Oral History Interview with
Seventeen year veteran with the Associated Press. Later news editor and
acting managing editor of the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal-Bulletin,
after which he served in the White House as liaison for the press-radio
division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. In January, l945, he
became part of the White House staff as a press officer until he retired
at the end of the Truman administration.
Eben A. Ayers
June 30, 1970
Jerry N. Hess
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This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry
S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee
but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember
that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written
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This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced
for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission
of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
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Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts
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Oral History Interview with
June 30, 1970
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right, to start with today, Mr. Ayers, in your opinion, just
how successful was Mr. Truman in ability to separate his individual views
from the views he thought he should take because he was President?
AYERS: That's a very difficult thing to answer fairly and accurately.
You're speaking particularly, I think, of civil rights. That was the question
most likely to...
HESS: That's the question usually raised in this context. When Mr. Truman
would make a liberal pronouncement on civil rights, or when he supported
the report of October l947, the one entitled To Secure These Rights,
was he actually as liberal and as forward-thinking in matters of civil
rights as it would appear from his pronouncements and from the report?
AYERS: Again, I say I think that such a question calls for one person's
opinion only, because I don't think anybody knows exactly.
But my own opinion is that he believed in what he advocated, because it
was right. He might not have been as deeply affected inside as some of
the other people were because of his background. His mother was an unreconstructed
southerner, and he undoubtedly had
been influenced in his lifetime by
her, and family, and his residence and all that, and it may have been
quite a step for him to take. But I think he took it because he thought
that the time had come for these things to be done and that they were
the right things. Now that isn't a very good answer, perhaps, but it's
as good as I can give.
I think he believed in those things just as a lot of people today, that
you and I know, believe in these things but find it hard sometimes when
it comes close to home, to go out a hundred percent. He did I think.
He went farther than probably people in his area would have expected him
to. I don't know; that's just supposition on my part because I don't come
from that part of the country, and I don't know exactly how people thought,
but I can guess how some did.
HESS: All right, one other question that we have to cover either today
or some time in the future, is about Mr. Truman's relationship with Robert
Hannegan. Have any comments on that today?
AYERS: I don't think so. I think that I have probably in my notes
somewhere, some things about it, fleeting things perhaps, but I think
Mr. Truman's relationship with him was fairly close, politically, because
had a hand in his nomination for Vice President. He was out in
Chicago and had quite a hand in it, as you know, and as the records show.
But I think that perhaps the time came after his appointment as Postmaster
General when he went a little farther in taking advantage of that relationship
than some of the people, if not the President himself, thought he should.
He thought he was going to have the run of the White House I think. At
least he showed up--I know he showed up for--well, I don't know whether
for more than one or two or not, but one or two staff meetings in the
morning, and that didn't set too well.
HESS: Do you recall who objected?
AYERS: No I don't recall offhand. I might, somewhere in my notes somewhere,
might have had something about that, but I don't know how fully I ever
went into it; not very deeply probably. I know that it suddenly stopped.
He didn't come for very long, very often, after that.
HESS: Were there other Cabinet members who wanted to come sit in on the
AYERS: Not to my knowledge.
HESS: All right. And during the latter part of the Truman administration
was a period that is also known as the period of McCarthyism, when Senator
Joseph McCarthy was
making many of his accusations about communism. Did
that cause the--did you feel that that caused the members of the White
House staff to be extra cautious in some of their actions?
AYERS: I don't know of any. The only one that I recall at all, who was
affected directly, was Philleo Nash. I think that McCarthy did make some
crack about Philleo at one time which nobody in the White House believed,
and if there was any feeling in the White House it was one against
McCarthy, strengthened against McCarthy because of that.
I never thought anything about McCarthy, from a personal standpoint, and
I don't know of anybody in the White House who did, other than Philleo,
and I don't think I ever mentioned it to Philleo, and whether any of them
took any special precautions to see that they weren't plastered with the
mud--I don't know.
HESS: David Lloyd was also on one of Mr. McCarthy's lists. I believe . .
AYERS: Oh, he was? I forgot.
HESS: Do you recall that?
AYERS: No, I didn't recall that. I'm not surprised. Anybody that--anybody
I suppose that might have been called a liberal was likely to be on the
McCarthy list at that time. I personally never met Mr. McCarthy except
HESS: What was the occasion?
AYERS: Well, that was a very brief meeting. I think it was prior to a
dinner by the Womens' National Press Club or something like that--one
of the women's newspaper group's dinners. And my wife and I were there
and we were invited by some of the girls to one of the numerous cocktail
parties that were held before the dinner in the hotel, and at one that
we went to, there was McCarthy, and somebody introduced us. That was before
McCarthy had created McCarthyism--you know what I mean.
AYERS: And I remember talking to him briefly, my wife and I. Got to talking
about cheese. He was boasting about Wisconsin cheese .
HESS: Wisconsin cheese.
