Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey
Mr. Elsey held several White House positions throughout the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.
March 17, 1976
by Jerald L. Hill and William D. Stilley
See also: George M. Elsey Oral History, by Charles T. Morrissey of the Harry S. Truman Library.
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This interview was conducted by William D. Stilley and Jerald L. Hill as part of a intern and independent study project at William Jewell College in March 1976, under the direction of the Political Science Department of William Jewell College. The reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate
the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of William D. Stilley and Jerald L. Hill.
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey
March 17, 1976
by Jerald L. Hill and William D. Stilley
STILLEY: Mr. Elsey, what was your position in the White House prior to being promoted under President Truman?
ELSEY: I was on duty in the White House Map Room on April 12, 1945, when Vice President Truman succeeded to the Presidency on President Roosevelt's death. The Map Room was an intelligence and communications center staffed jointly by young Army and Navy officers. Our job was to keep the President
informed at any hour of the day, any day of the week, on progress of the war on all fronts. We had a constant flow of information coming in from the War and Navy Departments, dispatches of all kinds, and some information from State Department as well. In addition, we were the secretariat for the Presidential communications with Prime Minister [Winston] Churchill and Marshal [Joseph] Stalin, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and theatre commanders like [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, [Chester] Nimitz, and [Douglas] MacArthur, and so on. So I was there at the time of the Vice President's accession. I had met Mr. Truman only once during his Vice Presidential years, when he was at the White House to meet President Roosevelt and the President brought him by the Map Room.
As everyone knows, and as President Truman himself was the first to state, he was very il1informed about military and political affairs. He had not been briefed by President Roosevelt or by others of the Cabinet on some of the most major decisions that were coming up; he just didn't know a darn thing about. And he was
extremely conscious of the lack of background and so he was very, very eager to soak up as much information as he could as quickly as he could from the kinds of material we had in the Map Room.
The Chief of Staff to the President, to President Roosevelt--and he carried on under President Truman--was Admiral William D. Leahy. That's the equivalent of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff title today.
Admiral Leahy had me prepare in those early weeks of the Truman term, many memoranda on various issues that were up between the U.S. Government, and the Soviet Government, and the British Government and so on. Sometimes they were very short, just a page or two, sometimes they were a bit longer. From the very onset we knew that the President would be meeting that summer--the exact date and place were not certain--but would be meeting that summer with Churchill and with Stalin, so much of my work in April and May and
June was preparing background data for President Truman to use at the Potsdam or Berlin Conference. As a result, I came to see him more often and know him better than anyone as young and as junior in rank as I was at the time would have ordinarily have had the opportunity. I did go with President Truman to Potsdam, and there were only two of us. We had a portable Map Room, just another young officer, Captain Frank Graham, U.S. Army, and I. So, having our Map Room right in the President's--just a couple of doors away from his bedroom and study--again we would have had an extraordinary opportunity for young people to see the President in an informal fashion and for him to get to know us.
Soon after we were back from that conference, of course, V-J Day came and the war ended. Almost immediately I began to work with some of the new Truman staff members, whom he had brought to Washington; Commodore [James K., Jr.] Vardaman, the Naval Aide; the Assistant Naval Aide, Clark
Clifford--working with them as a staff assistant on all kinds of demobilization matters and transition matters from war to peace.
A couple of the issues that Mr. Truman, President Truman, was very much interested in at that point, were universal military training, and the whole question of postwar organization of the armed forces. Should there be a single military force? Should there be a single department, or should the Air Force come out from under the Army and be independent; and, if so, what would the relationship of it be to the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps. Things like this that were not only intrinsically important to the security of the country, but were pretty red-hot political issues, with Capitol Hill and Congress having some very strong views. I was thrown right into the job of analyzing, writing memoranda, comment, writing commentaries on proposals that came from Capitol Hill--draft legislation introduced. So, here again was an opportunity to work a
little more closely and see the President a little more than, again, somebody as junior as I was would have normally have had.
Clifford became Special Counsel to President Truman in July '46 and although I was still in uniform, I became his assistant and worked with him in that role. Clifford, as you probably know, quickly turned into President Truman's major speechwriter, and this brought him and me into contact with just almost literally every agency of Government, because the President's speeches concern all kinds of things; agriculture, foreign policy, military affairs, labor relations, budget, everything there is, all issues. So, in short order I found myself running all over town, talking with all kinds of people, on all kinds of subjects, and learning how very much I did not know about all kinds of things.
That's basically it. By '47, '48 this continued. I was by then a civilian continuing to be the Special Counsel's special assistant. As the
'48 campaign came along, by now, by '48, Truman had a pretty well organized White House staff. People like Charles Murphy, David Bell, David Lloyd, Richard Neustadt, others were in the family, not all of them were full-time working at the White House, but they were in Washington; Budget Bureau and elsewhere. A11 of us were hard at work on helping the President shape his programs, platform, issues that he intended to campaign on.
After the election in '48 1 took a several month’s leave of absence to return to active duty in the Navy on a special project that I had begun in the Map Room and had not been able to finish. When 1 returned to the White House in August of '49 the President named me as one of his Administrative Assistants and remained in that spot until December of 51.
