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James W. Riddleberger Oral History Interview, April 26, 1972

Oral History Interview with
James W. Riddleberger

Chief, Division of Central European Affairs, U.S. Dept. of State, 1944-47; counsellor of embassy, and chief, political section, American Military Government, Berlin, Germany, 1947-50; acting political adviser to commander-in-chief, U.S. Forces, Germany, 1949-50; political adviser to E.C.A., Paris, 1950-52; appointed a career minister, 1950; director, Bureau of German Affairs, U.S. Dept. of State, 1952-53; and subsequent to his service during the Truman Presidency served as an ambassador to various countries and as director of the Internationa1 Cooperation Administration.

Washington, D.C.
April 26, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Riddleberger Oral History Transcripts]

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.

As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for the online version of the Riddleberger transcript.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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, 1975
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
James W. Riddleberger

Washington, D.C.
April 26, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess

HESS: Mr. Ambassador, in our last discussion, you mentioned being at Potsdam. Let's go into that a little further. Tell me what you remember about your trip to Potsdam during the summer of 1945.

RIDDLEBERGER: First of all, I remember the preparation for it and the vast amount of material that had to be put together for the conference. It was particularly difficult, as Roosevelt had died in April of 1945, and Stettinius was still Secretary of State. However, several of the division chiefs, who had been told they would go to Potsdam conference had been commissioned to commence the briefing of Mr. Byrnes because it was anticipated that he would be appointed Secretary of State as soon as the San Francisco Conference on the UN was concluded. Therefore, a number of us had to go out to the hotel where he was living and brief him at night, because of course, it would have been rather awkward to have done it in his office in those days. The decision had been to keep Mr. Stettinius on until the conclusion of the United Nations Conference. This meant that we had to brief, not only a prospective Secretary of State, but also prepare as well as we could, the papers for the White House. They were completed in good order, and I think in good time.

The real complication was naturally that President Truman had only come into office a very short time before and it had not been Roosevelt's practice to keep the Vice President very well-informed about the developments on both the war front and the diplomatic front, so to speak. This made it all the more necessary that we prepare the documents and do the preparation in the form that would recite at least a sufficient background to be comprehensible. Therefore, I spent many hours with Mr. Byrnes in his hotel, the Shoreham, preparing him for the upcoming Potsdam meeting.

HESS: Did he absorb the material readily?

RIDDLEBERGER: I was just about to say he had a great capacity for absorption. He would ask many questions, and it was largely through him that the State Department views were transmitted to President Truman. The Secretary of State, Stettinius, of course, was not in town, he was in San Francisco, so therefore, the preparation was directed toward Mr. Byrnes with the idea that he would then transmit it to the President. There may have been a few meetings with the President before we went to Potsdam, but not very many, he didn't have time.

HESS: Did you attend any of the meetings held with President Truman before Potsdam? Who from the State Department met with President Truman besides Byrnes?

RIDDLEBERGER: Well, it was done mostly through Mr. Byrnes.

HESS: Mr. Byrnes himself.

RIDDLEBERGER: Yes. Now it may have been that several of the higher officials went, but I don't recall being in any myself, because this system had been set up through Byrnes and the President preferred to do it that way. Now he was meeting constantly with Mr. Byrnes on a large number of matters, domestic as well as foreign.

HESS: About how many of the higher officials went to Potsdam at the same time that you did?

RIDDLEBERGER: Oh, there was a vast array. In the meantime General Clay had been appointed Military Governor, not Commander in Chief, that came later, but Military Governor. Eisenhower was still the Commander in Chief of the U.S. forces.

HESS: How did you get over there?

RIDDLEBERGER: Well, I flew with Will Clayton, and there was a considerable delegation from the State Department.

HESS: The President went over on the Augusta I believe.

RIDDLEBERGER: In the meantime, Byrnes had become Secretary of State, he had taken his oath of office I think the night before he and the President got aboard the cruiser to go to some Atlantic port in Europe. This was also done, I think, for the purpose of giving some time to prepare the President and go over a lot of these papers that were on board--I mean that were sent with him on board.

