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
January 20, 1967
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 It may not be published in full except by permission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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Oral History Interview with
January 20, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin our session today, would you tell me something about the
background of the announcement of the detonation of the first atomic bomb?
AYERS: I'll try to. Let me go back to the beginning, because as you probably
know, I, like a lot of others, never had heard of this particular project.
Fortunately, I had an idea about atomic energy, but I don't know why or
where I picked it up, but I didn't know anything about this.
Now, let me go back. The President left the White House on July 6 to
go to the Potsdam Conference. He took off late that evening; went down
to Norfolk and took the Augusta cruiser over there. While he was
over there, there was a conference itself going on from which some news
came back that had to be distributed from the White House; and a lot in
the White House -- odds and ends of things--but it was fairly quiet there
all that time, and it wasn't until, I don't know the exact day, but it
must have been around the first of August, between the first and third
or fourth of August; and I was in my office and there was hardly anyone
left around the White House except Bill Hassett, who was a
the President; he handled correspondence -- I'll go into that further
sometime when we talk about the staff.
HESS: Charlie Ross went with the President.
AYERS: Charlie Ross went with the President; Admiral Leahy had gone with
the President, and Jimmy Byrnes, who was then Secretary of State, was
with the President; and there was quite a staff along.
HESS: But as far as the press office goes...
AYERS: As far as the press office and that whole executive office . .
. in other words, only Hassett and I and the permanent staff, the working
staff, the stenographers and those people, they were there; and on this
day, as I say, it must have been somewhere between the first and, I guess,
the third or fourth, I was in my office with nothing much doing, and I
got a phone call from Bill Hassett asking me if I would come into his
office. I went in there, and with him was General Alexander Surles, who
was at that time the Information Officer for the War Department; head
of the information setup there. And Surles said he had an important story--I
think he used the word "tremendous" in connection with it--which was going
to break, or going to be for release at the White House, but he couldn't
tell just what day it would be.
It was very clear to both Hassett and
me that it was something of great importance. Surles seemed to be quite
excited, but he didn't say what it was, and I think that Hassett and I
both said, "Don't tell us what it is."
We didn't want to know because there was this great secrecy around it,
and what we didn't know, we couldn't be blamed for a leak if we didn't
know about it, if there should be one. So, it was agreed that he was going
to call me when he had this story, and bring it over, and it was left
that way. I was a little bit tensed up about it, but not overly so, but
I kept--each day when I went in--wondering, but nothing happened until
Monday morning on the sixth of August. Shortly after I got to the office,
I got a phone call from Surles, and he said he would be over soon with
that story that he had told us about, but he had to await a message from
somewhere, he didn't say where or what it was about then. I think it was
shortly after that, or it may have been after I got another call from
him, anyway he called in a short time, and said that it would be a short
time more before he would be over.
Now, during this period while the President was away there was a group
of newspapermen, the regulars or substitutes for the regulars who covered
the White House,
who came up every morning. And I had, as I say, some
announcements from time to time, appointments that the President had made,
that were signed and had been sent back from over there, and things like
that. That morning there were, I don't know how many, probably six or
eight men out in the pressroom where the newspapermen worked and where
their phones are, and where they hang around, and I didn't want them to
get away; so, I went out there and I said--I don't know how I put it exactly--but
anyway, I said "You better stick around awhile. I might have a little
something." I didn't want them to get too steamed up. There had been at
least one incident, that I recall, when one of my predecessors had a story
coming, and he went out and told the newsmen and they notified their offices
and there was a great to-do, and when the story came out it wasn't very
big--kinda backfired on him. And I didn't want them to get overly excited
because I didn't know really how big the story might be. I don't know
how long it was after that second call, but not very long, when I got
another call from Surles and he said he would be right over, and he came
a few minutes before eleven o'clock on August 6th. With him was a junior
officer and they were carrying a couple of bundles and took them right
into the press secretary's office where I held the press
morning anyway, if I had anything; even if I didn't they came in and I
would tell them to go for the day if you want to or something like that.
So, these two bundles were opened up. One bundle had one sheet--it was
made up of a single sheet--which was the first page of the news release
and the other bundle was made up of three sheets clipped together. I think
there were three in that one. And the reason for the one sheet was that
of the original release, it was necessary to tear off and rewrite the
first paragraph or so because the first paragraph set a time, which, I
suppose, they couldn't fix originally. Then I called in one of the girl
secretaries and had her stamp the date on it, on the first page, and I
went through it then rather hastily and saw what it was. So then I had
the secretary call the reporters in and I--do you want me to give the
HESS: Is this the same announcement that is in the 1945 volume of the
AYERS: I assume so. After they all lined up in front of the desk, I said,
"I have got what I think is a darn good story," and then I explained this,
"it's a statement by the President which starts off this way: 'Sixteen
hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important
Japanese Army base.'"
HESS: That is the same thing that is already documented here in the 1945
AYERS: I didn't know it was in there. When I finished reading the first
paragraph I said, "All right, you can go to it." One reporter there, I
think it was Joe Fox of the Washington Star, he started out the
door and Joe said, "It is a hell of a story."
But they didn't do what usually happens at a press meeting. They didn't
ask any questions. They didn't hurry out. The thing didn't penetrate
with most of them, and I believe that one of those reporters got to the
telephone in the press room and had a dickens of a time getting her office
to take it--I think it was a girl reporter. They wouldn't believe it.