By that time the foreign aid program was a very major effort of our Government. Averell Harriman was foreign aid administrator, and Harriman asked me to join him working full time
for him in his efforts to coordinate military assistance, economic assistance, and technical assistance, popularly known in those days as Point IV. So, I remained with Harriman the final. fourteen months of the Truman administration.
That's a capsule. Now you can take it from there and ask questions on any aspect o£ it. I have mentioned all of that quickly so that you'll see when my role changed, and the variety of
things that I dealt with changed through the years. So, when somebody says what did you do at the White House, I have to counter with, "Tell me what year you're interested in and I'11 tell you what I did that year," because it was an evolution, it changed through the period from '45 through '53.
STILLEY: Back when President Truman first became President, how soon after that did he learn about the atomic bomb? How involved were you in the Map Room with the learning of this and his decisions?
ELSEY: I can't tell you exactly how quickly he learned. It would certainly have been in a matter of days if not hours. That's the sort of thing the Secretary of War [Henry L.] Stimson; Secretary of the Navy [James] Forrestal, and Admiral Leahy would have briefed him on. I don't know exactly when it was, but it certainly was within the first two or three days of his administration, because they, and General [George C.] Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the Army, spent many, many, many hours with the President in the early days of April '45 running over all the major matters that were up for decision, or events that were coming up. At that point the first test bomb had not been exploded. It was not exploded until July 17th, I think--a couple of months off. So, it was still a developments it was not a certainty. As for those of us in the Map Room, we were aware, and had been for some three years, of the work going on in this area, because of the President's correspondence and cables, all very, very highly classified,
of course, with Churchill on the subject. We handled them all--they went through our hands. So from the spring of '42 right on up to the moment of the first bomb drop in Hiroshima, we were--those of us in the Map Room--generally aware of the kind of work that was going on and the state of progress of the Manhattan Project.
STILLEY: Is there any particular reason why President Truman wasn't informed on certain matters before becoming President? You mentioned that he was rather unprepared about certain decisions to be made.
ELSEY: Well, my answer to that has to be a pretty subjective one. I don't think there is any documentary or factual evidence that will help us answer it. Part of it was President Roosevelt's health, part of it was due to the relations of President Roosevelt with his former vice Presidents. He and Vice President [John Nance] Garner, who was his Vice President for the first eight
years of his term, had never been close politically. Their philosophies were quite different. Garner was conservative in the sense of conservative Southern views of the period, the 1930s. Garner was out of sympathy with most of FDR's New Deal, and the two simply were not intimate friends. Henry Wallace, who was FDR's Vice President in the third term, increasingly found himself at odds with Roosevelt and others of the Roosevelt administration, on matters of foreign policy. And Wallace was simply not trusted by the military leadership of our high command in the Army and the Navy. They didn't like the people that Wallace associated with. They quite literally did not think he was to be trusted with military and foreign policy secrets, and this attitude was well-known to President Roosevelt. So the major events, strategies, matters like the atom bomb, were just things that FDR wouldn't talk to Wallace about.
We had no reason to believe he felt that way
about Truman. He had dumped Wallace. If he felt that way about Truman he would obviously not have chosen him to be his Vice President in the fourth term. But Roosevelt's strength was running down, his health was not good. In the campaign weeks and months, both men were out on the road a good deal. Prior to the election there wasn't much time for this. Between the inauguration January 20 and April 12th, Roosevelt was in Washington very little. He left the day after the inauguration when he sailed to Yalta; and when he got back from Yalta, he really was very i11, indeed, and went off to Warm Springs, Georgia to try and build back his strength. He only, literally, I think, saw Truman once in the period from January 20 to April 12. So it was a combination of reasons. I don't think it was any feeling that Truman should not be brought in, but all these factors just sort of conspired against him: a) It was not the practice to let the Vice President in, and, b) even if it had been the practice, the timetable
and the travel and the health all sort of conspired against it. You put those two things together and that was the answer.
Truman, of course, felt this had been a tragic mistake, and as you know, he began immediately bringing the Congressional leadership, of both parties, Republicans and Democrats, into his confidence in his first term. Of course, by the second term he had a Vice President [Alben] Barkley, and he insisted that Barkley attend all Cabinet meetings, and attend the National Security Council, because he wanted to be sure if anything happened to him, his Vice President wouldn't be caught as he had been caught.
HILL: There has been a lot of talk about how the President's personality affected the staff all the way down in the White House. Was there much of a change in the personality of the White House upon Truman becoming President, the next few creeks?
ELSEY: Every transition is traumatic, I guess, for
a staff around any leader, be he a Cabinet officer, President, a corporation head, or anything else. But Roosevelt's death, because he had been in office so long, and there was a war, a very great war that soaked up all the thought and attention and energies of the American people, in a way that neither of you would be conscious of because the Vietnam situation was so utterly different; had as profound an impact on the feelings of the American people and those close to the President as Lincoln's assassination would have had. We caught, I suppose, a little sense of it with the shock of John Kennedy's assassination, but there was no war on when Kennedy was killed. So, an awful lot of the persons at the White House, particularly those who had been with FDR since the beginning, were grief stricken, quite literally grief stricken, and found themselves emotionally very unable to carry on. Truman needed them because he did not have a Vice Presidential staff that had any familiarity with
these things. He brought very few people with him from his office on Capitol Hill, and it was a rough, rough several months. The old-timers were either so shaken by it or so worn out people like Harry Hopkins were physically at the end of their rope--and the newcomers that President Truman had assembled around him were green, so it was a hard time for all concerned.
