Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey

Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve, and duty officer, White House Map Room, 1941-46; Assistant to the Special Counsel to the President, 1947-49; Administrative Assistant to the President, 1949-51; Assistant to the Director, Mutual Security Agency, 1951-53.

February 10, 1964
Charles T. Morrissey

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

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.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 1974
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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

Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey

Washington, DC
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


communications 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


communications. 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 here?

MORRISSEY: Certainly.

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


summoned home 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 of work?

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,


had 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 that


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 Rosenman.

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


Commodore 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. This


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 '45-'46.

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 for him.

MORRISSEY: How did this role evolve with the passage of time?

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 House.

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


about 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 Presidency.

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.


The admiral 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, USNR.

MORRISSEY: Do you have any other specific recollections of the difficulties of forming the legislation that became the National Security Act?

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 date.

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 Board.


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 Council.


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 structure.

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 Council.

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


better not 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 other


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 that Mr.


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 Mr. Millis.

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 suggestion?

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 kind.

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


House 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 on.

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 thing?


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 at Independence.

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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