Dividing the Spoils

In a new book, historian Michael Beschloss re-creates the 1945 Potsdam Conference at which Harry Truman found his presidential voice and determined the shape of postwar Europe

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Stalin retorted that the coal was being mined by Polish labor. As for the Germans, “we have little sympathy for these scoundrels and war criminals,” he said.

Churchill noted that Stalin had earlier said that “past bitterness” should not “color our decisions.” Stalin reminded him that “the less industry we leave in Germany, the more markets there will be for your goods.”

Truman warned that he could not approve eastern Germany’s removal from “contributing to the economy of the whole of Germany.” He later wrote Bess: “Russia and Poland have gobbled up a big hunk of Germany and want Britain and us to agree. I have flatly refused.”

Churchill attributed the President’s new boldness to the bracing news from Alamogordo. “When he got to the meeting after having read this report, he was a changed man,” the Prime Minister said to Stimson. “He told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting.”

As the sole proprietor of the atomic bomb, President Truman had just become the most powerful man on earth. And possibly the most homesick. Even before the success at Alamogordo, he had longed to get back to America and his wife. Still smoldering over Stalin’s defense of his “Bolsheviki land grab,” Truman wanted his counterparts to approve a plan that would punish the Germans, quash their ability to start another global war and still feed and warm all Europeans. Now, with the atomic weapon in his arsenal, Truman asked James Byrnes to put on pressure to wind the Potsdam meeting up fast. Truman knew that the new Secretary of State felt he should be President instead of Truman, but the President believed that if Byrnes could be made to defer to his authority, he would be a tough diplomatic bargainer and a powerful Congressional champion for Truman’s postwar programs.

Born Catholic in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1882, Byrnes had become a Senator in 1930. An early Roosevelt supporter, he was one of the President’s Senate stalwarts and helped Roosevelt push through the Lend-Lease Act and other aid to Britain. Roosevelt repaid him with a seat on the Supreme Court, where Byrnes predictably felt chained and miserable. After Pearl Harbor, FDR took him off the court to be his chief war mobilizer. Given the sobriquet “assistant President” by the press, which annoyed Roosevelt, Byrnes had harnessed American business behind the war effort.

Suspecting that Roosevelt might not serve out a fourth term and eager to be his successor, Byrnes schemed in 1944 to become Vice President. Roosevelt admired Byrnes but was wary of his brains, wiliness and gumption. With customary duplicity, Roosevelt told Byrnes in July 1944 that he was “the most qualified man in the whole outfit,” adding: “You must not get out of the race [for Vice President]. If you stay in, you are sure to win.”

Told by others that Roosevelt was really for Truman or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Byrnes had forced a showdown with the President in a telephone call to Hyde Park. As Roosevelt spoke, Byrnes took shorthand notes to protect himself in case the President later distorted what he said. Roosevelt insisted he was not pushing for Truman or Douglas: “Jimmy, that is all wrong. . . . I told you I would have no preference. . . . Will you go on and run? After all, Jimmy, you’re close to me personally. . . . I hardly know Truman.”

After Truman’s nomination, Byrnes was furious at Roosevelt’s “hypocrisy” but still hoped that Roosevelt would appoint him to succeed Cordell Hull as Secretary of State. Nervous about Byrnes’ willfulness, Roosevelt opted instead for the docile Edward Reilly Stettinius.

To salve Byrnes’ wounded pride, Roosevelt took him to Yalta, but when Byrnes realized that he was being kept out of vital meetings, he complained, “I did not come along for the ride.” Roosevelt caved in. When Stalin spotted Byrnes at the conference table, he thought him “the most honestlooking horse thief ” he had ever met.


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