The follow up was mostly done from the War Department. That statement
of the President's was written, I think, at the War Department and taken
to Potsdam by Secretary Stimson. That is my understanding. It was prepared
by what was known as an Interim Committee that had been appointed by Truman;
supposedly it was prepared by that committee. I won't go into that. I
had nothing to do with that, so what I don't know about I am not going
to talk about.
HESS: The note of the statement in the '45 volume says,
This statement was released in Washington. It was drafted before
the President left Germany, and Secretary of War Stimson was authorized
to release it when the bomb was delivered. On August 6, while returning
from the Potsdam Conference aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, the President
was handed a message from Secretary Stimson informing him that the bomb
had been dropped at 7:15 p.m. on August 5.
So, it's mentioned that the statement had been drawn up before the President
had gone to Germany.
AYERS: I don't know exactly when it was drafted. I know that Stimson
didn't go over with the President, but he flew over while the President
was enroute on the ship, so that he was over there when the President
arrived. Now, the test explosion at Alamogordo was on July 16, as I remember,
and they were very much elated when they got the word of that over there.
I don't know who knew anything about this bomb. A great many people, of
course, did know, but not people in the White House certainly. The only
ones I know in the White House who were connected with the President who
knew, Admiral Leahy, who had been with Roosevelt and did know about it,
and was always skeptical about it; didn't believe the thing would go off
and said so, which I think he wrote in his book that he was wrong; and
Byrnes, of course, knew about it, and Byrnes was on that Interim Committee,
and his place
on the committee was as a contact with the President. Now,
there has been a lot written by various people about when the President
learned about it himself--when Truman learned about it. All I know about
it is what the President himself said and what Stimson wrote. Stimson
called on Truman on April 25th; he had an appointment at noon and at that
time he went into the whole bomb project as he wrote himself in his book.
He went to the White House he wrote, "to discuss the atomic bomb with
the President from whom the matter had hitherto been kept secret."
HESS: Did you ever discuss this with the President?
AYERS: Yes, I did. I don't know how many occasions but several occasions
it was mentioned in one way or another. In one rather long conversation
some years afterward--as a matter of fact, I think it was in May of 1951
when I was working on his papers--I told him that I had gone over this
account of Stimson's, in which he told of briefing the President on April
25th, and the President then went on and gave a little background about
how, when he was Senator and was chairman of the Senate War investigating
Committee, that he had talked once with Stimson, without any knowledge
of the atom bomb, because some of his investigators had learned of a great
that was going on somewhere and thought they ought to investigate
it. He talked with Stimson about that, and he told Stimson that if the
Secretary assured him that the funds that were being expended were for
some top secret project, he wouldn't go any further into it; and he told
me that he did not know anything about the bomb project himself until
Stimson visited him on April 25th after he became President and briefed
him on it.
HESS: Almost two weeks after he became President.
AYERS: I think that he had said that again on some occasion or other.
HESS: At some other time that you talked to him?
AYERS: Yes. Two or three months later, it was in August when I was talking
to him after he was telling me about this was his first knowledge of it.
He didn't, as I recall, go into anything further than what he had said
that other time, but I think he did repeat that, although I don't have
that in my notes specifically, because he did go on and talk about later
tests, and some of that, about those tests at Eniwetok, and so on. And
he went on to say that they were developing something tremendous; but
he didn't say at that time what it was, whether he had heard of the hydrogen
bomb, or whether they had gone far enough for him to know anything about
it at that time,
I don't know.
HESS: Did he say anything specifically about what Secretary Stimson told
him or said to him at the time that he informed him?
AYERS: I don't recall that he ever went into that particularly, he may have.
HESS: But he really didn't know anything about it until that time?
AYERS: That's what he said. Now, it is true that Byrnes knew about it.
I think Byrnes wrote in his book that he thought he first heard about
it in the summer of 1943 from Roosevelt when he was director of the Office
of War Mobilization. And undoubtedly he did learn about it sometime during
that period because he was a member of that Interim Committee which Truman
appointed, but that wasn't until a little bit later. But it showed, I
think, that he had had some connection with it right along--it may not
have been that. That's speculation--but he had known about it; now, whether
anybody else that was close to Truman knew about it, I don't know. I don't
know whether Byrnes successor as director of War Mobilization, John Snyder,
knew about it or not. John Snyder was close to the President, and I think
I read somewhere, but now that is a very indistinct
they said that they mentioned it to the President before; but it may be
that somebody did say something to him, that there was a big project or
something like that after he became President.
HESS: Did he ever say anything about that intervening two-week period,
why he wasn't told, or how he felt because he wasn't told?
AYERS: No. Because Stimson told him practically as quickly as he could.
I think Stimson did say he wanted to see him or have an appointment with
him, but I am not sure just how that came about, but it seems to me there
was something. Now, between that period, after he became President, he
was seeing Admiral Leahy right along and he saw Jimmy Byrnes several times.
I don't imagine that Leahy ever said anything, although I don't know about
that, and he is gone; and I don't know whether anybody else--whether Charlie
Ross knew about it, I don't know -- strangely, I never talked to him about
it, because he was then, at the time of the explosion of the first bomb,
he was with the President on the Augusta on the way back from Potsdam.