AYERS: And we stood up for the old northern New York cheese. Northern
New York, and our hometown was the center, it was the greatest inland
cheese market in the world at one time. And so we had a little friendly
discussion. He was going to send us some Wisconsin cheese, which he never did.
That was my only direct contact with Mr. McCarthy and that was enough.
HESS: All right, getting right up to the next to the last day that Mr.
Truman was in the White House, have you ever heard of the situation in
which the President may have
been at the Blair House on January the 19th,
1953, this was the night before General Eisenhower's inauguration, in
which there was a gathering of people and at which Mr. Truman may
have said that what he would be remembered for and what his administration
would be remembered for, would not be the Marshall plan or point 4, but
would be for reorganizing the White House office in such a manner that
no future President could make a mistake. Did you ever hear anything like that?
AYERS: No, I don't think I ever did.
HESS: Did you attend any parties or cocktail parties the night before
the inauguration? Do you recall?
AYERS: I don't think so. I don't recall any. I wasn't at that one. I'm
sure I wasn't.
HESS: This is one that we're not even sure took place, but it's
just something that we have heard, that we're trying to trace down.
AYERS: I don't recall it and I don't find any reference to it in my notes,
although it may have taken place without my knowledge. The President did
give a dinner on the night of December 18th for the members of his staff.
Possibly that may have been the affair of which you had some report or
rumor. The guests at this dinner included not only the members of his
staff at that time, but some
who had been with him in earlier years and
There were about forty present and it was quite an informal affair. I
may have more somewhere in my accumulation of notes and papers but now
I have no actual recollection whatever of the affair and no idea just
HESS: Okay. What do you recall about Mr. Truman's interest in books and
his reading tastes?
AYERS: Well, I have a little note or two here somewhere; somebody I think
had asked him about that, on one of our trips. It was during a little
trip on the Williamsburg back in, oh, I guess l946, and someone
asked what books he found the most valuable or interesting in his life,
something like that. And he said, "History, the old Greeks, and other
satirists, and so forth;" Mark Twain, whose writings he had read extensively.
And then there was--there had been, in fact, a month or so before that,
a little incident that's rather interesting I think. He was down the river,
on the Williamsburg, just a little cruise, and Charlie Ross was
along. It seems, as I recall, that the President had told the newspapermen--or
Ross told the newspapermen--that the President had been reading a biography
of Grover Cleveland, but he couldn't recall
the name of the author, and
the book had been left behind. And I got a telephone call from the ship
from Charlie Ross and he asked me if I could see if I could find the book.
Well, I went over to the house--there was nobody there, the family wasn't
there--and I got one of the house servants, and we went up to the President's
room and into the bedroom, where there were a lot of books around, several
on the bed. And we handled them over, and I came onto Allan Nevins' biography
of Grover Cleveland. I think the title of it was, A Study in Courage.
I don't know whether Ross called me the next day about it or not, but
I got the book anyway that night and took it over and arranged to send
it down to the ship. I never heard any more about it. I don't know whether
Ross ever mentioned it again or I did, or forgot all about it. But I thought
it was rather interesting. He was always interested in historical biographies,
biographies of historical personages, and in history itself. And he was
darned well informed. I suppose that there are other books that had been
mentioned at one time or another, such as the Bible, which I think he
said he had read through a couple of times.
HESS: What do you recall about the transition from the
to the Eisenhower administration?
AYERS: Well, the things that I recall are not of great moment, to tell
the truth. I don't think anybody around the White House offices was too
comfortable in the brief period while that was taking place.
HESS: Was Sherman Adams in evidence, did you see him around?
AYERS: I don't know whether he was or not. I don't recall. I don't
believe that I had heard much, if anything, of him before the actual inauguration
of Eisenhower and the departure of President Truman on January 20th. I
had a note dated January 23rd, in which I said there was every evidence
that "Sherman Adams, former Governor of New Hampshire, assistant to the
President" was to be the top man and that he "was attempting to run everything
in the White House and, perhaps, in much of the new administration." I
wrote that it was doubtful to many of us that this was possible and "it
seems not unlikely that he is riding for a fall."
Through this period, both before and after the inauguration, I did not
get into the West Wing offices overly much, but even before Eisenhower
took office, some of his people showed up and it was obvious that they
were feeling their oats pretty much and some of them acted even then as
if they had already taken over.
HESS: Anybody in particular that you recall?
AYERS: There were two or three who come to mind: for instance, Jim [James
C.] Hagerty, who was coming in as presidential press secretary, and a
Roger Steffan, an assistant to Adams, who was given the title--officially
or unofficially--of "Director of Operations." Hagerty, a former newspaperman,
had served as press secretary to Governor Dewey at Albany. Steffan had
also been a newspaperman at some time in his earlier career but after
he came into the White House he became known as "hatchet man" for Sherman
Adams. One, if not his principal job, was firing people, some of which
was done pretty brutally, as in the case of Miss [Louise L.] Hachmeister,
who was the chief telephone operator, and a very able and useful person.
