Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey
February 10, 1964
Charles T. Morrissey
MORRISSEY: Let's start, Mr. Elsey, by hearing how you
became a member of Mr. Truman's White House staff.
ELSEY: I was on duty at the White House on April 12, 1945,
the day of President Roosevelt's death. I had been at the White House
for the preceding three years, from April 1942, as a naval reserve officer.
I had been assigned in April 1942, by the Director of Naval Intelligence
to the White House Map Room. I don't know to what extent you care to
hear about the Map Room but I'll be happy to explain what it was since
the Map Room did exist for, not only all of the Roosevelt war years,
but through the early months of the Truman administration till the end
of the war with Japan.
The White House Map Room was an intelligence and
center. It was established in the first few days after Pearl Harbor
on the ground floor of the White House proper--the mansion. This was
a room where officers of the Army and the Navy maintained up-to-the-minute
maps and charts of all of the active theaters of combat. The room was
off-limits to all civilian personnel in the White House, except the
President himself and Harry Hopkins, his closest friend and advisor.
The only other personnel ever admitted to the Map Room were military
officers. The Map Room was under the immediate jurisdiction of the Naval
Aide to the President, who at the outbreak of the war was Capt. John
L. McCrea. He was succeeded in l943 by Rear Admiral Wilson Brown.
The job of those of us--junior officers--Map Room watch
officers--was to maintain a twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week
active room where telegrams and dispatches were received from the Army
and the Navy. We were to transcribe the information onto maps and maintain
current files, so that whenever the President or Mr. Hopkins or Admiral
William D. Leahy, the President's Chief of Staff, wanted to know what
was going on we would have the information instantly available for them.
We also were the communications center for classified
There was, of course, the regular White House switchboard for normal
public telephone communi-cations, but we had cryptographic systems and
coding equipment so that we were able to put into code any messages
from the White House to the President when the President was traveling
away from Washington. We were also able to receive and decode messages
that were addressed to the President from outside Washington. We served
as the secretariat for the President's communications with Prime Minister
Churchill and Generalissimo Stalin and a few comparable figures such
as Chiang Kai-shek and leaders of the other Allied war effort.
When I say secretariat, we were the only place in the
White House--the only place in the government, for that matter--which
kept complete files, incoming and outgoing, of all communications between
the President and these figures: the background data, the correspondence,
the memoranda of conversations, the other things which led up to the
final drafts of the messages that were sent out.
I've said the President here because, and I'm referring
both to President Roosevelt and to President Truman when he became President,
because the procedures--
the staff pattern, all this--was exactly the
same in both Administrations. There was no change in the situation until
V-J Day at which point, of course, the Map Room was rather rapidly dismantled.
And so, that's a rather long and rambling answer to the
question of how I got to be on the White House staff when President
Truman was there. The fact is I had been there for three years when
President Truman came to the White House. I was serving in April 1945,
as the senior naval officer in the Map Room, reporting directly to Admiral
Brown, the Naval Aide.
MORRISSEY: Could you give me a brief thumbnail description
of your life prior to April 1942?
ELSEY: I'd gone on active duty on December 8, 1941, the
day of the declaration of war between the United States and Japan. I'd
had a naval reserve commission and had been a graduate student at Harvard
University, a graduate student in American history, for the two years
'39 to '41, having graduated from Princeton in 1939.
MORRISSEY: How did you move from the Map Room staff to
Mr. Truman's presidential staff?
ELSEY: This is a combination of an accident and good luck
and fortuitous circumstances, I suppose. Mr. Truman came to the White
House, as we all know, rather poorly prepared for the Presidency. This
is in no sense a criticism of Mr. Truman himself. He has frequently,
in his writings and in his speeches, referred to the fact that he came
to the White House poorly prepared. He had been Vice President only
three months. President Roosevelt was away from Washington most of the
time from January 20, 1945, until his death on April 12--first at the
Yalta Conference and then at Warm Springs, Georgia--there had been practically
no opportunity for Vice President Truman to have any briefings from
President Roosevelt or to have much contact with the civilian or military
leaders of our Nation.
It was his concern with his own unpreparedness that led
Mr. Truman, subsequently, to take very, very vigorous action to make
sure that no future Vice President came into office as poorly briefed
as he had been.
