston Churchill was the second one to arrive, he came the day after I arrived. Stalin was two days later. I heard afterwards that Stalin had a slight heart attack. I didn’t find out about it until he had arrived and told me what the trouble was. But, each one of us gave a state dinner in turn. I gave the first one, Winston Churchill gave the second one, and Stalin gave the third one. Stalin’s dinner - he kept drinking out of a bottle. Everybody else was drinking vodka, or trying to. It’s hard to get down, you know, if you’re not used to it.

At any rate, I turned around to him and said, “that must be a different brand you’re drinking,” he had a little glass about the size of a thimble. I reached over and took his bottle and poured it in my vodka glass after it was empty, and it was French wine, he wasn’t drinking vodka at all. And I said, “You’re putting one over on us, aren’t you?”

“Oh well,” he said, “my heart won’t stand this heavy drinking and I have to go slowly.” Well you know the Russians never put on a...a dinner, without a whole rash of toasts. At the Russian state dinner at Potsdam they had 14 toasts, and I learned early in the game not to take a drink every time they offered a toast but just make out like you’re taking one, because you would be unable to carry on the business of the meeting.

Dr. Kristen Burton

The conference experienced an added upheaval with the arrival of Clement Attlee, who unexpectedly defeated Churchill in Britain’s election for Prime Minister less than two weeks after the Potsdam Conference began. Attlee and the Labour Party ran a forward-looking campaign on a promise of rebuilding a battered Britain, and his victory proved shocking to all, including Attlee himself. Churchill’s defeat made Truman a bit nervous, as he did not know what to expect from this new leader, and one who had not seen the world through this war.

Dr. Ed Lengel

Truman didn’t think much of Attlee at first. In fact, he called him a sourpuss and said that he’s just—seems like a middle-aged barrister and not really very formidable at all, which is ironic that he missed Churchill, because in a lot of ways Truman and Churchill were ideological opposites who really didn’t have anything to do with each other politically. What they did have to do with each other was that they both had great personalities, very forceful, powerful personalities, as did Stalin, of course.

A lot of historians have looked at Truman and Attlee and they said, well, they didn’t—Truman didn’t really respect Attlee, they didn’t really work well together, and that was true in the short term, but over the longer term, Truman and Attlee did find a great deal in common.

Dr. Kristen Burton

After meeting at Yalta in February 1945, FDR, Churchill, and Stalin had agreed to meet again following Germany’s defeat to negotiate the nature of the post-war peace. Though the war in the Pacific raged on, the Allies still needed to resolve their original purpose for coming together -- to decide how to divide power in Europe between them..

A program of denazification came together during the Potsdam negotiations. This program called for the removal of all Nazi symbols, the disbandment of all Nazi organizations or related groups, and a revision of German school curriculum to re-educate the next generation of Germans, turning them away from an embrace of Nazi Party ideals. The talks further solidified the divide between east and west Germany, and an Iron Curtain was drawn.

Still, Truman’s primary focus was the ongoing fighting in the Pacific.The US had been engaging in a continuous, vicious firebombing campaign over Japan, targeting key cities through strategic attacks carried out by B-29 Superfortress bomber planes. The strategic islands of Saipan and Tinian offered the US nearby landing zones to prepare and launch round after round of these firebombing raids. In one attack on Tokyo, carried out in the evening and early morning hours of March 9-10, 1945, US bombers destroyed 16 square miles of the city, killing an estimated 100,000 civilians, and leaving a million others homeless. In spite of these brutal campaigns, Japan remained steadfast in continuing to fight, refusing to surrender regardless of the cost.

Truman understood that he needed additional support, particularly from the Soviet Union, which had never declared war on Japan. Requiring help from Stalin, Truman sought to win over his Soviet ally and convince Stalin to declare war on Japan and provide military support.

Dr. Ed Lengel

Truman, I think, recognized that Stalin was a formidable man. He did not—he did not view Stalin with the same type of ideological hatred that Churchill did. Churchill despised communism, absolutely despised it, and also saw Stalin as an evil man. But at the same time, Churchill had kind of a sly admiration for Stalin’s ability as a politician.

Truman didn’t—Truman was anti-communist, no doubt about it, but Truman was not so much of an ideological anti-communist crusader as Churchill was. I think that Truman, as he—as he got to know Stalin, he approached him with a certain degree of wariness. I think he viewed Stalin initially as being more or less a thug with political power.

But over time, he came to see Stalin as a very, very formidable adversary and somebody who would have to be handled very, very carefully indeed.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Stalin’s delay to the conference due to his heart issue gave Truman additional time to discuss the Trinity Test with Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, which had only occurred just hours before the conference began. Stimson noted that news of the test left Truman feeling "tremendously pepped up" and with great confidence that the bombs would offer the US a quick end to the fighting.