And, of course, the difficulties were in a sense glossed over or people weren't quite so conscious of them because of the sudden surrender of Germany--or not so sudden, but the end was so close; and then the quite surprisingly early collapse of Japan, because the Army--and General Marshall--right to the very end was predicting invasion of the main island of Japan was necessary, and we'd have two horribly bloody, bitter additional years of war with Japan. So when Japan surrendered so quickly after the two atom bomb drops, this was a great euphoric period and some of this, really, inability of the White House staff
to function very efficiently wasn't apparent because of all these good things that were happening in terms of the war. But the White House was a pretty damn inefficient place in those first few months of the Truman administration. There's no point in kidding anybody and pretending it was otherwise.
STILLEY: When the President made the decision to drop the atom bomb, did he give this order to you to dispatch?
ELSEY: Well, he wrote it out longhand to send the message back to the Map Room.
STILLEY: Were you there in person when he wrote it out, or . . .
STILLEY: Did it seem to faze him in any way, or did he comment about it when he was writing it?
ELSEY: I think one has to recognize that there had never been any doubt in the minds of those that
were working on the bomb--oh some of the scientists, yes, have later said they had concern about it--but the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy, the President himself, from the time he first learned about it, never had any question but what the bomb, if it worked--which the Alamogordo tests showed it would--there was never any question but what it would be used. This was like a new airplane, a new gun, new battleship, a new aircraft carrier, or anything else. It was a new weapon. Of course, it was infinitely more powerful than any other weapon, but still it was just a weapon. The military, as I said a few minutes ago, General Marshall leading the group, were convinced the Japanese were going to fight almost literally to the last man in defense of their homeland, and this would have been terribly costly in American lives, and lives of the other allies; British, Australian, Canadian, et cetera, that anything that would bring the war to an end was
going to be used. It was not the kind of decision that you sat and agonized over. It wasn't something that--maybe it should have been--but it was not a matter of something that the President would lie awake nights thinking about. The news that Alamogordo had been a success, reached him at Potsdam. He reviewed that with Churchill and then with [Clement] Attlee when Churchill was counted out right in the middle of their conference, with the British Chiefs of Staff, as well as the American Chiefs of Staff, and all signals were go.
HILL: In other words, Truman handled the situation, and the assumption around him was it was just a matter of time until the bomb was ready?
ELSEY: Yes. The big question was not whether the bomb was going to be used, the big question in those spring and early summer months of '45 was "Will the bomb work?" That was the question, and people who now write and focus on "to drop
or not to drop," sort of missed that. They simply hadn't recaptured or caught the spirit of what the question was at that time. People were hanging on the edge of their chairs, "Is the test going to work?" "Is this project going to succeed?" And once the flash message came from the War Department in Washington, Secretary Stimson sent it to Potsdam, "Yes"--that was the question mark.
STILLEY: After the first one was dropped, and the reports came back over the weeks of the damage or the radiation, did this seem to have any effect on the President, or . . .
ELSEY: Not that I know. As you know, the second bomb followed very quickly thereafter. There were, and scholars are probably correct and accurate in pointing out, that there were a number of indications in mid and late July that there were some internal debates within Japan. That the Emperor was beginning to assert himself in a fashion he hadn't before. There was apparently a growing sentiment for peace within the Japanese
structure, and a certain number of peace feelers were coming out from Japan, not directly to us, but very, very indirectly. Some people, or some scholars, and writers, and revisionists now think that those should have been taken into account and the bomb should not have been dropped. That's a very proper attitude to express and be considered. The President and, of course, the whole leadership was very, very conscious of these. They knew what was going on because the Americans were reading the Japanese code, the messages, and knew that some of this stuff was going on. But the point I have to make here is that throughout most of the war in Europe, peace feelers of one kind or another were coming out of Germany, purporting to be from persons close to Hitler and so on, and none of them ever came to anything; and nothing generally concerned her until the very end, until Germany was militarily, totally crushed. Just because somebody now said, "Oh, but the Japanese were sending out peace feelers,
we should have held off and should have known they were going to surrender."
Here again, I think one must look at the other comments, the other war, and realize that peace feelers had been coming out from one group or another of Nazi Germany, for years, and they did not materialize, nothing had happened. The plots against Hitler, this, that, or the other, nothing had materialized. It was true that there was a known effort to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, but it had failed, and all the plotters had been assassinated, and Hitler kept right on to the very, very end.