What I really am saying here is that he came to the White
House with no staff familiar with the Presidency and with White House
procedures; the vice-presidential staff up to his time had been just
two or three aides
concerned mostly with the routine duties of the Senate,
and so he found it necessary to continue to assimilate as many of the
Roosevelt staff members as possible. Those that were willing to stay
on, he asked to remain. He brought a few new staff members, one of them
being a young naval reserve officer named Clark M. Clifford, who came
to the White House as Assistant Naval Aide to the President.
Mr. Clifford had been in private life an attorney in St.
Louis, Missouri. He was known to the President and various other of
the President's Missouri associates. Clifford was an extremely capable,
energetic, young lawyer and very rapidly, within a matter of weeks,
outgrew his post as Assistant Naval Aide. Mr. Truman and other senior
members of the staff began relying on him more and more for assistance
in the transitional months of '45-'46 from the war to a civilian economy.
When Judge [Samuel I.) Rosenman resigned to go back to New York--resigned
from his post as Special Counsel of the President--Mr. Truman asked
Clifford to become his Special Counsel.
During the months of '45-'46, I had been working closely
with Mr. Clifford. Since I was thoroughly
familiar with the White House
procedures, intimately familiar with the White House relations to the
Army and Navy Departments and to the State Department, Mr. Clifford
found that I was able to be of some considerable assistance to him in
this evolving, quickly changing role that I've just mentioned. When
Mr. Clifford did become Special Counsel of the President, he asked that
I serve as his assistant, which I did. Do you want the rest of the chronology
ELSEY: I remained on as a naval reserve officer, however,
until April 1947, and in April '47, finally was demobilized and became
the civilian assistant to Clifford. In August 1949, President Truman
named me as one of his Administrative Assistants and from that point
on, I reported directly to the President, although, since all of the
White House was very much of a team, I worked closely and received many
of my assignments from Mr. Clifford during his remaining period at the
White House and subsequently from Charles S. Murphy, who succeeded Clifford
as Special Counsel to the President in about February 1950.
Just to wind it all up, you'll recall that the Korean
War broke out in June of 1950 and W. Averell Harriman was
by President Truman from Paris where Harriman had been head of the Marshall
plan activities in Europe. Harriman was brought back by the President
to be his principal assistant in the extremely difficult problems of
coordinating the relations of State and Defense and I found myself working
daily with Mr. Truman.
In the fall of '51, Congress passed the Mutual Security
Act which established the position of Director for Mutual Security in
the Executive Office of the President. For the first time, one official,
in a job created by a statute, had the responsibility of coordinating
the military, economic, and technical assistance activities for our
Allies abroad. The job description was written with Harriman in mind,
and as soon as the act was passed President Truman named Harriman as
Director for Mutual Security.
Since I had by this time been working closely with Harriman
for more than a year from that June 1950 until the fall of '51, Mr.
Harriman asked that I join him in this new office of Director for Mutual
Security, which I did; and thus I officially resigned from the White
House staff as such in December 1951, becoming assistant
to Mr. Harriman
at that time. I remained in Mr. Harriman's office through the end of
the Truman administration. Actually this was more of a legalistic change
than one amounting to much in substance, because both Mr. Harriman and
I maintained the exact same offices in the same White House space that
we had from the outbreak of the Korean war and continued to work closely
with all of the presidential staff just as we had before.
MORRISSEY: The White House staff grew tremendously from
the early years of Mr. Truman's administration to the latter years.
How did the smaller staff at the earlier time manage to handle the volume
ELSEY: I'm not so sure I would agree with your word "tremendously;"
I don't believe that the White House staff actually grew tremendously.
It's true that the . . . I suppose it's a matter of semantics. What
do you regard as the White House staff?
The Executive Office of the President grew because some
new things came into the Executive Office of the President. In 1947
the National Security Council was created; the National Security Resources
Board was created; the Council of Economic Advisers, I believe,
been created in 1946; but, while new elements came along, some old parts
of the Executive Office had evaporated--the old Office of War Mobilization
and Reconversion, for example, had passed out of the scene.
The actual White House staff, in terms of the persons
immediately reporting to and responsible to the President, I don't think
you'll find in checking the figures, actually grew very much. vJust
as a footnote on this, you know you can't rely on the budget figures
or any of the official archival records on the size of the White House
staff, because many people who worked full-time at the White House were
carried on the budgets of various departments and agencies of the Government,
so that the White House staff wouldn't look too large. So it doesn't
do you much good just to go back and look at the Federal Register
or some of the files of the Bureau of the Budget; the printed figures
aren't necessarily accurate as to people who really were working at
the White House.
