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
July 10, 1970
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right, Mr. Elsey, to begin this morning, let's
discuss your duties at the office of the Director of Mutual Security.
I believe that you went over there in about November of 1951. Is that
HESS: Why was that transfer made from the regular--as
a staff member of the regular White House staff, to Mr. Harriman' s
ELSEY: Mr. Harriman returned to Washington a few days
after the outbreak of the Korean war, in the later part of June or the
first day or two of July 1950, at the President's personal request,
because he thought it would be extremely useful, helpful to him to have
Harriman close at hand. With the outbreak of the Korean conflict, there
was much uncertainty as to the long-range intentions of the Soviet Union,
just what might be brewing in other parts of the Communist world, and
Mr. Harriman had more firsthand experience and a better knowledge of
the Soviet leadership,
Soviet mentality, the Soviet outlook, than any
of the other senior diplomats and the President thought it would be
very helpful, highly desirable to have Harriman on hand to help the
White House, the State Department, the military, analyze and--in the
course of events that would be unfolding.
I had known Mr. Harriman only very casually from fairly
frequent meetings during when he would be back in Washington during
the war years and the postwar when he was Secretary of Commerce, but
I certainly did not know him at all intimately. However, very quickly
I began working with him in the--as he assumed his new role as a Special
Assistant to the President in the summer, fall of 1950, and increasingly
closely with him and the small staff that he assembled.
In the middle of 1951 the foreign aid bill, which was
slowly working its way through the Congress, contained a provision establishing
an office, a new post, that had not previously existed, Director for
Mutual Security, and that director was to be placed in the Executive
Office of the President. The role of the man, the role of the office,
was to coordinate the old Marshall plan, which had now broadened to
a world-wide basis; of point 4, which
was being administered within
the State Department as the Technical Cooperation Administration, and
the Military Assistance which was over in the Pentagon. So, we had three
related, but not too well coordinated foreign aid activities. The military
didn't want Military Assistance put in State, nor the Marshall plan.
The ECA was much too large to be absorbed within State. It wanted, everybody
agreed that it ought to remain independent. So, it seemed that the only
way to coordinate all of these activities was from the White House with
a legally authorized, constituted person. And the job description--the
law I think was actually written with Averell Harriman in mind.
When the Mutual Security Act of '51 did become a law in
the final few weeks of '51, Harriman was sworn in as Director for Mutual
Security and for quite some time during the autumn of that year he had
asked, in fact sort of assumed, that I would join him in that newly
established office. And so I did. The transfer was a lateral transfer,
if you will, from the immediate White House office to Harriman's. I
had been working as I said before, increasingly closely with him and
staff for well over a year, so this was about almost an official
recognition of a status already existing.
HESS: There was some speculation in the press at that
time that you were moved there it was a sign of President Truman's support
for Averell Harriman in the 1952 election. I found a clipping from the
Chicago Sun-Times of November the 25th, 1951 and I don't read
it all, but it says in part:
. . . The speculation has become pretty wild, in fact, W. Averell
Harriman, the Truman goldbraid jack-of-all-trades is mentioned as
the Man Who.
Basis for this bit of guessing is that Mr. Truman last
week agreed to let Harriman have young George Elsey, one of the White
House administrative assistants, for his new mutual European defense
setup. Elsey wrote a lot of the so successful Truman 'whistlestop'
speeches in 1948, and is thus figured to be a builder-upper of presidential
candidates . . .
Do you recall any of that speculation at that time?
ELSEY: I had completely forgotten that story. I suppose
somebody called it to my attention at the time, but I had forgotten
it, Jerry. Well, this is just more of some reporter whiling away the
idle hours by putting some speculation down on his typewriter and filling
Certainly I did not go to the Harriman staff with any
intention or expectation of working, supporting him, or boosting him
for the Democratic nomination in '52; that was just not a part of it
in any way, shape, or form.
HESS: What were your duties on that job? Just what did
ELSEY: Well, I was the, I forgot just what I was called,
the Assistant to the Director, or the Special Assistant to the Director,
I'm not sure just what. Anyway, I was in charge of his immediate office,
his staff, and a right-hand man, I suppose you'd say. Keeping track
of just everything he was supposed to be attending to.
HESS: How would you assess the efficiency of the agency
at the time that Mr. Harriman was running it?
