Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Oral History Interview with
John W. Snyder

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 has been a longtime close friend of Harry S. Truman beginning with their service in the U.S. Army Reserves after World War I.

Washington, D.C.,
May 1, 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. [45]) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
John W. Snyder

Washington, D.C.,
May 1, 1968
By Jerry N. Hess



HESS: Mr. Snyder, there was an unveiling of a portrait at the White House a couple of weeks ago of a painting of Mrs. Truman by Greta Kempton. Would you tell me the background of how Miss Kempton came to be known by yourself and by President Truman, and about some of the portraits she has painted for both you and for the Truman family?

SNYDER: Yes, Mr. Hess. Miss Kempton came down to Washington in 1946. She was a friend of Mr. Glenn Martin and his mother. Mr. Glenn Martin was the owner of the Glenn Martin Aviation Company of Baltimore, as you recall. They were living at that time in the Shoreham Hotel. They had a big suite there and spent quite a bit of time in Washington. One day Mrs. Snyder, Drucie, and I walked through the lobby of the hotel and Miss Kempton became very much attracted to my daughter


and asked the Martins who we were and asked if it would be possible for her to meet us, as she had a great desire to paint a portrait of Drucie. This was in 1946 and at that time Drucie was twenty-one years old. Miss Kempton was quite an accomplished portrait painter and artist. She was born in Austria of rather well-to-do parents, and had been given art lessons with several noted European portrait painters; and then she married and came to the United States. She did quite a bit of painting here in this country. Because of her attraction to my daughter, the Martins had a little dinner party and invited us -- as it happened, both of them were very close friends of mine -- and we met Miss Kempton. Out of that meeting grew the offer to paint Drucie's portrait, which she did, and that portrait attracted quite a bit of attention, and the Trumans, in due course, saw it. In the meantime,


however, because of the excellence of the portrait, she was requested to paint several other portraits around the city. In the meantime she asked would it be possible to paint the President's portrait and I talked with him about it and he said, "Why, yes, it would be all right." Up until that time the President had not had a portrait painted. When she finished it, the family was pleased with it, and it was acquired by a group of friends who presented it to the White House.

HESS: That's the painting that's in the White House at the present time?

SNYDER: It's there now, yes.

Well, a whole series of paintings grew out of that initial one of Drucie. That one hangs out in the Horton house at Chevy Chase. It's an exceptionally attractive portrait. John Walker at the National Gallery has spoken of it as being a Romney. He said that it has all the


characteristics of a Romney portrait, which pleased us very much, of course. But, out of that, as I mentioned, she has painted five portraits of Margaret, and now she has painted three of Mrs. Truman. Of the President's, one hangs in the White House, there's one in the Truman Library...

HESS: The Masonic portrait?

SNYDER: Yes, in his Grand Master's regalia. That, actually, I think, belongs to the Grand Lodge in St. Louis. When they did some repairing there, they loaned it to Mr. Truman. He just hasn't sent it back. There's one in the capitol, I think, in Jefferson City. I just don't recall where the others are. Of course, Mrs. Truman's, the first one, is in their home in Independence and the second one is in the White House and the third one is in the Truman Library.


HESS: Was the one that is in Mr. Truman's home now painted to go someplace else?

SNYDER: It was intended to go in the White House to start with, but the Truman version is that it got packed up by mistake and shipped with their things to Independence and as they did not unpack things for a number of months, that when they did get around to it, Mr. Truman said he liked it so well he was just going to keep it there.

I've had the privilege of having her paint, I think, about six portraits of me.

HESS: Where are they located?

SNYDER: Well, one of them hangs in the Treasury here, in the office of the Secretary of the Treasury; there's one in the capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas; there's one in the Truman Library; there's one at the Horton house, there's one in the high school in Jonesboro, Arkansas.


HESS: Where you went to high school.

SNYDER: Yes. And she has now about completed another one which Drucie is going to give to the National Portrait Gallery, but that will be delayed some -- the gift will be made probably within a year, but will not be hung until my death as they have a regulation that they hang no portraits of living persons, except those of Presidents.

HESS: Do you recall where the portraits of Margaret are?

SNYDER: Well, I think both of them are in Independence.

HESS: At the Truman home?


HESS: Anything else come to mind about Miss Kempton right now?

SNYDER: Well, as I mentioned a while ago, she painted


quite a number of Truman Cabinet members: Stuart Symington, while he was Secretary of the Air Force; Bob Hannegan as Postmaster General; Tom Clark, Attorney General.

HESS: Were most of these painted at the time that the men were in those positions?

SNYDER: Yes. Nearly all of them were, except two of mine which were painted subsequently. The one in the Truman Library has been painted more recently, and then, of course, the one she's working on now. She got married again, the second time, and her husband for some strange reason put his foot down on her painting portraits, and for fifteen years she didn't paint any portraits at all, except the one of me which he gave her permission to do -- the one that's in the Truman Library. That was the only portrait she painted for a period of nearly


fifteen years, and now she has gone back again to painting portraits and has done quite a number in the last couple of years.

HESS: You mentioned to me one day the reason for your portrait being hung in the state capitol in Arkansas. What was that?

SNYDER: Well, the reason for it is one of which I am very proud: I was, and am, up until now, the only native-born Arkansan that has ever served in a President's Cabinet, that was one of the contributing reasons; and the other was to do honor to a native of Arkansas. A group commissioned Miss Kempton to paint the painting and it was hung there in the capitol and it's been there for about twenty years now.

HESS: I may have some further questions on this subject and if I do we can take them up in our next interview.


Mr. Snyder, in Volume II of Mr. Truman's Memoirs, he has the following statements to make leading into the subject of the revision of the Government accounting system. One page 43 he has the following paragraphs:

The Treasury Department of the United States is one of the largest organizations in the executive branch of the government, and the need for tight controls and for efficient operation on a day-to-day basis is crucial to the total operations of government. I was particularly fortunate in having a Secretary of the Treasury who understood the problems of national and international finance thoroughly and who administered the affairs of the Treasury for more than six years with rare skill and wisdom.

John W. Snyder was actually my third Secretary of the Treasury, but he served during the major portion of my administration. Secretary Morgenthau's resignation occurred within three months after I became President, and because I appointed Vinson to the Supreme Court, his secretaryship was of short duration. My selection of Snyder in June 1946 as chief fiscal officer of the government was based on a long association which had existed between us. I had known him when I was presiding judge of the Jackson County Court and he was a bank official in St. Louis, and we had been together in military reserve training. I knew him as a banker who understood


stood the relation of good banking practice to the community, and during my years in the Senate our mutual confidence and friendship had continued to grow.

With Snyder in the Treasury, I was able to bring about some long-needed reforms in the Treasury Department. One of the big accomplishments was a complete revision of the government accounting system. Working with a team made up of the Budget Bureau, the Treasury, and the Government Accounting Office, we were able to set up a uniform accounting procedure throughout the whole government. Where it formerly took from three to six months to get a composite financial statement, it now requires from three to six weeks only.

What can you tell me about that revision of the accounting system?

SNYDER: That was a most important revision of custom and of practice in the Government. Up until we obtained the legislation for the regision, it had been the custom of any department to devise its own accounting system and have it checked by a CPA and the Government Accounting Office -- the GAO -- and if it looked like a good, workable system it was approved. As a result there was


no uniformity in the records of man-hours, the personnel accounting, or in the expenditures. To make a composite statement of only a few of the large departments was a long drawn out adjustment experience to get them onto a common basis and to come up with the annual report of the Government operations required months of lead time to pull them together and reconcile them to the same basis of reporting. To accomplish this revision required congressional action, so the Budget Bureau, the GAO and the Treasury joined together in this unique plan to bring about this reshaping of our accounting system. It was probably one of the few times, in recent years, one of the few times in the history of the country that you would have been able to get the cooperation between the GAO and the Treasury. Of course, up until Mr. Roosevelt's time the Budget had been in the Treasury, but he separated it from the Treasury and put it


back under Treasury supervision, and the Budget directors all worked in great harmony with us in the Treasury during the time that I was in that office. We first had to come to some common denominator that we could set up. We had to set up a model type of accounting that would be adaptable to the various departments and agencies because, as I've just pointed out, we had several hundred different types of accounting, different procedures, and we had to pull it together to get a uniform accounting system for the basic things that we would want to consolidate for reporting purposes. Of course, many, many times in the manpower figures, it was most important to the President, and the Congress, to have a quick report on the condition of the various elements, but as the President said in his Memoirs, sometimes it would take six months to get a rather comprehensive report worked out. So we had to


lay the groundwork first by working out a uniform accounting plan. Then we had to go to Congress and persuade the congressional committees that this was an appropriate action to take. There was a great deal of resistance in various departments from various individuals, but due to the close relationship between the General Accounting Office, the Treasury, and the Budget, we were able to put up a solid front with the committees and present our case in such a persuasive way that eventually we were able to get the bill passed; then it took several years to get all the agencies adjusted to the new system. You couldn't do it overnight; it took gradual transition, but it has been of immense value to Congress, to the administration and to the departments themselves to be able to pull together statistics and certainly it was of tremendous help to the Treasury in its


financing, its operations and its anticipation of fiscal affairs, to have means of quickly finding out the expenditures and the contemplated needs and so forth of the departments. It was of great importance in the working programs and the man-hours employed, the number of Government employees and it was very helpful in the civil service and the social security areas, to know more intimately about just what the coverage was. And particularly it was helpful to the Treasury also in anticipating requirements. You see you could have an appropriation made in the Budget -- Budget approved -- but unless you were right on top of it you couldn't tell how rapidly they were spending the appropriated funds that had been budgeted to the various agencies and departments. We didn't have to over-provide funds and we weren't caught in under-providing funds, because we were closer to the actual requirements. The


Treasury nearly every Monday has to go in the market and sell bills and that is just to keep ample funds available, and those bills run 90, 120, and 360; then after that you go into notes, and after that you go into bonds -- the longer term ones -- but every Monday the Treasury is in the market for bills and if we don't need the money we ask for less, if we do need some additional money, we have to raise the amount of the bills offered. So, it has turned out to be of tremendous value to the administration to be able to control the accounting for the Government much more efficiently and accurately.

Among the other things that Mr. Truman referred to there, in the way of reforms, was the Bureau of Customs. At the time that I entered the Treasury we had just come out of the war. During the war customs had gone down considerably because the imports had dropped


materially, as had exports. Our customs department had been set up many, many years ago and it had very few changes. It was the same old ponderous way of appraising and of assessing duties. Every port had its own appraising operation, and if a certain type of raw material was brought, we'll say into New York, it would be appraised there; then if you'd bring the same into the port of New Orleans another appraisal would be made there on the same type of raw material, or if it came into San Francisco the same process. You could have anywhere from five to ten different appraisals on the same item. That caused great confusion and with our rapid transportation and communications developing, our broader sales programs and our more aggressive marketing, manufacturers found that they were at a disadvantage; if the raw material cost, because of duty, more in San


Francisco than it did in Boston, the competitive advantage was always with the one that had the lower appraisal. So we had to set up a uniform appraisal system, and we solved it by specifying that if Boston made an appraisal of a certain product the appraisal would immediately be sent to all the other ports and registered here in Washington. That was of tremendous value. We rejuvenated the whole of customs -- modernized it, modernized their accounting system, modernized their regulations, and we spent some months just completely redoing the customs operation and sharpening it up, modernizing it and cutting out many of the delaying customs and things of that sort that had developed through the years. We developed spot checking which accelerated the debarkation from ships and airplanes. This was not as hazardous as it might seem on the surface because anytime anyone is smuggling


something into the country, it's a peculiar thing, someone, more than likely, is going to tell on them, and you nearly always get a notice ahead of large jewelry purchases abroad. So the spot checking is not too hazardous because if anyone has got some real items of value, you are almost certain to have had a notice of it ahead; you'd be watching for that particular passenger or shipment.

Another tremendous reorganization that we had to make was in the Coast Guard. We came out of the war with about 375,000 personnel in the Coast Guard, and with a tremendous housekeeping problem for the equipment that had been used in the war and the expansion of the operation of the Coast Guard. Well, we had to cut the Coast Guard back to peacetime size, to around 75,000 people, and then we had the question of what we're going to do with all that equipment. We had to work out a disposition


program; we had to decide which could go into mothballs and be preserved without damage to it and usable at a future time and wouldn't be obsolete. We had to almost anticipate obsolescence, because there was no need of going to the expense of mothballing a ship or something of that sort that was going to be obsolete ten or fifteen years later and be more costly to put back into operation than it would have been to purchase a new ship, and there was a lot of equipment and things of that character. Also we had to somewhat revamp the policies of the Coast Guard in consideration of its new requirements, duties, and so forth. We had to set up new regulations on a peacetime basis for the operation. Weather reporting had been assigned to the Coast Guard. Because of our overseas flying requirements, we had to do a tremendous job there.