What did you mean by growing tremendously? If you can
give me some examples, perhaps. . .
MORRISSEY: Well, the point I had in mind, I think, was
Charles Murphy, as Special Counsel to the President, seemed to
have more assistance than Clark Clifford had had when he was holding
the same job.
ELSEY: Yes, I guess that's true. Mr. Murphy had David
Lloyd and David Bell working with him; Clifford had had only one. Judge
Rosenman, who was the first Special Counsel to the President, had no
assistants in the White House office. This was partly, I think, the
evolution of the job itself, and largely, I would say, was a reflection
of the increasing involvement of the United States in world affairs.
During the war years, when Rosenman was Special Counsel
to the President, his principal work for FDR had been helping in speeches,
major speeches of national significance and importance. Despite the
fact that Rosenman had the title "Special Counsel," he really wasn't
a lawyer. He was FDR's principal "ghost," but you couldn't call a man
that; since he was a judge, since he had been a member of the New York
Supreme Court, he had to be given a legal or quasi-legal title, so the
phrase Special Counsel was created to suit the personality of Judge
This was somewhat the same with Clifford, who was not
the President's principal lawyer or special lawyer
or anything else.
His major responsibility was to assist Mr. Truman in speeches. And increasingly,
from 1946 on, the speeches, the messages to Congress, the special statements
that Clifford had to work on, had a foreign policy emphasis. We all
know this. We all know the fact that the United States in 1945 dismantled
its military machine as quickly as possible in a somewhat mistaken notion
that we could get back to a peacetime situation. This has always been
true of the United States. We've done it after every war. This time
we found we could no longer disengage ourselves from the world; we had
to remain a part of it, willy-nilly, and our obligations and commitments
overseas were thrust back on us. The problems of foreign policy; the
problems of rebuilding a military force; the problems of the relations,
the involvements of political-military strategy found their way right
back to the White House doorstep in a way that was absolutely unprecedented
in our national history. This brought just a new dimension to the Presidency,
a new degree of difficulty to the burdens of the job.
That's why the White House staff did grow in the Truman
years. It continued to grow, as we know, in the Eisenhower years and
has kept growing in the Kennedy and
now in the Johnson administration,
and I'm certain that we'll see this kind of growth. I don't think any
President welcomes it. He obviously doesn't seek a larger staff around
him for any reason other than the fact that he's got to have them to
do the work.
MORRISSEY: What were your first responsibilities when
you assisted President Truman?
ELSEY: Well, here again, what do you mean "when I assisted
President Truman"? In '49, when I became Administrative Assistant to
Mr. Truman or back at the beginning in '45--because my role changed?
It depends on what point in time we're talking about.
MORRISSEY: Well, chronologically, let's begin in '45 and
see how the role changed.
ELSEY: Yes, in '45 I was still in the Map Room as we discussed
at the beginning. I was with the President at the Potsdam Conference;
when we returned from there, of course the war ended within a matter
of days, and the Naval Aide's office began to be faced with many, many
problems relating to demobilization and postwar planning.
Mr. Clifford was asked by the President and by
James K. Vardaman, who was Mr. Truman's first Naval Aide, to focus on,
particularly, the problems of postwar military organization, merger,
or unification, as it was commonly called at the time.
There were a number of bills on the Hill for post-war
merger of the Forces or a reorganization. There were numerous advocates
of an independent Air Force. There were advocates of a single commander-in-chief
for the armed forces. There were advocates of a merger of the War and
Navy Departments. There were all kinds of proposals.
The Navy was not of one mind as to what would be best
from the naval point of view, and Clifford quickly found himself involved
in conferences; discussions with civilian leaders; congressional leaders;
military people; naval officers, of course; and I did a great deal of
fact finding and rummaging around for Mr. Clifford in this area.
A matter near and dear to President Truman's heart was
universal military training. As a Senator, he had long advocated universal
military training; even though, he recognized that the headlong rush
toward demobilization was probably something that nobody could stop.
was just the will of the whole populous. It was hard to say who
was out-distancing whom in racing toward demobilization. Congress was
probably leading the pack at that point, but Mr. Truman realized that
the United States had to have some sort of a permanent posture of military
defense which was of a different order than anything we had had before
and he believed the universal military training was an absolute necessity
to our national security.