The first announcement that I made, on that August 6th, was the one that
was with the President's statement, the first that was public in this
country; although, of course, the President was notified aboard the ship,
as you know.
HESS: As the note states.
AYERS: Now, the President got back the following day. He landed on August
7th at Norfolk and came up by train to the White House in the evening.
Now, on that night I know that I . .
HESS: Is this your '45 diary that you are looking at now?
AYERS: Yes. I know that Bill Hassett and I went over to the House about
eleven o'clock that night, and we went into one of the first floor rooms
there, and there were several others there, several members of the Cabinet:
Matt Connelly, waiting for the President to come back; Secretary of the
Treasury Vinson; Secretary of the Navy Forrestal; Secretary of Labor Schwellenbach;
Secretary of Agriculture Anderson; Tom Clark, Attorney General; Leo Crowley,
who was head of the Foreign Economic Administration. They were all down
there waiting for the President to come, and we had word that the ship
had landed at Newport News around five o'clock in the afternoon, and the
party took a train from there right out. It was, as I say, around eleven
o'clock when we went over there, and a few minutes after we went in and
went with the others, we knew that the President was on his way from the
train to the White House; so, we went out; I think Bill Hassett, Matt
Connelly and I went out to the entrance there at the south side
White House to greet him; and then he came in and after we shook hands,
he went in and met these Cabinet members and he said, "Come on up to the
room," to his study on the second floor, and we all went up there and
sat down--this might be interesting, I don't think it is on the record--the
first thing that he did when he went into that room was to go over to
the piano and sit down and just played a few measures. Then he got up
and he went to the telephone and called Mrs. Truman, and then he came
back and sat down, and we sat and talked.
HESS: What did he say at that time?
AYERS: Most of his talk was about the conference, and a lot of it about
Stalin. I don't think that the atomic bomb was mentioned. Now, that may
seem strange--it does to me now--but I don't think anybody mentioned it.
HESS: During that whole evening?
AYERS: Well, it wasn't too long a time. We sat there and had some drinks.
HESS: If he didn't mention the atomic bomb, what did he say about Stalin?
AYERS: As I say, the greatest interest seemed to be about Stalin, to
find out what he was like. He gave an impression that he was favorably
impressed with Stalin. He said that Stalin was one that if he said something
one time, he
would say the same thing the next time.
HESS: He thought he would be consistent.
AYERS: Yes. And he didn't feel the same way about Molotov, the Foreign
Minister, or Vishinsky.
HESS: What did he say about that time?
AYERS: He said that Byrnes got on well with Molotov, I don't think he
said anything more about that. He didn't think that the others were as
dependable as Stalin, and he felt this may have been in part because they
had to get Stalin's word before committing themselves anyway.
HESS: Did the other people that were there that did not go with him,
ask him questions at this time?
AYERS: Oh, yes. It was just an informal discussion. Just sitting there
talking casually, and he went on and told them about doing a little sightseeing
when he was there, and when Stalin traveled he said he was in a big limousine
with drawn curtains and guards posted about every fifty feet along the
road he traveled. He told of a dinner served by Stalin at which he said
everything in the way of foods was served, with vodka to begin with, and
champagne to end with. Someone asked him about the drinking and the many
toasts and he said actually Stalin did not seem to consume much liquor;
he said he had a small glass and he would drink a vodka and then fill
it with white wine. He said there wasn't any heavy drinking or anything
like that. And then somebody asked him about Churchill's defeat in the
election which took place.
HESS: What were his views on that?
AYERS: Well, he said that Churchill didn't expect it.
HESS: Did he say anything about Attlee? It has always been my impression
that Mr. Truman and Mr. Attlee got along rather well, and I wondered what
his impressions were of him at this time.
AYERS: Well, he didn't express any pronounced opinion there. Although
he seemed to like him well enough, that's what I noted afterwards. Ernest
Bevin, though, he compared to John L. Lewis. He thought he was rather
crude, uncouth. Stalin and Molotov, he said, might be rough men, but they
knew the common courtesies, but he thought Bevin was entirely lacking
HESS: When was it that he saw Molotov and told him that he wouldn't put
up with . . .
AYERS: That was before.
HESS: That was before. That was at the time of the San Francisco conference
that you showed me that note that he had written to you giving his impressions
of Molotov. That's right. That was at the time of the San Francisco conference.
AYERS: There's an interesting little thing. I don't know whether I should
put this in or not. When we got ready to leave, everybody else got out,
and Matt Connelly and I walked out with him. We chatted for several minutes
with him and he spoke of all the work he had ahead of him, and of the
troubles Congress was causing, and he commented some of those causing
him trouble were his friends; and that gave me a chance to say that I
thought with most Presidents the trouble came more from their friends
than it did from their enemies.
HESS What did he say then?
AYERS: The President agreed and said you could know what to expect from
your enemies and how to meet them. I think that is enough on that.