So, I understand, I think, the mentality and the thinking of the President and his advisors, "If we have got the bomb, use it, because it's the only way we can be sure that it will all end and there will not just continue to be bloodshed with really hundreds of thousands of casualties on the Japanese as well as the Allied side." And had the Japanese not surrendered, had they not been pushed over the precipice or forced to surrender by the
bombs, and landings actually taken place and had been contested by the Japanese as at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and the other Pacific islands, the loss of life would have been far, far greater than the loss of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
HILL: Moving along, you said that President Truman relied heavily on his staff in the first year. How did he do this? Was he the type man who would have a large meeting of his staff? Would he meet with them each individually, or how?
ELSEY: Okay, here again the pattern sort of evolved through the years. In the early days I was not--because of age and rank and so on--I was not one of the intimate advisers. By the latter part of the administration I was an administrative assistant, I regularly attended his staff meetings, very free, very casual, very informal. Ordinarily his staff meetings were first thing in the morning with the Press Secretary and Appointments Secretary, and Special Counsel, Administrative Assistants, just
drawing up chairs--walk in the room, grab a chair, one of the light chairs from around the wall, pull them up with you and sit in a semi circle around in front of the desk. He would simply start around the room, each person, "What have you got this morning?" Sometimes he had a folder on his desk with names on it, and as he would come to Steelman, or Clifford, or the Military Aide, or the Naval Aide, why he would, if he had anything in it for any one of us, correspondence or returning a memorandum we had written him with his endorsement, or comments on it, why, he would shove it back to us; and we'd say what was on our mind, or what we had for him or what we had to take up in the presence of the group. Sometimes the meeting would be over in fifteen minutes and sometimes it would be two hours depending on the volume of business. But it was a very relaxed, very informal, very easy, friendly family kind of relationship.
STTLLEX: Did President Truman have sessions
individually with staff members?
ELSEY: Oh yes, individual sessions, many during the course of the day, sometimes initiated by him, sometimes by the staff member as we would get our assignments, or we'd have some things that would come in to us from Departments or agencies. You could call Matt Connelly, the Appointments Secretary, tell Matt what the issue was, what the problem was, or question was. He had to know that so he could decide whether it was high priority and squeeze you in ahead of somebody else, or whether it was something you could wait a couple of days until the calendar was a little more open. But even someone like myself, a request was never denied an appointment with the President anytime I asked. I might not get in the day I asked for it, but that was just a matter of the schedule. So, neither I nor any other member of the White House staff that I ever heard of, ever had any problem in seeing the President whenever he wanted to see him, which
is something of a contrast with things that have happened in more recent administration.
And on that point, let me emphasize how very, very small the White House staff was in those days. This I think is hard for us people to realize now when the White House staff is measured by the scores, and even by the hundreds. But there were only a dozen professionals on the staff, and I've already really named what they were: the Appointments Secretary, the Press Secretary, the Correspondence Secretary, the Army, Navy, and Air Force Aide, Special Counsel, John Steelman the Assistant to the President, and two, three, or four Administrative Assistants, the numbers varied from time to time, and that was it.
So people will come in and say, "Now, who really handled labor, or who really did foreign policy for the President at the White House?" The answer to that was, "The Secretary of Labor or the Secretary of State, or the Secretary of Defense worked on it." Truman looked to his Cabinet officers and the agency heads for the
leadership in these substantive areas. Staff was staff. We helped him handle, or process, or analyze the recommendations that would come, or the papers, or we would help him do a veto message or prepare a speech, but we--no one on the Truman White House staff was the person who was the principal adviser on any one of the policy areas. That was in his view the function of the Cabinet.
HILL: Did President Truman work with his Cabinet as a whole in these large Cabinet meetings, or did he seem to prefer individual projects with the Secretary of Labor or . . .
ELSEY: Cabinet meetings were essentially rather formal stereotyped affairs, rarely more than an hour. It was a chance for the group to get together collectively; and as in the case of our own White House staff meetings he would run around the table and ask each person if there was any particular item that they had to bring up. It was a way of keeping everybody in tune with what the principal issues were
in the various departments, what was the particular status of a battle on Capitol Hill or something like that. But if it involved a long, serious analysis of an issue, debating at great length the pros and cons of shall we sign, or shall we veto, or what should we really try to get across in the next session of Congress on this, that, or the other issue, that was the sort of thing where he would spend a long, long time individually with the Cabinet member. Usually the Cabinet member in that case would bring along two or three of his assistants, his professional experts, maybe his Under Secretary and Assistant Secretary, and that would be a case where Truman would have Clifford, the Special Counsel, and later Charlie Murphy, John Steelman, one or two others, and the group would sit for as long as necessary, maybe all afternoon. Or they'd have dinner at Blair House and go at it until after midnight when there was an issue really to be plumbed thoroughly and probed very deeply. But that would be done always with the Cabinet
member or head of the agency right there, unlike some of the later patterns where this sort of thing is decided by White House staff only and then the Department is simply told what to do. That was not the pattern of operations then.
STILLEY: The Truman Doctrine, who were the main individuals who were in on helping to formulate this doctrine?