So another task that came the way of our office was analyzing
the various proposals for universal military training, helping draft
legislation which would meet the President's wishes and do the necessary
staff work in that regard. Those, I'd say, stand out as the two most
significant subject matters that I dealt with for Mr. Clifford in those
early months after the end of the war, that is, namely the winter of
As for just routine work of the office of the Naval Aide,
we got in almost literally by the bushel basketful, letters, telegrams,
phone messages with respect to individuals in the naval service--parents
wanting their sons out, Congressmen wanting White House favors, and
so on and so forth. This is par for the
course, nothing special, it
could have happened in anybody's administration; but, it was particularly
a burden in those first few weeks after V-J Day and this was a heavy
work load on us trying to handle these things equitably, trying not
to respond to improper requests for special attention and favors; finding,
in some instances that the requests we got were very well grounded because
some poor devil seemed to have gotten stuck on an atoll in the Pacific
and his personnel records had been lost and something had to be done
MORRISSEY: How did this role evolve with the passage of
ELSEY: When Mr. Clifford became Special Counsel, which
was in July of '46, more and more of the work that he gave me related
to the civilian and normal administrative responsibilities of the White
With Rosenman gone, and with no staff member having any
special responsibility for speech preparation, Clifford found himself--not
by his initiative or by his choice, certainly not by his desire--he
found himself looked to as the principal speech preparer on just
every conceivable subject that a President has to make speeches on,
and he began asking me to help him in this regard. So that, originally
where I was working mostly for him in these relations with the military
departments and State, it very quickly broadened to all aspects of the
Thus, for example, by the autumn of 1946, by November,
Mr. Clifford found the State of the Union, January '47, staring him
in the face and asked me to take a hand at doing the first draft of
that message and working with the Bureau of the Budget and the Council
of Economic Advisers on the other messages that the President would
have to send to the Hill also in January '47; namely, the budget message
and the economic report of the President.
This exposure to preparing the January '47 State of the
Union was a rude awakening to me, because I had to do homework in subjects
that I to that point had scarcely even realized existed. From that point
on, the sky was the limit; there was just no subject that he and I didn't
seem to find ourselves involved in.
I recall that the spring of '47 was particularly hectic
in this regard. We worked through January and
February on the unification
question, and, if I recall correctly, it was about February 20 of '47
that the President was finally able to send a message to Congress covering
his recommendations in the field of postwar military organization--the
recommendations that in due course became the National Security Act
of 1947. That had really been an around-the-clock struggle for weeks
and weeks, with spokesmen for the Navy Department and for the War Department
and for the Bureau of the Budget, I recall, the principal Army man we
dealt with at that point was General Lauris Norstad, who of course,
in due course, became an Air Force officer, and Admiral Forrest Sherman,
subsequently Chief of Naval Operations.
As a minor and somewhat wry footnote, I might add that
my work on the unification question is what led to my ceasing to be
a Naval Reserve officer on active duty. It was not always possible,
while serving as a White House spokesman and chairman of working groups,
to advocate a point of view which was completely acceptable to the Navy
Department; and in one instance I, then being a Naval Reserve three-stripe
commander and chairing a meeting, found myself taking sharp issue with
a three-star regular admiral who was present in the room.
was short-tempered and went back to the Navy Department blowing off
steam in all directions, and Mr. Clifford and I decided that it probably
would be better for the White House image if I put on a civilian suit
instead of wearing a Naval Reserve uniform. This is why, on the first
of April, I became a civilian rather than remaining as a commander,
MORRISSEY: Do you have any other specific recollections
of the difficulties of forming the legislation that became the National
ELSEY: Well, my recollections on that subject go back
to those first weeks at the end of the war in October and November '45,
so I have lots of recollections, yes, from that time right on through
to February '47 and then all of the struggles through '47 during the
congressional debates on the subject.
We didn't regard the Security Act of '47 as being the
last word, but as only an interim measure, and it was not until 1949--the
amendments to the National Security Act--that we finally achieved a
form of military organization that resembled what President Truman had
been trying for all along.
One of the critical elements in the whole struggle, I
guess, was the attitude of Secretary of the Navy, Forrestal. As long
as Forrestal conceived of himself as fighting for the Navy, we weren't
making much progress. But when Forrestal finally caught the vision of
what Mr. Truman was working for and was able to free himself from his
single service partisanship and look at the matter from the point of
view of national security in the broader sense, from that point on,
real progress was made.