In the Treasury in 1946 we had 110,000 civilian employees. By the time we got our work


simplification program it was actually simple in its operation. For instance, we would have a man go into an agency and make a talk. He said he was going to show them a way to do a better job. He stated that he was going to introduce them to a man that could show them how to do it. Well, of course, that was interesting. Everybody bristled, "Who knows my job better than I do." When they got somewhat tense he told them, "The man that's going to teach you about your job is you yourself." Becoming interested they said, "Oh, well, what's this?" while it was called a work simplification program. Each man or woman was supposed to exchange ideas with the one sitting next to him or close by, doing the same type of work. Initially he was to spend a week during which everything he did -- he had a tab sheet -- he'd put it down answering: "Was this necessary, not necessary or partially necessary?" He graded everything that he did for about a


week that way and then he'd go through it each day and recheck and finally at the end of a week's time he exchanged his findings with the person that was his teammate and then they went over it together, and came up with a joint appraisal. Then it was all turned in and the whole thing was analyzed by a professional. The individual was told at the beginning that the time saved and the increased efficiency generated was not going to cause the loss of a single job. We were able to say that to them because we had analyzed the retirements, deaths, and so forth, that is the percentage of attrition, and so all we had to do then was to let attrition take care of it by not hiring anyone to replace the fallout. So in that way every time you got your job done better, you gave yourself the opportunity of stepping up a little and improving your situation, and then we only had to bring in on the very


bottom the neophytes. Therefore, no one was hazarding his job. Well, it just caught like wildfire. We reduced within a relatively short time the civilian employees of the Treasury down to 90,000 people. But that, of course, is not always too popular with Congressmen because of patronage, so we didn't get a great deal of kudos for our economies although we were very proud of it ourselves. Later when former President Hoover on the Hoover Commission made an examination, he was very complimentary to the Treasury on its work on the type of investigations that the Hoover Commission was looking into.

One of the really tremendous reorganizations that we undertook was the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The Bureau of Internal Revenue had, under Mr. Morgenthau, grown into sort of an independent operation. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue was sort of a martinet who


was very close to President Roosevelt and he used to feel that he could report directly to the President and it wasn't necessary for him to go through normal channels and of course everyone was so busy at the time and it was easy enough under the pressure to let a strong-minded man like [Guy T.J Helvering act in that manner. So by the time that I came into the Treasury a great deal of independence was in evidence in the Internal Revenue. I immediately started reorganizing and reshaping the policy in Internal Revenue including its reporting. We began to uncover some unhappy situations there and finally we brought in an organization to completely redo the Internal Revenue. Of course, all of this had to have the approval of Congress. The Treasury drafted a reorganization bill for Congress to pass. It greatly improved the Bureau's efficiency, and helped in cleaning up some bad


spots that had developed through the years. Some unfortunate experiences developed with a few people who weren't trustworthy in their jobs. At the same time, of course, we had one or two Congressmen who made a great to-do out of what they called "exposures." Actually what they did was claim credit for the things we had uncovered and bring them out in the open when we were trying to get them cleaned up and it caused us considerable delays at times, because we were having hearings and that sort of thing and we were having to expose matters prematurely. It caused us a great deal of unnecessary difficulty. These problems, of course, were capitalized on, and the committees that were examining everything took full claim for these corrections stating that the reforms and reorganizations were forced on the Treasury. That, of course, was not the case. Reading


the actual history of the reorganization, you'll find that the Treasury was way ahead of any investigations in its endeavor to get the Internal Revenue completely cleaned up and revamped. During the war, because of the draft and because of the tremendous large operations that required accounting systems and accountants the Internal Revenue experienced a deterioration in the quality of its workers all the way down the line. The Internal Revenue was having to hire anyone it could get and they weren't always the top people of ability. And then, of course, there were political problems. in the appointment of revenue agents and of the various heads of the offices (the District Directors) in the large cities and districts. We revamped the whole setup of the Bureau. We consolidated areas and we took the patronage out of the appointments. It was a tremendously thoroughgoing reorganization.