There is another thing that I wanted to mention because there has been
so much written about what Truman said to Stalin about the bomb. Of course,
he didn't tell Stalin about the bomb. Both he and Admiral Leahy,
both said that on--I don't know just which day it was of the conference
over there--it was on the session on July 24th, according to my notes,
that he walked over to Stalin, according to Leahy, "Told him quietly that
we had developed a powerful weapon, more potent than anything yet seen
in the war." Now, that agrees with what the President said.
said substantially the same thing, that Stalin's reply indicated no special
interest and he kind of passed it off. I have thought a lot about that,
and it doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody else, but I just had the
feeling that maybe Stalin knew about the bomb.
HESS: I believe--as far as I know--that that is the story now, because
the reason that he did not express very much interest or very much surprise
is because he knew about it.
AYERS: Exactly. That's my thought. You see that Dr. Klaus Fuchs . . .
HESS: He had transmitted the information already and Stalin knew about
the explosion out in Alamogordo already.
AYERS: That's my belief.
HESS: Did you ever hear Mr. Truman say anything about Stalin's reactions
at that time other than what you just have here?
HESS: In your later conversations with him?
AYERS: No. I don't think so. We didn't have much occasion to talk about
it after that.
HESS: That subject didn't come up, that you recall right now?
AYERS: I don't recall anything. The only other reference that I have,
in that first day's knowledge, was what Stimson
himself wrote. I think
Charlie Ross had made some notes, which I believe are at the Library,
but I don't believe they are available to anybody yet; and I never was
able to get at any records the President had on the atomic bomb, although
he said I could see anything I wanted to, but I couldn't get by Miss Conway
on that. I don't know that I ever asked her specifically for anything
on the atomic bomb because I knew I wouldn't get it out of her. That was
about all on the atomic bomb.
HESS: Mr. Ayers, last week we were discussing the operations of the press
office and the functions of the press office. Do you have a little more
that you would like to add on that general subject?
AYERS: Well, I may be a little repetitive but there are a few things
I might mention of what we did from day to day. It was a rather loose
arrangement, but there were certain things that I did, certain things
that Charlie did, and I am speaking of that period when Charlie Ross was
HESS: 1945 to '50.
AYERS: That was '45 to '50, yes.
HESS: What were a few of those things? I don't want to interrupt your
chain of thought. Could you give me a few examples?
AYERS: One of the big things, of course, in the press office is the contact
with the press. Now, that isn't limited to just the people who came to
the White House, but we were always getting queries by telephone, many
of which came to me, some to Charlie Ross, or were switched back and forth.
Then, there were queries from other people, and then there is the correspondence,
which is very heavy, of course, as everybody knows, in the White House.
When I went in, my predecessor had not written as many letters as his
predecessor, who was Bill Hassett--Hassett had been with Steve Early;
and then Hassett was made a secretary to the President by Roosevelt, and
Tom Blake of the State Department came in, as I said earlier, I think;
but Blake didn't write as many letters; he was inclined to refer a lot
of the correspondence to what we called the staff room, which is, I guess,
called the correspondence room.
HESS: He was assistant press secretary?
AYERS: Yes, after Hassett, he came in, and I succeeded him.
HESS: When Jonathan Daniels came in.
AYERS: No, before that.
AYERS: It was Early. He (Blake) was the one who had come from the State
Department and was--well, as Early told
me, FDR insisted on his making
a change and so he was called back to the State Department by Stettinius,
who was Secretary of State. But Tom didn't write as many letters; he would
refer them to that correspondence room where most of the letters are written.
They are not exactly form letters, but in that day--I don't know whether
there has been a change since or not--but a great bulk of the letters
that came were referred from the mail room to different offices and a
great number of them went to that room. Many of those letters in reply
were written by those girls, some of whom had been there for years and
were very good at it, and then they had guides, too; and then many were
signed, I think, by Hassett, and it was much easier to just send a letter
up there and let them write the reply. When I took over, I didn't like
that arrangement because so many of these letters were referred to our
office, and I didn't like altogether the form that was followed in many
of them, it was rather stilted I thought; so, I gradually found myself
writing more and more and more letters. Of course, Charlie Ross helped.
I wrote many, which Charlie signed and many that I signed myself. Charlie,
of course, had letters come to him personally, which he would answer,
from old friends and newspapermen, and some letters that
he should pass
on. Then, too, any inquiries that came in having to do with the President
from newspapermen or newspaper editors around the country, they came to
us. I handled many of them. And there were requests of all kinds; requests
for the President to do this, or do that, many of which we could answer--the
President never saw. We wrote many letters, either Charlie or I, for the
President's signature, to a newspaper, under certain conditions. When
a newspaper would write in and say, "We are going to be a hundred years
old on the Fourth of July. Could we have a letter from the President?"
Charlie or I would write the letter. I wrote many and Charlie wrote many,
and then he, the President, signed them, and they were run on the front
pages of their papers on their anniversary or whatever the occasion might
be. We did a lot of that sort of thing.
Then, there was the accreditation of newspapermen. Now, I handled practically
all of those applications for accreditation, for a White House pass. We
had a rule, which I don't know whether it is still followed or not, but
at that time, we wouldn't consider any unless they had already been admitted
to the congressional press galleries and passed the committees there;
then practically all of those came to me. If they seemed all right,
put an okay on them and they then went to the Secret Service and the Secret
Service were the ones who issued the White House cards which admitted
the newspapermen to the White House. We had, too, the matter of admitting
visitors--accrediting visitors--because at practically every press conference
there would be some newspaper visitors in town, and their representatives
would ask if they could bring John Jones, their editor or their publisher,
to the press conference, and we would approve them.