MORRISSEY: When was that point?
ELSEY: As for an exact point in time, I'm not sure at
this point I can give it to you, perhaps December 1946. I'd have to
reread, I suppose, The Forrestal Diaries, refresh my recollection
with that and some of the other things to come up with a more precise
I don't want to imply just obstructionism on Forrestal's
part, because I don't mean that; I don't mean it to sound that way.
Some of the most important steps that were taken--and probably wouldn't
have been taken without Forrestal's adamantine insistence--was the creation
of the National Security Council and the National Security Resources
You see, an awful lot of people, both in the Congress
and public at large, were yammering "merger," "unification," "single
chief of staff," their eyes were focused on putting the Army and Navy
together or maybe splitting off the Air Force and then putting all three
in some sort of a super-military organization. And that was as far as
their thinking or their argument went.
What Forrestal kept pressing for--and pressing really
even before the war itself came to an end--was the absolute necessity
of some kind of governmental machinery which would attempt to bridge
the gap between military and foreign policy. He was acutely, agonizingly
aware of the gap that had existed between the State Department and the
military services during the war and even more significantly in the
preparations for postwar conduct of foreign and military policy.
He was greatly helped in this regard by Ferdinand Eberstadt,
whom Forrestal asked to do a study and Eberstadt prepared a document
known commonly as the Eberstadt Report, which stressed the necessity
for a mechanism which we subsequently came to have in the National Security
Forrestal felt equally strongly about necessity of adequate
industrial economic preparations for defense. The National Security
Resources Board was the principal effort in this direction. So . . .
while the military and particularly the Army were talking merger, Forrestal
was constantly keeping the heat on, with the President and the Congress,
to pay attention to these other elements which were, in his way of thinking,
even more significant than just a bringing together of the uniformed
services in some sort of--what at first to him seemed a jerry-built
When he felt that he had succeeded in convincing, in educating--if
you will--the executive branch, the White House and the Congress to
these broader problems, then he turned his mind to this matter of just
what you do with the Army, Navy, and Air Force as such, and came around
to the idea of a single Secretary of Defense.
MORRISSEY: Could you tell me about the steps leading up
to the 1949 amendments to the National Security Act?
ELSEY: The 1947 National Security Act, you may recall,
was born of, of course, compromise. The people on the Hill who were
very, very much concerned, lest a single
Secretary of Defense somehow
do the Navy in.
The Secretary of Defense was given very limited power
and authority. He was the head of some monstrosity called The National
Military Establishment. There was a separate Air Force created by that
1947 act, three secretaries: Secretary of Air, Secretary of the Army--War
Department being renamed Army--and Secretary of the Navy. These three
departments remained executive departments--and don't think that's just
a matter of semantics, there's a lot of legal significance behind an
executive department--and those three service secretaries continued
to attend Cabinet meetings as well as the Secretary of Defense.
The Secretary of Defense in the '47 act had only three
assistants and had a very tight limitation on the number of employees
he could have in the National Military Establishment.
A Central Intelligence Group was created, again with extremely
limited authority and manpower ceilings and so on.
The '47 act in short . . . well, it did a lot of good
things, such as creating the National Security Council and the National
Security Resources Board and
making a first step toward an orderly organization
of the military services and creating a separate Air Force, which I
certainly think was necessary. It had a lot of limitations which were
a result of the political compromises. If those compromises hadn't been
made, we probably wouldn't have ever had the act.
But the two year passage of time, '47-'49, showed that
it simply wasn't enough, it wasn't enough to do the job. The '49 act
turned CIG into CIA; created a Department of Defense instead of a National
Military Establishment; and to the violent chagrin of the three service
secretaries downgraded them from executive depart-ments to departments
and those three ceased to sit with the Cabinet or the National Security
MORRISSEY: Could you tell me about your involvement in
the handling of the Forrestal papers?
ELSEY: Yes. When Secretary Forrestal resigned as Secretary
of Defense, he told President Truman that he would like to put in--over
at the White House--some of his personal papers; personal notes; diaries;
other documents which had so many comments about personalities, about
some of the issues that he had dealt with; he thought it
to leave them in the records of the department and President Truman
readily acquiesced, of course.
