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
May 16, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission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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Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts
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Oral History Interview with
May 16, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: For our first topic for today let's talk about Key West. Did you
accompany the President on his trips to Key West?
AYERS: On some of the trips, not all of them. Occasionally I went down
with Charlie Ross also. Both of us would be there. On some trips Charlie
went alone and I stayed at the White House and on one or two trips I went
and Charlie stayed.
HESS: How was the business of the press office carried on at Key West?
AYERS: Well, it was carried on in much the same way as in Washington
except we didn't get the calls we would get in Washington. It was much,
basically, the same routine. We usually had one press conference with
the men that were down there during the day and possibly more than that.
Usually we went over to the B.O.Q., the Bachelor Officers' Quarters, where
the newspapermen stayed and had a press conference there. Usually there
wasn't too much news, but if there was any, we had it to give out--they
had their questions.
HESS: Now, the President usually held his weekly press conference on
Thursday when he was at Key West, did he not?
AYERS: I think so. I would have to check back, I'm not sure of that.
He had held some.
HESS: Whether he held them as regularly as he did in Washington, I'm
not sure myself. I should look that up, but I know that they did hold
press conferences in Key West. Did they also have a pre-press briefing
before those conferences in Key West just like they did in the White House?
AYERS: Oh, it was far more informal. I don't think we ever did; I don't
recall having any, and I know that on occasion the press conference was
held out on the lawn of the Little White House. We usually would go over
to the B.O.Q.--Charlie Ross or I--and held our press conferences there.
I don't know whether the President ever went over to the B.O.Q. to hold
one or not. It was only a few steps away from the Little White House.
HESS: I think he did.
AYERS: I think he went over there on occasion.
HESS: I've gone through Commander Rigdon's logs of Key West to see when
you were down there, and he has it that you were there on the trip in
February to March of 1948.
AYERS: That's right. That's the one where he went to the Caribbean isn't it?
HESS: Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Key West.
AYERS: I went on that one. Charlie Ross didn't go on that.
HESS: Did you make that full swing?
AYERS: I did. I made all of that.
HESS: Do you recall anything, is there anything that comes to mind about
that particular trip?
AYERS: Well, nothing that isn't covered, I think, probably in Rigdon's
logs, I don't recall anything special. There's nothing out of the ordinary
HESS: And Rigdon has it that you were along on the fifth trip which is
November the 7th to the 21st of 1948, just after the election.
AYERS: Yes, I was there on that.
HESS: Do you recall anything in particular on that? What was the President's
mood just after his big victory?
AYERS: Well, a happy one, I would say.
HESS: That's no great surprise is it?
AYERS: No, I don't think so. I think everybody was happy. That trip was
a little bit different in that there were some people down there who weren't
there at other times, men like Jonathan Daniels were there that time;
he had worked in the campaign. Bill Bray, and Dawson I think was down
there; he wasn't there usually. He was there, I think, the last one or
two, maybe when the President
tried to get most of the staff down for
a few days.
HESS: What part did William Bray play in the campaign, do you recall?
AYERS: No, I don't know, to tell the truth. I think he worked perhaps
more with the committee, Democratic National Committee, than he did directly
with the White House. He may have worked with Matt Connelly.
HESS: I think he had some functions dealing with the train, but I'm not
AYERS: He might have had something to do with working out the schedules
or something of that sort. I really don't know.
HESS: Who else was along that didn't normally make the trip? Wait just
a minute before we go on here. You mentioned Jonathan Daniels, is that
HESS: I'm not sure if we've already covered this on our tape before.
Why was he brought back to help in the 1948 campaign?
AYERS: I think we went into that.
HESS: So that's already back on there. I thought that I had asked the
question, but I wasn't sure if I did or not.
AYERS: I think I did perhaps the last session we had. I think we went
into that as much as I knew about it which
wasn't too much. I know that
Jonathan was on some of the trips. I know that he was on that one big
swing around the country.
HESS: The western trip?
AYERS: Yes, the one that went back down into Texas. But let's see, others
who were down there at that time besides the regular staff--Mrs. Truman
and Margaret came down and they were there part of the time. They didn't
come down on a plane, they went down by train because Mrs. Truman didn't
like flying. They went down to Miami by train and, I think, Admiral Dennison
brought them back down. I'm trying to think who else did come down at
that time. Oh, Barkley came down and Biffle came down, Les Biffle. Barkley
stayed at the Little White House where the regular staff--where I stayed
and most of the others stayed. Of course they had to rearrange things.