HESS: Did you ever have any trouble when someone of that nature, not
a regular White House staff man, but a visitor, would ask an embarrassing
question of the President at a press conference? Did that ever come up?
AYERS: Only this morning I was thinking about that, because there was
one occasion and I would like to find any notes I might have made on it.
I don't know that I did make any, but there was a press conference, and
I don't know when it was held, but it was while they were still being
held in the President's office, when there was some fellow in the back
of the room suddenly blatted out a question of some kind, way out of line
it was. I don't remember what happened, whether the Secret Service quieted
him and sent him out or how, and afterwards I tried to find
out how he
got there. He was cleared in some way; but it is all rather dim in my
mind now, but that is one of the few times--whether there was ever any
other, I don't recall, but that one stood out in my mind because it was
a most unusual thing. It was rare that anybody could get in who would
do that; it was almost impossible. There were frequently some problems
about the accrediting of newspapermen or people who wanted to be accredited.
HESS: What were your prerequisites there? What did you require of a newspaperman
to be accredited besides having been accredited up on the Hill?
AYERS: Of course, that relieved us of a lot, because they had to be regular
correspondents to be accredited up there, and there wasn't much else.
The Secret Service would know if there was anything far enough out of
I had a peculiar experience with one man. He had applied for a card.
I don't know whether he had held one before or not. I think he may have.
I have forgotten what he represented--what paper. He applied and I don't
know how I knew--whether the Secret Service called it to my attention
or not, but he wanted it in the name he was using which was not his real
HESS: He was using an alias, as the criminals call it--pen name--how
about a pen name?
AYERS: Well, it was more of a pen name than an alias really. I turned
it down to begin with, and he came in and we had a rather hot and heavy
argument. I said, "Why can't you use your own name?" I couldn't really
discover why he wanted to use the other; I think he was using the other
in most of his . . . I found that there was no legal bar to his doing
that. Anybody apparently can take any name he wants--well, I suppose that's
the case with a lot of these movie actors and people.
HESS: Did he ever get accredited?
AYERS: Now, that's. what I can't remember--what happened in the end.
I think I kind of passed the buck to the Secret Service partly; but then
we had misuse of the cards on a couple of occasions.
HESS: How was that?
AYERS: Well, one was a case of a girl reporter, I believe it was. She
failed to pay a bill at one of the department stores, where she had used
her White House press card for identification purposes, also, for, I suppose,
a little bit of prestige . .
HESS: Prestige purpose as well as identification purposes.
AYERS: I suppose she paid her bill. I don't think we ever
about it really, because it wasn't our funeral if she used it, except
that we might jump on her for misusing it.
Then, one day the Secret Service came in--one of the men came in--I think
he was the chief of the White House detail, and he tossed a paper down
on my desk, and he said, "Take a look at that one."
I did. It was a copy of a police report of a Washington correspondent
for a metropolitan newspaper--and this is not a very pleasant thing--he
had been arrested on a sex perversion charge. It was the most sickening
thing, the details that were in there. I read it--I had to--and I went
into Charlie Ross and I said, "I've got one here I'm not even going to
let you read it, it's too rotten."
As he always said, "You go ahead and do whatever you want to do with it."
I guess we went a little farther than that. I said, "Well, I don't see
where there is anything we can do, or should do, he doesn't come around
I didn't even know who he was. He had been accredited sometime to this
paper, which was a daily paper, but it was more a trade type of paper.
He may have been around at times, maybe a press conference or something,
didn't know the fellow. And Charlie agreed with me.
He said, "Let's do nothing about it. Let his paper take care of it if
they know about it, and if they didn't know about it . . . " So, we never
did anything about it; never heard any more except I saw--oh, sometime
after--where he had been transferred to his home office. Whether they
ever knew it, I don't know. But we had things like that to handle.
HESS: What were some of your other jobs?
AYERS: Well, we handled the news releases to see that they were prepared,
HESS: This is all White House news releases?
AYERS: White House news releases, statements by the President, speeches
by the President. We put the release on them, and handed them out to the
press, and all that sort of thing; answered their queries, they were always,
every day, some of them, coming in, come to the door and say, "Can I see
you?" Come in and have some queries. All sorts of, anything that anybody
might feel like passing over to us, why we handled or tried to.
HESS: How often did Mr. Ross have his own press conference?
AYERS: Oh, we had one every morning.
HESS: Every morning.
AYERS: Either he or I. If he was there, he held it, I
would be in with
him. If he wasn't there, I held it; usually about ten or ten thirty.
HESS: How were those conducted?
AYERS: They were very informal things, but they were conducted upon about
the same general plan as any press conference would be. The men would
gather what news we might have up to that time. Some things might be held
for release, presidential appointments that he was making or sending up
to the Senate, or appointing to some other job, all sorts of things; of
any statements we might have, any formal statements. Oh, we always had
the day's appointment list, presidential appointment list. We would go
down through that, fill them in on who so-and-so was and what he was in
for, if we knew; if it was just a courtesy call or if they were coming
in to take up something with him. We would go down through that list and
then answer questions they would bring up, if we could; and sometimes
they could be pretty rough. That was attended always by--well, the group
varied in size depending on what the news situation was, depending on
whether the President was in town or not. If he wasn't and if Charlie
was away, it would be like it was at the time of the atomic bomb announcement,
they would be the regulars who would represent the press
there would be one from each of them and there would be one from each
of the Washington papers, the Star and the Post usually
in the morning, and the New York Times and maybe the Herald
Tribune, and two or three others, and maybe some radio--one or two
of them. Of course, now, I suppose there are many more men from the radio
and TV than there were in our days; of course, we didn't have any TV.
