Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum


Oral History Interview with
Philleo Nash

Special Assistant for Domestic Operations, Office of War Information, 1942-45, and special consultant to the Secretary of War, 1943. Special Assistant to President for minority problems, 1946-52, and an Administrative Assistant to the President, 1952-53. Later served as Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, 1959-61, and as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1961-66.

Washington, D.C.
May 15, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess

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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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 October, 1973
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Philleo Nash

Washington, D.C.
May 15, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess

 

[766]

HESS: Doctor, to wind up our series, let's cover some of the difficulties that you had with Senator Joseph McCarthy, after January 20th, 1953. We've discussed the difficulties that you had while you were in the White House, but what were some of the difficulties that arose after you left?

NASH: When I left Washington, which was about a year after Mr. Truman left office, I went back to Wisconsin to look after my business. In between that time I was invited to come up to the Internal Security Committee of the Senate where I spent a couple of hours and I think we could say that was undoubtedly an offshoot of the McCarthy attack. They asked me a lot of questions in an executive session and there is a transcript of the interview somewhere around. I thought it was rather important to tell the Interior Affairs Committee of the Senate when it had my nomination under consideration to be Indian Commissioner that that transcript was over in the Internal Security Subcommittee, and therefore I reported that to them and I know that they did read that and take it into

 

[767]

account when they were considering my qualifications to be Indian Commissioner because they told me so in the executive sessions that I had with them. Now, other than that there was no aftermath of the McCarthy attack. He shut up about me. I don't think he was really aware of -- deeply aware of my sister's and my own Wisconsin connections and roots which were considerably deeper than his, and he just plain shut up about it and never said anymore. I, of course, went back intending to settle the score and got into politics in Wisconsin primarily with the object of defeating him for re-election in 1958.

I would have liked to have had the opportunity to have run against him myself but it was more important to defeat him than it was to elect a particular person and I rather quickly came to the conclusion that the person who had the best chance to beat him was the present United States Senator, the Senior Senator, William Proxmire, in spite of the fact that Bill and I didn't get along very well personally. So, I didn't let that stand in the way and previous interviews, I'm sure, have told how I worked for him and was pretty effective. In the

 

[768]

1958 campaign for Lieutenant Governor, an executive of the Allen-Bradley Corporation in Milwaukee who has supported many rightwing causes, took out a full-page ad to advertise a right-to-work pamphlet issued by the well-known rightwing pamphleteer and ex-Nazi, Joseph Kant.

Now Joe Kant, among other things, had attacked my old boss at the White House, Dave Niles, in an anti-Semitic pamphlet that I was very familiar with. And in that campaign for '58 I called upon my opposite number in the Republican Party, all Republican candidates, to disavow the pamphlet, any support from Joseph Kant and, of course, met with a good deal of abuse from the ultra-right in Wisconsin. They did not expect me to win and I am sure I would have been attacked more vigorously except that I was slated to lose.

There hadn't been a Democratic Governor, let alone a Lieutenant Governor, in Wisconsin for a long time. Much to everyone's surprise I slipped through. A narrow margin, six thousand votes out of, I've forgotten the exact number but I think it was around a million and a half. And served my term as Lieutenant Governor.

 

[769]

They figured I was then getting ready to run for Governor, knowing that Gaylord Nelson wanted to run for the Senate and would do so at the first opportunity. And it was about that time that the rightwing attack in earnest began on me. And it started with two Young Democrats from the south side. I underline the Young Democrats. They were members of the Young Democratic organization of the . . .

HESS: Who were they?

NASH: Now, let me see, I'll have to stop and think about their names. They were Polish surnames and I may be able to think of them later in the interview, at any rate, they can be provided. And what they did was to organize in the beginning, a Catholic action group that was concerned with local Milwaukee issues and bringing pressure on the clergy in Milwaukee to clean certain books off the shelves and this wasn't quite exciting enough for them and all of a sudden -- and they were disapproved by the hierarchy publicly, disavowed, but this still wasn't enough to get them read out of the Young Democratic organization. Very suddenly they turned on me and began to distribute handbills and

 

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petitions based on the McCarthy allegations which, of course, were in the Congressional Record.

