Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened April, 1989
Oral History Interview with
August 9, 1988
by Benedict K. Zobrist
ZOBRIST: It's a real pleasure to have you here with us today, on a rather unexpected visit. You've been telling me so many interesting things about Harry Truman, and Moral Re-Armament and that whole dimension. I'm putting you on the spot. I'd like to have you tell us a little bit about it, but why don't you tell us something about yourself first?
HUNTER: I'd like to. I certainly am privileged to be here at the Harry S. Truman Library. I've been here before. What you people are doing to preserve the values that Harry Truman stood for, for our country, I think is terribly important. We're all very grateful.
I came originally from Minnesota. My father was a professor of English at Carleton College for 33
years; I grew up in Northfield. Incidentally, Northfield is where Jesse James got stopped. I think he comes from Clay County here.
ZOBRIST: He does. In fact, you know in Missouri we say the three most famous people of Missouri are Harry Truman, Mark Twain, and Jesse James.
HUNTER: Well, Harry sort of took the line that a lot of people in Missouri take, that Jesse James was kind of a Robin Hood, a sort of good old boy, who took care of the widows and others. We don't think that up where we come from. We don't see any evidence that he ever did much of anything for anybody. But be that as it may, I don't want to argue with Harry Truman on this august occasion, especially in this Library!
I decided that I wanted to get into politics. When I was graduated from Carleton in 1936, I went to the Harvard Law School, which has sometimes been known as a "stepping stone to greatness." Michael Dukakis is one of those that followed a similar trail.
Before too long I decided that law and politics and diplomacy weren't really going to do that much. Besides, I had always from the beginning felt that I was called
to get into something that dealt with people and changing people. Unless you deal with human nature, you're still always going to have the same problems, I think, because most problems stem from human nature.
While I was still a student, the program of Moral Re-Armament came by. It had been initiated by Frank Buchman back in the twenties. It was known as the Oxford Group for a while, and out of it came Alcoholics Anonymous. He was so good at life-changing that a number of alcoholics were changed. Some of them wanted to apply the Oxford Group idea only to the one problem. So they separated off. The twelve steps of AA were Frank Buchman's life-changing principles. There are over a million living recoveries and it is growing around the world.
I kept on with the Moral Re-Armament program for 18 years fulltime and a good deal of that was in Washington, D.C. I was one of the movement's Washington operatives, you might say.
One of the people that I worked with there was John Roots. He was the son of a man, Logan H. Roots, who was the Episcopal Bishop of Hankow for 38 years. John was a brilliant man, and had been a foreign correspondent with the New York Times and other papers.
He also was giving all of his time to this program with Frank Buchman for Moral Re-Armament -- "World changing through life changing." One of the things that we were out for, particularly in Washington, was if you're going to change the world; you need to change the people who run it. So we were out, among other things, to "make Christians out of Congressmen." We made quite a dent in a number of lives there, quite a few situations which I think, looking back on it, were really quite impressive.
In 1938 Buchman said that what the world needed in the midst of the physical arms race was moral and spiritual rearmament to undergird civilization. So the name of the program changed in 1938 from Oxford Group, which had been named that because students from Oxford had taken the program all over the world, to Moral Re-Armament.
To introduce Moral Re-Armament in the United States the following year, 1939, there were three big meetings. One was at the Madison Square Garden, May 14, 1939 -- packed house. The second meeting was June 4, 1939, in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., also packed with the top people in the town -- I mean Congress, Cabinet,
Judiciary, Armed Services. Then the third one was the Hollywood Bowl meeting on July 19, 1939. It was six weeks before the war began. That was the peak of the MRA public visibility.
Leading up to the Constitution Hall meeting June 4, Endicott Peabody, who was the headmaster of Groton School, where Franklin Roosevelt had attended, persuaded Roosevelt that he should get in on this, that it was an important thing for him to back. Roosevelt, in this area of things, rather trusted Peabody's judgment. He developed a statement which was very good, about the undergirding of the moral forces of the world. Then the question was who should present the President's message at the Constitution Hall meeting. Roosevelt went down the list of Senators, and he picked Harry Truman because he had such an excellent New Deal voting record . He could speak for the President as well as anyone.