The first TV broadcast that was ever made from the White House was made
by Truman, but we didn't have it as it is now. That was an event then.
HESS: Was there ever much of a problem with the newsmen going to someone
else on the staff, other than the members of the press office, seeking
information? Did that come up very often? Was that much of a problem?
AYERS: Well, it was an annoying thing to us.
HESS: Did it happen very often?
AYERS: Occasionally, but there was nothing much we could do about it.
We didn't attempt to do much of anything about it. It happened, I think;
it depended on who that staff member was whether he was building himself
up, cultivating the news people, or whether they had gone to him to try
to find out something. We had trouble, too, with leaks.
HESS: Tell me about some of the leaks.
AYERS: Well, I would want to look up one that is in my mind specifically--that
was early. Charlie Ross wasn't there. It was a story that came out one
morning about, I think it was a message sent to Stalin, and there was
a morning paper story about it. Now, I could tell who that was, but I
would rather have it before me to be sure of the facts; and of course,
it got a play and the newspapermen were on our necks to know about it.
The truth was that the story was pretty accurate--obviously it was a leak.
I remember Admiral Leahy coming into me and we were talking about it and
he said it was pretty accurate. And he said, "You know what I'd do?"
And I said, "Yeah, I know what you'd do--what I'd like to do, if I had
HESS: What's that?
AYERS: To find out who it was and take some action. It presumably came
from somebody in the State Department somewhere, you know, somebody who
knew about it. That sort of thing happened.
HESS: Did you have much trouble with leaks right in the White House--members
of the White House staff?
AYERS: Well, it is a little hard to answer--to say that we had trouble
with it. There were such things. Again, as I say, by some who were out
trying to . . .
HESS: Trying to build themselves up.
AYERS: There were some stories that appeared at different times about
things that happened in the staff meetings in the morning and that limited
it pretty much; and I always had an idea and I think Charlie Ross did,
but we never, either one of us, mentioned any names to each other in talking
about it, because we didn't want to be in a position of saying that so-and-so
was the . . .
HESS: Trying to prove it.
AYERS: You couldn't prove it. To this day, I am not too sure.
HESS: Care to say whom you suspect?
AYERS: I'd rather not.
HESS: I thought I'd better ask that because it is an obvious question.
AYERS: Yes, surely. Well, I thought at the time one man, and then later
I thought, well, there are two, and it might have been one or the other,
and as I've thought since, it might have been one of three different men.
HESS: What led you to suspect those particular men? This may be getting
a little far afield, but I just thought it might be interesting.
AYERS: Well, that is a little hard to say, too, but you know if you were
in a group day after day you'd begin to--if it was supposedly a confidential
gathering every day and then
you began to hear things that were said there,
wouldn't you, even though you had no way of proving anything, you would,
after a time, begin to have a feeling about who that probably was that
did that; and yet I don't know to this day for sure.
HESS: Were these things of substance that were being leaked? Important
AYERS: Well, they were nice items for a column.
HESS: Were they usually leaked to one columnist; one particular columnist?
AYERS: I think I would say yes, but I'd rather not say which one, again.
That sort of thing happened. Then there was one incident--I think that
this was an inadvertent one perhaps, by a member of the staff who perhaps
didn't have enough experience with newspaper people. But Tony Vaccaro
of the Associated Press sprang a good story one morning--or one day, I
don't know whether it came out in the morning or at night, I think in
the morning. As I recall it was predicting that Johnson, the Secretary
of Defense, was going to be out, which was true. It hadn't been brought
out that he was out, or he hadn't even been fired yet when that story
came out, but it came out all right.
HESS: He left in September of '50, shortly after the Korean war got underway.
AYERS: Well, I've got quite a lot of that.
He was fired by President Truman and it was only a few days after this
story. Now somebody, I'm not sure who, I never asked Tony and you don't
ask a newspaperman who his sources are ordinarily--one or two I could
have done it in confidence and gotten an answer. I always thought it was
the President himself, unwittingly.
AYERS: Yes. Or one member of the staff to whom Tony might have said,
"Is Johnson going to be fired," or "Is Johnson going to get out?" Something
like that. And he might have said, "Yes," not realizing what he was doing
and that he was talking to a newsman who was going to use it.
HESS: Was a so-called "leak" ever planted to bring about some action
like this? Do you see what I mean?
