Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum


Oral History Interview with
Eben A. Ayers

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.

Washington, DC
May 16, 1967
Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed]


NOTICE
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 word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
Independence, Missouri

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed | Top of the Page]



Oral History Interview with
Eben Ayers

Washington, DC
May 16, 1967
Jerry N. Hess

[157]

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?

[158]

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.

[159]

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 I recall.

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

[160]

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 sure.

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 right?

AYERS: Yes.

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

[161]

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.

[162]

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

[163]

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

[164]

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

[165]

and he'd 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 there.

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?

[166]

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

[167]

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

[168]

pictures. 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 basically

[169]

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 that incident.

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

[170]

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,

[171]

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

[172]

we went to church, and then we drove back to Cherry Point, got on the plane and went on to Key West.

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 up sides.

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

[173]

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 Key West?

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.

[174]

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?

[175]

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

[176]

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

[177]

and 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

[178]

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

[179]

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.

HESS: How?

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?

[180]

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."

[181]

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,

[182]

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

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anyway. 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

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and 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

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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

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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.

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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 volume, is:

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?

HESS: Marvelous.

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.

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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 were about.

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 tried to

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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, you know.

HESS: Was that one of them that was in the desk that he told you to look through?

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.

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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 Roosevelt's selection.

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?

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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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