ELSEY: Well, I think the point here is there wasn't an
agency that he was running. He was a coordinator of three
programs, the Economic Recovery Program, the point 4 or Technical Assistance
Program, and the military program, and each of these programs had its
own immediate administrator. It was Harriman's job to see that the
programs, which had developed under different legislation with different
emphasis at different times, and for somewhat different purposes, was
to see that they were meshed together and that we didn't inadvertently
find ourselves working at cross-purposes in a country, or region, or
a part of the world just through lack of coordination.
Harriman participated in the National Security Council
discussions and worked very closely with the Secretary of State and
Secretary of Defense. He had access to those levels and counsels
at the White House more easily than the men who were doing the day by
day operation of the programs. He could function at a higher level than
the administrator of any--than the administrator to the three separate
programs. Had a broader perspective, a broader overview of our total
national interest than was available to them.
HESS: Were there times when it seemed that the agencies
were working at cross-purposes? Were there times when he had to step
in and straighten things out?
ELSEY: I don't think there's any point in our trying to
dwell in detail on that. Sure, this always happened
in anything as big
as a governmental organization. You'll find the left hand not knowing
what the right hand is doing. This has always happened and always will
continue to happen and the purpose of a government administrator at
that level is to minimize the frequency of those occurrences, avoid
as many as you can and rectify the problems when they come to the surface.
HESS: What was the relationship of the agency and its
staff members with the White House staff?
ELSEY: I repeat, there was no agency. There
was the Office of the Director, but it was not an operating governmental
agency. The immediate associates of Harriman in the office of the Director
for Mutual Security were physically intermingled with members of the
White House staff in the Executive Office Building, and until the establishment
of the Office of the Director by the Mutual Security Act, all of us
had been on the White House staff, so, the finest of relations. Everybody
knew one another. We all had worked together, we all continued to work
HESS: Did you have any duties in the 1952 campaign?
ELSEY: None. None whatsoever. I was in the Harriman office
and we, by the Hatch Act and everything else, were precluded from participation
and did not participate. I had no role of any sort in the '52 campaign.
HESS: Mr. Harriman did go out to Chicago and establish
an office in Chicago at that time. In other words he made a definite
bid for the candidacy. Do you recall anything about that in particular?
ELSEY: Yes. He threw his hat in the ring some weeks before
the Democratic convention. Before, you recall, Governor Stevenson was
very coy about his availability, and several men just let it be known
that they would be willing to run if nominated, and Harriman indicated
his availability and set up a small office here in Washington, completely
removed from his governmental office, on private space, the rent privately
paid, the staff privately paid, and so on. It had no role, no part whatsoever
with his governmental duties, and there was some exploration by that
group as to delegate sentiment (delegates that is to the forthcoming
Democratic convention), as to delegate sentiment and the attitudes toward
but those of us in the office of the Director for Mutual Security
were not in any way a part of that activity.
We knew of it of course, obviously, we were aware
of it, but as I repeat, that was a totally separate off-limits enterprise
so far as those of us in the foreign aid activities were concerned.
HESS: Who served on that staff, do you recall?
ELSEY: I think you had better get these details from Mr.
Harriman because any recollections I have are going to be incomplete
and inadequate, and further would tend to confuse people into thinking
that I knew a lot about it whereas I don't; I didn't then and I don't
HESS: What do you recall about the relations between President
Truman and Governor Stevenson at that time?
ELSEY: I have no knowledge on that subject at all, other
than the published record.
HESS: All right, in your opinion would President Truman
have preferred to have seen someone other than Governor Stevenson as
the Democratic standard-bearer in 1952?
ELSEY: I have no basis of answering that.
HESS: Okay. Anything else about your duties with Mr. Harriman?
ELSEY: No, I don't think so.
HESS: All right, back to Mr. Truman and just some general
questions about Mr. Truman. In your opinion how successful was Mr. Truman
in separating his individual views from the views he thought he should
take because he was President, or did that, do you think that that came
up? What I have in mind here were probably his views and pronouncements
on the field of civil rights. Do you think this would come into this
ELSEY: I don't know how I can answer the question. You
can't separate a man from himself. Harry Truman was one individual,
one person, at all times. You don't split him up the middle and
say this is Truman and then this is the President. Truman was
the President; the President was Truman. That I realize is probably
not answering your question.