AYERS: Yes, I see what you mean. Not to my knowledge. In our time, and
I don't know of that ever being done in the White House. Maybe some individual
there might have had some self-serving purpose, may have done some such
thing, I don't know; maybe some of those leaks that came out of the staff
meetings--that might have been the case, I don't know. Then, I think,
there may have been some leaks from other individuals around there, now
and then. One of the things that bothered us in the beginning of
administration, was not a leak problem as such, but when Byrnes became
Secretary of State, which was almost immediately, he had a habit of running
over from the State Department which was, of course, only across the alley
really--across Executive Avenue, to the President, to see the President
about something. Maybe he had something he wanted the President to okay
that he was going to do, and he would go directly to the President; and
the President, having no experience as President before, would maybe okay
it and Byrnes would go back; then he would make an announcement over in
the State Department, and then newspapermen would come to us; then we
would discover that it had been done and that was very . . .
HESS: Since you had been bypassed you didn't know anything about it.
AYERS: That's it. And it was rather embarrassing for us. Here was the
press office in the White House and we didn't know what the President
was doing. There were things like that. He wouldn't even stop. The normal
thing was for anything like that coming from the State Department to the
President, was for it to be sent over to the executive clerk in charge,
Mr. Latta, at that time, who would take it to the President. Then it would
go back, but we
would be--Mr. Latta would see that we were informed if
we should be--or we could find out by going right in there and saying,
"Mr. Latta, do you know anything about it?"
And he would say, "Yeah, sure."
That was stopped finally. I don't know how. Whether he got out of the
habit or whether somebody suggested--Charlie Ross may have suggested it
to the President. I don't know, I never found out. It was an annoying
thing then, just like that; we had those problems, but those were not
HESS: Anything else on the general subject of leaks in the White House
come to your mind?
AYERS: I think I may have been the victim for a while of suspicion. I
don't know for certain. One morning the President made a little statement--I
don't remember what it was or how; but the implication was that he wanted
to limit the number of people there, or something of that sort. That may
have been all there was to it.
HESS: Was this at his morning staff meeting?
AYERS: Yes. Apparently because of leaks or something of that kind. Well,
I took it upon myself not to go in for a while. I told Charlie I wouldn't
go in, and I had quite a talk with Matt Connelly about it. Of course,
Matt was on my side and I told him how I felt. And then, suddenly, one
morning Charlie said, "You come into that press conference with me. You're
coming in there."
And I said, "All right."
And from that day on I was there everyday, again.
What I was going to say when I started to interrupt was, and, I think,
this probably happens with any sudden change in administration at least.
The incoming crowd and the crowd whom they are replacing, are suspicious
of each other. And that's without regard to whether they are of opposite
political parties or not. We had that feeling about--those of us who had
been there under Roosevelt--that the people who come in--some of them,
not all of them, I never saw it on the part of the President himself--but
some of the others didn't seem to be ready to trust the people who were
there under Roosevelt.
HESS: They were suspicious of the holdovers?
AYERS: Yes. And the result was that some of the people that were held
over were--I don't know whether to say suspicious, but they were uncertain
and distrustful of what was going to happen to them, and what was going
to happen around there, and I think that might have been a little hangover
in this particular instance.
HESS: Was this fairly early in the administration?
AYERS: I can't tell you. It must have been fairly early, yes.
HESS: l945 or '46.
AYERS: Somewhere along in there perhaps. I'll run onto it when I get
up to that, because I had forgotten all about it.
Now, at that time one man who was coming in, not necessarily every day,
but most of the time for a period there, was George Allen. I think that
there may have been a feeling, maybe Charlie had it, maybe I did, maybe
he was the leak, we didn't know.
HESS: How long did he attend the morning press conferences?
AYERS: Again, that is one of the things that I wanted to check on. I
could tell you about who was coming in on the staff meetings at the start
and for sometime, because it changed, of course, as personnel changed
on the President's staff itself; but I think that I'd like to leave that
until a little later and go into this because I've got a list of who attended
and I think it would be rather interesting to record it.
HESS: And also, some of the important things that may have come up at
some of the various press conferences, we can get into that at a later
date in one of our later interviews. Think that pretty well covers the
subject of leaks?
AYERS: I guess so.
HESS: What other jobs did you have, what other tasks? I think that's
where we got off of that. You were in charge of accrediting the people,
and then we discussed Charlie Ross and your morning press conferences.
AYERS: We arranged any details there might be for the President's press
conferences, of course. We went over that once before, though, about going
over with him before. Arranged for the introduction of visitors to the
President after the press conference--oh, I suppose I could think of other
HESS: How do you think the members of the working press viewed Mr. Truman's
use of the press conference as opposed to how it had been run in the past;
as perhaps it is run in the present day; do you think they liked the format
that he had?
AYERS: I think so. Certainly better than what it has been in recent years.
It followed practically the same format as the Roosevelt conferences.
Roosevelt held them twice a week usually, when he was there. Truman's
were limited to once a week ordinarily, but he followed about the same
pattern. He always stood up. Of course, Roosevelt had to sit in his chair;
but otherwise, he followed just about the same pattern I would say.
It got so that the problem, the big problem, was a physical one; the
space available; his own office there. They crowded in there and they
were jammed right up in front of his desk and sometimes so many that they
could hardly move, and the acoustics were not too good in his office,
I knew that from experience. At certain points in the room you couldn't
hear anything hardly--in the middle of the room--so it was largely those
things and the President's own feelings about being so crowded that we
arranged eventually to move over to the Old State Building.
HESS: Did any of the reporters let you know ahead of time--occasionally,
usually--that they were going to ask a particular question?