The papers were sent to the office of the Naval Aide to
the President, who at that point was Rear Admiral Robert L. Dennison.
There were other, incidentally, papers preserved in the office of the
Naval Aide at that time. Some of the White House papers from the Roosevelt
administration were still there in Dennison's office for good and sufficient
reason, and because I was familiar with those and had a familiarity
with certain of this special kind of paper, Admiral Dennison talked
with me about these Forrestal papers and he asked my opinion, and I
said I thought by all means they should be kept in his office.
Of course, none of us, at this point, could have foreseen
the tragedy of Forrestal's death just a few weeks later. And at that
point a wholly new situation arose, namely the legal one of title--whose
property were they, what was the legal situation.
The executor of the Forrestal estate consulted Mr. Clifford
and Admiral Dennison and me on the subject and in due course the estate
informed us that it wanted to make these papers available as well as
correspondence and documents of Mr. Forrestal's for publication.
Mr. Eugene S. Duffield had known Mr. Forrestal well and
had worked with him in a variety of governmental positions, and Mr.
Duffield, at this point, was serving as spokesman for the Forrestal
family and estate. Mr. Duffield told us that it was the wish of Mrs.
Forrestal and other members of the family that Mr. Walter Millis, who
had a national reputation as a writer, would serve as the editor.
I was something of a legman and go-between at this point
between Mr. Millis and other members of the White House staff and the
officials of the Department of Defense. The safe in which the papers
were kept was opened one day in the summer of 1949, as I recall it,
at the White House, in the presence of representatives of the Department
of Defense, lawyers for the Forrestal estate, and myself. We went through,
rather quickly, and ascertained the general nature of the papers; found
that a number of them were classified top secret, or bore other security
classifications. Others bore no security classification but were obviously
very personal notes, memoirs, in some cases carbon copies of matters
Forrestal had put down after conferences, perhaps with the
President, the Secretary of State or other senior officials.
I'm not sure of the exact sequence here; if I recall correctly
some of the items were felt to be so sensitive because they bore on
the performance characteristics of weapons then in production or still
under test and not yet in production, that there was unanimous agreement
that these should be returned to the Department of Defense immediately;
that they couldn't be printed in any case and there is just no point
in running any risk of criticism or violation of national security by
letting them out of Government hands.
Other matters that where it was really a question of discretion
and good taste and judgement, again it was the unanimous conclusion
that Mr. Millis' reputation was such that he could safely be entrusted
with these documents; and therefore, after clearance all the way around,
personal approval by President Truman, these papers were released to
Quite some time later, I guess it was a matter of months
later, Mr. Millis had completed his editing of those papers that had
been at the White House,
together with all the other material that the
Forrestal family had, and the galley proofs of the book, subsequently
published as The Forrestal Diaries, were sent to the White House
for our review, and simultaneously, galley proofs were given to the
Department of Defense for its review, just in the remote chance that
something of national security significance might be there and of course
Mr. Millis and the estate wanted to, not in anyway, violate security.
The Assistant Secretary of Defense, Mr. Marx Leva, reviewed
the galley proofs from the point of view of the Department of Defense--Mr.
Marx Leva and Mr. Clayton Fritchey, then serving as Director of Public
Information for the Secretary of Defense. Admiral Dennison and I went
through everything; also, at the request of President Truman--not because
in any sense we were censoring anything, because we had nothing to censor.
There were a few, a very few places--perhaps four or five--where we
felt that Mr. Forrestal had put down in writing some highly privileged
comments that President Truman had made in personal conversation with
him and in Admiral Dennison's and my judgment, no really useful purpose
would be served by printing these. I'd prefer
not to name names, but,
most of those that caused us concern were simply comments by Mr. Truman
to Mr. Forrestal on third persons--other people high in Government posts,
who either were still in Government or were certainly very prominent
publicly, and we didn't think that any useful purpose would be served
here, but simply embarrass all concerned and would have embarrassed
Mr. Forrestal himself, to have been a party to that kind of thing.
Admiral Dennison and I did not review these points with
President Truman. We told him that we preferred not to go over these.
We thought it much better to leave him out of it, and he said he would
rely on our judgment in this matter. So, President Truman had no hand,
at any time, in what went into or what stayed out of The Forrestal
Diaries. He was not party to putting anything in; he was not party
to keeping anything out.
