James Byrnes should be better known than he is. He was President Truman's closest foreign policy advisor during 1945. He became Sec. of State on July 3, 1945. But prior to that he almost became President of the United States.

By 1944 Byrnes had been nicknamed the "Assistant President". One of FDR's closest advisors on domestic issues, he was director of the Office of War Mobilization. Thru OWM, Byrnes had authority over the large amount of civilian work that was related to the war effort. The Washington Post wrote that his powers appeared to be "exceeded only by the president". (David Robertson, Sly and Able, pg. 320-327).

With the 1944 presidential election approaching, FDR sought to replace Henry Wallace as Vice-President. Byrnes was seen by many as the VP heir-apparent. He arrived at the Democratic presidential nomination convention convinced that he was FDR's choice for the job. (James Byrnes, All In One Lifetime, pg. 226). But it was Harry Truman who got the nod, to Byrnes' - and Truman's - chagrin. Less than nine months later FDR was dead, Truman was President, and Byrnes was temporarily retired.

When Truman inherited the presidency on April 12, 1945, he knew little about FDR's foreign policy. So he immediately called upon Byrnes to be his chief foreign policy advisor. Byrnes had helped Truman when the two were senators.

But the main reason Truman wanted Byrnes as his most important advisor was Byrnes' role at the Feb. 1945 Yalta Conference. Byrnes attended that summit of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin and took copious notes. FDR had brought him along so that after the conference Byrnes could sell Big 3 unity to the U.S. and smooth the way for the soon-to-come formation of the United Nations. Byrnes did his job well, painting an optimistic picture of East-West relations upon his return to the U.S. But Byrnes was not aware of everything that went on at Yalta and of how tenuous the good relations with the Soviets were.

With FDR's death in April 1945, Byrnes became the man most associated with Yalta in the U.S. He'd had little experience with foreign policy prior to the Yalta Conference; his foreign policy reputation rested upon Yalta. But Byrnes' Yalta fame soon became a liability for him. By the time of FDR's passing, increasing Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe and the Balkans raised questions about Yalta's success. As a foreign policy advisor to Truman, Byrnes not only had worsening relations with Russia to contend with, but his own Yalta-tainted image as well. How could Russia be made to conform to the optimistic image of Yalta while the U.S. was defeating Japan?

Truman made Byrnes his Sec. of State on July 3, 1945. With that appointment, Byrnes held, and still holds, the distinction of being the only person to have held positions in all three branches of the Federal government: the legislative (having been a member of both the House and the Senate), the judicial (he had been a Supreme Court justice), and now the executive. No longer just an unofficial advisor, handling foreign relations was now Byrnes' job.

Byrnes was also one of Truman's advisors on the atomic bomb. He was Truman's representative on the Interim Committee, a group formed to study post-war nuclear issues but which also briefly discussed how the a-bomb should be used on Japan.

Byrnes had his own ideas about the a-bomb. In addition to defeating Japan, he wanted to keep Russia from expanding their influence in Asia; he also wanted to restrain them in Europe. Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard met with Byrnes on May 28, 1945. Szilard later wrote of the meeting,

From July 17 to Aug. 2, Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill (who was replaced by Clement Attlee midway thru the conference) met in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. Their purpose was to discuss the end of the war and post-war issues. Sec. of State Byrnes was a key negotiator at the Potsdam Conference. With the defeat of Germany in May, the main element which had held the U.S., Britain, and Russia together was gone. And the imminent arrival of the post-war era presented a new set of problems. The result of this changing situation was an increasing number of disagreements between the Big 3. One of the disagreements was over reparations - how much Germany would pay the Allies for war damage. Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Joseph Davies wrote in his diary on July 28, 1945:

Davies continued in his diary that night,

Byrnes never openly threatened the Soviets with the atomic bomb. But his feelings about covert atomic diplomacy were noticed shortly after the war by Sec. of War Henry Stimson, Assistant Sec. of War John McCloy, and Manhattan Project scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer, all of whom were worried that even an implied nuclear threat could backfire into a nuclear arms race.

As the end of the Pacific War approached, Byrnes was walking a tightrope. On one hand, he wanted to end the war before Russia could enter it and gain more control in Asia. Walter Brown, who was Byrnes' assistant, wrote in his diary on July 24, 1945 that Byrnes told him he believed:

Later Byrnes told an interviewer:

But on the other hand, Byrnes did not want to publicly offer Japan their main peace condition: retention of their emperor, whom the Japanese believed to be a god. He was worried about the administration's public popularity if Truman allowed Japan to keep their emperor in return for Japan's surrender. So contrary to the recommendations of the top U.S. expert on Japan, Joseph Grew, and of Sec. of War Stimson, Byrnes helped convince President Truman to remove any assurances on keeping the emperor from the surrender demand that was issued to Japan from the Potsdam Conference.

When Japan agreed to surrender on Aug. 10, they asked to keep their emperor. Byrnes still did not want to accept this surrender condition; he wanted to hold out for unconditional surrender. Sec. of the Navy James Forrestal broke the log-jam by suggesting they should agree to the condition by way of a counter-offer with a wording more acceptable to the U.S. (Walter Millis, editor, The Forrestal Diaries, pg. 82-83). The final wording was vague enough to be acceptable to Allied proponents of unconditional surrender and also to the Japanese, who would not surrender unless they could keep their emperor.

On Aug. 14, Japan agreed to the counter-offer surrender proposal. The emperor remained, under the jurisdiction of the Allied Supreme Commander over Japan, General Douglas MacArthur.

- Doug Long

For further information:

James F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly

James F. Byrnes, All In One Lifetime

Gar Alperovitz, The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb

Robert Messer, The End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman, and the Origins of the Cold War

Walter J. Brown, James F. Byrnes of South Carolina: A Remembrance [Brown was Byrnes' assistant]

Patricia Dawson Ward, The Threat of Peace: James F. Byrnes and the Council of Foreign Ministers, 1945-1946 [Byrnes' post-WWII foreign diplomacy]

The James Byrnes web site

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