Truman was happy to do this, and he came. I remember Frank Buchman, who initiated the Moral Re-Armament program, was in the chair for the evening. He was introducing the different speakers, and when it came time for the President's message, he introduced Harry, and they shook hands. I was sitting right on
the platform; I remember seeing these two men, Truman and Buchman up there. Truman read the President's statement. I don't think he made any further comments. At that point he didn't know a whole lot about it, but he did read that message with great vigor.
ZOBRIST: This was a message written by, would you assume, Roosevelt or his speechwriters?
HUNTER: Yes, right. I think he got a couple of suggestions from Endicott Peabody, and there may have been from John Roots, I don't know. I think it was Bunny Austin, the British tennis star, that really actually obtained the message from Roosevelt. Bunny told me that there was a whole sentence that Roosevelt himself added, stating that "to be most highly effective" the program "must receive support on a world-wide basis." He wanted it in there, and it strengthened the message.
At that point, Harry Truman was obviously quite intrigued with the possibility. Of course, he had a basic Midwest ethic; I mean moral standards were important to him. I remember him speaking once; he said, "All you really need is the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments." He believed that. So he
responded to this type of approach; he knew that something needed to be happening beyond all the physical, material things. You had to have this kind of thing going on. So increasingly he got interested in it.
As I say, John Roots became quite a close friend of his. John Roots was a very persuasive fellow, and a brilliant fellow; Harry kept moving along and he would do a lot of the things that John would suggest. He'd say, "No, I'm not going to do that," or "Yes, I'll do that." I was impressed with the way he went about his business.
I was in his office once, I think with John, and "Cece" Broadhurst, a big, tall singing cowboy who had a birthday on the same day as the Senator. He always wrote a special song for Harry. He said, "Since Mr. Truman hasn't been able to write a song for me, I'm going to write a song for him." Truman said on that occasion, "That fellow has really got it."
Once, when I was in his office, we were talking about one of these meetings that was coming up: I was impressed by the speed with which that man Truman made decisions. He never would say, "Well, I don't know about that," or he wouldn't say, "I'll think about
that and let you know tomorrow." Right now, it was either "yes" or "no" and there was no question. Everybody in the room knew that that was the way it was going to be. I was interested to read that, later on in the White House, that's the way he made decisions, about the atomic bomb and almost anything else he did. He just decided that messing around wasn't going to improve the quality of the decision.
Truman then, of course, became the chairman of the watchdog committee of the Senate, investigating the war industries -- what was happening in war production.
ZOBRIST: Yes, the Truman Committee.
HUNTER: The Truman Committee; whether we were getting enough "bang for the buck" and all that. And he began to notice the work of Moral Re-Armament in the war industries. Of course, we helped him; John or some of us would help him when he was going around to Los Angeles for example, and we'd say, "Now, you want to see so and so," and he did. Dale Reed, who was the head of the machinists at Lockheed Aircraft in Los Angeles, said, "There are planes over the fighting fronts today that would not be there but for the work of Moral Re-Armament at Lockheed." He
was referring to the increased teamwork between labor and management, getting new trust going between them -- reducing absenteeism, providing new motivation and trying to help these people, not only with what they were fighting against, but also what they were fighting for. All of this heightened efficiency and increased production. Wherever Truman went he found that this spirit was working out, that there was an improvement . So he got more and more interested and more and more solidified in his conviction that this was a good thing to keep moving.
Near the end of the war, in late 1943, he worked with Jim Wadsworth, who had formerly been a Senator from New York, and now was a Congressman from Genesee, New York -- well respected. They said of Representative Wadsworth that he was one of the few members of either the House or the Senate who could change votes with a speech. He also was convinced that MRA was the way to go.
