Skip to main content

A Junior View From Potsdam

May 2024
1min read

We were pleased last year to publish for the first time (June/ July 1980) the private diary Harry S. Truman scribbled for his own information at Potsdam when, as the new President, he attended his first summit conference. His observations about the other world leaders were typically pungent.

While Truman was reacting to his counterparts, a young lieutenant, gleeful to have been assigned to duty at Potsdam, was reacting to Truman. This officer, James M. Vardaman, has sent us some letters he wrote home at the time. Lieutenant Vardaman had an unusual entree; he was the nephew of Truman’s naval aide, and he was introduced to an awesome roster of military and civilian brass. He confided to his mother that “I have to pinch myself every five minutes to see if I am not dreaming.” He noted that Stalin never seemed to change expression although “theoretically [he] smiles just as other humans do…” and he mentions Churchill “strolling out alone with his big cigar.”

But Truman was the person who completely captivated him. “He is the grandest and most natural man you ever saw,” Vardaman wrote his mother on August 2, 1945, as the conference was winding down. “The morning of the first there was nothing to do, and he got rather lonely, I think. So he wandered around from room to room just visiting and happy as a lamb about going home. He must have been in to see us four or five times. Once [we] were sitting around discussing women in general and our women in particular. All at once we heard, ‘Well, how’s the war going today?’ There he was standing in the doorway smiling from ear to ear. We jumped up and he came in asking us to sit down. As he passed me, he clasped my arm and, almost pulling me into the chair, said, ‘Sit down, sit down, sit down.’ I actually think he meant it but I wouldn’t have sat down for the world. I feel just as at home with him as I do with Dad, and so does everyone else and they are crazy about him. By this time you should have figured out … that I am pretty much of a Democrat.”

Now in civilian life, Mr. Vardaman is by profession a consulting forester and by avocation a bird watcher. In 1979 he set himself the staggering task, in birding terms, of sighting 700 varieties in a year—a goal that eluded him, but just barely; he sighted 699. CBS, Time , and even the Wall Street Journal all recorded his impressive near miss.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate