Oral History Interview with
Secretary of the Treasury in the Truman Administration,
1946-53. Other Federal positions once held include Executive Vice-President
and Director, Defense Plant Corporation, 1940-43; Assistant to the Director
of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 1940-44; Federal Loan Administrator,
1945; Director, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 1945-46.
Secretary Snyder was a longtime close friend of Harry S. Truman beginning
with their service in the U.S. Army Reserves after World War I.
John W. Snyder
April 10, 1968
By Jerry N. Hess
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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. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened September, 1970
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
John W. Snyder
April 10, 1968
By Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin with, sir, the first subject on our list for today is on the report and the broadcast of August 15th. I wonder if you have anything else that you want to add on that?
SNYDER: Let's just glance through here and see. We've touched very thoroughly on one of the items on that OWMR report of the 15th, regarding the estimate on unemployment. We've already covered the overestimation very carefully.
One of the interesting things that I recall in the OWMR work was the assignment to the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion of the job of following through in Congress on the President's legislative proposals. We spent a great deal of time briefing the Congressmen in the committees on the proposals that had been sent up by the White House. That took up a great deal of time
in the fall of 1945 and the spring of 1946. As I have already mentioned, and I'll recall to you again the fact that because of this report and the President's subsequent speech, there was a great deal of pressure by Congressmen, by manufacturers, and by industrialists, for us to continue certain work in the factories that were purely of a war nature, in order not to make too quick a transition. But as I pointed out to you before, the War Mobilization and Reconversion Act, as passed by Congress, definitely prohibited continuation of any war contract merely to provide business or employment. I think it's well to emphasize that again, because we had quite a bit of difficulty with that. And fortunately, our trying to maintain a very firm position was more than justified by the rapidity with which industry reconverted their plants and their production lines from wartime operation back into
One problem that we cited in the report which caused a great deal of difficulty as we went along, but one which we tried to adhere to strictly, although while everyone initially hailed it as a great policy, when we actually started putting it into operation we had a broad division of opinion, and that was that our peacetime goal of maximum production could best be attained by relaxing controls as early as the supply situation permitted. We ran into a lot of difficulty on that as time went on, because many of the OPA adherents, including the heads of OPA, wanted to use it on a judgment basis and they were fearful over there (I think maybe we mentioned this before, so this may be repetitious), but quite a number felt that to release any control would be to break down on the whole program, and there couldn't be any
partial releases. They had to hold everything in line, and that, of course, became quickly impossible to do. Unless you have a question, Mr. Hess, that we haven't touched yet that you learned in reading the report, why, that's about all I have to say on it at this time.
HESS: Fine, that's all I have, just what we've already covered.
SNYDER: I might point out to you that in preparation for the release of the report, and the President's talk, which was based somewhat on the report, we had a program on a nationwide hookup of all of the networks, and had about five or six people available to tell how that report's recommendations were going to be carried out. Did we touch on that before?
HESS: Yes. We named the men that were there. I think that pretty well takes care of that. We've
hit on that more than once.
Now, the next question that I have on the list for this morning deals with the twenty-one point message of September 6, 1945. I'd like to read just a paragraph out of Mr. Truman's Memoirs, which is in Volume I, page 483 and 484. On those pages Mr. Truman states:
Most of my advisers agreed with the message, but some of my more conservative associates advised me against this definite commitment to such liberal measures. One of these was John Snyder, who at that time was Director of War Mobilization and Reconversion. Privately he expressed his disagreement to me in the frankest and most explicit terms. But his loyalty and friendship for me kept him from voicing any public opposition. I listened very carefully to Snyder's advice, for it has always been my policy to hear all sides on every question before coming to a decision, and now I listened particularly because of the high regard I had for Snyder's judgment.
What do you recall about the writing of that message, sir?
SNYDER: As was Mr. Truman's policy, he tried to get everyone's point of view, and he called for
different agencies and departments to prepare drafts of material that concerned their department particularly, and then it was all put together, and the final draft was worked out in that fashion. I thought that the greatest problem was that we were trying to accomplish entirely too much too quickly. Now, as it turned out, the Congress took care of that and they slowed down on some of the items. Looking back on it, it may have been just as well to put all those things out on the table as a long-range objective of President Truman and his administration. But to crowd people too heavily, too quickly, and to expect to get out of Congress those widespread and most widely-affecting items that were suggested as part of the program, I just felt that it would have been more reassuring to the public to have taken a fewer number of programs initially, particularly those having to do with
the reconversion and getting the economy moving again. However, from a political view, the general feeling was that we should put all the items on the agenda right at the beginning.
HESS: Do you recall at this late date what particular programs you thought it might be best to delay? We have a list here of the twenty-one points. I don't know whether you want to go over them all.
SNYDER: No, I wouldn't want to name them all.
The one that was the most difficult was the full employment bill. That was pretty wide, and covered a broad area. It tried to adjust our entire economy overnight with a plan which, of course, had not been in effect prior to World War II. That was one of the long-range programs that those who were advocating it were attempting to push through under the excitement and impetus of the transition.
Housing was another one that caused me some concern, because too little consideration was given to the capabilities of the economy to rush forward with the housing program in the volume that was proposed in those early plans. Small business was of some concern, because I had had experience back in the RFC before the war with trying to assist small business and found that the greatest problems with small business was their inexperience and their unwillingness to reshape their business along sound business lines. Those that did have no trouble getting loans, mostly from their banks, and those who would not comply couldn't get loans then and were not likely to get loans after the war. Another thing that disturbed me about the small business provision was that it encouraged many an unexperienced, unprepared veteran who returned home and wanted to go into the restaurant business, filling station
business, air-plane business, but who had no experience. The general policy of this small business plan was to see that everybody had a chance to branch out into a business of his own. The casualty list more than justified any premonitions that I had on that. We had a terrific bankruptcy rate for a few years right after the war. Some of the public works plans were a little grandiose, I felt, and we were attempting to do just entirely too much. But by and large, it was along those lines that my concerns were voiced. And looking back on it, of course, many of the suggestions and proposals never did come into being. Some did. We had a great deal of difficulty with some, and some worked out very, very well. But looking back through the soothing, gentle hand of time, I think that Mr. Truman's record was very good in the transition period.
HESS: Were there any particular topics that were not covered that you thought should be covered in this particular message?
SNYDER: Not that I recall.
HESS: We discussed the ones that were there that you weren't particularly in favor of.
SNYDER: No, I thought the message was rather full, and I wasn't inclined to add anything to it.
HESS: In his Memoirs, Mr. Truman says that he talked to Sam Rosenman about the writing of this particular message aboard the Augusta on the way back from Potsdam.
SNYDER: That is correct and that was the particular reason that he wanted me to meet him at Norfolk, so he and Sam and I could talk about this on the way up on the train.
HESS: In your discussions with Mr. Rosenman what
was his particular view? Did he try to win you over...
SNYDER: Oh, no, no. Sam is very objective at all times, and he would give his views. I don't recall his ever bringing any pressure to try to win me over. He was trying to get clear what his views were, and he always did that in a very clear-cut, analytical way. Some of the others were not so considerate. Some were very anxious to apply pressure, even some of my own staff in OWMR.
HESS: Who in particular--Mr. Nathan?
SNYDER: Oh, yes, Mr. Nathan. He was the ringleader in trying to get all this labor legislation through, the full employment bill, particularly, and the fair labor practices seemed to be his particular objective.
HESS: To draw a short quote from the quote that I read from the Memoirs awhile ago, do you regard yourself as being one of the "more conservative associates" of the President?
SNYDER: Well, I'm sure that that was true. Charles Sawyer, of course, was a conservative, and he and I usually held similar views on matters that came up. That was in later days. Mr. Sawyer did not come to the Cabinet for some years after Mr. Truman went into office. Mr. Wallace was Secretary of Commerce at the time Mr. Truman came in, and Averell Harriman succeeded him; and then Mr. Sawyer came in to succeed Harriman. So, it was at least three or four years after Mr. Truman took office. He was not in on these earlier matters, but subsequently he became one of the conservatives, and of course, Bob Lovett was a conservative man in the later Cabinet. In the first phases--if you have a list of them there, we could run down some of the earlier Cabinet members.
HESS: I do. I have them here by the position they held, and the date that they went in and the date that they left.
SNYDER: Ed Stettinius was a carryover in the Secretary of State's office, and he did not stay but a very few weeks, so we'll pass him over. Jim Byrnes was so involved in the State Department and diplomatic matters, that although he had been the head of OWMR he didn't take any too active a position in the matters other than the State Department. General Marshall, of course, was, I think, a statesman, patriot, and gentleman, and a very splendid member of the Cabinet in two positions, one as Secretary of State; and one as Secretary of Defense. I would certainly say that he was a conservative and a very able man. Dean Acheson devoted the greatest part of his time to diplomatic, State Department, and international affairs, and he was not in the
Cabinet in those earlier days. It was not until some three or four years later...
HESS: He came in for the second term.
SNYDER: Yes, that's right. And Henry Morgenthau, of course, was there only a few months.
HESS: We have discussed him a couple of times.
SNYDER: Fred Vinson moved over to the Supreme Court within a short time. I would say he was liberally inclined in his viewpoints. Stimson, of course, was a carryover from the Roosevelt administration and took no part in the economic matters because he was only there a few months. He resigned in September, I believe, of 1945. Patterson was a very capable man, an attorney originally, and he was Secretary of War. As Secretary of War he was very able, very analytical. He took a great deal of interest in the housing...
HESS: For the servicemen?
SNYDER: ...for the servicemen. But I would say that he was more conservative than liberal. Kenneth Royall was a conservative. Jim Forrestal, I think, was a conservative at heart who at times got some liberal views.
HESS: Why do you think Mr. Truman chose him to be his first Secretary of Defense?
SNYDER: Well, Jim Forrestal was a carryover from the Roosevelt administration. He came down to Washington early as one of the anonymity folks over on Mr. Roosevelt's staff and organization.
HESS: He had been Secretary of the Navy since May of 1944.
SNYDER: Yes, he was Secretary of the Navy, he was a Carryover. Mr. Truman respected him and he was a capable man. He impressed Mr. Truman with his
So, that is a few of the earlier Cabinet members. In the latter part, well, I'd say Averell Harriman was a liberal, very liberal in his viewpoints. Charlie Sawyer was a conservative. Wallace was an extreme liberal. Clint Anderson was, I think, more conservative than he was liberal. Charlie Brannan was an extreme liberal. Oscar Chapman was very liberal. Krug was very conservative. Ickes was Ickes. So, I think that gives you kind of a cross section, unless there's someone specific you want to ask about.
HESS: Not right now. A little later I do want to go over the Cabinet members a little closer with some specific questions on some of the men. But right now a very interesting question arises as we have been discussing the political standpoint of a liberal and a conservative. Give me a
thumbnail description of just what you would consider liberalism and conservatism and a liberal and a conservative?
SNYDER: Oh, you'll have to write that out and let me give that some thought. I'm not sure that I have the capacity for giving a clear definition of those, and I don't think anybody else has either. I found myself quoted as being a "liberal conservative." Now, that seems to me a little contradictory. But write that question out for me in a memo and I'll see if I can come up with my views anyway.
HESS: Fine. And one of these days we do want to get back on the subject of the Cabinet members. I have some specific questions on a few of them.
According to my list we are just about up to the time that you became Secretary of the Treasury, and perhaps to keep things in chronological order we should discuss your assumption
of that position, and just a few of the problems that you had to deal with initially? What comes to mind when you think about those first few days?
SNYDER: The office of Secretary of the Treasury was presented to me rather suddenly, and I had a very short time to really do any research and preparation. As I recall, our names, I say "ours," because Vinson's name and mine went up at the same time, Fred Vinson to be Chief Justice, and my nomination to the Treasury to succeed him. There was only a very short intervening period, and during that time I was so involved with winding up the affairs of OWMR, and Mr. Vinson was very deeply engaged in a number of matters concerning his activities, and frankly, I found that except for the World Bank and the Monetary Fund, that Mr. Vinson had taken very little active part in the affairs in the Treasury. He
had taken considerable interest in the Bretton Woods and the Savannah, Georgia meetings. And when I went in he was somewhat helpful in giving me background on those international matters. While I had hoped to get some considerable help from him on the revenue side because of his experience in the Ways and Means Committee, I found that he was not inclined to discuss those matters at great length. After I got into office I found it very difficult to ever have any constructive conversations with the Chief Justice regarding the operation of the Treasury. He was usually so involved with matters in the court that he was not inclined to spend a great deal of time on Treasury matters.
HESS: Do you think that he had a very clear understanding of the Treasury matters at the time that he was there?
SNYDER: The only thing that I could say would be
hearsay, because I never got to talk with him sufficiently on it. Unfortunately, I got the impression that he had not formed any too clear an understanding, and I attributed that as the reason why he did not want to talk a great deal about it. He spent very little time with the different officials of the Treasury, other than those engaged in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. So, one of the first things that I did when I went into the Treasury was to form a rapport with all the various agency heads and bureau heads and invited them in to sit and talk with me about their responsibilities at any time. They seemed to welcome that because it was a new experience for them, because Mr. Morgenthau rarely did that, and Mr. Vinson, never. So, it was a welcome experience for them and a very profitable one to me because it taught me a great deal about the individual, and about his
views--his or hers. Mrs. [Nellie Tayloe] Ross was the only woman in the Treasury at that time in an executive position. She was head of the Mint. She had formerly been Governor of Wyoming. She was a very capable, very attractive lady. I recall that those were very busy days when I first went over to the Treasury. I will have to do a little review. I didn't know that we were going to take that up today particularly. I'll have to review some of the earlier actions.
HESS: A11 right, fine. Two points that I had on the list today, for sort of a transition from your OWMR position to the position as Secretary of the Treasury, deal with some labor matters. And I tied the Case Bill and the Taft-Hartley Act together. Of course, the Case Bill was vetoed before you went into the Treasury, and the Taft-Hartley Act about a year after you went into the Treasury Department. Regarding the Case Bill, on June
the 11th of 1946, the President vetoed HR 4908 entitled "An Act to provide additional facilities for the mediation of labor disputes, and for other purposes." And that bill had been introduced by Representative Francis Case, Republican from South Dakota, and the House later voted to sustain the veto, 255 to 135, which was just five votes short of the number needed to override the veto.
SNYDER: My recollection, Mr. Hess, is that I somewhat favored the bill. But I'd have to go back into the files, but my recollection is that I thought it had some very good provisions in it and might have been a very helpful piece of legislation.
HESS: On that subject, I'd like to read the following quote from the book, Truman and Taft-Hartley by R. Alton Lee:
In the meantime Truman was consulting and gathering opinions from department heads and advisers on what he should do...Of the administration reports received by the President on the Case Bill, only one approved it. John Snyder, former director of War Mobilization and Reconversion who became Secretary of the Treasury in July 1946, stated that the bill was 'in the public interest' and 'most emphatically' did not deprive labor unions or employees of any basic rights.
SNYDER: Well, that confirms my recollection that I thought it was a pretty good piece of legislation.
HESS: And in his footnote he referred to a report that was in the Truman Library, and I had a XeroxÒ
copy sent out. This is your report to the President giving your summation of the Case Bill in which you do say that you think it should be signed.
SNYDER: Well, I think the last paragraph pretty well brings it out:
The basic rights of organization, representation bargaining, striking and picketing, are fully preserved in their legitimate aspects. Equality before the law and the paramount public interest have been recognized to a greater degree.
I think that pretty well brings out the view that I had on it, and that I thought it was a good bill.
HESS: Dealing with the Taft-Hartley Act, on June 20, 1947, the President vetoed H.R. 3020 entitled the "Labor Management Relations Act of 1947" and on June 23rd, the Congress passed the bill over the President's veto. I'd like to read just a little bit more from Lee's book.
SNYDER: Well, on the Taft-Hartley, I think that there were only--this is stretching my memory, but my recollection is that there weren't but two members of the Cabinet that favored the veto, and that was the Secretary of Labor and the Postmaster General, if I remember correctly.
HESS: Robert Hannegan and Secretary Schwellenbach.
SNYDER: That's right.
HESS: Well, that is what Lee has here. But there is one thing. Let's read this:
There were conflicting reports on the position of the Cabinet in regard to a veto. The New York Times reported unanimity among Cabinet members in favor of a veto.
And for his footnote there he gives a citation in the New York Times. Then he went on to say:
However, another source states that only Postmaster General Robert Hannegan and Secretary Schwellenbach favored a veto.
And for his citation there he gives Robert S. Allen and William V. Shannon, The Truman Merry-Go-Round. So the latter is correct, is that right?
SNYDER: That's my recollection. Now, of course, generally for harmony's sake you take a Position--and did this frequently--and once
the action had been taken, it was water under the bridge. I was in the Cabinet for the purpose of helping the President, and after all, if I could not reconcile my views to his, then I felt that I should have gotten out of the Cabinet. There was always a definite understanding between Mr. Truman and myself that if at any time he felt that my views were incompatible with his and that he thought that he could find someone that could work more closely and harmoniously with him, that he and I were not going to let that interfere with our personal friendship because of a political situation that might require or recommend someone a little more aligned with the political situation at the time.
HESS: Is this an understanding that you had with him when you first started?
SNYDER: Well, no, that had very little to do with it up until I got into the Treasury in a Cabinet position. Then because of many controversial matters that had come up in the OWMR, I had a very frank talk with him that I did not want to ever, as a Cabinet member, to be at odds with the man who had asked me to serve with him.
HESS: Were there ever any times that you gave serious consideration to stepping out?
SNYDER: No. The desire was there constantly because, frankly, I did, at that time, want to get back to St. Louis, but once having set the die, I was determined to stay with Mr. Truman as long as he thought I could be helpful to him. He was bearing great burdens, tremendous burdens, as Chief Executive, and the weight of those burdens has been pretty clearly brought to light by some of the statements of President
Johnson recently, telling about what a burdensome job the Presidency is. Well, it was just as burdensome back when Mr. Truman was there, and the reason for this very frank talk was that I wanted Mr. Truman to be assured that he could rely on me to help him as long as he felt I was helping him, but that he was under no personal obligation, because he had invited me to become a member of his Cabinet, to keep me there if it was not working to his interests.
HESS: Did he ever mention a time that any pressure may have been brought upon him by some liberal members of the Democratic Party...
SNYDER: Oh, we used to laugh about different ones. It was never anything serious. I don't remember. It never occurred to me to ask Mr. Truman if he ever at sometime in the small hours of the night wished that I would have resigned. It certainly never came up. There was never any
question at any time that I recall between us about me ever resigning after I became Secretary of the Treasury. I felt that he had a great burden and that he was doing a splendid job and I was going to give my help as long as he needed it.
HESS: On the subject of the Taft-Hartley Act, just what were your views regarding that bill?
SNYDER: In general, I thought it was a useful bill. I thought it was a temporizing bill. It was a safety valve on some of the policies, ideas, suggestions and proposals that were constantly being made. Frankly, I thought it was a temporizing safety valve.
HESS: Looking back, and with the benefit of hindsight, how do you see the success or failure of the Taft-Hartley Bill, from right now back to 1947?
SNYDER: Well, from my point of view, I think the Taft-Hartley Bill was only halfheartedly administered.
HESS: If just two Cabinet members favored a veto, and the President went along with that, that meant that he went against the majority of his Cabinet. Is that correct?
SNYDER: Well, he did that many times. Mr. Truman consulted with his Cabinet, but there were many times when he had a position--he wasn't a consensus seeker, he was very happy to have the views and so forth, but if he was convinced, from his many talks with key people, he didn't get a majority vote before he acted. Of course, you must remember, somebody will always say, "Well, Bill Jones, Sam Smith, and so forth, they were against that, but the President talked them into it," or something like that. That's what
leaks out. We used to hear that very frequently. There were never any schisms in the Cabinet. The only one that I knew of was Mr. Wallace. He got way off base there in some of the things that he did, but generally speaking, Mr. Truman had good teamwork with his Cabinet.
HESS: Mr. Truman's public pronouncements on his views about the Taft-Hartley Act are very well known, but did he ever give any information in the Cabinet meetings about his views on why he should veto the Taft-Hartley Act that were not the same as his public pronouncements?
SNYDER: No, no.
HESS: Do you or don't you think that perhaps part of the reason for the veto was to hold the labor vote in the upcoming election?
SNYDER: Well, I don't know. Of course, Mr. Truman had all sorts of political pressures from his
party and from political leaders and that sort of thing. I am loathe to say that Mr. Truman ever--I just don't believe he ever took a position simply as a vote-getting operation. No, I don't think that his veto was purely politically oriented. He was convinced that it wasn't in the best interest.
HESS: Even though political expediency might enter into a decision, it would never amount to 100 percent of the reason for that decision...
SNYDER: By him. That's right. That's my feeling.
HESS: Do you have anything else on Taft-Hartley or the Case Bill--anything else on labor come to mind right now?
SNYDER: Nothing that I recall.
HESS: That's everything that I have on my list, and it's almost an hour.
SNYDER: Well, let's stop.
HESS: A11 right.
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