On the matter of civil rights, I think that President's
perspective and outlook evolved over a period of time. His outlook on
civil rights, just as on many other questions, was
not fixed and constant
and as he grew in responsibilities through his political career in the
State of Missouri, and in the decade in the Senate, then the White House
years, the country was changing, times were changing, attitudes amongst
the American people were changing, he himself was becoming broader in
his understanding and concern, responsibilities, and outlook, and so
his civil rights stance was a constantly evolving, one; too, I think
he probably had a much broader outlook on these matters after he became
President than he had before. I certainly think he meant absolutely
everything he said in his well-known civil rights message of February
2nd, 1948. I don't think there was anything phoney about that at all.
It wasn't a sham, it wasn't a pretense, it wasn't a lot of hot air just
for political purposes. I believe that he believed what he was advocating
HESS: Regarding the general charges made against individuals
at that time, it came to be known as "McCarthyism," was there any response
among the White House staff members to protect themselves from that
sort of thing that they become secretive or . . .
ELSEY: You mean about the White House staff members concerned
over their own inidividual situation?
HESS: That's right.
ELSEY: I don't think so. I'm not aware that any White
House staff member felt that he had anything to hide or that he was
personally in any kind of jeopardy at this period. Those of us who were
quite young at the time as well as those who were a good deal older,
were proud of what we had done in our past, and had absolutely
nothing to conceal and no reason to think that McCarthy or anyone else
had any basis to accuse us of anything.
HESS: There were two staff members who were named
by McCarthy: David Lloyd and Philleo Nash, do you recall that matter?
ELSEY: Were they actually named by name
by Senator McCarthy? HESS: Yes.
ELSEY: I did not recall that they had been.
HESS: All right. What do you recall about the transition
from the Truman administration to the Eisenhower administration?
ELSEY: Very little, because as we were saying just a few
moments ago, I was with Harriman at that time, not in the immediate
White House office. Insofar as the Harriman transition to his
successor who was Governor Harold Stassen, I recall that very well indeed,
because I was involved in it very, very deeply.
Harriman telephoned Stassen within a matter of minutes
after President-elect Eisenhower announced that Stassen would be the
Director for Mutual Security, Harriman telephoned Stassen who was then
the president of the University of Pennsylvania; congratulated him,
offered every assistance, invited him to come down to Washington at
his earliest convenience and said that he would make himself and his
staff--put them completely at the disposal of Governor Stassen and this
is pretty much what happened.
The staff members, the Harriman staff members, prepared
briefs, prepared reports of what they had been doing, on what
their responsibilities were, what the issues facing the office were
as they saw them, and Stassen did come down. Stassen spent
a great deal of time, part of the time using my office, going through
highly classified materials. He spent, I can't now
recall how many times
he came or how many hours he spent, but it was a very impressive amount
of time that Stassen devoted to educating himself in the responsibilities
of his job.
Harriman made it clear to everyone of us that we were
to answer any question Stassen asked without any reservation of any
sort and we were to give him everything we could that we felt he needed
or that he expressed the desire to have. This was the case of a transition
where the offer was made, and sincerely made, and very sincerely
accepted by Stassen. And in the last few, last, oh, couple of weeks
before January 20th, when Stassen already knew who some of his subordinates
were going to be, the same kind of cooperation was extended to them.
HESS: Did President Truman ever express in your presence
any viewpoints about the operation of the Presidency or on government
organization, how he thought the government could better be organized
or be more efficiently run?
ELSEY: Jerry, I don't now, at this date, recall any specifics
in that regard. I'm sure he must from time to time have talked about
this. Well, of course he did, we had the Hoover Commission, there were
various presidential advisory commissions, some public and some just
informal ad hoc working groups. The organization for more
effective management was--has been a lifelong concern of James E. Webb.
Webb was Bureau of the Budget Director for Truman, later
became Under Secretary of State. Both in the Budget and over into State,
Webb continued this interest in the effective management. In fact he
is internationally known for his work in this field. Others in the Budget
Bureau before and after Webb discussed the matter with Truman.
Truman sent up a number of reorganization plans, the establishment
of the National Security Council was an effort for more effective management
in the defense and the foreign policy field. The establishment of the
National Security Resources Board was a step in that direction. Sure,
it was--the matter of how do you run the Federal Government is something
that a President is concerned with 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
now, at this date, to try and quote a particular, remark that Mr.
Truman might have made on the subject, I'm afraid is more than I can
HESS: You have been associated with a number of Presidents,
is there a way that the government could be made more efficient? We
don't want to go too far into this, but are there a few things that,
should be done to make the Government more efficient? Do you think that
there are things that demand too much of a President's time? Is he pinned
down too much, for instance, on social matters?