So Truman, as a Democrat, and Wadsworth, as a Republican, made a good team, one from the House and one from the Senate. They went up to Philadelphia and they spoke on November 19, 1943 from the platform of a
Moral Re-Armament play called "The Forgotten Factor." Truman called it "the most important play produced by the war." It dramatized the human side of labor-management problems by showing the life of a labor leader and his family, and the life of the management leader and his family, and how the trust had broken down. It showed how rebuilding trust began when one of the kids apologized to the family on the other side. I don't need to go into the whole story. Anyway, it was a dramatic thing which had made impressive impact in war plants and civic centers. People got the idea: Yes, teamwork is possible, and it's fun and it's productive. This man George Seldes, that Miller quotes,* says that Moral Re-Armament was trying to tell the workers to take less, or back down or give in. It was entirely opposite from that; I mean there were usually equal apologies on both sides and standing up as individuals to each other in the interest of justice and equity for everyone.
So Truman and Wadsworth spoke at Philadelphia. The presentation was sponsored by the union and management at Cramp Shipyard.
*See Richard L. Miller, Truman: The Rise to Power (McGraw-Hill, 1986), 368.
It was so successful with all the folks in Philadelphia, that people said, "Wouldn't it be good to do this also in Washington where it will reach the nation's leadership?" So they did. Truman and Wadsworth went together on a committee and invited pretty much everybody who was anybody in Washington. I was in the balcony of the Senate one day and I looked down, and there was Harry Truman sitting at his Senate floor desk with a pile of invitations, that high. In between those dull speeches, he'd be signing his name to these invitations. It wasn't a staff-printed thing; it was a personalized signed invitation to Eisenhower and to everybody else.
So they got that going. The date was May 5, 1944, in the National Theatre in Washington. A leading newspaperman looked around and saw the political leadership and the military leadership; he said, "If a bomb had been dropped on that theater that night, the whole war effort would have been put out of commission."
At that point, Harry Truman -- I don't know whether it's right to say -- backed out or what. I think he did. I was in on some of that. You remember the name Matt Connelly?
ZOBRIST: He was on the staff.
HUNTER: Yes, and Harry Vaughan; I knew those people. I was down in the Willard Hotel where we had an office and the replies to the invitations were coming in. Matt Connelly came down and said, "I wonder if you wouldn't just as soon, in answering the phone, not say 'Truman-Wadsworth Committee' anymore. It might get mixed up with the 'Truman Committee'." I said to myself, "There is something else going on besides that." There was just a little wisp in the wind. At that time Robert Hannegan of Missouri was starting to carry the torch for Harry Truman as the Vice Presidential nominee under Roosevelt. Everybody knew that Roosevelt's days were numbered. His health was so bad that the 1944 Vice Presidential nominee would become -- if the Democrats won -- would become President. Of course, Truman was a natural. I got credit as a seer among some of my friends for predicting two months before that convention that Truman would be nominated. With the Truman Committee's reputation, and the Senator's standards and his reputation as a clean-cut family man, people had confidence in that man.
At any rate, a Teamsters leader out in Detroit -- this is in May of 1944 -- said to some of us, "Truman's not going to be at that meeting." We said, "What do
you mean? He's promised; he's committed himself to be at that meeting." "I'm just telling you, he's just not going to be there."
I'm sure that the word went out from the party managers that Harry should now begin to divest himself of anything that he would have to explain, no matter how good it was. I mean he could explain it for ten minutes just perfectly, but in politics you wanted not to have to explain anything. I think he bought that and I decided that was what he would do . This was only ten weeks away from the 1944 Democratic National Convention. The disappearance of Truman so abruptly seemed to me rather ruthless. I thought at the time that when presidential politics gather force, it is a bit terrifying. It should also be added that it was about that time that I heard of some kind of falling out between Truman and John Roots, which may have been a factor in the break. For the rest of his 80-year life, Roots would not talk about this.
In addition, for the record, Miller thinks Truman lied about the extent of his involvement with MRA, which Miller called "intense," in his letter of response to George Seldes' attack, an attack which no doubt contributed
to Harry's skittishness. Seldes repeats his groundless smears in his autobiography Witness to a Century and takes credit for waving Truman off the program.