Dr. Ed Lengel

Truman was delighted with the Trinity test, its—and its success. He wrote about it in his diary as something that would change the whole world. He—he spoke of it almost in biblical, apocalyptic terms, but at the same time with a certain degree of glee, because he also felt that now the United States had—had power that was practically unchallengeable.

And I think it went a little bit to his head. I think he got somewhat giddy about it. General Leslie Groves and others who were involved with the Manhattan Project encouraged Truman in this.

Stalin, of course, knew about this. And Stalin had been aware of developing atomic weapons programs practically from the time that the United States entered the war at the end of 1941. Of course, it took quite a long time for the Manhattan Project to come to fruition.

But Stalin’s spies had infiltrated, first of all, the British atomic weapons program, the most notorious being Klaus Fuchs. And then when Fuchs went over with some other scientists to the United States in 1944 and then went over to Los Alamos and they’re sending information about, not just the development of the atomic bomb, but the conceptual development of thermonuclear weapons—what would become the hydrogen bomb—all of that information was being sent over to the Soviet Union and Stalin knew about it.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Truman had a decision to make: continue strategic firebombing campaigns that targeted key Japanese cities, put this new atomic weapon - which he called “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world” - to use, or order US servicemen to launch a ground invasion of Japan.

Truman and his military advisers already knew continued bombing campaigns would not break Hirohito’s resolve. After a full year of ongoing attacks, the bombing campaigns had led to the deaths of around 333,000 Japanese people. This, coupled with the shocking losses on Okinawa helped Truman make up his mind. The death count alone would not be enough to force Japan to surrender.

Truman also weighed the possible outcomes of an invasion of the home island, but Okinawa again weighed heavily on the President’s mind. The losses to US servicemen stood at roughly 35% of the fighting force, all to capture an island of miniscule size compared to the island of Japan. The estimated losses were staggering, and Truman stated that a ground invasion would resemble “Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other."

Dr. Ed Lengel

The prospects that had been created by fanatical Japanese resistance on multiple islands, multiple locations, but especially Iwo Jima and Okinawa, created the very real possibility that an American invasion of the Japanese main islands would result in possibly a million casualties, and that’s on the American side alone.

And if you consider, of course, the number of casualties that would be imposed on the Japanese, it would be many millions of Japanese who would certainly be killed. The—the Japanese islands, the country of Japan, would be absolutely laid to waste. Certainly the strategic bombing was already showing that—Japanese cities going up in flames.

So Truman had to look—he had to balance the—the need to save American lives with, hopefully, the possibility of achieving victory without leaving all of Asia in ashes. So he had competing interests. He had time considerations. He had lives at stake. It was something that the—the temptation to use an atomic bomb to cut the Gordian knot in some ways was almost irresistible.

Dr. Kristen Burton

The Potsdam Conference proved to be Japan’s final opportunity to end the war before Truman ordered use of the atomic bombs. Issued on July 26, 1945, the Potsdam Declaration laid out the conditions for Japan’s unconditional surrender, stating:

“The result of the futile and senseless German resistance to the might of the aroused free peoples of the world stands forth in awful clarity as an example to the people of Japan. The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole German people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.

“The time has come for Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers whose unintelligent calculations have brought the Empire of Japan to the threshold of annihilation, or whether she will follow the path of reason.”

After its broadcast, Japan’s leaders debated the Declaration’s conditions at length, even going so far as to suggest that they try bringing the Soviet’s to their side, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki responded to the Declaration, stating, “The government of Japan does not consider it having any crucial value… The only alternative for us is to be determined to continue our fight to the end.”

Japan’s formal refusal of the Potsdam Declaration finalized Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs in an effort to end the war in the Pacific.

Dr. Ed Lengel

He really did not see any other way. And all of his advisors—and that—that goes for the scientists as well—were telling him that this was really the only way to solve these problems and to give us a chance to start again.

Archival Audio - Harry S. Truman Radio Address to the Nation on the Potsdam Conference

The conference was concerned with many political and economic questions. But there was one strictly military matter uppermost in the minds of the American delegates. It was the winning of the war against Japan. On our program, that was the most important item.

The military arrangements made at Berlin were of course secret. One of those secrets was revealed yesterday, when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.

The Soviet Union, before she had been informed of our new weapon, agreed to enter the war in the Pacific. We gladly welcome into this struggle against the last of the Axis aggressors our gallant and victorious ally against the Nazis.

The Japs will soon learn some more of the other military secrets agreed upon at Berlin. They will learn them firsthand--and they will not like them.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In our next episode, “883 Killed,” we’ll hear from Seth Paridon of the Museum’s WWII Media and Education Center as we discuss the tragic story of the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by the Japanese while carrying parts for the atomic bomb “Little Boy” to Tinian Island.

From The National WWII Museum, this is “To the Best of My Ability.” This episode was written by me, Dr. Kristen Burton. Media production manager Jeremy Burson did the sound mixing. Archival audio is courtesy of the National Archives and the Screen Gems Collection at the Harry S. Truman Library.

If you like this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, which helps others to find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series of programs commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.