I think the aides, the military people, Harry Vaughan's people, I think
they stayed on the Williamsburg down there, and I think Biffle
stayed--there was another house there that was used some of the time,
I've forgotten what they called it, but it was right near the Little White
House, and that was used some of the time. It was used on late trips in
'51, I guess, anyway, when he brought down others of the staff.
HESS: On Barkley and Biffle, were they pretty close politically?
AYERS: Oh, yes.
HESS: Do you recall anything about that, anything that might not be known?
AYERS: I don't think so. I think that is pretty generally known. Barkley
was a delightful guest, because he was always full of stories. He didn't
participate in the card games; he usually watched the movies at night
and some of us played cards. I don't think that Biffle was there very
long. But Biffle had been close to the President. You know, it was a custom
of Biffle's in political campaigns before the elections, to start out
around the country and sound out sentiment. He was pretty good at that.
HESS: I understand before the '48 campaign he dressed up as a chicken
farmer and took an old truck and went around.
AYERS: I had heard that.
HESS: Did you ever hear him say anything about that?
AYERS: No, I don't recall ever hearing him talk about it. I never talked
to him about it.
HESS: Was the President's routine in Key West any different when Mrs.
Truman would go than it was when she would
tay in Washington?
AYERS: No, I think it was just about the same.
HESS: He still played cards?
AYERS: Oh, yes. Now, Margaret, when we went--the routine was a pretty
fixed routine; in the morning you came to breakfast whenever--I'm speaking
of the people who lived in the Little White House--you came to breakfast
when you wanted to and if you got up early enough, you'd find the President
there, maybe he'd be there alone. More than once I'd come down and he'd
be alone and we would have breakfast, and then somebody else would drift
in, Admiral Leahy usually was there pretty early.
HESS: Was the President usually the first one there?
AYERS: I think so, I couldn't swear to it because I never was, I think.
HESS: You didn't always get up and check on him.
AYERS: He was always an early riser you know, and there'd be breakfast
and there'd be a lot of, as the others trailed in, a lot of talk--light
talk--joking and that sort of thing and then at 10 o'clock everybody would
be ready and walk from the house to the beach and swim and sit around
and talk. That would last, I guess, close to noon, and then usually we
rode back. Some
of them had a net there and they would play volleyball
and when Margaret was there, she joined them, the Secret Service boys
and some others more active of the staff might get into the game. Then
they'd go back to the house and about 1 o'clock they'd come down and there
would be lunch. After lunch it was siesta. The President took a nap and
those others who wanted to did whatever they wanted to--either took a
nap or maybe ran downtown or just sat around, but they gathered at 4 o'clock
and then they'd play poker usually till around an hour before dinnertime,
maybe from 4 until around 6 or something like that. Then they'd get dressed--I
don't mean in any formal dress, but they'd slick up a little and come
down and have a cocktail perhaps, and then have dinner; and then after
dinner, played poker in the evening--always quit around 11 o'clock, I
think, at the latest, and that was about the routine day in and day out.
HESS: Was there very much business conducted at Key West?
AYERS: Well, that depended on what business needed to be done. There
was a direct line to the White House and there was a courier bringing
the mail. That mail would come in by courier and Bill Rigdon usually took
care of the mail, opened it and had it ready for the President
sit in the living room by himself and Bill and go over the mail; of course,
if Bill Hassett was there, there might be things that he would take care
of, that is, some correspondence, but it was largely routine matters,
the things that the President had to sign and all that sort of thing.
It usually didn't take too much time, but then there might be things come
up and they were handled much as they would have been handled in Washington--something
that the President might have to go into with John Steelman, you see,
or with Clark Clifford or something like that. There weren't too many
things that press officers, whoever they might be, Charlie Ross or I,
ordinarily had to bother with. And that was about the routine. On Sunday
there would be chapel or church. The President usually went to chapel
HESS: I understand there was one time when some newsmen chartered a helicopter
. . .
AYERS: I was going to say there was one instance that arose out of that.
HESS: Were you there at the time?
AYERS: I was there at that time and so was Charlie Ross. We were both
there at that time.
HESS: What do you recall of that?
AYERS: That was on--what trip was that--March, 1949 trip, I think.