The form of his attack on me in the beginning had been a ten minute speech on the floor of the Senate in which he addressed certain questions. "Mr. President," referring to President Truman, "I'm sure you have not seen the reports on your assistant, Mr. Nash, because otherwise you would be asking the following questions," you know, and so on and so forth. I was never able to prove who was behind the two youngsters. Proof really isn't worthwhile in a situation of this kind. If you are a public official and you are running for office, you are vulnerable and that's just it. I, myself, feel that rightwingers of the, type that have been active in some of the Wisconsin old family corporations such as the Allen-Bradley Company for many years, simply took these two kids and fed them money. I don't think it took very much. It took the form of handbills. At first they were handed out on shopping nights, mostly around the south side of Milwaukee -- the Polish, Catholic side of Milwaukee. Eventually things settled down to a true "pink-sheet campaign" of the classic type that was used

 

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against Helen Gahagan Douglas when she was defeated by Dick [Richard M.] Nixon in California and were, most people feel that the "pink-sheet campaign" was organized by Murray Chotiner. The handbills appeared first in several different forms and then finally they came out in large quantities, and on pink paper.

HESS: Now those are the pink papers that we found in your papers in Wisconsin Rapids last November?

NASH: Those are the pink papers that we found and that I kept several of. Now just so that this . . .

HESS: We have xerox copies of those here that the Library has sent out.

NASH: Just so your oral interview will refer to the same documents, you start here with a xerox copy, the original I can tell you was on pink paper, and it says, "Notice, Your Present Lieutenant Governor, Philleo Nash, was An Active Communist. Refer to the Congressional Record of . . ." so and so and summarizing the F.B.I. report and so on and then what the F.B.I. found. Of course, that is not true, the F.B.I. never found anything. Because the F.B.I. doesn't find anything. The F.B.I. found some people who said these things, and then so and

 

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so Nash claims clearance and all that. All of which is perfectly true.

HESS: Let's take these allegations one at a time. I notice that there are five.

NASH: No, actually if you refer to the Congressional Record of January 29, 1952 on page 581, you will find a lot more than five because the McCarthy technique is to add some others. Two of those he said, you know, are so serious that I can't even tell you what they are. So nobody ever did find out what those were. They are just two numbers.

Allegation A says: "That Philleo Nash, the President's advisor, had been in close contact with Communist underground in Washington." Well, this, of course, was one of the questions that was asked of me in my loyalty hearing, following the McCarthy allegation and I have a great many friends and apparently some of them had been in contact with the Communist underground so I guess -- I don't know what they meant by close contact. My recollection of the loyalty hearing, which is now quite a few years ago, is this involved a telephone call which was actually to my wife about enrollment of a child in the Georgetown Day School. Apparently, without anybody knowing it, the

 

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person making the telephone call was under surveillance by the F.B.I. and the White House Loyalty Board. In fact, my recollection is that was a specific phone contact which was not initiated by me or by anybody in my family.

Item B: "That he has been a close friend and a close associate of one of the convicted Canadian Communists." Well, this is a matter of record. I was a character witness while I was living in Canada, for a young physicist, who was a friend of mine and who was accused in 1939 of having a couple of Communists living in his house and then of circulating pamphlets that were against the war. This was during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, you see, so that the Canadian Communist Party, I guess in line with the world policy of Russian Communists, was to keep young Canadian men from signing up with the army, or to try to encourage them to mutiny or revolt if they did. Of course, the minute the shoe was on the other foot and the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, then they all became the most ardent war advocates that there were in the country. But this was during the earlier period and I had no

 

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knowledge of the facts and didn't claim to have any, but I did appear as a character witness for him, and my employers in the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto, were kept fully apprised, of course, of what I was doing. So there never was any secret about that. And incidentally he was convicted in spite of my character testimony and it was a rather costly thing for me to do but I didn't think I had a choice, and I don't even now.

C: "That he has financially contributed to the support of the Canadian Tribune, the official organ of the Communist Party in Canada." Well, the Canadian Tribune was a young weekly four-page newspaper in 1939 when I was living in Toronto and I don't think there is any doubt now in my mind that it was a Communist paper, but I wasn't particularly aware of it at the time. I'm not an expert on Communist matters, and I was sort of intrigued by it. And I used to buy it. You could buy it on the streets, it wasn't a secret publication or anything. I used to buy it and, like so many of those radical sheets, they were always out of money and they, on one occasion, they sent me a telegram asking for a

 

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contribution. I didn't reply to the telegram and I didn't make the contribution but I did buy it on the streets. In fact, I might even have had a subscription for a while, I think probably, or they wouldn't have sent me a telegram, unless I had had a subscription; so, that was probably the basis of it and that was the beginning and the end of it.