She had been in the job since Roosevelt days and knew everyone, and was
highly thought of by everyone.
There was a story about President Truman and Steffan that was told me
shortly after Truman had left office and the Eisenhower people had taken
over. It was told me by a White House usher, now long gone, who said it
came from Mrs. Truman. According to this story, President Truman encountered
Steffan in the White House offices a few days before the inauguration,
pointed his finger at Steffan and told him that he
was there only on sufferance
and that if he did any thing to any of the Truman people he would throw
him out. Then, as he walked away and within Steffan's hearing--according
to the story as told me--Truman said he wished Steffan would say or do
something as he would like to take a crack at him.
HESS: Did you ever see Eisenhower during the month that you were there
after he was inaugurated on January 20th?
AYERS: I don't think I ever saw him during that month that I was there.
My office at that time was in the old State, War and Navy Building (now
the Executive Office Building), but I did get into the White House Wing
(the office wing) frequently and I knew something of what was going on.
One of the interesting stories I was told dealt with Eisenhower's arrival
at the White House as President. It was told me by a White House employee
on my own last day there, February 27th.
He said that after his inauguration, Eisenhower did not get into the
White House as President and as the new occupant of the House, until about
7 o'clock that evening. After his inauguration, he returned from the Capitol
to the reviewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House
grounds, for the
inaugural parade but he did not go into the House until
the end of the parade.
During the afternoon a couple of sealed envelopes, marked "Confidential
and Secret," for Eisenhower had been delivered and Howell Crim, chief
usher, accepted them and signed for them. After Eisenhower came into the
House he was taken upstairs to the private, family quarters and Crim got
the two envelopes and took them to him.
Eisenhower, the narrator told me, turned on Crim, and said, "Never bring
me a sealed envelope; that's what I've got aides for." He told Crim to
deliver any such communications to the aides and if he could not find
them, to open them himself and decide what should be done and whether
Eisenhower should see them.
HESS: President Eisenhower thought the chief usher should have opened
it, is that right?
AYERS: Of course, the chief usher is an important person and he runs
the White House, but after all there was a new President coming in whom
he had had nothing to do with I guess before that. I don't know whether
he had even met him.
Another interesting development: Before Eisenhower took over, employees
who had to go from the East Wing
to the West Wing where the White House
offices were, or from the East Wing over to the West Wing, could go directly
across through the ground floor of the White House. But that route was
shut off so that some of them had to go outside and walk through the grounds
and around; they couldn't go through the White House ground floor corridor
to get from one side to the other. I don't know whether that changed later
after he got settled into the White House or not.
HESS: Did you go up to the Capitol to see the inauguration?
AYERS: You mean the Eisenhower inauguration?
HESS: Yes, Eisenhower inauguration.
AYERS: No. No.
HESS: Okay. Did President Truman ever express himself in your presence,
or ever express in your presence any viewpoint about the operation of
the Presidency or on Government organization?
AYERS: Well, I found in looking through some of my notes the other day,
a little something. I don't know whether this fits in as a part
of that or not, and it's probably all in the records anyway. But back
in, I think it was l947--he had been in a couple of years then--he received
the members of the Association of Radio News Analysts. That was just in
his office, and it was just that one group. And he was answering questions,
and I found that
I had quite a little that he said at that time. Now I
thought that may have been--maybe the stenographer did it, and it may
all be In his file. I don't know whether it is or not. I noticed who some
of them were that were there at that time. Some you wouldn't remember,
but among them were the late Elmer Davis; Bill Henry, who died a few months
ago in California; Bill Hiliman, who later worked with him, and who has
since died; and then John Daly and Ernest K. Lindley, Eric Sevareid, Robert
Shaw and Lowell Thomas. You remember H. V. Kaltenborn? He was another
who was there.
AYERS: There was a good story about Kaltenborn along about that time.
Kaltenborn had a morning newscast and it was pretty early in the morning
and he didn't like it too much--thought he was kind of being shoved out.
He was getting along in years. He complained to one of the top ones in
the network here in Washington about it, who told me about it later. He
said, "You know, Kaltenborn came to me, and he didn't like those early
hours and wanted me to pick some better hours for his broadcast."
I said, 'You know don't you that the President listens to you every morning?'
"Well," he said, "I didn't have any more trouble
Well, Kaltenborn raised some questions at this meeting about the Greek-Turkish
Aid program and this led to what the President said at that time. I don't
know whether you want any of it.
HESS: All right.
AYERS: Do you?
AYERS: Well, the President said that internal construction and restoration
to a peacetime economy was what he was principally interested in, on a
free basis. And then he said this: "You know, there are differences in
definition of the word democracy, and our definition doesn't work all
the way around the world. It's a much misused word anyway," he said, "to
begin with. And our Government is not a democracy, thank God, it's a republic.