HESS: March 6th to the 19th. I have it down here in Rigdon's log.
AYERS: I thought it was March, 1949. Well, we were at the beach when
this blimp. . .
HESS: That's right, it was a blimp.
AYERS: . . . came flying over and it was fairly low and we could see
there were photographers in it; and on their first trip there wasn't any
special to-do; I remember they waved and I think those of us that were
sitting on the beach waved to them, and then it finally occurred to somebody--I
don't know who was the first one--but that was not a very good thing to
happen. There were the newsreel photographers aboard, and they were clearly
taking pictures from up in the air there of the people on the beach. I
don't know who got excited first, whether it was Charlie Ross or Admiral
Dennison or Jim Rowley, the present head of the Secret Service, who was
then chief of the White House detail, but they suddenly realized that
that was not a very good idea, I suppose from the security standpoint
if nothing else. Charlie, I know, was particularly excited about it and
I think Dennison was quite concerned and I don't recall--Rowley was obviously
as concerned as they were, but in any event they dashed away and got in
touch with, I think, the base at Boca Chica Airport and ordered that blimp
to stay in the air until they got over there. So they kept them up there.
Well, they went over to the airport and when the blimp came down and the
photographers got out--I wasn't there, so I only know this second hand--but
anyway, they told them they couldn't use those pictures. Well, there was
something, I guess, of a flare up on the part of the photographers, and
the still photographers took their pictures out and exposed them so that
theirs were no good, and they took the films from the newsreel men. Well,
that ended that for the moment, but the photographers went back and they
told all the news correspondents and then there was a wild to-do about
it, and they were charging confiscation of the films, and censorship,
and all that sort of thing. Well, I think it was finally decided, I don't
recall exactly what happened, but I know there was a news press conference
which Charlie Ross conducted and I was there. I think the photographers
claimed they got permission to make this flight, and they said, I believe,
that the permission was given by Hassett and Rigdon; but I think on the
other side it was claimed no knowledge that they were going to make
They were given permission to make a flight in the blimp. In any case,
the films were to be processed and we were to look them over--I think
this happened early in the week--anyway, Charlie Ross was going over near
Fort Myers, somewhere over on the gulf shore to see his sister, and on
that day he left, and I was there, and these films had been processed
and they were brought into the White House and Admiral Dennison and I--I
guess most everybody was there--viewed them. I confess that I was not
greatly disturbed about anything that the films showed. They showed these
figures--you could barely make out who they were, as a matter of fact--in
the water and on the beach, and I think in the end we didn't object to
their going ahead and using them. But, of course, the basic question was
the matter of security involved in that, and we've had enough evidence
of it in the last few years as to why that should have been a matter of
concern. I think that probably, from the standpoint of the President's
staff, particularly the Secret Service and the Navy, that they were justified
from a security standpoint, the Navy as a matter of national security
for a big base, and the Secret Service for the safety of the President.
At the end you thought it was something of a tempest in the teapot, but
there was justification for what was done. It might have been
handled more tactfully perhaps than it was at the time. I think that same
day after the showing of the pictures, I went to the B.O.Q. and I had
a rough time of it with one or two photographers--one who was especially
nasty about it. He was finally shut up by a correspondent himself. I'd
rather not mention his name. He was trying to do his job and all the way
through it he was very mad. He was very, very obnoxious about it. I think
he was shut up by a news correspondent. That is about all there was to
HESS: There was a time or two when the President attended Charlie Ross'
press conferences and represented himself as the representative of the
Federal Register, isn't that correct?
AYERS: I don't remember that, but now that you speak about it I do recall
hearing something of the kind. I may have heard him say that.
HESS: I wondered if there was anything that came to mind about that?
AYERS: I don't recall that.
HESS: And Rigdon's log has it that you were down there on November the
8th to December the 9th of 1951.
AYERS: That is not quite correct. The President went down on November
8th and stayed until December 9th. During
this period he had most everyone
who had any White House connection--assistants of various kinds under
Steelman and Charlie Murphy--for a few days. I went down on November 28th
on the plane with General Graham, Philleo Nash and a couple of others--Charles
Jackson and Harold Enarson, of Steelman's staff, as I recall. Because
of the number many of these extra people stayed in what was known as "Quarters
L," a house near the Little White House. I was there; it was the first
time I had ever been quartered other than in the Little White House.
