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.

July 10, 1970
Jerry N. Hess

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


NOTICE
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

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

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened 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
July 10, 1970
Jerry N. Hess

[440]

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 correct?

ELSEY: Yes.

HESS: Why was that transfer made from the regular--as a staff member of the regular White House staff, to Mr. Harriman' s staff?

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,

[441]

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

[442]

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 his

[443]

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 up space.

[444]

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 you do?

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

[445]

three 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

[446]

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 together.

HESS: Did you have any duties in the 1952 campaign?

[447]

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 Harriman,

[448]

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 now.

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.

[449]

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 category?

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

[450]

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 there.

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

[451]

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

[452]

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

[453]

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

[454]

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. But

[455]

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 do.

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

[456]

had direct 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

[457]

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

[458]

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 been composed.

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

[459]

Mr. Truman's becoming President.

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 War

[460]

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

[461]

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

[462]

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?

ELSEY: No.

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

[463]

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.

[464]

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 that time.

[465]

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 covered.

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.

[466]

HESS: All right, fine, everything for today?

ELSEY: That's it.

HESS: Okay.

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