Interview with George Elsey, 4/12/95
Q: The start of your career when you were in the map room ... how did President Roosevelt react in terms of decision making? Did he have lots of people around him? ... How did he function, especially around the period of Yalta?
A: FDR had a very different way of dealing with State Department than President Truman, with whom I worked very closely also. FDR really functioned as his own State Department. He had his cronies in the department. He paid relatively little attention to Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, in Hull's last year in office. Harry Hopkins, his personal adviser, who lived in the White House functioned more as a diplomatic adviser than any one of the State Department officers - to the great consternation of course of career foreign service officers who realised there were many, many things that President Roosevelt should know and should be taking into account that he was ignoring and overlooking.
Q: Did he take people into his confidence? For example the Yalta discussions and things like that, were people briefed by him as to what the situation was?
A: He briefed very little. Well, with respect to what Yalta had happened because he was already in such failing health when he returned from Yalta that he spent very few days in Washington. He went to Hyde Park and the weather was lousy, so he went south to Warm Springs, Georgia. He was in Washington, just a matter, almost of hours after his address to the Congress. So there was no opportunity for a detailed thoughtful review of what had happened at Yalta with either his military or his political advisers.
Q: President Truman, virtually everyone says he was unprepared for office, ... and yet very, very swiftly he was having to make a decision about whether or not to drop the bomb. ... Was Truman unprepared, and how did he begin to deal with these massive decision he had to make?
A: President Truman was unprepared for the Presidency in the sense of being fully briefed and up to the minute on all that was going on. But as a Senator for the past ten years as Chairman of one of the most important Congressional Committees of the war, the Truman War Investigating Committee, he was well aware of the major problems that a President had to face. He wasn't briefed on Yalta, he wasn't briefed on the Manhattan project which was the name for the atom bomb project, he didn't know the details of those things, but that doesn't mean he was unprepared to assume responsibilities of the Presidency.
Q: You went to Potsdam. What did you see, and what did you feel about this event?
A: Potsdam was exhilarating and exciting in a number of ways. First of all the fact that the Nazis had been defeated thoroughly, completely. Secondly, that Truman wanted to get, and did get, Stalin's affirmation that he would enter the war within three months after the defeat of Germany. That was a major aim of why President Truman wanted to go to Potsdam: he wanted to get first hand acquaintance with Churchill whom he had not met, but he wanted most of all to get that assurance that the Soviets would enter the war against Japan. When we left for Potsdam we did not know whether or not the Manhattan project was going to be a success. The first test of the bomb did not take place until July 16th after arrival in Potsdam. That of course changed a number of factors: it made it conceivable that the war in the Far East could be brought to a conclusion earlier than had been anticipated. So there were many optimistic aspects. At the same time there were some troubling undercurrents: the refusal of Stalin to deal forthrightly with respect to issues of Poland; the fact that President Truman wanted internationalisation of waterways, a number of things that would have led to a more open post-war economic and political circumstance, Stalin was: "Nyet, nyet, nyet." So we were balancing both the good and the bad and were trying to sort our way through: where are we going to be with the Soviets in the coming years?
Q: How did Stalin look to you? Was he an impressive man?
A: Stalin surprised me by his stature. He was much smaller than I had anticipated. For that matter so was Churchill, although I'd been seeing Churchill for several years. These world leaders had grown to rather mythical proportions in the public eye, so when you came face to face I was six feet two and Stalin was a head shorter, it was something of a surprise in that sense.
Q: Did he exude power? How did people react around him from what you saw?
A: The most impressive thing to me about Stalin was this enormous security guard that accompanied him wherever he went. True, President Truman had secret service agents, but none of the whole phalanx of guards that accompanied Stalin wherever he went. The conference was in Cecilienhof which had been the summer home of the former crown prince of Imperial Germany. That was in the Soviet zone, and access to that was absolutely impossible unless you had passes signed by the British, the Americans and, most of all, the Soviets. The Soviets would not allow anyone into the conference room unless you were going to be a participant. You couldn't even look into the conference room, you couldn't even see where the conference was going to take place, unless you were one of the major participants. Security was tighter than anything I had ever seen before, or since for that matter.
Q: Now it was at Potsdam that President Truman informed Stalin that he had a new weapon, and it was shortly afterwards that he gave you instructions for a cable which actually gave the okay for the despatch... Can you tell me something about then?
A: President Truman, after consulting with the British, and with his own military advisers, decided that he would tell Stalin that we had a powerful new weapon, without identifying it as a nuclear weapon. Stalin took the news very casually, said he hoped the weapon would be put to good use against the Japanese, and walked away. There is some question amongst the Americans as to whether Stalin had really understood what Truman was saying. As we now know, they knew all about the Manhattan project through espionage and their own agents. Of course we were unaware of that at the time. There was no problem in deciding whether or not to use the bomb. Anything that would bring the war to a quick and speedy conclusion was uppermost in President Truman's mind. He was appalled at the estimates of American casualties. He was appalled at the continuing casualties in Japan from the air raids that were going on, and so loss of life on both sides could be saved if the war could be brought to a quick end, and the bomb seemed one way to do it - the only way to do it.