HESS: Were the district directors brought under Civil Service at that time?

SNYDER: Yes, that was one of the steps. And, we had a great number of problems with some Congressmen who didn't want to do this; this was cutting off an important item of their patronage, because the district director had always been a pretty important person in the community, and it was quite a political plum, not only for the one who appointed him, but the one who received it. The system was greatly improved by the change in selecting the district directors.

HESS: Do you recall what Congressmen fought that the hardest?

SNYDER: Well, I don't recall right this minute who they were. Congressional investigation and hearings did prove helpful in obtaining legislation.


HESS: Those are the main things I have until we reach some of the specific bills that we want to put a little more time in on.

I'd like to ask you a general question on a current situation about the Poor People's March to Washington at the present time. I'd like to ask you your evaluation of the understanding of the economic situation that these people might have or might not have.

SNYDER: Well, my impression is -- now remember I have not been out in the field, I haven't gone to the areas where they are recruiting the people to make this march -- but I am of the opinion that the people who are being brought or who are being persuaded to join in the march are not being properly briefed on what they're coming for; being told the facts of the case in reference to the things that they are going to be seeking. There has actually been great difficulty, as


I've been told, and also by the reports appearing on television and in the papers, that there are many areas where they're having real difficulty in persuading people to make the march. They don't understand it; they don't know what their purpose in coming up here is, and what kind of reception they're going to get along the way, and they're just puzzled about spending this much money, and what they're going to get out of it. No coherent plan was announced. I think a great many of them, from what I hear, would much prefer for them to just give them the money that would provide for their trip. There are very few people other than Negroes that are going to make the march. They haven't been able to attract other races, or the white race, particularly in Appalachia, and in other poor districts. There are a few Indians and Latins in the pictures; but there are not many other


minority groups that are joining in. It's boiling down largely to a Negro composition. I don't think that they understand at all that the Government doesn't have a printing press operation to turn out the money. They do not understand the source of the revenue in the Government that has to be used to pay out of these sums that Congress appropriates; that either it has to come from taxes or it has to come from borrowing, in which case interest charges are added onto the burden of the taxpayer and that eventually it's the taxpayer that's going to have to foot the bill. Now if we keep increasing our deficit financing, what will be the result. There is a false story that is being told the people, that with our great gross national product that we can keep on raising the debt and still be perfectly safe in our fiscal operation and in our financial soundness of the Government.


That has some semblance of credence as long as the economy is growing, but let us have a recession or let us have a depression and the whole weight of it will collapse on top of you, and if you've got a tremendously large debt that you have to pay interest on, you're going to find yourself in dire fiscal and financial trouble. The people actually have not been told -- the spokesman is the one who knows the story. He's the one who will make the speeches; he's the one who's going to tell Congress what they want and so forth. About all the masses, the great army of people that will come, those will be chanters and sign-bearers or something, but they have not gone into the facts of life. The leaders don't want them to know the facts of life -- in my opinion and from what I've heard -- they do not want these participants to understand the modus operandi of


providing housing and wages and jobs and things of that sort. The marchers are getting a peculiar notion that the Government without any great difficulty could provide an annual wage for everyone regardless of how much he works for it or how much he doesn't work for it. We're just not able to finance that sort of proposition. They're bringing this all to a head right at a time when our expenditures are the greatest that they've ever been except at the peak of World War II. Of course, we are now in a very expensive war. We just are not willing to face up to the fact that we are actually in wartime when it comes to the expenditures that we are making. While the forces are not as great as they were in World War I and World War II, the cost of things -- this modernized equipment -- for a much smaller army requires greater expenditures than in any war we've had


up to date. One airplane, as you've just been reading about, costs four or five million dollars, and you lose two or more of those and you've lost almost a day's operation back in one of the other wars. I think it's most unfortunate that we are going to have this demonstration with people who are not the type that will ever be leaders in their communities. They are largely the illiterate, difficult to employ, the hard core unemployables, that will be making the trip. I would almost guess a large majority would fall into that category. The march actually appears to have a political motivation.

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