HESS: Did you ever hear Secretary Byrnes give his impression about how readily President Truman was absorbing the material that he was passing on to him?

RIDDLEBERGER: No, I don't recall, but I think it was obvious in the Potsdam meeting that he also had absorbed a vast amount in a very short time. And Truman had in my opinion a very great advantage, he never pretended to know something he didn't and had no hesitation in asking, you see.

HESS: If he didn't know it he would say so and ask.

RIDDLEBERGER: He'd say so, and ask. That of course, from the point of those of us in the State Department was an admirable trait, because there couldn't be confusion you see about something. If he weren't sure about something, he'd just say, "I don't understand that, tell me more,'' and so forth. He was very forthright in things like that.

HESS: Did you attend the meetings in Potsdam?

RIDDLEBERGER: Oh, I was in every meeting, yes.

HESS: Fine.

RIDDLEBERGER: Except the very top...

HESS: Except the top level...

RIDDLEBERGER: ...the top three, yes.

HESS: When the Big Three would meet on matters.

RIDDLEBERGER: When they only had the Big Three, they had only...

HESS: Tell me about the meetings and how they were conducted, and your opinion of Mr. Truman's handling of the meetings. Of course, he had been asked to be the moderator, right?

RIDDLEBERGER: Because he was the only head of State there, he was in one sense the chairman too.

HESS: That's right.

RIDDLEBERGER: You see, Stalin was technically at that point, not a head of State and Churchill was not either, nor was Attlee when he replaced Churchill after the British election.

HESS: That's right.

RIDDLEBERGER: Therefore...

HESS: The Prime Minister is not the head of State.

RIDDLEBERGER: The Prime Minister is not the head of State, and Stalin was not--whatever his title was...Chairman of the...

HESS: Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

RIDDLEBERGER: Not the President. Now I should make one correction. I said I attended all of the meetings, I did not attend the military meetings. That was confined to the top military people.

HESS: All right, now, briefly, just how were the meetings conducted and how well did you think Mr. Truman handled them?

RIDDLEBERGER: The agenda had been worked out beforehand, and it was a round table, and the President more or less opened the proceedings, he did not necessarily make the first statement, he would turn either to Stalin or to Churchill and ask if they wanted to open it up, and after that they would all start. It was not in any sense an affair where the Chairman had to more or less recognize people. There were only three who would talk for the most part. Occasionally a foreign minister did. So, therefore, the duties of chairman were not onerous and the foreign ministers--or the deputies got together the night before and established the agenda for the next day. But in addition to that there had been a general agenda established before we left Washington as I recall.

HESS: Now at that meeting was the time that...

RIDDLEBERGER: This was a series of meetings.

HESS: That's right. I mean during those meetings was when the atomic bomb was tested back at Alamogordo...

RIDDLEBERGER: That's right.

HESS: ...and it worked and Mr. Truman told Mr. Stalin that there was a new weapon...

RIDDLEBERGER: That's right.

HESS: ...and perceived no great surprise on his part...

RIDDLEBERGER: That's right.

HESS: ...because he knew about it.

RIDDLEBERGER: But that was done at a military meeting, not at the other meeting.

HESS: Yes. I think this was done even informally, if I'm not mistaken.

RIDDLEBERGER: Informally, maybe it was.

HESS: If I'm not mistaken, I think this was just an informal discussion.

RIDDLEBERGER: With Stalin of course. The British knew all about it. Stalin was told at Potsdam and who was with him or Truman, I don't remember.

HESS: It's in his Memoirs, but I'm really not clear on that.

RIDDLEBERGER: It's in his Memoirs I know.

HESS: But what did you know about the bomb? Did you know anything about the bomb or our work on atomic energy?

RIDDLEBERGER: No, I didn't know anything about it in the sense of knowing anything about it technically. I knew something big was up, but I did not know the, let us say, the enormous possibilities of it. That secret was very well kept, but at least some of us knew in the State Department that there was something being prepared something of enormous scope and power:

HESS: Jumping ahead just a l