The trip of which we were talking, when the incident involving the blimp
and the photographers occurred, was that of March, 1949. Because of the
death of my wife's mother, I did not go down with the President, as my
wife and I were away. I went down on March 12th, on the President's plane,
with Chief Justice Vinson. Representative Smathers of Florida and a courier
with White House mail were the only other passengers. Vinson stayed at
the Little White House, but Smathers was there only for lunch that day.
Others at lunch were John Steelman, Charles Ross, Stanley Woodward, chief
of protocol; General Graham, Bill Bray, Admiral Dennison, General Landry
and Bill Hassett. I roomed with Woodward during my stay. On March 15th,
General Marshall and William D. Pawley,
Former Ambassador to Brazil, came
for luncheon from Miami with Matt Connelly. On another day during the
March, 1949 trip, four of us, Commander Rigdon, Commander MacDonald (commander
of the President's yacht, the Williamsburg), Bill Hassett and I
flew over to Havana, in a Navy plane, for a one-day visit.
There was one trip, that of November, 1948, right after the President's
election victory, when Mrs. Truman and Margaret were down for most of
the time and Senator Barkley, elected Vice President with President Truman,
also was a guest. It was during this trip that we went aboard the Williamsburg
to Ft. Jefferson--Dry Tortugas--famed as the prison in which Dr. Mudd
was incarcerated after his conviction for having set the broken leg of
John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln.
On the flight to Key West on this same November, 1948 trip, we landed
at Cherry Point and went to New Bern, North Carolina to attend church
services. The President had at some time or another met the pastor of
the Baptist Church there--I think here in Washington--and, I guess, casually
promised him to come to church there. Well, he went that time. We landed
at Cherry Point, the Marine base, and drove over to New Bern. All the
town was out, I think. The streets were crowded, and
we went to church,
and then we drove back to Cherry Point, got on the plane and went on to
HESS: I've heard of the incident but I didn't know what trip it was.
I've heard they got the President out fishing one time, is that correct?
AYERS: One time? I think he went more than once. I know that one trip--one
fishing trip when I was there, that I went on--he was on. That must have
been that same trip because Margaret and Mrs. Truman were there and I
know Mrs. Truman went on the fishing trip. We had two boats, and we had
two teams. One team was headed by Admiral Leahy, now I don't know whether
the other one was headed by the President--I guess it was and they chose
HESS: They were in competition with each other?
AYERS: They were in competition with each other.
HESS: Who won?
AYERS: Well, there were several forms of competition. We each put in
five dollars, and the team that had the most fish got a certain amount,
the individual who got the biggest fish got a certain amount--I don't
know whether there were any other prizes or not. I was on Admiral Leahy's
team. John Steelman and Admiral Dennison were on it, and I don't remember
who the others
were. And on Mrs. Truman's team, the team the President
was on, they had the most fish when they got back. We didn't have very
good luck, but Admiral Dennison, as I recall, caught the biggest fish
that was caught that day. Now that was the only time I ever went fishing
down there. We didn't get many fish, but it was a nice trip.
HESS: What was your favorite recreation, your favorite relaxation in
AYERS: I don't know how to answer that. The one that took up the most
time--in the off hours --was playing poker. That was practically every
afternoon and evening.
HESS: Is that what you enjoyed the most?
AYERS: I guess so, although I got a little bored sometimes if the cards
weren't running well. Going to the beach was pleasant. It was a pleasant
relief from Washington, and I think it was very beneficial to the President.
He loved to play cards. Financially it wasn't too strenuous a game.
HESS: I understand they had a limit, is that right?
AYERS: Oh, yes, it was a low limit, ordinarily--I don't know whether
it should be in the records, should it?
HESS: Go ahead and put it in. If you don't want it in later, we can take it out.
AYERS: Well, the way it was played most of the time it was a two dollar
limit and you could make only three raises. You started off with fifty
dollars in chips, and you were charged fifty dollars by the banker. The
banker was usually General Vaughan. You started with fifty dollars in
chips; if you lost your fifty dollars, you could have fifty dollars more,
and that's all you could have. If you lost that, you were on poverty,
and on each pot the banker took out--depending on the size of the pot--a
few chips and put it in a jar there, so when you went broke and were on
poverty, you could have, I think it was ten dollars worth of chips to
start over--that was just given to you, and you couldn't get more than
that in any one pot and if you lost that, when the next pot came around,
you could get ten more chips out of poverty .