Mr. Truman did a couple of things after he was President. For example, he sent a message to the family of Bishop Logan Roots, John Roots' father, when he died.
On the distaff side, we also got to know Margaret and Bess quite well. John Roots' sister, Frances Roots, was a brilliant pianist. As a matter of fact, even to this day, she and her husband do piano duet national concert tours. Margaret and Frances hit it off, partly because Margaret was into singing, and in a music program at George Washington University. Frances could play almost anything that she wanted to sing. My wife was Mary Lou Merrell at that point. She was one of the team there too, and she recalls how Bess made them a special batch of brownies. They used to talk about those brownies a lot.
I remember my wife and I went to the opening of the baseball season in Washington. That was probably 1948. At that time the Washington Senators were the
team in the capital city. They were never any good, but they were the ones that always opened the season, and the President threw the ball out. Harry threw the ball out. The family were in the Presidential box. By strange coincidence some good friends of ours in Washington, who had a season box that was not far from the Trumans', gave this to us to go to that game. So we were pretty close. I recall particularly Margaret trying to get my eye, and she finally did. She waved in what struck me as a friendly way.
It was after that, that my wife invited her out to our house for tea. We were at that time living in the Cleveland Park area of Washington. Margaret accepted. She came out in a big, long, black White House limousine. I don't know whether it was a Cadillac or a Lincoln, or whatever, but anyway it had all the trappings of the Presidency. She was very charming, as she always was. I've never talked to anybody that was quite as charming as Margaret Truman, just a beautiful person. She had all the time in the world and we had our kids and so forth. At that time she was in between concerts in her professional concert series. She was being given
a hard time by some of the critics. She knew that if her name was Margaret Smith, she probably wouldn't have been getting all that attention. I heard one of those concerts and she had a nice voice; it wasn't a strong voice, but it was a nice voice.
ZOBRIST: That's right.
HUNTER: But she was having a great time, and she wasn't kidding herself. She said about the critics, "Most of the critics are frustrated performers."
Then we also talked about Douglas MacArthur. I think it was about that time when MacArthur was getting a little bit uppity, and Harry had to keep him in line. She wasn't telling us any secrets or anything, but I recall she had some interesting little things that she said about MacArthur.
ZOBRIST: Most people don't realize that there was tension long before the firing of MacArthur.
HUNTER: Yes. Well, it took something to fire MacArthur, because of his position, and stature and so on. But he finally just had to do it, and I think he was right.
When I was in uniform in the service I used to
correspond with Margaret. I never could tell whether it was just because of friendship, or whether she had a policy at that time as the daughter of the President, of answering every letter that she got from a GI. I think it was probably something like that. I wrote her; said I'd seen her on a newsreel waving to the crowds, and doing all that must be kind of hard. She wrote back that it wasn't all that hard. Since that time, not much, but maybe every two or three years, we corresponded when something came up.
She's very good on correspondence, I think. I imagine she really makes a point of answering those letters. Very few people I find in public life do; most people when they get to be a star they feel they don't have to. But she did and so, as I say, I think the last letter I got from her was about a year ago. So that's our relationship with the Truman family.
ZOBRIST: Great; this is a most interesting story. I thank you for giving us some insights, particularly, you know, into the thirties and also the wartime period. Anything else you want to add?
HUNTER: I don't think so. Well, of course, Truman was in the artillery in the First World War, and I think he
thought that Moral Re-Armament was a good combination because it didn't detract from military strength. As a matter of fact, it would increase military strength, although it wasn't for or against war. You've got to have character, wherever it is, whether it's on the home front or on the overseas front. I think he felt that.
ZOBRIST: I think that's right.
Austin, Bunny, 6
Buchman, Frank, 3
Connelly, Matthew, 12
"The Forgotten Factor" (Moral Re-Armament play), 10
Lockheed Corporation, and Moral. Re-Armament, 8-9
Oxford Group, 4
Peabody, Endicott, 5
Truman, Harry S.:
and Moral Re-Armament, 5-14, 18
and Roots, John, 7, 13, 14
and Wadsworth, James, 9-10, 12-13
Wadsworth, James, 9