Leaders in Crisis

Pres. Harry S. Truman - First Meeting with Soviet Marshal Joseph Stalin, 1945

On July 17, 1945, two months after Germany surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman came face to face with Marshal Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, one of the most brutal autocrats of all time.

The meeting between Truman and Stalin took place in a suburb of the devastated city of Berlin just before the opening of the Potsdam Conference. Truman, Stalin, and Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, leaders of the three largest Allied nations, were gathered there to discuss the political future of Europe and the conduct of the war still raging in the Pacific. Having assumed the Presidency just three months earlier, Truman had not met “Mr. Russia” and “Mr. Great Britain,” as he privately referred to his Allied partners, and was looking forward to the conference as an opportunity to establish a personal rapport with them.

Stalin came to call on the President at noon. Truman was unruffled and spoke plainly. After the meeting, which lasted two hours, Stalin stayed for lunch. Later that afternoon, Truman scribbled in his diary, satisfied that the Soviet leader was someone he could deal with.

President Harry S. Truman’s diary, July 17, 1945

The night before this meeting, President Truman learned that the United States had successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb in the desert sands of New Mexico near Alamogordo, which probably explains the diary’s cryptic reference to “dynamite.”

National Archives, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri


“Promptly a few minutes before twelve I looked up from the desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway. I got to my feet and advanced to meet him. He put out his hand and smiled. I did the same. . . . After the usual polite remarks we got down to business. I told Stalin that I am no diplomat but usually said yes or no to questions after hearing all the argument. It pleased him. I asked him if he had the agenda for the meeting. He said he had and that he had some more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite—but I have some dynamite too which I’m not exploding now. . . . I can deal with Stalin. He is honest—but smart as hell.”

—From President Truman's Diary


Soviet Marshal Joseph Stalin and President Truman (detail), July 17, 1945

National Archives, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer [111-SC-209221-S]


Hand-carved desk used by President Truman at the “Little White House” where he stayed during the Potsdam Conference, photograph by Lieutenant Newell, July 13, 1945

National Archives, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer [111-SC-209521-S]