Item D: "That during the early forties, parts of the Communist Spy Ring in Canada were using his home in Toronto as a point of rendezvous and some of them were living there." I know from my loyalty hearing that there was an allegation that some people who occupied my home during the summer were actually Communists. You see, I was in Canada for three summers and during two of those before Canada got into the war, in other words the summer of '38 and the summer of '39 before the hostility of 1939 began in September, I was in the field starting up the Royal Ontario Museum's research program in archeology and my older daughter was a baby, born in 1938, so in the summer of '38 when she was just a few months old, I didn't want to be separated from from her and from my family during the summer, so they went with me on this archeological trip and we lived

 

[776]

in tents on the lower Ontario Peninsula while we worked on the Pound Village site. It was a very exciting experience taking a three month old baby camping and we had a very fine time. It did mean that our house was going to be empty. So, I invited friends to live there and I know from the questions that were asked to me during the loyalty hearing that they apparently had a guest who was declared by somebody, to be Communist, to have been a Communist. And for all I know he was. I never knew him, so I don't know that he was and I don't know that he wasn't. I know that it was a man, one man, and all I know about it is what I heard when I received my first interrogatory. So, that's one of those things where you loan your house out to your friends, you don't know exactly what is going to happen. You don't know what is going to happen if you lock it up either.

Item E : "That Philleo Nash in the early forties was attending Communist meetings and had officially joined the Communist Party." Well, I don't -- in the early forties, that would be either -- in '42 I went to work for the Federal Government and was, of course, repeatedly

 

[777]

screened with respect to Communist affiliations or Fascist or anything else pursuant to the Hatch Act. So, it would have to be -- since this says the early 1940s -- before May 1942 when I entered Government service and after I came back from Canada. I was living in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, and managing the Biron Cranberry Company at that time, and didn't have any opportunity to attend Communist meetings or join the Communist Party. I wouldn't have done so if I had had. So, I just don't know what this is all about and whether, you know, I assumed that F.B.I. reports, you know, they contain derogatory material, will usually say that so and so, you know, thought that he was at a Communist meeting or thought he joined the Communist Party. Who this was I don't know. So, that's the whole of it. Now, Mr. McCarthy went quite a bit beyond that, called me an atomic spy, and then said that some of the allegations were so serious that he couldn't even mention them out loud on the floor of the United States Senate, so nobody ever did hear about that.

Now, the question, of course, was what to do about this if you are Lieutenant Governor and you are

 

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campaigning for re-election, you're a politician. Now I think it's rather -- I think it's a pretty bad idea for anybody that is running for office to sue for libel. Quite often something like this happens, oh, you know, you counter it with a damage suit for a million dollars, or some large sum and then after election nobody ever hears about it. I took a much more serious, really more responsible view of this than that. I issued a number of public statements. Of course, you couldn't conceal it. I think probably they printed maybe a million of these. They said they printed a million, and I certainly did see an awfully lot of them. They circulated them at the State Fair, they circulated them in a number of farm fairs around the state, especially if I were there. On the Fourth of July I was invited to make a Fourth of July oration in 1960, I think it was '60, might have been '59, at Hales Corners, which is a suburb of Milwaukee and they have a very, very big Fourth of July parade and they invited me to be their guest of honor and make a speech. And as I expected, these fellows from the National Action Movement were moving around the courthouse grounds. We spoke from the bandstand. And I had prepared a speech

 

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about the meaning of liberty and the Bill of Rights to the Constitution and I said what the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are all about is defending the right of these people to do what they are doing. The fact that I'm the victim, the fact that they are telling an untruth, the fact that they are relying on the protection of the Congressional Record as Senator McCarthy did, is important but it is not constitutional. The constitutional point is that candidates for office are subject to public scrutiny and this is on the record, the allegations are not true and you either have to have confidence in the Loyalty Board and the loyalty system instituted by Mr. Truman, or just believe that any rumor that's printed on pink paper is a true rumor. So, this of course, is not a very nice thing to have going on in a campaign. It caused me quite a lot of sleepless moments, and pondering as to what the right way to counteract was, I, of course, had a long talk with my two running mates Governor Nelson, now Senator Nelson, and the Attorney General, Mr. [John W.J Reynolds, later Governor and now Federal judge in Milwaukee. And we agreed jointly that the best thing to do was to talk

 

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about it but not to make the mistake of responding with a libel suit. A libel suit would snarl everybody's time and attention and just keep on going.