ELSEY: The State Department. This was a perfect example. This is a foreign policy matter, that had very, very heavy military overtones. It was the State Department that was alerted first to the fact that the British were going to have to withdraw, no longer could afford to sustain the support they had been giving to Greece and Turkey, and in very short order, the State Department drafted some papers for President Truman pointing out the significance of this to the United States. The Chiefs of Staff, Secretaries of Army and the Navy--which was before the Defense Department existed--
were brought into the picture because of the great military indications. And so it was--matters of this sort were collective efforts with a whale of a lot of people, in the departments concerned, working very, very closely together in small task groups, task forces, and so on.
The actual message to Congress of March 12, 1947, was drafted by Joseph Jones who was a staff member in the Department of State, the early drafts of it; and Jones has written a book on the subject, Fifteen Weeks, in which he describes the process for writing the message. But that was writing the message. All of the thinking was a major effort involving, I guess, literally scores of people from the Pentagon and State Department and White House staff input too; and of course, the President himself, right in the middle of it from the ground up.
HILL: What was President Truman's daily schedule like usually?
ELSEY: Oh, this varied, again. It got a little more
relaxed. later in the term than it did at the very beginning. His habit of getting up early in the morning, taking the long walks, is, of course, one of his best known traits. He'd be at the office bright and early, and his staff meetings, initially at 9, later they drifted off to 10, lunch, a short nap in the afternoon, and then back in the office until 5:30 or 6, with many, many evenings devoted to work at Blair House. As you know, he lived at Blair House most of his term, because the White House was, quite literally, falling down.
There are numerous appointments, the President has to kiss babies and has to receive this, that, and the other kind of citizen. But those can be they get a lot of attention, lot of publicity but those exercises can be run off in ten or fifteen minutes, so they really weren't quite as much of a burden on the Presidential time as one might have thought. But the President was a great reader. He was a voracious consumer of staff and Government reports and
documents. He didn't require much sleep, so he would read until midnight or later, and be up again and back at his desk by 5 or 5:30. Those of us on the staff were frequently dumbfounded to have a messenger arriving a moment or two after we did at the office in the morning with longhand notes from the President that he'd written during the night, asking questions or saying please do this or can you see me on such and such, and most of us have sizeable collections of these longhand memoranda from the President. My own personal pre-World War II career, when I was quite a student of history--I was planning to teach history--and because I had an interest in American history, and so did he, a lot of things cane my way of that sort which were really expressions of a hobby of his. Or we'd exchange anecdotes. I'd find interesting episodes of American history I thought would intrigue him, or old books or pamphlets or something of this sort, I'd send them along to him, and we would swap notes. So it was a very friendly, easy, accessible relationship
with people like me in my twenties when I first went in, to persons on the staff like Admiral Leahy, who at that point seemed to be somewhat older than God. Admiral Leahy had served on the battleship Oregon when it went around the Cape of Good Hope and going from the West Coast to the East Coast in the Spanish-American War. That really didn't seem a long time. So the staff went from the twenties to people in their seventies, and their relationship was one of just an enlarged family.
Of course, every single one of us treated the President with respect. He was always "Mr. President." He was "Mr. President" even to a man like Harry Vaughan, General Vaughan, who had known him for years; they had been National Guard officers together in Missouri. He was "Mr. President" to John Snyder in any kind of meeting or setting. First of all the President is the President, but there was an instinctive--for all that Missouri simplicity about the man--there was an instinctive dignity to Harry Truman that one respected, and you thought of him that way.
He had an amusing habit of sometimes sort of stepping out of himself, and talking about the President as though the President were a third person, somebody else. And at tines he sort of forgot he was President. Some of those letters that he would write that he shouldn't have written, he was sort of forgetting that he was President of the United States. He was just an angry father madder than hell at some music critic who was panning his daughter, or something of that sort.
He would occasionally--as he had gotten his pants scorched several times by that kind of fiasco--would send some of us drafts of things he'd written and ask for comments. He told me about the Paul Hume letter and said what he--he quoted some of it--and I said, "Mr. President, you can't send that." He said, "I knew you'd say that; I've already mailed it." But I did catch some of them. I did stop some that he had written in the same vane.
His sister was driving to a meeting in a
New England state that I shall not name at this point. She was active and prominent in the Order of Eastern Star. She was going to an Eastern Star convention and she got arrested in some small town in that state and had been treated, she thought, rather discourteously, and this angered the President. One of his political enemies was from that state, so he hauled off and wrote that guy a letter telling him what he thought of his state. I talked him out of sending that letter. That would have made the Paul Hume letter seem mild in comparison. I kept it; I still have it. Some day I guess I'll put it in the Truman Library, but in the meantime I'll hang on to it.
HILL: As a sidelight to his schedule, did he find time to read the mail that came into the White House daily?