We elect men to use their best judgment to the public interest. You get
that sort of legislature and you get that sort of President, and you have
a republic that will work in the public interest. Democracy is a term.
And there is only one place in the world where there is any democracy
and that's in the New England Town Meeting."
I don't know whether, as I say, whether this is in the records anywhere
or not; I think it must be.
Somebody must have made a record of it at
I don't think that that's all mine. I must have gotten it, probably,
from the White House stenographer. He probably took it so that we'd have
something to give out to the press if we wanted to.
The President went on to say something that I think is rather interesting
in view of the present situation that we're going through in this country
today. He said, "The radio I have always been afraid would restore the
Greek approach to the demagogues' ability to mislead the country. I hope
it will never come about, the man with a sweet voice and great personality,
where he could do things to this country if he could control the air."
Don't you think that is just about what he might be saying today? And
that was said twenty-three years ago. I think that shows a little of his
viewpoint and that he wasn't so far behind today's times.
He said, "My idea of the restoration of a peacetime economy in these
countries,"--that's talking about the Greek-Turkish Aid--"with the hope
that they will sometime themselves inaugurate a free government that will
be for the benefit of the people. That's the principal thing that we have
to do." He said, "There isn't any difference in the totalitarian states,
I don't care what you call
them. You call them Nazis, Communists, Fascists,
Franco, or anything else, they are all alike." He said, "It is not our
intention to tell any country what its internal business should be or
how its internal business should be handled. We are hopeful that that
internal business would be along lines most beneficial to the individual.
I believe in the Bill of Rights. I think that's the most important part
of our Constitution. The right of the individual to go where he pleases,
think what he pleases, so long as he's not materially injuring his neighbors."
There's considerably more to what he said at that time, but--at one time--not
that time--one time in reference to the so-called Truman Doctrine, and
he didn't like the use of that phrase . .
HESS: Is that right?
HESS: You heard him say that?
AYERS: He didn't want it to be called the Truman Doctrine.
said, "All I'm interested in is the doctrine of the Republic of the United
States of America, to restore free government in the world, to make the
United Nations work in the manner in which the colonies made the Federal
Now that, I think, sort of answers your question, partly at least,
as to what he thought about what the Government should do. I don't know
that he talked about it so specifically anywhere that I have any notes on.
That does not mean that he did not comment or express views on many of
these things that you have asked about. Besides staff meetings and gatherings
of which there is no record and with no certain recollection of them.
Now I held many conversations, some brief and some quite lengthy but informal
and with a variety of subjects discussed. Of some of these I made and
retained notes, some more complete and detailed than others.
Late in 1951, for instance, we had one conversation during which the
discussion ranged rather widely. This led to the effect of positions in
the government upon some individuals, the development of what we termed
"Potomac Fever." The President commented that some men
come into the government
at the top without having risen through the ranks and without any experience
in politics or government. That, he said, was the case of Henry Wallace
whom President Roosevelt brought into government as a Cabinet officer,
although he had had no experience in governmental affairs. This also was
true, he said, of Henry Morgenthau, whom Roosevelt made Secretary of the
Treasury. Speaking particularly of "Potomac Fever" the President said
most of the Presidents of the past had experiences with this in the case
of some of their subordinates, and he mentioned Lincoln's troubles with
[William Henry] Seward.
The President commented that Congress was always trying to invade the
executive power of the President and he said that no President ever lost
anything in a fight with the Congress.
On one occasion, at a staff meeting, he outlined the duties of the members
of his staff--what he wanted them to do. Matt Connelly was to handle appointments;
Charlie Ross, all press matters; Bill Hassett, correspondence; the Military
and Naval aides, matters within these services; and Judge Vinson and Sam
Rosenman, such special matters as might be assigned to them. And it was
then in June, I think; it was only a couple of months after he came in.
He said that he wanted Fred
Vinson, who was then the Director of Mobilization
HESS: Yes. Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion.
AYERS: The President wanted him to sit in on these morning staff conferences
and Vinson did. That's when I came to know Vinson and we became very good
HESS: Wasn't too long after that when he went to the Treasury Department
AYERS: No it wasn't, but Vinson was--I always thought--one of the most
valuable men in those staff meetings, and in the work he did. He had an
amazing capacity for anything that might be handed over to him. He could
come in there in the morning and have all the statistics or details about
whatever it might be. Say it was a coal situation, or anything,
he could sit there and when his turn came, the thing could be brought
up and he could lay it out plainly and clearly.
HESS: When did you first meet Judge Vinson? Do you recall when you first
AYERS: No, I can't recall just when I first met him.
HESS: Now after he left the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion
he went over to the Treasury for a little while . .
AYERS: As Secretary of the Treasury.
HESS: Secretary of the Treasury and then he went to the Supreme Court.
AYERS: As Chief Justice of the United States.
HESS: That's right. Did he visit the White House often? Did you see him
around the White House very often?