Most people, I think today in Wisconsin politics feel that I was done in by the "pink-sheet campaign." On a superficial examination of the record, I think they have a point, in the sense that in 1958, four out of five Democratic candidates for the statehouse were elected. Two years later, following the "pink-sheet campaign," two out of five were elected, and not four out of five. And the two that went down to defeat were the State Treasurer, Mr. Lamb, and myself. Now, I don't know why one could attribute my defeat to the "pink-sheet campaign" but not Mr. Lamb, who wasn't even mentioned but was also defeated.

The fact of the matter is, that in 1960 Jack [John F.] Kennedy did not carry the state. There was a vigorous anti-Catholic drive on, particularly in the Norwegian Lutheran districts, with some Lutheran ministers actually preaching from the pulpit in some parts of the state, and the result was a decline in the total Democratic strength. I had been elected by only a six thousand vote margin in 1958 and when the whole ticket

 

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sank about one percentage point, it was enough to that the weaker candidates, of which I was one, went down below the fifty percent line. Actually I got approximately the same number of votes in the state as Jack Kennedy. It was over forty-nine percent, it was a very, very close election. There were many more votes and I gained considerable strength in such places as Prairie du Chien, La Crosse and Appleton. Appleton was Joe McCarthy's hometown. The significance of this is not so much that it was Joe McCarthy's hometown as it is a great big Irish Catholic center.

Consequently, I think if one looks realistically at the political outcome he has to conclude that I went down to defeat with a Catholic candidate who failed to carry the state and I think that Jack Kennedy was of that opinion because, although I had opposed him in the primary, in the preference primaries in the spring, and then supported him after Hubert Humphrey withdrew following his defeat in West Virginia in that primary, Jack Kennedy was very friendly and very generous towards me and I think clearly felt that my opposition in the primary was something to be forgotten. My own feeling about it is that, quite obviously, a "pink-sheet campaign"

 

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is not something that you want or like to have going for you. But that it was not noticeable as an influence or less noticeable, more negligible in its significance than the Catholic issue.

HESS: I noticed that one of the pink sheets carries a notation "Reprinted by Milwaukee County Committee to reelect Philleo Nash." Why is that?

NASH: Well, many of my friends were indignant, bitterly indignant, about the "pink-sheet campaign" and when it was brought to their attention gave more money than they would have otherwise. I ran very cheap campaigns. In, 1960 I had only $10,000 to spend in both the primary and the general. And the more I thought about it the more I felt that this would arouse a good deal of indignation and if you notice the one that says "Reprinted by Milwaukee County Committee" says across the face of it "Copy." So, what we did was to reprint, and as campaign literature over the imprimatur of my campaign committee, which is required by Wisconsin law, a copy of this accompanying it with another handbill and say, "This is the kind of attack that is being waged on Philleo Nash and you see the kind of campaign that is being waged against him, give him some money." We raised money

 

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with it. I think this is an illustration of the fact that I felt it was a most ineffectual type of campaign against me that I could turn it to my own advantage and I think on the whole it was more to my advantage than the reverse. Well, I can tell you some Wisconsin politicians that don't think so, but that's not my opinion.

After the election I ran an analysis of the counties, according to their vote in the 1960 presidential election, and at that time there was available through the Rural Sociology Department of Wisconsin, a listing of counties by religious preference and by ethnic origin. So, I took the two together, Lutheran and Norwegian, which means pretty much the same thing and if in both listings the county was listed as predominately Norwegian, you know that you have a fairly solid block here of people of one ethnic identity. And then I ran there, in those counties, ran the votes back to 1932, all presidential elections eliminating 1928 because that was the Al Smith election. And in those elections from '32 through ' 60, the counties that met both standards, highly Lutheran and highly Norwegian, those counties were as high as twenty-five percent more Republican than normal.

 

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And this is far more than enough to account for about fifty thousand votes that I was short.

HESS: How did their vote go in 1928. Did you look that up, were there heavy anti-Catholic

NASH: No, no. I stopped short of 1928. I didn't want to confuse the issues. That would be a separate research problem which would be very interesting. I don't happen to know. But in '32, '36, '40, '44, '48, '52, '56, here you have a trend through the depression and the war and the postwar, in what is their normal voting pattern and there was, of course, a big fluctuation, but in no case were there less than ten percent more Republicans than usual.

HESS: Do you think that Senator McCarthy had a hand in the backing of the "pink-sheet campaign?"

NASH: No, he was dead by that time.