ELSEY: Well, he can't. A President can't possibly read all his mail, because it comes in by the mail sack you see, thousands, tens of thousands
of items; and if there is a red-hot political issue, then it floods in. Much of it organized mail by lobbyists or a group of one sort or another, inspired mail campaigns. But even when that isn't on, the volume is such that the President cannot possibly read it a11. But he did like to get a sampling, and have some sense of what kind of stuff was coming in, and William D. Hassett, Bill Hassett, who was the Correspondence Secretary, was a general in charge of the processing and handling of this stuff that comes in truckload style. Hassett had the Mail Room screen it, and letters that were particularly interesting or poignant or were well-written and seemed to reflect a thoughtful citizen's point of view on a public matter, why, Bill would send some of these in from time to time; but it was only a bare scratch, a bare sampling. The very old timers around the White House, the old civil servants, would tell of Calvin Coolidge meeting the mail truck in the morning and taking the mail and opening it himself. But, hell, the Federal
Government wasn't anything in those days. The President literally could look at the mail. That had ended with FDR and the New Deal and the vast proliferation of Federal Government activities. That kind of a White House we will never see again, of course.
HILL: Did the President receive a news summary each day, or did he read all the newspapers?
ELSEY: No. No, none of this business of having a huge staff and analyzing , boiling down, listening to TV and radio, and clipping what they think the President ought to see. No, he would have the papers delivered right to him, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and the New York Herald-Tribune which doesn't exist, of course, anymore. The Baltimore Sun, a day late, usually the Missouri St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star, and of course, the Washington papers. There were four in those days, only two now. And of course, he couldn't read all of that, but he would go through and catch the editorials and
the news stories. TV was relatively scarce. It was just beginning, but had good TV news coverage by the end of his term. So, radio, and the daily press, were the things that he did himself. When we would be on the Williamsburg or at Key West or somewhere like that on vacation--a working vacation, because the President never had a pure vacation--he would be very, very keen on catching the several newscasts a day, just to keep up. And he'd listen to the news commentators, the Walter Winchell and other popular commentators of the day, whether he liked them or not. For the fact that they might be known critics of his, he preferred to listen to that rather than to somebody who would just lay it on with a trowel. I think one of the terrible dangers of a President today, in more recent times, is somebody who only gets what his staff has screened out for him, because no President can have any sense that he's getting the real sense of what's going on in the news if somebody is filtering it for you first. President Truman violently resisted the thought that he
should only see what somebody else picked out for him.
STTLLEY: Were there contingency plans for the protection of the President, say there was an attack--where the President could go, and if so what was President Truman's reaction to this?
ELSEY: Well, the Secret Service of course had, ever since the McKinley assassination, the responsibility of protecting the person of the President and the security measures were greatly increased in World War II and only very slightly relaxed after that. After the attempt of the Puerto Rican nationalists try assassinate Truman in November 1950 at Blair House, the Secret Service stepped up its protective measures. From that point on, they advised him strongly against being quite as free in his early morning walks.
Example: Prior to that time he would simply walk out of the White House, or out of Blair House, go down the front steps or out the gate and walk in the parks around here. After that,
this was simply not judged as safe and the President would be driven to a different place--not literally a different place every single morning, but to a wide variety of places on a random pattern. So he'd drive ten or fifteen minutes to a spot in Rock Creek Park and walk there, and then the next day it might be Haynes Point, these different places in Washington, or just along the street in a residential area where he'd get out and walk, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. But this way, you see, there couldn't be somebody lying in wait to catch him at a given moment coming out, The Secret Service tried to protect him by having his appearances not quite so easy to predict. But really, that's about all one can say on it.
The thought of a major atomic or Soviet attack, or any kind of national catastrophe of that sort--well, contingency plans of that sort exist, the President is conscious of them, but it's not the sort of thing that made Harry Truman lose any sleep. He'd know that it had to be
done but it was the job of the Secret Service, the military, who would protect the President, the Commander in Chief. David Stowe might be willing to say something on that subject, I don't know. This was one of the assignments that Stowe worked on in the latter part of the administration, any physical security aspect. He may not feel that he should talk about it. On the other hand, so much time has elapsed maybe he will, so ask him about it tomorrow.
HILL: You related how you actually helped write some of President Truman's speeches. What type thing did President Truman like in his speeches? What things did he particularly like? Did he give you an outline of a speech to be put together, did he want you to do it, or was it pretty well written by . . .
ELSEY: It's awfully hard to generalize on that, because a President has so many kinds of appearances during the course of a year. A great many are purely extemporaneous, ad lib, informal, and
they range all the way from a situation that is so comfortable and so easy that the President didn't ask anybody to do anything, held just wing it, he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it. There were other times when he would know that he would be going to a certain dinner or luncheon or a group would be coming in and he might ask a staff member, "What do you think I ought to say?" or "What's the most important point to hit with this group?" It might be just a paragraph, "I suggest so and so," and that would be all he'd want, and that was what was on our mind. It goes all the way from that to the very, very formal--I suppose the most formal kind would be the State of the Union or something of that sort--where it's a major policy expression of an administration.
When it gets to that kind of a document, a State paper so to speak, then, of course, you've got a massive amount of work to do. You have the lawyers in, you have the legislative people from
the Department concerned, the Cabinet officer, or commission head or whatnot; and you meet two, four, six times with the President as the doctrine is being hammered out, almost every word, point, in it has significance. So it is just a mixture. And the more formal, the more significant it is in terms of governmental policy, of course, the more time held spend on it with the staff, doing draft after draft. But Truman was no kind of a man just to take a piece of paper the staff had written for him and read it. There was no speech he ever delivered, his policy papers, state papers, that he had not spent a great deal of time on himself.
