University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Personal Sources: President Truman and the Cold War

Erika Hoffmann, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on US President Harry Truman’s diary entries for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Erika demonstrates how these diary entries can be seen as the starting point for the Cold War paranoia that set in within the West in the post-Second World War era. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

Harry Truman’s presidency was marked by the start of the Cold War. This blog will focus on two diary entries of Harry Truman, three months into his United States presidency. The diary entries were written on the 17th and 18th July 1945, following his attendance at the Potsdam conference alongside Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill. Studying these diary entries not only gives us insight into Truman as an individual and as a leader but also gives us direct access into foreign relations and affairs at the time. We must question why Truman decided to write down his immediate thoughts regarding the Potsdam conference and discuss the limitations of these diary entries as a primary source. Despite some limitations, this blog will conclude that Truman’s diary entries offer an unprecedented perspective on the origins of the Cold War and relations between the leaders at the time.

Diary entry of Harry S. Truman, 17 July 1945.

As a personal source the diary entries of Truman are characterised by a sense of immediacy due to the fact they were composed whilst the post-Second World War conference was taking place. The Potsdam conference ran from the 17th July 1945 to the 2nd August 1945 and was held as a continuation of discussion from the previous conference in Yalta. In Biography and History Barbara Cain addresses the term ‘life writing’, which refers to as a variety of different styles of writing including diaries and letters. [1] She notes that ‘life writing [is] an umbrella term which could encompass all of these different forms of writing, connecting them to each other through their concerns with and revelations of individual lives.’ [2] This viewpoint can be considered true for the diary entries of Truman, as the reader is exposed to his individual impressions and experiences following his meeting with the British and Soviet leaders.

Conversely, this can be considered a limitation as we are reading events from Truman’s point of view which could be subject to prejudice and bias due to pre-existing opinion as a result of differing ideologies and methods of leadership. Truman’s diary would prove a more valuable source if used in conjunction with other forms of documentation from the Potsdam conference, for example official notes taken at the meeting or diary entries/letters written by Stalin or Churchill. Mark S. Byrnes states that ‘one should not overestimate the importance of Truman’s personal views,’ adding, ‘Long-standing American suspicions of the Soviet regime created the context in which American leaders saw Soviet postwar actions.’ [3] In line with this viewpoint, it is also important to consider why Truman articulated his personal views and wrote diary entries conveying his immediate thoughts on these occasions.  It would seem that Truman wrote diary entries in order to register his thought processes due to the overwhelming nature of the Potsdam conference, in meeting two important leaders so soon into his presidency.

The content of the diary entries reveals the nature of relations between the leaders at the time as Truman expresses a sense of optimism in handling Stalin as he writes, ‘I can deal with Stalin. He is honest but smart as hell.’ [4] According to Geoffrey Roberts ‘Stalin’s conversation with Truman was friendly enough although it did not match the bonhomie he had achieved with Roosevelt at Tehran and Yalta. But Truman was new to the job, was still feeing his way with Stalin and, unlike his predecessor, had not engaged in a long wartime correspondence with the Soviet leader prior to meeting him.’ [5] It is significant, then, that Truman uses the phrase, ‘we put on a real show’, because this suggests relations between himself and the Soviet leader were not as good as initially depicted. [6] This view is reiterated when Roberts states that Stalin claimed, ‘He wanted to cooperate with the US in peace as we had cooperated in war, but it would be harder.’ [7]

In terms of foreign affairs, Nicole L. Anslover describes Truman’s anxieties regarding Potsdam, observing that:

Perhaps the pressures of the job were finally getting to [Truman]; he had faced the early days with considerable aplomb, but the days and sometimes sleepless nights were certain to make him weary. Perhaps he was already trying to decide what impact the atomic bomb would make on the world, if indeed it was ready as soon as promised. Maybe it was his innate distrust of the Soviets that made him uneasy about meeting Stalin face to face. [8]

From this historian’s perspective we can infer that Truman wrote a diary as a form of coping mechanism from the pressure he was experiencing as the US President. Moreover, Anslover suggests that relations between the Soviet leader and Truman were not based on a foundation of trust, as Truman also suggests in his dairy.

Finally, Truman’s diary entries allow us to gain access into discussion and thought processes regarding key features in the origins of the Cold War. Truman references Japan, which in a wider context is linked to the atomic bomb ‘Manhattan’ that had been successfully tested in New Mexico on the 16th July 1945. [9] According to Marry A. Heiss and Michael J. Hogan, ‘In mid-July, the successful first test of America’s secretly developed atomic bomb undercut the Yalta rationale for wanting Moscow to join the war against Japan.’ [10] In conjunction with this, Craig Campbell and Sergey Radchenko state that on the 18th July Truman secured a promise from the Soviet leader to participate in the invasion of Japan. They note that ‘Truman’s pleasure in achieving this commitment revealed his immature view of relations with the Soviet Union: he wrote to his wife boastfully that he had gotten what he had come to Potsdam for on the first day, outfoxing a “smart as hell” Joseph Stalin.’ [11] Campbell and Radchenko address the fact that around the time of the Potsdam conference advances were made on the development of the atomic bomb and the situation regarding Japan, in which the Soviet Union were on-board with the US.

Upon analysis of Truman’s diary entries during the Potsdam conference we are provided with a deeper insight of Truman’s position as leader of the US at the time. However, our understanding of Truman and his position in the origins of the Cold War would benefit from a comparative analysis of diary entries before and after the Potsdam conference, as well as official sources documenting proceedings involving Truman and the other leaders. It could also be beneficial to research any documentation taken by Stalin, Churchill and Clement Atlee during the Potsdam Conference and use that in comparison with Truman’s. Overall, despite their limitations, as personal sources the diary entries of Harry Truman provide valuable insight into foreign affairs at the start of the Cold War.


[1] Barbara Caine, Biography and History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 66.

[2] Caine, Biography and History, 66.

[3] Mark S. Byrnes, The Truman Years, 1945-1953 (London: Routledge, 2000), 12.

[4] Harry Truman in a diary entry, 17 July 1945.

[5] Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 274.

[6] Harry Truman in a diary entry, 17 July 1945.

[7] Harry Truman in a diary entry, 18 July 1945.

[8] Nicole L. Anslover, Harry S. Truman: The Coming of the Cold War. (London: Routledge, 2013), 34.

[9] Harry Truman in a diary entry, 17 July 1945.

[10] Marry A. Heiss and Michael J. Hogan, Origins of the National Security State and the Legacy of Harry S. Truman. (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2014), 171.

[11] Craig Campbell and Sergey S. Radchenko, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (London: Yale University Press, 2008), 77.

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