HESS: When did he die?

NASH: Senator McCarthy drank himself to death and died in the spring, about this time of year, later April or early May of 1957. And I was vacationing in Puerto Rico at that time attending the first -- not the first -- attending the second Casals Festival with my daughter and I was

 

[785]

on the terrace of La Fortaleza, the Governor's palace in Puerto Rico, at a party following one of the concerts, when I received an urgent phone call and it was the Democratic Party secretary in Madison, Wisconsin informing me that Joe McCarthy had died. So, I left my daughter in Puerto Rico and rushed back to Madison the next morning to get started on the campaign to re-elect a successor because, at that time under Wisconsin law, the Governor was not obliged to call a special election. He did not have the power to appoint, but he could leave the seat vacant. And we first used the party machinery to conduct a major propaganda drive to back him into a corner in which he would have to call a special election even though he was very likely to lose it, because we had been working up to that election for a good many years, about ten.

HESS: Were you successful in that?

NASH: Yes, we did induce the Governor to call a special election, and we then embarked upon a campaign to find the strongest candidate. The political beliefs of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin had been inherited from the La Follette progressives and they are contrary to party endorsement. And this was the point where Senator

 

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Proxmire and I came apart. In an effort to unite the party behind him as the strongest leader, I set about what we called "operation soundingboard" in which we held a series of rallies around the state in which each person was permitted to come forward and say who he thought would be the strongest candidate.

Now, Senator Proxmire did two things. He first denounced that as an effort to have endorsement without having endorsement, and second, to accuse me of trying to find somebody else instead of him. Now the fact of the matter is that, while I had no great love for him, I didn't have any doubt that he was the strongest candidate, but the party leaders did not favor him because he had been defeated three times for Governor and they didn't want to run a three-time loser and "operation soundingboard" did in fact demonstrate his strength with the rank and file of the Democrats throughout the state. I raised money for him with good results. We couldn't afford a regular poll, and I just had come into my hands the other day a set of the amateur polls that were conducted by the Young Democrats, which I'm going to put into the files of the Library. And you will see that by this amateur poll at a total cost of

 

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$100 for the entire effort, we were able to forecast correctly Senator Proxmire's victory in the special election of 1947, August 27th, well over a month in advance.

HESS: After the time that Senator McCarthy first came out with any allegations against you, did you ever have occasion to have a private conversation with him?

NASH: I never met Senator McCarthy in my entire life. Now, the immediate cause of his attack on me was a series of newspaper advertisements that were initiated by my sister who was living then, and still does live in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, and she got together a group of independents, Republicans and Democrats who were offended by McCarthy arid they formed a little organization called "Citizens vs. McCarthy" and started taking out full-page ads and quoting extensively from Commonweal, from Senator Margaret Chase Smith's "Declaration of Principle" and other bipartisan, independent, non-partisan type sources. And this, of course, was very irritating to Senator McCarthy and he knew it was going to be used against him in the 1952 election and it was at this point that he lashed out at me.

 

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HESS: Was that the basis for his dislike for you?

NASH: Well, I think that it was the basis for his doing something to discredit me and thereby to discredit the "Citizens vs. McCarthy" movement. Actually, all it did was to cause it to grow.

Of course, I'm pretty sure now that we know what happened, that there was one of those clerks in the Loyalty Review Board who pilfered the files and fed them to Senator McCarthy, exactly as [Otto] Otepka did in later years with his friends in the Senate, and of course, the penalty for this is the same as the penalty for any other act of disloyalty, namely getting fired. And so I believe this is what took place and I think she pilfered these files and he was able to take all the derogatory statements out and cull them and use them in his own manner. You can't be in public life, you certainly can't be as active as I had been and know as many people, be as interested in liberal causes as I have been all my life, humanitarian causes, and not rub shoulders with some people who may be the subject of derogatory statements, or may even make them.

HESS: You say she took those out of the file. Do you know who it was?

 

[789]

NASH: It was a woman. No I don't, I can't give you her name right now. I could give it to you if I recalled it, but I haven't thought about it for so many years. It wasn't a clerk, it was a woman examiner and one of the reasons I know her name is that after she was dismissed, she made some kind of statement that was carried in the Chicago Tribune and it gave he name.

HESS: Anything further to add on the Senator McCarthy matter, or on the "pink-sheet" matter?

NASH: I don't think so. I think that about does it.

HESS: All right, fine. Well, thank you very much for your time.

NASH: Okay.

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