Oral History Interview with
Career in the U.S. Dept. of State, 1923-62. Director, Office of European Affairs, U.S. Dept. of State, 1944-47; accompanied President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference, 1945; served as a political adviser at the Potsdam Conference, 1945, meeting of Foreign Ministers in Moscow (1945), Paris (1946), New York (1946), Moscow (1947), and at the Paris Peace Conference (1946); Ambassador to Sweden, 1947-50, Dep. Under Sec. of State, 1950-53; and later ambassadorial posts.
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened January, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Oral History Interview with
H. Freeman Matthews
MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, I wonder if you recall when you first met Harry Truman?
MATTHEWS: Yes, it was a few days before we sailed on the Augusta for Potsdam. We went over with Secretary [James F.] Byrnes and others and discussed what was likely to come up at Potsdam. Then, you know, we sailed on the Augusta soon after that, and had a delightful crossing.
What impressed me most was the great interest President Truman took in the books we had prepared as to how things might be handled at Potsdam and what might come up. I remember Yalta where President Roosevelt not only didn't read the books himself, but he never told Mr. Byrnes that they were on board. We met daily with
the President and Admiral [William D.] Leahy, who, as you know, was with him there. Mr. Byrnes, Chip Bohlen, Ben Cohen and I had earlier talks together before we would meet with the President.
MCKINZIE: I take it that most of those talks were concerned with Germany?
MATTHEWS: Yes, with Germany, and what we might expect at Potsdam.
MCKINZIE: Were you optimistic, yourself?
MATTHEWS: No, not really. I had been to Yalta and seen how that had not worked out. Even in the last days of President Roosevelt, he was pretty well disillusioned about Soviet attitudes. So we weren't expecting a great deal. But we hoped that some of the problems could be settled, particularly we hoped to make some progress on the date and the timing for setting up peace treaties. And, of course, what loomed large too, was the question of the administration of Germany and the four power arrangements which had been set up there.
MCKINZIE: Following from your comment, is a question about how you perceived Mr. Truman's attitudes to be different
from those of President Roosevelt. For example, in the matter of France I think President Roosevelt had rather different views than President Truman?
MATTHEWS: Oh, Roosevelt did. It was not until the end of the Yalta Conference that we finally got him to agree to give France a seat, so to speak.
MCKINZIE: But you never perceived that Mr. Truman had that same kind of reserve about French participation?
MATTHEWS: No indeed, I don't think he had that at all. I think that President Roosevelt had been influenced by his dislike of [Charles] de Gaulle and his activities in the earlier stages of the war; and I think Admiral Leahy didn't have any great admiration for de Gaulle either; and I think that had something to do with it.
Stalin also showed no interest in bringing France in at Yalta. The President was finally persuaded that it was the thing to do -- but we had to work on him, and luckily we had Harry Hopkins' very strong support. The President announced that he was in favor of the admission of France, and without any delay Stalin said, "All right, I agree."
I think probably he did this to please Roosevelt on something that didn't interest him too much and then he may also have been worried about the position of the French Communists. But that question never arose at Potsdam. There was the question of the Polish frontiers and reparations. Already the Russians at Yalta had demanded tremendous reparations. We had had a lot of discussions about that. They pursued it and it was probably the most sticky development at Potsdam, and one of the few in which progress was made. There was a final agreement on that.
MCKINZIE: May I ask something about your own views of negotiating with the Soviet Union? There are some career service officers who claim they have been "burned" -- they use that word. Ambassador [Elbridge] Durbrow, for example argues that very many people had had such experience with the Soviet Union that they didn't at all share the public optimism that existed about that time toward Soviet future actions. Did you share this skepticism?
MATTHEWS: I think at Yalta there was a lot of hope, neither [Charles E.] Bohlen nor I had too great expectations, but I think we all felt it was important to get agreements
and then if the Soviets didn't live up to them that would be a litmus test, so to speak, as to their future intentions.
As you remember, the atmosphere then was such that the world was euphoric about the meeting. You read in every newspaper and all of the news publications that Yalta was going to remake the world.
Well, if they weren't going to play ball, you needed some evidence of that. And that was forthcoming. Certainly it was in their failure to live up to the agreements they made at Yalta on setting up a Polish government which was to be democratic, one in which everybody had a right to vote, and so forth. They just did everything to prevent that in the intervening period before Potsdam.
MCKINZIE: Were you present when Mr. Truman went to see Joseph Stalin to inform him about the success of the atomic explosion?
MATTHEWS: No, I was not.
MCKINZIE: Was this discussed in the delegation at Potsdam, but after Mr. Truman had informed Mr. Stalin? Did the success of that test impress itself upon the U.S. delegation as being an important tool in dealing with the Soviets at that point?
MATTHEWS: No, I don't think so. I think they thought that it was important to tell the Russians about it, that it had taken place. As I recall it, I was not present. Stalin's reaction was, "I hope you use it against the Japanese?" But he didn't give any indication that he knew all about it from Fuchs or someone else -- it was part of the show. Since our military people had been very much interested in getting Russia into the war against Japan, our chiefs thought that was an important matter to talk about. But it didn't seem to impress Stalin.
Then we were on the Augusta coming home when the bomb was dropped and I remember President Truman telling people about that, the officers on the ship and the crew. They were very happy about it because :to them it meant that there would be less American lives lost in the war. They thought it was a great thing at the time -- without realizing what the future held. But I remember on the way over Admiral Leahy told me, "I don't think this thing is going to work, this bomb. But, "he said, "if it does, it's going to have terrible, terrible consequences for the future," which proved to be right.
MCKINZIE: Could I ask about Mr. Truman's negotiating skills at Potsdam? There is a minor historical argument about
whether or not he had all the reins in his hands the first few months that he was President, that he had not been consulted very much when he was Vice President and that he had no experience in this kind of summit international conference. Was it your own impression that he was competent in dealing in face-to-face meetings with the British and the Soviets?
MATTHEWS: Yes, I thought he handled himself very well and that's partly due to the fact that he was a man who believed in doing his homework. He read and tried to understand as much as he possibly could on our eight day crossing. He stuck fairly closely to it [the briefing books], and he turned occasionally to Secretary Byrnes for discussions. I thought he handled himself very well indeed. The only thing I couldn't understand was why he took Joe Davies along.
MCKINZIE: He never explained that?
MATTHEWS: No. There are ideas, but Joe Davies' only contribution, as I recall it, was to pass up this little note. Here was President Truman, Secretary Byrnes here, and Chip Bohlen, his interpreter and adviser...
MCKINZIE: On either side of the President.
MATTHEWS: And then Joe Davies beyond that. And at one stage, he passed up a little note: "I think Stalin's feelings are hurt, please be nice to him."
MCKINZIE: Could you talk to the point of Secretary Byrnes' style as Secretary of State? Truman, of course, had four Secretaries and of those Mr. Byrnes is perhaps most enigmatic in the sense that he did not seem to use his departmental staff as much as Secretary [George] Marshall and Secretary [Dean] Acheson did. But I gather that you were very close to Mr. Byrnes.
MATTHEWS: I was, and I felt that he handled it very well, but that criticism was there, and it was justifiable. He liked to deal with just a few people that he seemed to know, like, and understand; and he kept things very close to himself. I have always felt that his great mistake, which led to his eventual resignation, was in not informing President Truman immediately of the developments at the Moscow Conference that December.
MCKINZIE: Yes, t