HILL: He was known for the humor that he put into his speeches, was that more or less planned in advance or .
ELSEY: No. No, the few times that we would try to write in jokes or humor, it just fell flat, the humor would come out, but that had to be a personal instinctive humor of his own. He was not the kind
who could read, like Bob Hope, from a cue card and make it sound spontaneous. When he tried to read something like that it was a phony, and it came through as a phony; so we gave it up.
STILLEY: In Clark Clifford's November 1947 memo outlining the President's strategy for the 1948 campaign, do you know personally, or did the President ever mention to you, how much or what effect this memo had on the President's decision to run in '48?
ELSEY: Oh, I don't think it had any effect on his decision to run. I don't think there was ever any question in Truman's mind but what he was going to run.
STILLEY: Then during the campaign, were you a speechwriter for him?
ELSEY: One of a number, yes. Clifford, the principal staff man concerned with speeches, had the general responsibility for the planning of
the content of the major political speeches--what topics, and when and what order and what sequence--in Chicago we'll do this, and do this in Minneapolis, and so on. Try to develop a pattern so that in a given space of time, different parts of the country, the President would have hit the principal issues that he wanted to make in the campaign. Interspersed with major speeches on the campaign trips, and those tended to be at least one, sometimes two a day, would be so-called "whistlestop" speeches, which the President delivered from outlines, short two, three, four-page outlines. We had a very intentional and deliberate pattern there. In the course of the day, we'd have six, eight, ten of these, or in some cases as many as fifteen of the whistlestoppers. We would try to cover the full range of issues of the campaign--you couldn't cover a11, but many of them--we would see that throughout the day he would be hitting a variety of topics. In other words, in farm country, he just wouldn't talk farm all day long, he'd get some labor in, and he'd get some foreign policy
in and he'd get some other things in so that the men, the correspondents, the AP, the UP, INS, and radio correspondents with him, would have a full range of things to talk about. Now we were very conscious as the Dewey campaign went on, that Dewey just had one speech; maybe just a bunch of platitudes he'd go out and say over and over again. The press correspondents wouldn't even bother to get off the train to go listen to him, because they knew what he was going to say, which was nothing. They all had to pile out, and they all had to scramble and go out, because they never knew what Truman was going to say next. Well, they knew what his positions were, but they would never know what he was going to hit and they couldn't just assume that in Des Moines he was going to talk about the price of hogs or something like that. He might be discussing the Berlin airlift in Des Moines, and they would have to be out there listening, and as a result of this, they were just filing news stories like mad. Every stop they were filing their stories
with Western Union there. So, he got an enormous amount of coverage as a result of this very conscious hard-work--God it was hard work--effort to really lay out his position, and his program. Nobody worked harder than he did on that, and he never repeated himself.
Only on one occasion, where the train stopped at a place where we weren't expected to stop, Windsor Locks, Connecticut--the worst moment of the campaign--we didn't know we were going to stop, so there he was caught without any topic, anything else to talk about. Well, he could talk, but we weren't prepared, you know, for something to pound at that place.
I was the whistlestopper on the job doing the outlines, getting the stuff together, and feeding these back to him. I felt I got twenty-five years exercise walking from my car to his car in the weeks of that campaign.
STILLEY: For the '48 campaign, the President chose A1ben Barkley as his Vice President. Some sources say that his--besides William 0. Douglas his first
choice--his second choice was Wilson Wyatt, but because of a planted news story by Mr. Clifford, I believe, trying to push the Barkley campaign, or candidacy, Truman was literally, or almost forced to accept Barkley. Was this true?
ELSEY: I have no knowledge to enable me to say yes, no, or not. I simply don't know. I can't say it's so, I can't deny it. I just don't have any knowledge of it at all.
STILLEY: Mr. Elsey, how would you describe the President's personality?
ELSEY: That's something you either answer in one sentence or five hundred pages. It's very hard to give you an intermediate answer, or an intermediate length answer to a question like that. I think I've already touched on many aspects of it just in describing the working patterns, and the relationships all of us who worked for him had. He obviously was a warm man, a warm-hearted man, a man with a deep sense of loyalty to his
associates, dedicated to the public interest, a man who is in his way quite humble. He came into office knowing that there was a hell of a lot he didn't know and he wasn't prepared for; and after nearly eight years of the Presidency, I think he left the office still feeling unprepared, simply because the job of a President is so enormously vast, and the challenges were great. He was without any guile or any pretense. He was a politician. He was proud of his being a politician. He thought it was an honorable word. He didn't think that politicians were crooks, although some politicians are crooks, that's not inherent in the nature of the beast. He had some public convictions and some private convictions, and I think sometimes there are differences. Publicly by virtue of his reading, of his knowledge of history, and his understanding of the country, he had some very deep feelings about what we needed to do in terms of civil rights, civil liberties. As an individual, given the family background, and the part of the country he grew up in, and simply his generation, it was not as easy for him to deal
on a face-to-face and one-to-one basis with members of other races as it had been for President Roosevelt, for example. But this didn't lessen Truman's determination as President to fight hard for civil rights, and to press, and even going so far as to risk his own nomination in 1948, by the civil rights message of February 2, 1948, which was the most comprehensive all embracing message on civil rights that any President had sent up to that time. He knew very well that this was a great risk, political risk, as indeed it was. It led to a fourth party. But as President, he saw what he thought was his duty, and he went right ahead with it. Although personally, as I would say, he didn't find it quite as easy to get along with other races as some other political figures then and as everyone today. I'm not sure that that's describing his personality but it's a trait of personality, an ability to rise, rise to the Presidency from his own personal background and family circumstances. He was conscious of the fact that
he hadn't had any formal education; this bothered him at times. He was determined not to let it get him down. As we've already said, he read widely and continued to read and never thought he knew it all. I think that's about all I can add to the comments I've given on his personality that we've had earlier in the discussion.