HESS: That you didn't have to pay for.
AYERS: That you didn't have to pay for. You never got to lose over the
hundred dollars. When they stayed three weeks, that got a little tough
on some of them because there'd be maybe two or three people would be
the big winners and most of the others might be on poverty, so that you
were playing against your own money all the time if you were ahead.
HESS: Who was the best poker player?
AYERS: I don't know the answer to that. There were some that weren't
very good players, not too good. I think that Clark Clifford was a good
player, I think Harry Vaughan was a good player, not a very spectacular
player but he came out ahead quite often. I did pretty well.
HESS: Who lost the most money?
AYERS: I wouldn't know. The President, he was what we'd call a loose
player, but not a poor player--he was a good player, and he got a lot
of fun out of it.
HESS: He just liked the banter of the game, didn't he?
AYERS: Yes, he liked to beat somebody. Then there was a couple who would
drive you crazy if you were an experienced poker player--John Steelman,
for instance, and General Graham--you couldn't keep them out of a pot
when they had no right to be in, when they were bound to lose their money,
you'd think. You didn't know what was going to happen, they'd stay all
the way through and maybe on the last card they'd get one and beat you,
and they didn't have any right to be in there to begin with. Admiral Dennison,
as I remember, hadn't apparently played much poker, but he was a kind
of a student; he got to be a pretty good player. Then there was a typical
fly boy, the Air Force aide, who would
raise everything and go wild on something.
HESS: General Landry?
AYERS: Yes. If he was lucky he might win a lot of money. If he was unlucky
he wouldn't do so well.
HESS: William Rigdon in his book White House Sailor says that
the President told a few members of his staff during the November 8th
to December 9th, 1951 trip while at Key West, that he did not intend to
run in 1952, and told them to more or less keep it under their hats. When
did you first become aware that the President was not going to run?
AYERS: I didn't know anything about that until years afterwards, I guess
when Rigdon disclosed it. I don't know whether that was the first I ever
heard about that or not. I don't know just when it was that the President
disclosed his intention not to run to the staff members at Key West. I
was there for only a short stay during that trip and I suppose if it had
been during my time there I would have been in on it, but as it was, I
knew nothing of it. The President did not always know all that some of
his staff were doing, particularly in making up the list for trips and
things of that nature. I recall there was one occasion when he was leaving,
I think for Key West, and I was seeing him off from the White House
he asked me if I wasn't coming. I hadn't been invited but I didn't tell
him and I think he thought I was. I think, too, something similar happened
once about some other thing, I know there was one time when there was
a list made out for a trip, I think, on the Williamsburg. I had
the list, and I have it somewhere now, and the names of the people who
would be on the boat. My name was not on it, but penned down at the bottom,
there was "add Eben Ayers. HST."
HESS: Mr. Truman's initials.
AYERS: Yes, well, it was in his handwriting. I don't know whether I went
or not on that trip, and I think there were one or two other funny things
that happened. I could get the answer to that, I suppose, if I saw the
right men and asked them, but what of it now.
HESS: That's the way it goes; it's water over the dam, but still we would
like to know.
AYERS: Yes. Every once in a while it kind of nags at you a little bit.
I had a feeling, like the time that I subscribed my share of a Christmas
gift, and I was out in the corridor one day and there was a little plaque
there with the names of all the people that gave, but my name was not
on it--the only one. I remember someone came along and said, "You ought
to say something." I never did, but I suppose that
plaque is somewhere
down here at the Library, a little thing about so big with the names of
the people who gave him this Christmas gift. But as far as he knew I never
gave anything on it.
HESS: Kind of a small thing for somebody to do.
AYERS: Well, there was one man at least who could be pretty small.
HESS: Who's that?
AYERS: William Hassett. I don't know if I should say it, the man's gone.
He's caused enough trouble.
HESS: What trouble did he cause?
AYERS: On his drinking. You know about that.
HESS: When did that start to get so bad?
AYERS: I don't know exactly. I knew about some of it that I don't think
the President perhaps even knew about at the time, because Hassett's secretary,
Alice Winegar, who was a very fine person, told me about some of it. And
it must have started--I never saw any evidence of it until, oh, I couldn't
tell you when--I have no idea. It was well along through the Truman administration
before, I think, that began. Of course, he had had experience with it
before, but never on the ship, of course, or anywhere like that, or never
Key West, as far as I know. I think it was entirely here in Washington.
