Potsdam and the Bomb - Truman told Stalin

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Tue Aug 8 12:58:51 MDT 2000



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Truman Tells Stalin, July 24, 1945

Most of the groups and individuals who had considered the subject --
from the Scientific Panel to
the writers of the Franck Report -- believed it necessary to inform the
USSR of the imminent
success of the Manhattan project. Failure to do so, they believed, would
guarantee a post-war
atmosphere of suspicion and hostility.

At the Potsdam Conference, however, President Truman chose to tell
Stalin only that the U.S.
possessed "a new weapon of unusual destructive force." Truman's decision
raises an obvious
question: Since Stalin would learn of the existence of the atomic bomb
the day it was used, if he
did not know already, what purpose could be served by Truman's tactic?

Truman's announcement to Stalin can be seen here from the accounts of
the different observers.
Each describes the same event, but the event appears in a different
light to each observer. Did the
"master politicians" Truman, Churchill, and Byrnes know what they were
doing? Or did they
make a tragic blunder?



President Truman's version:

On July 24 I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of
unusual destructive force. The
Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was he was glad
to hear it and hoped we would
make "good use of it against the Japanese."

    Harry S. Truman, Year of Decisions (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and
Company, 1955) p.
    416.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's version:

I was perhaps five yards away, and I watched with the closest attention
the momentous talk. I knew what
the President was going to do. What was vital to measure was its effect
on Stalin. I can see it all as if it
were yesterday. He seemed to be delighted. A new bomb! Of extraordinary
power! Probably decisive on
the whole Japanese war! What a bit of luck! This was my impression at
the moment, and I was sure that
he had no idea of the significance of what he was being told. Evidently
in his immense toils and stresses
the atomic bomb had played no part. If he had the slightest idea of the
revolution in world affairs which
was in progress his reactions would have been obvious. Nothing would
have been easier than for him to
say, "Thank you so much for telling me about your new bomb. I of course
have no technical knowledge.
May I send my expert in these nuclear sciences to see your expert
tomorrow morning?" But his face
remained gay and genial and the talk between these two potentates soon
came to an end. As we were
waiting for our cars I found myself near Truman. "How did it go?" I
asked. "He never asked a question,"
he replied. I was certain therefore that at that date Stalin had no
special knowledge of the vast process of
research upon which the United States and Britain had been engaged for
so long...

    Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin,
1953) pp 669-70.

Secretary of State James Byrnes' version I:

At the close of the meeting of the Big Three on the afternoon of July
24, the President walked around the
large circular table to talk to Stalin. After a brief conversation the
President rejoined me and we rode back
to the "Little White House" together. He said he had told Stalin that,
after long experimentation, we had
developed a new bomb far more destructive than any other known bomb, and
that we planned to use it
very soon unless Japan surrendered. Stalin's only reply was to say that
he was glad to hear of the bomb
and he hoped we would use it. I was surprised at Stalin's lack of
interest. I concluded that he had not
grasped the importance of the discovery. I thought that the following
day he would ask for more
information. He did not. Later I concluded that, because the Russians
kept secret their developments in
military weapons, they thought it improper to ask us about ours.

    James F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly (New York: Harper and Brothers,
1947) p. 263.

Secretary of State James Byrnes' version II:

I am just as convinced now as I was when I wrote that first book,
"Speaking Frankly," in 1947, that Stalin
did not appreciate the significance of the statement. I have read
stories by so-called historians who assert
that he must have known, but they were not present. I was. I watched
Stalin's face. He smiled and said
only a few words, and Mr. Truman shook hands with him, left, coming back
to where I was seated and
the two of us went to our automobile.

I recall telling the President at the time, as we were driving back to
our headquarters, that, after Stalin left
the room and got back to his own headquarters, it would dawn on him, and
the following day the
President would have a lot of questions to answer. President Truman
thought that most probable. He
devoted some time in talking to me that evening as to how far he could
go -- or should go.