STILLEY: One final question. What accomplishments of President Truman would he be most proud, or what…
ELSEY: I really don't know that I can answer that. Certainly he was not, during the time he was in office, given to looking back on his earlier years or term. He didn't boast that way. In his post White House years, on the many times I saw him in Washington, Independence, and so on, I never asked him that question. I never heard him voluntarily speak about it. I really don't know what he would have sized up. For all I know, he may have done it in some of his writings and speeches in later years; I don't happen to know.
I personally would say that the foreign policy and the way in which he worked with leaders in both parties on foreign policy matters, is a lasting accomplishment and tribute. He and Senator Vandenberg and the other Republican leaders on the Hill, were able to forge a national policy that brought about successful implementation of the Marshall plan and of many, many other matters of that sort. While he could engage in the most, sharpest kind of partisan politics, some domestic issues, and that sort of thing, foreign policy is something that was so sacred to him that there simply in his mind were no party lines and he worked hard. We haven't seen nearly enough of that kind of leadership in the interim of years since.
STTLLEY: Thank you, Thank you very much.
ELSEY: Thank you for coming. It's good to have met you and talk about Truman.
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List of Subjects Discussed
Alamogordo atomic tests, 9, 17, 18
Atomic bomb, World War II, 8-10, 16-19, 21-22
Attlee, Clement, 18
Barkley, Alben W., 13, 46
Bell, David E., 7
Blair House, 27, 30, 38
Chiang Kai-shek, 2
Churchill, Winston, 2, 3, 10, 18
Civil rights, 48-49
Clifford, Clark M., 4-5, 6, 27, 43
Connelly, Matthew J., 24
Coolidge, Calvin, 35
Dewey, Thomas E., 45
Douglas, William O., 46
Eastern Star, Order of the, 34
Eisenhower, Dwight D., 2
Elsey, George M., background, 1-8
Forrestal, James V., 9
Garner, John N., 10-11
Germany, Nazi, 20-21
Graham, Frank P., 4
Greece, Truman Doctrine in, 29
Harriman, Averell, 7-8
Hassett, William D., 35
Hirohito, Emperor, 19
Hitler, Adolf, 20, 21
Hopkins, Harry L., 15
Hume, Paul, 33, 34
Japan, surrender of, World War II, 15, 19-21
Jones, Joseph M., 29
Kennedy, John F., 14
Leahy, William D., 3, 9, 32
Lloyd, David D., 7
MacArthur, Douglas, 2
Manhattan Project, 10
Marshall, George C., 9, 15, 17
Marshall Plan, 51
Murphy, Charles S., 7, 27
Neustadt, Richard E., 7
Nimitz, Chester W., 2
Oregon, U.S.S., 32
Point IV program, 8
Potsdam Conference, 4
Presidential campaign, 1948, 7, 43-47
Roosevelt, Franklin D., 1, 2, 10-12, 14
Secret Service, U.S., 38, 39, 40
Snyder, John W., 32
Stalin, Joseph V., 2, 3
Steelman, John R., 25, 27
Stimson, Henry L., 9
Stowe, David H., 40
Truman Doctrine, 28-29
Truman, Harry S.:
accomplishments as President, 50-51
Truman, Mary Jane, 33-34
atomic bomb, and use of, 8-10, 16-19, 21
briefings as Vice President, lack of, 10, 12
Cabinet, relationship with, 26-27
civil rights, support of, 48-49
daily schedule as President, 29-31
"hot letters" to critics, 33-34
mail received as President, 34-35
newspapers read as President, 36-37
personality and character of, 47-48
Potsdam Conference, attends, 4
Presidency of the U.S., accession to, 1-2, 13-15
Presidential campaign, 1948, speeches, 43-46
radio-TV programs, preferences, 37
security for, 38-40
speeches, drafting of, 40-42
Universal Military Training and armed forces unification, promotion of, 5
White House staff, relationship with, 22-26, 31-32
Unification of the Armed Forces, 5
Universal Military Training, 5
Vandenberg, Arthur H., 51
Vardaman, James K., 4
Vaughan, Harry H., 32
V-J Day, 4
Wallace, Henry A., 11-12
Williamsburg, U.S.S., 37
Wyatt, Wilson W., 47
Yalta Conference, 12
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