I think it
was brought to a head by, and this is speculation based on
a little knowledge but not too much, I think it was General Graham that
brought it to a head.
AYERS: Because he had to go and treat him time and again, get him in
a hospital or something like that, get him cleared up, dried out or whatever
they called it. The story was, I don't know whether you would call it
gossip or what, that Graham himself went to the President and told him
he couldn't do it anymore. And I believe Graham was the one that brought
him the word, I don't know, and I don't recall ever seeing him at the
White House from the time of that dinner at which Truman announced that
he wasn't going to be a candidate for re-election.
HESS: The Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.
AYERS: I know that he was at that dinner.
HESS: That was March of '52 wasn't it?
AYERS: I don't think he was ever back at the White House after that.
I remember, I didn't go to that dinner, but I saw it on TV and I remember
my wife and I both saying, there's Hassett heading up toward the President--we
saw him on TV, so we know he was there.
HESS: Did his drinking impair his efficiency while he was still fairly
active in the White House, do you think?
AYERS: Well, that's a hard one to answer. I wouldn't want to attempt
to answer it because he was either there or he wasn't most of the time.
If he was there and all right, I don't suppose it did. He handled a lot
of correspondence. I know that when I first started with Jonathan Daniels
after I went into the press office--Steve Early who had gone out and was,
I guess, at Yalta--I began to handle a lot of correspondence myself that
came to the press office. Before that a lot of it had been sent back to
what we call the staff room which is the room that handles correspondence--routine
correspondence--and they wrote a lot of letters, and most of those bore
the signature of Hassett, but I started answering letters that came that
were referred to the press office. I think I handled more, perhaps, than
Charlie Ross did. Many of them I wrote and just let Charlie sign them;
occasionally I'd sign them, especially if Charlie was away, then I'd sign
them all. I remember I started answering letters using the policy that
had been set forth on lots of things; the policy about people asking for
things and sending in things, you know . They had a general policy, and
I know I said to Jonathan or Charlie Ross, I don't know which it was,
"I'm going to write these letters. I think some of those letters that
have been written are too stilted."
So from then on I wrote the letters without respect to the form, more
or less, that had been followed in the staff room, in most instances.
That was one criticism I had of it. It seemed to be inclined to be a little
of the old fashioned stilted form, you know, I suppose it wasn't so noticeable
to anybody getting--any individual getting one letter, but if there was
somebody that was getting dozens of them or hundreds of them.
HESS: Anything else about Key West come to mind?
AYERS: No, the routine stayed about the same--the same on each trip.
HESS: Do you recall anything in particular about the Paul Hume incident?
AYERS: Didn't we go into that once, or didn't we?
HESS: I don't think so; we could have.
AYERS: We can go over it again, you can cut it out, because I remember
that rather--most of it, at least. My first knowledge of it came--I don't
know whether it was the next day after that letter was written--it was
within the next day or two--I got a telephone call, Charlie Ross wasn't
there, and I got a telephone call from Philip Graham, who then, I guess,
was publisher of the Washington Post, and he said, "We've got a
letter down here," he put it about that way; he questioned, at least,
whether the President wrote this letter and I guess he told me whom it
was to, I'm not sure about that. Well, I said, "What's it like? What kind
of paper is it on?"
He told me. The President's paper is a blue paper.
HESS: A heavy blue paper.
AYERS: A heavy blue paper, yes. And I said, "Well, I'm afraid so, but
I'll check up anyway and I'll call you back." So I hung up and I went
in to Matt Connelly, who was out by the President's office, and I told
Matt about it. Matt looked at me--I don't know whether he said anything
or just nodded. Matt knew that the letter had been written. Now how he
knew it I don't know. I didn't ask him because I don't think he could
have seen the letter.
So I went back and called Mr. Graham and I said, "Yes, the President
did write the letter," and there was no attempt to conceal it or deny
it--couldn't even if we had wanted to.
HESS: Too late for that wasn't it?
AYERS: Well, I don't think I ever lied to the newspapers in my life--I
never intended to. I may have said, "No comment" on a good many occasions,
so that was about all I knew about the letter. How much Matt Connelly
knew about the contents of it, I don't know . He confirmed it for me
Then, of course, the letter came out--not in text--I don't know if it
was ever run in full in the paper or not.
HESS: I don't believe it was until just recently.
