On July 17, 1945, the final “Big Three” World War II conference between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union opened in Potsdam, Germany. There, Harry S. Truman, who had become president only three months earlier when Franklin D. Roosevelt died, met Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin for the first time.
Truman entered the conference knowing they had giant issues to resolve: the political future of Eastern Europe, the fate of recently defeated Germany, the still ongoing conflict with Japan. And then there was a question he alone must decide – whether to use the atomic bomb. At Potsdam, Truman received a secret telegram informing him that scientists had set off the world’s first nuclear explosion in the New Mexico desert. “Operated on this morning,” the telegram said. “Diagnosis not yet complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectation.”
When he became president, many political observers held low expectations for Truman, the unassuming son of a Missouri livestock dealer. He quickly proved he was willing to make hard choices and stick by them, a characteristic summed up by a small sign he kept on his desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here.”
The saying comes from the slang expression “pass the buck,” which means passing responsibility to someone else. “Pass the buck” is said to have come from the game of poker. In frontier days, a knife with a buckhorn handle (made from the antler of a male deer) was often placed on the table to designate the dealer. Players could pass the buck, as the marker was called, to the next player if they did not want to deal the cards.
“The President – whoever he is – has to decide,” Truman once said. “He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”