AYERS: Oh yes, occasionally. Well, it was not too uncommon for them to
come in and say they wanted to ask a question about this or that, and
it was helpful because it gave a chance to prepare the answer, or suggest
the answer, for the President to be prepared; and once in a great while,
this was rare with us, although I think it has been more frequent perhaps
with some others, to plant a question with one of them when he wanted
something to say about something, but he didn't want just to drag it in.
HESS: You say that was done, but it was rarely done?
AYERS: Not at all common. It wasn't, I would say, uncommon, but neither
was it common. It wasn't any regular thing.
HESS: The President was often accused of "shooting from the hip" when
he answered some questions by reporters in some of his news conferences.
AYERS: That's true.
HESS: Did his tendency to answer questions in that manner cause any special
concern, give any special concern to the members of the press office?
AYERS: Yes, it did.
HESS: Could you tell me about that, or can you think of an instance perhaps
when the President spoke before he thought? Just how was it handled?
AYERS: There wasn't anything you could do at the time. Once in a while
it was necessary, on a few occasions, to make a clarifying statement later,
but most of the time those "shooting from the hip" answers didn't do any
harm. There were a few occasions when it would have been better had he
not made them, and I can remember Charlie Ross saying to me onetime, "I
wish he wouldn't do that."
HESS: Do you remember what that occasion was?
AYERS: I don't remember what that specifically was, no. I
know that I've got a note on some of them
somewhere in my stuff. I'd have to look them up.
HESS: Were there any members of the press that seemed to have Mr. Truman's
AYERS: I think we spoke about that the other day. I don't know that they
had his special favor other than as I told you about Tony Vaccaro of the
Associated Press who had covered him in the Senate; who was up at the
apartment the first morning after Roosevelt's death and he took him aboard
his car to ride down to the White House; and Tony always seemed to be--well,
more or less--one of his favorites. I wouldn't say that he played favorites
very much. I don't think Tony benefited very much from that except on
that first occasion. There were some that he didn't care much for, but
he never made it evident in any way. That is, I mean, that he never made
it evident to them, I don't think he did. He jumped on one or two at different
press conferences. I remember Duke Shoop of the Kansas City Star.
I remember he jumped on him one time for some question, that was after
I left the press office--I was at the press conference, though. He jumped
on him rather heavily.
HESS: Anyone else that he didn't care for?
AYERS: Well, I know one or two that he didn't have too much
but he didn't really dislike them or hate them. He couldn't ordinarily
hold any grudge very long. There were only a few people that I know of
that he did, and they weren't newspaper people as far as I know; except
the publishers, he had no regard for the Chicago Tribune type.
HESS: Once a year he used to have a press conference for the publishers,
AYER: Well, when they met here. They used to hold--either the editors
or the publishers used to hold their meetings here, their annual meeting--and
he would meet them. Well, on one occasion he spoke at their dinner, and
I don't know whether there were more than that or not.
HESS: Can you think of any other assignments, any other things that might
complete the picture, help to fill in the picture of the duties of a member
of the press office?
AYERS: Well, they might advise the President on press matters or they
might arrange an appointment for some newspaper editor from out of town,
or some of those things. No, it was pretty much of a day-to-day thing,
outside, as I say, of this great mass of correspondence; the routine of
that, and the routine of telephone calls; acknowledging letters from people;
occasional gifts to the President,
although most of that gift stuff was
not handled by the press office. I remember that after FDR's death, Miss
Grace Tully, who was his personal secretary, and was, of course, leaving--in
her office, her little office which was taken over, of course, by Miss
Conway, there was the greatest pile up of things in there--pictures, and
so on, that had been sent in to FDR. I remember there was a picture that
he was going to sign, autograph, for one of the newspapermen, who was
a nice fellow and deserving of it. All that stuff was piled up in there
and it was all handed to me to dispose of. All this stuff that had to
be sent back to people--you know, pictures--every spare minute for the
next few weeks, I was writing letters to people telling them how sorry
we were, but . . . I suppose I'll think of lots of things . . .
HESS: We can add these in on some of the later interviews. One question
here. On Charlie Ross' death in December of 1950, why was Joe Short appointed
AYERS: When you get that answer, give it to me, will you?
HESS: When I get the answer, you want me to give it to you? What had
been his background?
AYERS: I don't know Joe's early background, but he did work for the Associated
Press in the Baltimore bureau. He wasn't head of the bureau, but he worked in it.
I am not sure whether he left that to go with the--Chicago Sun,
was it--because I know he talked to me about it after he had that job
with the Chicago paper, whatever it was; and he was unhappy in that, and
he finally left that and landed with the Baltimore Sun, which is
where he was at the time that he was appointed press secretary. That was
his background, as far as I know.
HESS: When Mr. Ross died, did they bring Mr. Stephen Early back for a
couple of days? I have it on my records that . . .
AYERS: I think we went into that before. Yes, he came back in, as I think
I explained, to take care of the President's conferences with Attlee,
who was here at the time, and that is what he was brought in for. Charlie
Ross had been doing that while I took care of the rest of the affairs
of the office, and when Steve came back that time, that is what he did;
and he went out of his way, as a matter of fact, to say that he was not
taking over the press office, that was my job as far as he was concerned.
That's what he did. He briefed the reporters on those conferences.
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