AYERS: Never to this day, I don't think, have I seen--to know at least--exactly
what it said. I know about what it said from general knowledge, because
Hume got the letter--the President wrote the letter after he came back
from the concert sometime that night or early in the morning, because
he read Hume's review and hit the ceiling, of course, and he sat down
and wrote the letter. I think he had some justification for it--that was
always my feeling. I did read Hume's review, which I thought went out
of its way.
HESS: Was that about the time of the death of Charlie Ross?
AYERS: I think so, yes, I think that's what happened. As I remember Prime
Minister Clement Attlee was here at the time, and he was going to that
concert, I believe. Charlie Ross died that afternoon and they didn't want
Margaret to know about Charlie's death--she thought an awful lot of Charlie--and
the President didn't want her to know it, and it was kept from her, and,
of course, it was a great loss to the President, but he had to go to that
concert, and, I think, Attlee was going. So coming back afterwards
reading this review and then with the loss of Charlie and everything,
he just blew up.
HESS: Did you ever hear the President make any comment about the Paul
Hume letter in years afterward?
AYERS: I don't recall any. There might have been sometime, but I don't
recall any. He wrote a number of letters that he sent to people. I don't
know many of them that were nasty letters, other than that letter, which
I guess you would call a nasty letter--a mean letter.
HESS: A hot-tempered letter?
AYERS: I never thought he had a hot temper. I still don't think so. His
temper wasn't nearly as hot as some people we know, and certainly not
as hot as my own.
HESS: How would you characterize his attitude then?
AYERS: Righteous indignation . Sometimes he could get pretty mad about
some things, but I rarely saw that. Some people exasperated him.
HESS: Could you give me another example of his righteous indignation,
other than the Paul Hume incident?
AYERS: Yes, one occasion--I think I told this before, I think it's on
tape--was Drew Pearson. Now, he's been reported as having called Pearson
a S.O.B. and maybe he did in private conversation; he might have on occasion,
but the one particular instance I have in mind is the time that Pearson
came to a press conference, and I'm pretty sure that was the time that
he had with him a long petition from soldiers out in Manila after the
end of the war, and he came up after the conference ended, as sometimes
other people did who wanted to shake hands with the President, and he
came up--I was there and Charlie was there; we were standing right together,
as I remember--and he came up to Charlie--I've never met Pearson in my
life--haven't to this day. Of course, Charlie had known him from his years
in newspaper work. He had this petition, as I recall, and Charlie said,
"This press conference is not the place to present a petition or anything
of that sort," or something like that, and so Charlie took it. Well, he
said he wanted to speak to the President, so he did. I don't know what
he said to the President, but anyway, the President jumped on him pretty
hard. But he jumped on him about something he had printed about Mrs. Truman
and Margaret coming back from Kansas City, taking up space that soldiers
might have used; and the President told him that they had paid their way
and came on transportation the same as anybody else coming back. I think
that was all at the same time, I'm not sure, and he did jump on him about
the campaign he had been carrying on to get the soldiers back and he said
that was plain mutiny-he
was inciting mutiny. Pearson on the other matter
of Mrs. Truman promised to correct it--apologize in a way---but he jumped
all over him about the campaign on the soldiers, too. I guess since then
they have met on various occasions and I guess Pearson's been out to talk
to him. He's not one to harbor resentment; I only know one or two people
he's ever retained anything against.
HESS: Who's that?
AYERS: Well, I don't know as, I could give this one specific case but
I can't tell you the man's name. He was a Missourian--politician or something
of the sort, and he didn't have much use for him. But otherwise, rarely,
he might say the man was no good or something like that about a person.
Usually he was right.
HESS: In our last interview, we discussed the l948 trip--the campaign
trip. Did you have any duties surrounding or accompanying the May of 1950
trip of the President? Now, he came out to Grand Coulee Dam--the rededication
of Grand Coulee Dam in May of 1950.
AYERS: I don't recall anything about it. Of course, there are things
that I might have done, but I've completely forgotten them if they weren't
particularly out of the ordinary.
HESS: The last question in his press conference when he was down in Key
West on March 20, 1952 was: A reporter asked him if he had any comment
on Jimmy Byrnes' remark about his memo and the President said, "No comment."
And the footnote in the Public Papers of the Presidents, the 1952
Governor James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, former Secretary
of State, denied the allegation in William Hillman's book, "Mr. President,"
that President Truman had read to him on January 5, 1946, a memo criticizing
Mr. Byrnes' failure to report to the President on the Moscow conference.