AYERS: No I don't think so. He may have come over now and then; I don't
know about that. I know that when he was Chief Justice he went down to
Key West on one trip when I did. I did not go down when the President
did but I was to go down later. I don't know how long the President had
been down when I was to go. Anyhow, I was to fly down on the President's
plane and I did now know who else, if anyone, was to go at that time.
A White House car was to come after me to take me to the airport but the
chauffeur got the wrong address and was delayed so that by the time I
finally got the car it was nearly time to take off. The result was a fast
ride to the airport where the President's plane was waiting. I hurried
to get aboard and found the Chief Justice aboard and waiting. There was
a third passenger, Congressman Smathers of Florida who, apparently, was
more or less of a hitchhiker for the ride down. The Chief Justice had
a package which he was carefully carrying. It was a beautiful cake which
Mrs. Vinson had baked for the President.
We carefully put it on a divan
or sofa in the President's compartment where he and I sat on the way down.
We talked baseball, I recall, because you know he played semi-pro ball
when he was a young fellow. And we were about the same age, pretty nearly
the same age, and both knew the same baseball names and had the same heroes
of that era. So we had a pleasant trip down and I think I got better acquainted
and from then on we were always good friends. I always thought a great
deal of him.
HESS: In 1952 there was some discussion that Mr. Truman would have liked
for Judge Vinson to have been the Democratic standard-bearer for the Party
that year. Did you ever hear anything on that?
AYERS: I don't think I ever did. I might have, if there had been some
gossip around or something. I don't believe anybody ever took it very
seriously. I do know we had some discussions from time to time, something
about the campaign that was coming up, that '52 one.
HESS: What do you have?
AYERS: I had several talks with the President over the months before
the 1952 election, during which the political situation was discussed.
One of which I found some notes was more than a year previous during which
name was brought up. The President expressed a high regard
for the General as a man and soldier, but he pointed out that education
for a military career did not equip a man for the Presidency. Mr. Truman
cited General Grant and his experiences as President. The President agreed
Eisenhower must be smart enough to know that but that there was one thing
that might make him willing to be a candidate, and that would be if MacArthur
were to run and Eisenhower would oppose him, because he said Eisenhower
hated MacArthur as much as anyone. The President, however, did not indicate
any knowledge of Eisenhower's intentions, but I gained the impression
he did not seriously believe at that time that the General would be a
Only a few days later I took in to the President a magazine containing
an article predicting the President would be a candidate for re-election
and would be reelected. Prompted by this, the President said that the
first thing Mrs. Truman said when she got back to Blair House a few days
previously on her return from Kansas City where she had spent the summer,
was to ask the President about all she had been reading about him and
re-election. He went on to say that she was concerned not so much about
whether he would be re-elected or not,
but the effect of it upon their
daughter, and upon him if he had to serve another term. I said I did not
know whether he cared what I thought or not but he said he did and I told
him I felt that for his own sake it was too bad if he had to run again.
He said he asked Mrs. Truman if she had a candidate and she said, "No."
Then he said the needs of the country came first and "you know" what it
would mean to have Taft or someone like him elected--the country would
go back years, it would put labor back where it was years ago, there would
be a bank depression, etc. He said that while Eisenhower was a fine man,
he did not believe he would be a good President, but at least he would
not change the foreign policy, whereas Taft would shoot it to pieces.
He said no man, obviously having himself in mind, should think he was
the whole country, but he had to keep in mind the welfare of the country.
He said, "I have a terrible decision to make," and I said I did not envy
him having it but that I felt sure he would make the right one.
Of course, we had many talks in the following weeks and months, some
very brief, others of some length, and there probably were other political
references which I do not recall or have at hand any notes of until the
situation began to warm up with the approach of primaries
leading up to
the 1952 election. During one of these talks, in the spring, he said he'd
probably have more time to consider some things after Congress adjourned.
I pointed out that a political campaign was coming up and he said, "Yes,
and I wish I had kept my mouth shut about it." I don't recall specifically
what he had in mind, but he added that he was afraid if [Estes] Kefauver
got the Democratic presidential nomination he would have a hard time putting
his whole heart into it.
I asked the President if he thought Kefauver would get the nomination
and he expressed doubt of it although he said the Senator might have the
most votes on the first ballot at the national convention, although Senator
Russell might have the most if Kerr [Senator Robert Kerr, Oklahoma] would
throw in with him. He said [Averell] Harriman probably would have 200
or so votes and then the favorite sons would have some---[Hubert] Humphrey,
[Alben] Barkley, and McMahon [Connecticut]. I asked him how about Adlai
Stevenson [Governor, Illinois] and the President expressed some impatience
over Stevenson's attitude. He said he thought Stevenson was too much concerned
about the Chicago Tribune. I said that it seemed to me that all
the politicians of Illinois, both Democrats and Republicans, were always
about the Tribune. A lot of people read the paper
but its influence was not so great. And the President then cited his own
case. You remember that Chicago Tribune when he was re-elected?
