“I am getting ready see Stalin and Churchill,” Harry Truman wrote in a to go letter to his mother in July 1945. “I have to take my tuxedo, tails, Negro preacher coat, high hat, low hat and hard hat….Wish I didn’t have to go.”
Truman had been president for less than three months following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sudden death from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He’d never met Joseph Stalin or Winston Churchill, and as he boarded the warship USS Augusta for the trans-Atlantic trip to the Potsdam Conference, he was nervous about negotiating with them. It was a crucial moment in world history. Two months earlier the Nazis had surrendered, ending the long war in Europe, but in the Pacific the Japanese were still fighting tenaciously. And in New Mexico, the United States was preparing to test the most destructive weapon devised by man.
For eight days at sea, Truman worked assiduously, preparing for the conference by studying briefing books and conferring with the foreign policy advisers he’d inherited from Roosevelt. After long days of hard work, he relaxed by playing poker—valuable training for high-stakes summitry.
The Augusta docked in Antwerp on July 15 and Truman flew to Berlin, staring out the plane window at cities that had been bombed to rubble. From the airport, he traveled 10 miles down a highway lined with Soviet soldiers, who stood every 20 feet, their rifles bristling with bayonets. Finally, he reached his temporary home near the suburb of Potsdam—a house that had been looted 10 weeks earlier by Red Army soldiers who beat the elderly owners and raped their daughters.
The next morning at 11:00, Truman received his first visitor— Winston Churchill. The British prime minister, 70, looked old and haggard. Ten days earlier, his people had voted him out of office, although he didn’t know it yet because the ballots of British soldiers had not been counted. But the old lion could still turn on his fabled charm, and he showered Truman with so much praise that the president, who wasn’t accustomed to flattery, grew suspicious.
“He is a most charming and a very clever person—meaning clever in the English not the Kentucky sense,” Truman wrote in his diary. “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. Well, I am sure we can get along if he doesn’t give me too much soft soap.”
Leaving the meeting, Churchill told his daughter Mary, who was serving as his chauffeur, that he liked Truman. “He says he is sure he can work with him,” Mary wrote in a letter to her mother. “I can see Papa is relieved and confident.”
After Churchill departed, Truman climbed into the back seat of a Lincoln convertible for a tour of Berlin. The once-glorious capital of the “thousand-year Reich” was a wilderness of charred ruins. For months, British and American planes had bombed Berlin, and in April the Red Army arrived with tanks and artillery to fight the last remnants of Hitler’s army house to house.
Truman’s motorcade crept down the boulevards of Berlin as the president stared out at block after block of blasted buildings—roofless hulks of soot-blackened rubble. In the hot summer sunshine, the ruins reeked of dead bodies and shattered sewer pipes. “I never saw such destruction,” Truman wrote in his memoirs. “A more depressing sight than that of the ruined buildings was the long, never-ending procession of old men, women and children wandering aimlessly along the autobahn and the country roads carrying, pushing or pulling what was left of their belongings.”
While Truman gazed upon the ruins of the once- great metropolis, American scientists carried out a test of a secret invention that they believed could destroy a city instantaneously. At 5:29 a.m. in New Mexico— 1:29 p.m. in Berlin—the Manhattan Project team triggered the first nuclear explosion in human history, causing a blast so bright that it startled a blind girl 120 miles away.
Six hours later, War Department officials reported the event in a coded telegram to Truman’s aides in Potsdam: “Operated on this morning. Diagnosis not yet complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations.”
The next day, a few minutes before noon, Truman looked up from his desk and saw Josef Stalin in the doorway. “I got to my feet and advanced to meet him,” Truman recalled. “He put out his hand and smiled. I did the same. We shook.”
The Soviet premier’s face was pale and pockmarked, the whites of his eyes tinged a sickly yellow. He wore a fawn-colored uniform with red epaulets. Truman wore a gray double-breasted business suit and jaunty two-tone shoes. The president marveled that the most powerful dictator on earth stood only about 5 feet 5 inches tall—“a little bit of a squirt.”
The two men sat down in overstuffed chairs, surrounded by aides and interpreters. “After the usual polite remarks we got down to business,” Truman wrote in his diary. “I told Stalin that I am no diplomat but usually said yes or no to questions after hearing all the arguments. It pleased him.”
When they talked about the war in Europe, Stalin said he believed Adolf Hitler was alive and hiding somewhere, maybe Spain or Argentina. Then Stalin announced that the Soviets would soon join the war against Japan, as he’d promised Roosevelt at Yalta, with the Red Army invading Manchuria by mid-August. That pleased Truman, who was eager for allies in the final push against Japan. Stalin was a tyrant who had murdered millions, but he could be charming when he chose, and he chose to charm Truman.
“As he did so often with foreigners,” wrote the veteran diplomat Charles Bohlen, who translated for Truman that day, “Stalin put on his act of modesty to convince Truman he was not the unmoving rock of his reputation but actually quite a reasonable fellow.”
The premier’s charm worked well—but not well enough to persuade Truman to tell the old Bolshevik about America’s new secret weapon. “I shall inform Stalin about it at an opportune time,” the president wrote in his diary.
An aide arrived and whispered in Truman’s ear, asking if he would be inviting Stalin and entourage to lunch. Truman asked what was on the menu. Liver and bacon, the aide replied. “If liver and bacon is good enough for us,” Truman said, “it’s good enough for them.”
Truman asked Stalin to dine. The dictator said he couldn’t stay.
“You could if you wanted to,” Truman replied, and Stalin agreed. They washed the liver and bacon down with California wine, which Stalin said was delicious.
“Just spent a couple of hours with Stalin,” Truman wrote in his diary after the dictator departed. “Most of the big points are settled. He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about. We had lunch, talked socially, put on a real sham, drinking toasts to everyone, then had pictures made in the back yard. I can deal with Stalin. He is honest—but smart as hell.”
The president was pleased. He’d met two legendary leaders and held his own with them. He now knew he had an ally—as well as a devastating weapon—for the fight against Japan. The formal proceedings of the conference were scheduled to begin at 5:00 that evening, so Harry Truman traipsed upstairs to take a nap.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.