Governor Byrnes stated that had such a memo been read to him at that time,
he would have resigned his post as Secretary of State.
What can you tell me about that incident? Or do you want to go into that
at a later date?
AYERS: I would rather go into that at a little later date. A thought
occurred to me at home going over some of this, that it might be good,
well, at least, to take up the Cabinet. What do you think?
AYERS: There are several things there that I might add a little to. Of
course, he's covered things himself in his Memoirs more than adequately,
I guess, but there might be some sidelights.
HESS: That's really the main thing we're after here, the sidelights and
points of view of the other participants.
AYERS: Well, they go clear back after he came into office--the resignations
of some of them that I might know something about particularly, well,
not too much about Wallace, but something of that--quite a little about
some things--quite a little about them--having to do with Byrnes, which
you've just mentioned there and Lou Johnson. I know what some of his feelings
HESS: That was September of 1950, wasn't it, when he resigned?
AYERS: I couldn't remember the date.
HESS: When Marshall took over as Secretary of Defense.
AYERS: Yes. Oh, I think General Marshall was down to Key West after the
1948 election. He came down from Miami or somewhere and just came down
and had lunch.
HESS: Well, fine, we'll make that a special topic in the future, is that
all right? I'll give this to you so you'll have the footnote that is in
the 1952 volume.
AYERS: Well, I was going to check myself on my volumes on that and see
what he has about Byrnes. Of course, when Byrnes came back from Moscow,
when the to-do arose, the President was on his yacht, down the river with
Charlie Ross and some others. Byrnes had arranged, or was trying to arrange
to go on the air, I think, and I got brought in on some of it and had
have conversations with the ship and, oh, we had quite a time.
It wound up by the President calling Byrnes down to the ship, and still,
I guess, it isn't certain as to what happened there; different views of
what he said to Byrnes, but about this reference here, that letter.
HESS: That came to light, as the footnote said, when William Hillman's
book, Mr. President, came out. Is that correct?
AYERS: I guess so. That letter wouldn't have been in that book, probably,
if I had handled it a little differently, because I found that letter,
HESS: Was that one of them that was in the desk that he told you to look
AYERS: Yes, I found it there and I read it and I finally gave it to him--I
didn't have it too long because I took it to him--and he evidently let
Hillman see it when he got out that book. I've often thought that it would
have been better perhaps for history and everything else had I held onto
several things that were used in that book and not presented as well as
they would have been with a little more information, a little more knowledge,
or a little better prepared book, better edited and everything else--I
thought and some others thought that that was an awfully poor book.
HESS: What else do you have in mind besides that memo?
AYERS: Well, this to-do down at the ship and also some of the things
President Truman told about the selection of Byrnes and what he felt was
Byrnes'--well, his feelings, I guess. He recognized probably, as we did,
that Byrnes was a very disappointed man, that he wasn't in the place that
Truman was occupying--that he thought he was going to be Vice President.
Truman thought he was kind of making up to Byrnes for what had happened
because he was the one himself who had to tell Byrnes that Byrnes wasn't
HESS: Did you ever hear the President talk about the '44 convention?
AYERS: Well, yes, I've heard him--maybe more than once about.
HESS: What comes to mind?
AYERS: Well, what comes most vividly to mind, I think, is his description
of Roosevelt's telephone call to Bob Hannegan, I think, when Truman stood
there and he could hear Roosevelt on the phone talking, and when Roosevelt
said that Truman was his choice--I've forgotten how he put it--his own
reaction. He didn't want to be Vice President.
HESS: Did he ever tell you that?
AYERS: I don't know if he ever told me. He told that he never wanted
to be President. He thought he was--well, he liked being Senator after
he was Senator, but even before that I know he thought he would have a
job of some kind out in Kansas City. I ran across a notation that I made
one time of something he said about--I guess this was at Key West--I don't
know what the conversation was, oh, it was at breakfast one morning, speaking
about those morning breakfasts, and Graham was there, I don't know what
preceded it or just what the conversation was, but anyway, Graham said
that President Truman would be a great President and Truman scoffed at
that. He said, oh, he wasn't any great man, all he had on his mind was
work and to do the best he could. He said, "You've got to have brains
to be a great man."
HESS: He didn't put himself in that category.
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