AYERS: And then he spoke of some of the other papers, you know, the Kansas
City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Hearst papers,
which he said failed to exercise any actual influence of any importance
on the voters. He said that. I told him I thought there were some cases
of newspapers which carried some influence with some types
of readers, and I mentioned particularly the New York Times. I
thought it did have some influence with its editorials on certain
of its readers, probably none upon the mass of voters. The President said
the Times tried to get, and present accurately, all the news and
the people read it for that purpose, but that very few of them read the
editorials. It was always his theory--he was always stating it, even I
think in news conferences on occasion--that if the people have the facts
honestly and accurately they will do all right, but that so many papers
such as the Chicago Tribune even colored the facts.
When I saw him after his return from Kansas City, following the election,
he talked about the outcome and
said he had been thinking about the whole
thing--the election and the result--and that he had concluded that maybe
it was a good thing. He said many people in this country did not know
what it was to have the Republicans in control and that perhaps it would
be well for them to experience it. He expressed the idea that it might
be a good thing for some people (I had mentioned the younger generation
whose memory did not go back twenty years) to learn for themselves what
President Roosevelt and he had been trying to do. With the Republicans
in control he predicted that those people would have no one in Washington
to represent them and work for them, and he pointed out what they might
expect from those in power. He predicted they would turn over the oil
in the submerged lands off the coast to the private oil interests and
the public power to private power companies. In the Senate, practically
even with Wayne Morse of Oregon, as a Democrat, he said the good men,
like Morse and [Leverett] Saltonstall, Republican of Massachusetts would
be balanced out by Byrd of Virginia arid men of that type. And pre-siding
over the Senate, he said would be the new Vice President [Richard] Nixon,
whom he termed a "crook."
You know, I was going to talk a little, but what I was going to say doesn't
have too much relationship to
anything specifically here, but I did want
to say something about the President and the press. I don't think we've
done very much on that, have we?
HESS: Not very much.
AYERS: Well, I don't want to do very much now. But I've been thinking
about all this to-do over [Spiro] Agnew, what he's been saying about the
press, and all that. And of course, I suppose I am biased, having been
a newspaperman for years, but I see some of the faults of the press as
well as anybody else. But you know, it's been more or less of an axiom
I think with newspapermen that everybody knows how to run a newspaper
better than the men who run it. It's a fact, and that is because everybody
reads a newspaper or sees a newspaper, I think. And I don't suppose there's
been hardly a President, or public official, who couldn't run every paper
better than the editor runs it, or thinks he could. Now Franklin Roosevelt
probably knew newspapers better than a great many did, but I think
he felt that he knew more about how the papers ought to be run
than the people who ran them. And I think that was true with most of them
and I think probably to some degree with Truman. They always could criticize,
but I don't think they could always actually do it if they had to.
HESS: Mr. Truman used to think that the owners and the publishers were
a little too conservative, did he not? He thought that he got along quite
well with the reporters.
AYERS: Oh yes, yes.
HESS: Well, that seems like .
AYERS: That follows the thought that I just gave you there that--and
he said it more than once--he didn't care what they said editorially,
as long as the news reporter did an honest job, you didn't need to worry
about the editorials. And I think he's right about it. I think you could
see it in--if you follow the figures, circulation figures in the campaign,
especially in those campaigns in which he participated and some since--that
you'd find that the vast majority, in his campaign at least, the vast
majority of the papers, and the majority in the sense of circulation,
were against him editorially. On the other hand, most of the reporters,
I guess, probably voted for him.
HESS: What newsmen covering the White House seemed to get along with,
or seemed to have the President's special favor?
AYERS: I don't think anybody, unless perhaps Tony [Ernest B.] Vaccaro
because he had known him. He was an Associated
Press man and he had covered
the Senate and knew him.
HESS: Knew him from the Senate days.
AYERS: Senate days. Whether there are any others up there, I don't know
any that he was very favorable to. There was one thing about it that some
of the people that came in with President Truman didn't realize,
that there's a great difference between the Presidency and other positions
in public life. If the President says anything, it's news, almost anything.
And people close to him, if they talk out of turn, they're apt to set
something going. And a little of that happened as you may have read, with
President Truman, not so much him personally, as with--well, Harry Vaughan,
General Vaughan, for instance, who didn't realize when he said something,
as he did on one occasion in some kind of gathering in Alexandria, that
somebody might pick it up and make a lot of it. I think the President
himself slipped on that score on occasion in talking with a group or something
HESS: Concerning the newsmen, I believe that the President gave one
exclusive interview during his administration, did he not, to Arthur Krock?
HESS: Do you recall that?