MORRISSEY: Was it Mr. Forrestal who suggested that the
President appoint a secretary to the Cabinet?
ELSEY: I don't think that was a Forrestal suggestion,
only. Other people felt that way--he felt it perhaps more strongly than
anyone else. This again came from his
study in those late months of
the war and the first months following the war of what kind of postwar
organization we ought to have. It came from his study of the British
Cabinet and its cabinet committees. But, General Marshall felt this
same way, too. Marshall, if anything, was more of an admirer of the
British Cabinet system than Forrestal was.
Certainly, it's true that Forrestal, as a member of the
Cabinet, advocated a Cabinet secretary, but, he was not unique or alone
in this regard. He was probably the only member of the Cabinet who ever
did anything about it and he frequently, when Cabinet luncheons were
held in his office at the Pentagon, he would invite Clifford to be present
and on some occasions, I was asked to be present too. This matter of
having somebody from the White House staff present at luncheons of this
sort to take notes was not looked on with favor by other members of
the Cabinet. No other member of the Cabinet ever followed the precedent
that Mr. Forrestal attempted to establish. Nothing ever came of it.
Actually, Forrestal had more of the so-called Cabinet luncheons in his
office than anybody else ever did. John Snyder had two or three, but,
most of the Cabinet members simply didn't
go along with the idea at
all. Nothing came of the Cabinet secretary or secretariat throughout
the Truman administration.
MORRISSEY: Do you recall the President's response to this
ELSEY: Oh, I think Mr. Truman looked at it with sort of
amused tolerance. He wasn't going to be against it. I don't think he
ever thought a heck of a lot would come of it but if Forrestal and some
of the others wanted to have a whirl at it and thought it could be useful
and helpful to them, that was fine with the President. He wasn't going
to tell them no; but, I think he was always skeptical and so far as
he personally was concerned, he didn't feel that it would serve any
need of his. If some of the Cabinet members thought it would help them
do their job, fine. He was certainly not going to be against it.
MORRISSEY: Could you tell me what kind of man Mr. Truman
was as President?
ELSEY: Well, everyone has to answer a question like this
subjectively--as well as objectively. I'll start with
the subjective answer.
He was, as I'm sure you know, an extremely thoughtful,
courteous, considerate man. He was a pleasure to work for. He was very
kindly in his dealings with staff members--I speak, of course, as a
junior staff member. When he first began to be conscious of me as an
individual by name and face, I was still a young Naval Reserve officer
in uniform. I first began to see him on the Williamsburg. Representing
the Naval Aide, I would frequently be the White House staff member--the
only one distinct from the officers and crew of the Williamsburg--who
would be with him on some of his weekend trips down the Potomac, when
he'd simply go down on a Saturday, Sunday to rest, sometimes alone,
sometimes with Mrs. Truman. From those early times, right on through
to the end of his administration, he was unfailingly thoughtful and
He was never too busy to think about the members of his
staff. These are the comments that I suppose are traditionally and tritely
said about all Presidents, but, somehow I think, in Mr. Truman's case,
they happen to be true and I've seen enough of some other Presidents
over there to know that they're not
quite so true as they
are in his case.
He had an interesting faculty, which I was particularly
conscious of, having studied history--and which he would sometimes talk
with me about on these weekends at the Williamsburg, at Key West
or elsewhere--of detaching himself from the Presidency itself. He had
a tremendous veneration and respect for the institution of the Presidency.
He demanded at all times respect for the President of the United States.
He didn't demand any respect at all for Harry S. Truman; he demanded
respect for the President of the United States.
He could see himself and the President as two different
objects. He could stand aside and talk about the President as though
the President were something entirely different. He would speculate
aloud about what should the President do. "What do you think the President
ought to do?" He wouldn't be asking what I ought to do, but what should
the President do. And, he'd try to stand back and look at the
Presidency and see what the President ought to do rather than what he,
as a man should do.
This has its virtues and its admirable characteristics.
It sometimes, however, I think led him into
some of the more embarrassing
situations that he got into. Because sometimes he would behave as Harry
S. Truman, forgetting that the rest of the country couldn't make this
differentiation that he could between the man and the office. When he
would write a boiling, hot letter to a music critic or would call Drew
Pearson a "son-of-a-bitch"--which I happen to think he is--he was behaving
as Harry S. Truman, not as President of the United States. But, of course,
other people couldn't see that and this caused embarrassment to him
and I think reflected on the Office, which, of course, is the last thing
in the world, he wanted to have happen.