Stalin never asked him a question about it. I am satisfied that Stalin
did not appreciate the significance of
President Truman's statement. I'm pretty certain that they knew we were
working on the bomb, but we
had kept secret how far that development had gone.

    James Byrnes, interview in U.S. News and World Report, August 15,
1960 pp 67-68.

Truman's Interpreter Charles Bohlen's version:

Three days after the successful test blast, after consulting his
advisers and Churchill (the British had
cooperated in the project), Truman decided it would be wise to tell
Stalin the news. Explaining that he
wanted to be as informal and casual as possible, Truman said during a
break in the proceedings that he
would stroll over to Stalin and nonchalantly inform him. He instructed
me not to accompany him, as I
ordinarily did, because he did not want to indicate that there was
anyting particularly momentous about
the development. So it was Pavlov, the Russian interpreter, who
translated Truman's words to Stalin. I
did not hear the conversation, although Truman and Byrnes both reported
that I was there.

In his memoirs, Truman wrote that he told Stalin that the United States
had "a new weapon of unusual
destructive force." Apparently, the President did not tell Stalin the
new weapon was an atomic bomb, and
the Soviet leader did not ask or show any special interest. He merely
nodded and said something. "All he
said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make good use of
it against the Japanese,"
Truman wrote. Across the room, I watched Stalin's face carefully as the
President broke the news. So
offhand was Stalin's response that there was some question in my mind
whether the President's message
had got through. I should have known better than to underrate the
dictator. Years later, Marshal Georgi
K. Zhukov, in his memoirs, disclosed that that night Stalin ordered a
telegram sent to those working on
the atomic bomb in Russia to hurry with the job.

    Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History 1929-1969 (New York: W. W.
Norton, 1973) pp.
    247-248.

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden's version:

Mr. Churchill and I had previously discussed together the problem of
telling Stalin and, if so, whether
before the explosion of the bomb or after. If we did tell him would he
ask for the know-how at once? A
refusal would be awkward, but inescapable.

There were embarrassments every way, but on balance I was in favour of
telling Stalin. My chief
argument was that the United States and Britain would have to refuse the
secret information. They would
be better placed to to this if Stalin had already been told that we
possessed this weapon and meant to use
it. There was not much to this, but the Prime Minister thought it the
better way.

On the question of when Stalin was to be told, it was agreed that
President Truman should do this after
the conclusion of one of our meetings. He did so on July 24th, so
briefly that Mr. Churchill and I, who
were covertly watching, had some doubts whether Stalin had taken it in.
His response was a nod of the
head and a brief "thank you." No comment.

    Anthony Eden, The Reckoning: The Memoirs of Anthony Eden, Earl of
Avon, (Boston:
    Houghton Mifflin, 1965) p. 635.

Soviet Marshal Georgii Zhukov's version:

I do not recall the exact date, but after the close of one of the formal
meetings Truman informed Stalin
that the United States now possessed a bomb of exceptional power,
without, however, naming it the
atomic bomb.

As was later written abroad, at that moment Churchill fixed his gaze on
Stalin's face, closely observing his
reaction. However, Stalin did not betray his feelings and pretended that
he saw nothing special in what
Truman had imparted to him. Both Churchill and many other Anglo-American
authors subsequently
assumed that Stalin had really failed to fathom the significance of what
he had heard.

In actual fact, on returning to his quarters after this meeting Stalin,
in my presence, told Molotov about his
conversation with Truman. The latter reacted amost immediately. "Let
them. We'll have to talk it over
with Kurchatov and get him to speed things up."

I realized that they were talking about research on the atomic bomb.

It was clear already then that the US Government intended to use the
atomic weapon for the purpose of
achieving its Imperialist goals from a position of strength in "the cold
war." This was amply corroborated
on August 6 and 8. Without any military need whatsoever, the Americans
dropped two atomic bombs on
the peaceful and densely-populated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki.

    Georgii Konstantinovich Zhukov, The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov (New
York: Delacorte
    Press, 1971) pp. 674-675.


Copyright notice: These excerpts are copyrighted material from the
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