AYERS: Yes, sure he did. That's perfectly all right. Krock was a little
bit different from--he wasn't a day-to-day White House reporter, and he
had a very high standing, and he represented the greatest newspaper, supposedly,
in this country, the New York Times. He had such--I think he had
interviews with--well, certainly with Roosevelt, I don't know whether
any others before that or not. And of course, when he granted--oh, I suppose
Charlie Ross arranged for it perhaps--but when he gave it to Krock he
only did what had been done before. And of course, there was a wild howl
from the other newspapermen and the President told them finally after
somebody raised it at the press conference, that he talked to whom he
pleased, and when he pleased, or words to that effect. And of course,
it died within the next day or so. That was the end of it. There was no
more fuss about it. Roosevelt gave several interviews to a well-known
writer for the Saturday Evening Post, I think.
HESS: You mentioned Jim Hagerty awhile ago and of course, he came in
and was Eisenhower's press secretary. Just what was your evaluation of
James Hagerty as a press secretary?
AYERS: Oh, I wouldn't attempt to make an evaluation. It's like trying
to evaluate Presidents. They're all different, they operate differently
and what may be the
right system for one might be entirely wrong for another.
I wouldn't say that Hagerty was good or bad except Hagerty had perhaps
more authority to speak for the President than any President's
secretary I think ever has had, or at least he took it upon himself; and
of course, when Eisenhower got sick, Hagerty, I think, was more President
than anybody, probably. Personally, I never knew--I didn't care too much
for Hagerty, but I didn't know him too well. I met him, but he was one
of those who came in before the doors were opened to the Eisenhower administration.
And there were some amusing stories about him which I don't think we'd
want to put in print.
HESS: Go ahead.
AYERS: No. Let me turn off that tape recorder and I'll tell you one of
HESS: All right, as one who had an ample opportunity to observe the Presidency,
do you have any opinions as to how you think the Presidency might be changed?
Are there any aspects of the Presidency that you think demands too much
of the President's time or attention?
AYERS: Oh, ye gods, what a question!
HESS: What a question.
AYERS: What a question.
HESS: What a question.
AYERS: Let's see if I've got anything that might be very interesting.
I've got some kind of index here.
I don't think I have any very specific ideas on that, because, again,
it's a case of no two Presidents operating the same, the same way.
HESS: Did you ever hear Mr. Truman make any comments that he thought
something was taking more of his time than he would really like to devote to it?
AYERS: Oh, possibly, but I don't recall anything specifically.
HESS: All right, do you have any additional recollections of Mr. Truman's
speaking about his own past?
AYERS: Oh, yes, I got some things on that I think here somewhere. I made
some notes on it one time. They might be--let's see, here's one here that's
got some of it I think.
Oh, I was having a talk with him--and this was down at Key West and that
was in '51. And I was talking about some of his papers that I'd been going
over, and led him to talk about the--well, the papers were senatorial
papers that I had, didn't know what to do with really--they went back
to before he became President--and that led him to go into a discussion
of his early political career and experiences between those years as Jackson
County judge. He said he was prouder of what he accomplished there than
any other thing he had ever done. He said he was
elected county judge
in 1922 and was beaten two years later for re-election. And when he was
telling about it he checked it out with the year Margaret was born. And
then two years later he was elected presiding judge. Well, of course,
you know that judge is not a judge out there. He's an...
HESS: An administrative position.
AYERS: An administrative job, yeah.
HESS: County commissioner.
AYERS: Yeah. He said he wanted to be collector, that was a more remunerative
job without any graft, but he was maneuvered out of that and he was picked
for the county judgeship, that's what he said. He said the county finances
at the time were in terrible shape and there were protected warrants and
no funds for necessary purposes such as hospitals and care of the insane
for which the county paid. And he said the situation got so bad that at
one time the hospitals threatened to take the insane people and drop them
all on the city hall steps, about a thousand of them he said.
After he was elected he said he started in to try to straighten things
out. He proposed a ten million dollar bond issue for roads and so on,
and he talked to Pendergast about that, he said. Pendergast told
wouldn't get very far with it, but he could go ahead if he wanted to.
He said he set out then to tell the people of the county just what the
situation was and what the purpose was, and as a result the bond issue
was carried in election. He said it was carried by more than three quarters
vote, whereas it had just barely squeezed through in the city. And he
said that just shortly after that Pendergast called him up on the telephone
and said he was in trouble and wanted help from him. You want all this
AYERS: He said he was going to have a meeting in his office and would
like to have Truman come in. So, he said, he went over to Pendergast's
office where he said he found Pendergast had all the crooked contractors
in the county. These contractors were all arguing that they should have
the contracts for the road work, that the money which was raised by the
bond issue in the county should be kept in the county, and so forth. This
is what Truman was telling me. The President said he stood up and told
them that the only way they could get the contracts would be by submitting
the lowest bid, and by following the specifications , and if they didn't
they wouldn't get paid a penny. That's what
Truman told them.
He said that Pendergast told them that they could see what this fellow
was like and for them to get out. He said Pendergast was honest and never
did a dishonest thing. The President said he had a crooked county Republican
engineer, but he had gotten a couple more of his own, and called for bids
and let the contracts for the roadwork, with the result that Jackson County
had the best road system of any county in the country except Westchester,
New York and Cook County, Illinois.