ELSEY: The President is the boss of his own time. He can
be pinned down any place that he wants to be pinned down or he can be
totally free wherever he wants to be free. Each President is organizing
his own staff in the White House the way he feels most comfortable and
the way he wants to operate.
You can take the Chief of Staff concept as President Eisenhower
did with Sherman Adams, and have a Chief of Staff who pretty much runs
the White House, the immediate White House, control of the matters that
go to or for the President. You can play it differently as President
Truman did, where eight or ten White House staff members
access to him at any time they felt they had something that the President
ought to know about, or ought to be aware of, or ought to attend to.
The White House was operated differently with Presidents Johnson, Kennedy
and now President Nixon.
There is no single way of managing, and then again, the
government isn't static. There are new pressures, there are new demands
from the public on the government. We're aware right now, today's papers
are full of environment and ecology, well that's an area that was not
a matter of public concern, or governmental interest in a major
fashion, a few years ago, but then probably other things will take its
place a few years from now. Maybe even a few months from now.
It's a terrible mistake to think that there is a
perfect way or a good way to organize the White House or organize
the Federal establishment and that that way, once you discover it, or
once you succeed in putting it into effect, is going to be the best
way a few years later, it won't be.
HESS: Times change.
ELSEY: Times change and people change. And the executive
branch, the relations of the executive branch to the legislative has
a hell of a lot to do with how you want to organize or how you can administer
or whether indeed you have much control over the executive branch. You
don't have as much control when your own party is out of control on
the Hill. You lose control over the bureaucracy and your own political
leaders have much less potency. You also obviously lose power, a President
does, as he approaches the latter part of his second term in office.
So, here we are just an endless number of intangibles, imponderables,
fluid, changing pressures. What is the situation abroad?
We've talked in earlier interviews of how the United States
was given, in Truman's time, very short warning by one of its allies
(we're referring now to the British withdrawal from Greece and Turkey),
the United States had to make an almost overnight decision, that is
to replace British military and economic power in a very sensitive part
of the world. That decision has had enormous consequences all through
the years. The Cuban missile crisis that President John F. Kennedy faced.
The way a President reacts at a time like this determines
for a good long time to come what kind of a
power he's going to have
in his own country and how the White House, and how the whole government
is going to have to be managed, or how it's going to be--how responsive
it's going to be to the White House direction. Now the President's a
conductor of a symphony orchestra for which the score has not as yet
HESS: And sometimes you hear some blue notes.
ELSEY: Yes, and he composes as he conducts.
HESS: What were the sources of your ideas on administration,
policy making and presidential power during the Truman administration,
and just how important were the writings of political scientists and
your knowledge of the techniques employed by other Presidents
before Mr. Truman? Just some of your own sources of ideas?
ELSEY: My undergraduate and graduate fields of study were
history, and in graduate school my major was American history, so I
had some probably broader background in terms of previous administrations
than many people who go to the White House staff. Also I have had the
three years there during the war on the FDR staff prior to
I don't think when you actually find yourself on the White
House staff coping with the day to day problems you have much time to
sit back and reflect and analyze and read political scientists. You're
too busy trying to keep your head above water.
Obviously my formal education and my military experience
in the Map Room, in the Naval Aide's office, all contributed to the
way I responded and reacted when things came my way and to the recommendations
that I would have to--for my bosses in the White House, but I don't
think I can be any more specific than that.
HESS: Do you recall if President Truman ever considered
relieving J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI? Did that ever come up?
ELSEY: It never came up in any conversation in my presence.
I do recall the President had a personal acquaintance,
one could call him I guess a personal friend, Mr. Max Lowenthal, a New
York attorney who had been a staff member, oh, on some committee for
which the President--I guess it was President Truman, that was on the
Investigating Committee, although I'm not too clear, I'm not certain
that that' s the first time Lowenthal was associated with Senator Truman,
it might have been earlier.
Lowenthal had a passionate dislike of the FBI and J. Edgar
Hoover in particular, and Lowenthal would come to Washington from time
to time, and would drop in to see some of the younger staff members,
and invariably his pet peeve of Hoover and the FBI would come out.
Lowenthal wrote a book on the FBI and I was asked if I
would read the galley proofs of the book and comment on it. I did and
my recommendation to the President was that he ought to try and persuade
Lowenthal to drop the project because the book was so unfair, so grossly
biased, so sloppily done in every respect that it couldn't possibly
influence anybody about the FBI. Any serious reader would just lay the
thing aside in disgust. This is probably the only occasion, the only
circumstance, in which I ever had any serious discussion with President
Truman over the FBI and Mr. Hoover.