This was also true in his continued association with some
people, some individuals. He had an intense loyalty to old friends who'd
stood by him through thick and thin and he was determined to stand with
them. This was notable from the, really the earliest weeks of his being
President. He flew out to Kansas City to attend the funeral of "Boss"
Pendergast and was soundly criticized for that. His reply was that Pendergast
had been a friend of his.
He never changed this behavior pattern throughout his
administration. If somebody had been a friend of
his and had stood by
him when he needed help, he would stand by that man or woman, when he
or she needed his help.
I don't know how one handles a situation like this. I
suppose a President has to be cruel and hard-blooded at times and cold-blooded
and cast friends aside. Mr. Truman, somehow, didn't have that element
of cruelty and he couldn't quite cast aside some people that probably,
from the point of view of the Presidency, he might well have managed
to find another role for.
MORRISSEY: Do you have any recollections about the President's
knowledge of history or his interest in history?
ELSEY: Oh, recollections on this score are legion. The
President, as we know very well indeed, is an omnivorous reader of American
history. He had and constantly kept reading, acquiring new books on
American history, particularly biographies of political figures. He
could quote obscure facts about early Presidents, early Vice Presidents,
Senators, and so on that would embarrass most people around the table
because they simply, couldn't keep up with him.
There were no anecdotes, no legends about the White
or the Presidency that one could tell that he didn't already know. When
I was just beginning to get acquainted, trying to show off my knowledge
of American history, I would occasionally come up with one of these,
only to be thoroughly put in my place to find that the President already
knew it and knew more about it than I did.
He knew a whale of a lot about the Civil War and all of
the problems of Andrew Johnson and the investigating committees on the
conduct of the war and the trumped up charges against Johnson and other
executive branch officials following the war. Lord knows how he'd ever
found time to read the horrible print of some of those hearings and
some of those proceedings, but he had done so.
He liked, of course, ancient history as well, and could
ramble around in anecdotes about Alexander the Great and other figures
of the past. I don't think his knowledge of the European history was
very deep, he had not paid too much attention to European history. His
knowledge of Latin American, African, or Asian affairs was good, but,
simply that of a general well- read individual. It was not deep in the
way that his
American history and his ancient history was.
MORRISSEY: Did he continue to read when he was President?
ELSEY: Oh, yes . . . yes, he continued to read. His bed-side
table at Blair House, during the nearly four years that he was living
there in the second term, while the White House was being rebuilt, was
always stacked with new books. On these Williamsburg and Key
West weekends, new books from the Library of Congress or that friends
or that admirers or publishers had sent him, always abounded. He did
read a great deal, continues to, of course, but, found time early in
the morning, in mid-afternoon or in the evening to do his reading and
would frequently scribble notes to staff members while this was going
MORRISSEY: To what extent were you responsible for the
historical materials of the Truman administration?
ELSEY: Are you referring to just the archives and the
handling of the plans for the Library at Independence, that sort of
ELSEY: I was quite familiar with the Hyde Park Library-the
Roosevelt Library--and had visited it with President Roosevelt. As a
matter of some interest, in the first weekend in October of 1944, although
I don't think anybody in his right mind thought that FDR would be beaten
by Dewey, nevertheless, President Roosevelt was thinking about that
remote possibility and took me up to Hyde Park with him to survey the
Library and see what physical and structural changes might be necessary,
in the event he had to leave the White House in January of '45 and move
his classified and war papers, those that he could take with him, up
to Hyde Park.
After his death in April '45, all the negotiations and
representations on behalf of the Truman White House staff with the Archives
and the Roosevelt family, I had dealt with and so I knew Dr. Buck, Dr.
Grover and other members of the Archives very well indeed and had continuing
relations with them throughout the Truman administration as tentative
plans gradually shaped up to the more definite plans for the building
I'd gone out with President Truman to Independence, had
met with him and other members of his family, while we looked over prospective
sites for the Library. But,
I'd say that's the general nature of it.
If you mean by historical content of the President's speeches
or messages, I had very little to do with that. He did that himself.
If he tossed in historical allusions in his speeches, that was HST.
That was no ghost.
MORRISSEY: I think we're running out of time, Mr. Elsey,
and we'll have to stop right here.
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