He built two courthouses, one which he described as a good one in Independence,
and one in Kansas City which he didn't like as well. He said the hospitals
were straightened out and when the President left office he left the county
with a balance in its treasury. So, he felt pretty good about that. Then
that was, I guess, about all at that time.
But there was another occasion where he talked somewhere about--you know
one time--didn't I ever tell you that? One time he was making--this was
of course a tongue-in-cheek thing, when he said what he was always wanting
to do when he was a young fellow out there; he wanted to be a piano player
in a bawdy house. That's what he said. That was his ambition at
HESS: To be a piano player in a bawdy house?
AYERS: No, in a bawdy house or sporting house. I don't recall his exact
words. Of course, that was a joke but he did talk about some of
his other ambitions. I made these a long time ago. I didn't realize I
HESS: Yes. Your notes and lists.
AYERS: Yeah, notes and mostly, just mostly these talks I had with him.
HESS: Yes. Well, that's going to be very valuable one of these days when
we get those documents out to the Library.
What in your opinion were Mr. Truman's major contributions to his career?
AYERS: Oh, well, I think everybody would agree pretty much on the Greek--so-called
Truman Doctrine, don't you? And I think that's what he probably considered
his major accomplishment, his efforts to get the United Nations and the
Greek-Turkish Aid--Foreign Aid Program. I don't know whether I ever heard
him express it in those terms but I think he would undoubtedly name it,
as a matter of fact.
HESS: What would you see as the major failings, or failures, of the Truman
AYERS: I hate to be--attempt to criticize. My gosh, who am I to criticize
or attempt to assay that?
HESS: What was done that should not have been done? Any things
that were done that should not have been done?
AYERS: Oh, I suppose so, but offhand I don't know what I would pick out.
Probably when he, what was it, that--the Supreme Court overturned his
HESS: Seizure of the steel mills?
HESS: In 1952.
AYERS: I don't know that that ever hurt him particularly, but...
HESS: What about the dropping of the atomic bomb in Japan? What's your
view on that? Do you think it should have been dropped or not?
AYERS: Absolutely. It's easy enough to say now, as so many people do,
that it should never have been done, but you have to look at it in the
light of the conditions at the time and the prospect. What the services,
military people, said it was going to cost in American lives to win that
HESS: What's your estimation of Mr. Truman's place in history just one
or two hundred years from now?
AYERS: Oh, ye gods and little fishes!
HESS: How about that? What in your opinion would be the historians and
general public's opinion of Mr. Truman?
AYERS: I haven't the least idea, but I think it would probably be a higher
opinion than perhaps he had at the time he went out of office, certainly.
It is now.
AYERS: Probably I think he would rate up--but we can't tell what the
future is going to hold. How are you going to judge a man of twenty-five
years ago with one hundred years from now. You can't because you don't
know; you may have some genius come forward any time in the future who
sees farther ahead, deeper than any man ever has in the past. We don't
know what we're going to have in the future. How can you judge unless
you've got a lot more courage than I have in trying to forecast? I can't
even assess the past, let along the future.
HESS: Now reflecting back upon your days in the White House, does anything
come to mind? Do you want to make any statements or anything?
AYERS: Well, in a way, yes, If I could put them together. I don't know
whether I can now. I've thought about it. You know, I was not in quite
the same position as most of the other people close to the President during
the Truman administration, because I was not a presidential
I wasn't an appointee at any time, of the Truman administration as such.
I came into Government as a Civil Service employee at the outbreak of
the world war, so that right after the Pearl Harbor attack, through--I
have told this before in the record--through a friend of mine who was
a right hand man of--one of the right hand men of Nelson Rockefeller in
the office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and that's who
I came to Washington expecting--not expecting, not having any idea how
long it would be, but not expecting really to be there any longer than
the war. And I was at the White House for that office. It wasn't
political in any sense any more than Nelson Rockefeller himself was. He
was a Republican, but not a political appointee at that time in that kind
of work, and mine wasn't political in any sense. As a matter of fact,
I was never asked what my politics were.
And I went into the White House, with Steve Early under Roosevelt. And
when he died I was asked to stay in the press office and they called it
Assistant Press Secretary. To the best of my knowledge, no such title
ever existed. I don't know whether it does now or not, because I can't
make head or tail of this present setup.
HESS: Anything else come to mind when you look back on those days?
AYERS: Oh, there will be a lot, but I think I've got enough now, I've
forgotten most of the things. I do want to get some of this stuff--some
of it either thrown away or something. I've got to. I've got so darned
much stuff. I've got a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with the White
House, the Presidency, that I don't know what to do with, burn up I guess.
HESS: No, archivists don't like to hear that. When you get ready to throw
stuff, throw it our way.
AYERS: I know I . .
HESS: Shall we turn it off for today?
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