The President was just tolerant, shrugged his shoulder,
tended to laugh it off and say, "Oh, Max is that way," and the President
did not agree with him. He recognized that
Lowenthal was a little absurd
on this subject. Despite the fact that he'd known Lowenthal for many
years and people assumed they were close, the Lowenthal point of view
about J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI most certainly was not shared in that
extreme fashion by President Truman.
Let's see this brings to mind another subject though.
When the Federal employee loyalty program was first being established,
President Truman was very much concerned about any actions which would
vest too much power, too much authority, in the Federal Bureau
of Investigation. He wanted to be certain that no single
unit or agency of the Federal Government would have so much power that
we would find ourselves, perhaps inadvertently, slipping in the direction
of, to use a phrase then quite common, a police state. I recall that
he thought for a long time and talked with the Bureau of the Budget
and others about the Civil Service Commission. Wouldn't it be possible
to develop the investigative and security role within the Civil Service
Commission, not because he was antagonistic of the FBI so much as just
wanting to avoid having any single element in our society be the all
encompassing, all powerful security agency. He felt a dispersal, several
units, like Civil Service, FBI, possibly military, and maybe some as
yet uncreated agency for this purpose would be better than letting too
much power gravitate to one source.
But back to Mr. Hoover, I certainly do not recall any
time in which he said anything in my presence about firing Hoover, retiring
Hoover, pushing him aside, or anything of that sort. He may have to
others, I don't know, just certainly not to me.
HESS: Do you recall anything that was not put out in the
press about the Newbold Morris matter?
ELSEY: No, nothing.
HESS: Did you ever see one of Mr. Morris' questionnaires
that he was planning to send around the government?
HESS: Okay. What in your opinion were Mr. Truman's major
contributions during his career? How about that, there goes another
hour or two.
ELSEY: I'll just drop the question, I just can't answer
that. I'd have to sit on a desert island andů
HESS: And think about that.
ELSEY: And think about that one in order to give you an
answer that would have any meaning at all.
HESS: Okay. What is your estimation of Mr. Truman's place
in history. In one or two hundred years how do you think he will be
regarded by historians and members of the general public?
ELSEY: Come back and ask me one hundred years from now.
HESS: All right, I'll see your secretary, we'll make a
date for that?
And just briefly, how would you rate the Presidents of
recent years. Since you worked with President Roosevelt, let's start
with him, but how would you rate the Presidents of recent years concerning
their effectiveness in office?
ELSEY: I don't want to talk . . .
HESS: Don't want to get into that one.
ELSEY: No, don't want to say.
HESS: All right, fine. That covers anything that I have.
Now, I just have a general question: You've known me for
quite a while and you've heard all of my questions and all of my subjects.
What question should I have asked you that I did not? What subjects
should I have broached with you that I did not?
ELSEY: Jerry, after these last two or three tapes that
have not yet been transcribed, have been transcribed, I will
go through all of the nine, I think it is, transcriptions at
one time for the purpose of editing, because my sentences haven't always
been complete and I have tripped and tangled in my syntax, and as I
read them all I may find some responses which might appear to contradict
responses I gave in other interviews. Sometimes it inadvertently turns
out that way when they appear in print, so I Ill go through the whole
nine together and I think I'll bear this question you just put to me
in mind. I think I can respond to that better when we've laid all nine
end to end and I've been through them than I can at this point because
you and I first talked, and I talked to Charlie Morrissey I guess several
years ago, so I think we can do a better job on this final point at
HESS: I believe it was in 1964 when you first spoke to
Mr. Morrissey. At that time perhaps we could cover anything that you
have of a very sensitive nature that you would want to keep closed for
a long period of time. Surely a person who was in the White House under
Roosevelt and Truman may have heard things, may have seen things, may
know things that they think are extra sensitive that they might want
to keep closed for a great length of time. We could place any restriction
on it that you want. Would you have anything of that nature?
ELSEY: I have tried to be responsive where I thought my
answers would have any use or interest. And I'm not conscious now at
this moment of anything of a sensitive nature that we haven't already
HESS: You've been quite responsive to my questions, but
there can be no response to a question not asked.
ELSEY: You're right and that's one reason why I'm suggesting
that you have these last couple of tapes transcribed and then I'll look
at all nine together, and possibly in that exercise something will come
to mind that I think we ought to record.
HESS: All right, fine, everything for today?
ELSEY: That's it.
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