Potsdam, Germany: 1945. Photograph. This original press photograph of U.S. President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill was captured on 16 July 1945 – the day before the beginning of the Potsdam Conference – Truman’s first conference as U.S. president and Churchill’s last as wartime British Prime Minister.
Truman and Churchill are descending stairs, engaged in conversation, Churchill speaking and Truman smiling, the two attired in contrasting dark and light suits, Churchill with both hat and an apparent cigar in his right hand. Condition of the image is good, bright but with some rippling of the paper. There is significant augmentation effected by a newspaper art department, including vertical crop lines transecting Truman’s right hand and part of Churchill’s left arm, as well as augmentation of the background and clothing to both isolate the figures and enhance contrast. There is inked notation in the left and upper white margins, as well as in the cropped right margin. The verso features a “JUL221945” date stamp, as well as a typed caption reading “Truman, (Pres.) Harry S. – Churchill”. Affixed to the verso is a vintage newspaper clipping showing the bottom of the image and the originally published caption, which reads: “SMILE OF PEACE? – President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill smile in the midst of conversation while departing from the President’s Potsdam residence. This picture was taken July 16, the day before the Big Three Conference began.”
Following Germany’s unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, the three allied leaders, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry Truman, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, agreed to meet regarding postwar Europe. The conference was held in Potsdam, in occupied Germany, from 17 July to 2 August 1945.
Truman was new to both his job and to the world stage, having replaced the titanic figure of Franklin D. Roosevelt only months earlier after FDR’s death on 12 April 1945. Perhaps the most trenchant encapsulation of Truman’s preparedness came from a letter he wrote to his mother and sister: “I have a briefcase filled up with information on past conferences and suggestions on what I’m to do and say.”
Before the conference’s end Truman told Stalin about the existence of the Atomic Bomb. Stalin, who had spies inside the Manhattan Project and was fully informed, feigned surprise. The conference concluded with issuance of the Potsdam Declaration, demanding that Japan surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction”. The conference - the last of the "Big Three" meetings during the Second World War - coincided with the UK General Election of 1945.
Winston Churchill’s wartime premiership did not survive the Potsdam conference. Churchill’s wartime government fell to Labour in the General Election on 26 July 1945, only ten days after this photo was taken. Churchill was replaced as Prime Minister by Clement Attlee, who represented Britain for the rest of the conference.
Churchill was relegated to Leader of the Opposition for more than six years until the October 1951 General Election, when Churchill’s Conservatives outpaced Labour, returning Churchill to 10 Downing Street for his second and final premiership. By then, the always uneasy and fraught relations with Stalin had devolved to the open contest of the Cold War. Stalin would die as Soviet Premier on 5 March 1953. Truman’s Presidency, bookended by Churchill’s two premierships, ended on 20 January 1953.
During the first half of the twentieth century, photojournalism grew as a practice and newspapers assembled expansive archives, with physical copies of all photographs published or deemed useful for potential future use, their versos typically marked with ink stamps and notes. Newspaper art departments sometimes took brush, paint, pencil, and marker to the photographs to edit them for publication. Today these photographs exist as repositories of historical memory, technological artifacts, and often striking pieces of vernacular art. Item #006148