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 has been 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
July 3, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
July 3, 1968
By Jerry N. Hess
Eighteenth Oral History Interview with John W. Snyder, Washington, D.C., July 3, 1968. By Jerry N. Hess, Harry S. Truman Library.
HESS: Secretary Snyder, for our first topic this morning, let us take up the subject of the President's Cabinet: First, how did Mr. Truman use his Cabinet? What did he seem to believe was the proper role for the Cabinet?
SNYDER: Mr. Truman had great respect for his Cabinet and used it more extensively than any President that I have had the opportunity to observe at close range. He appointed, in nearly every case, a man in whom he had confidence, and whom he believed was thoroughly capable of carrying out the responsibilities of the office to which he appointed him. Mr. Truman held a Cabinet meeting practically every week. He had a fixed day on which he had the Cabinet meet in the morning at the White House. At those meetings they were
seated around the table in accordance with protocol. The longest-established department being given priority. Therefore, the Secretary of State, who represented the first department created, sat on the President's right. The next department that was formed was the Treasury Department, and he had the Secretary of the Treasury sit on his left. And then they alternated around the table in that fashion. If we'd like to record the priorities, why, I'll list them in order of protocol: Department of State; Department of the Treasury; War Department, before July 1947, and the Department of Defense from that point on; Department of Justice; Post Office Department; Department of the Interior; Department of Agriculture; Department of Commerce; and the Department of Labor.
Mr. Truman in conducting his Cabinet meetings, normally, stated to the Cabinet any
current matters that were before him which he thought would be advisable for all the Cabinet to know in connection with their work in their departments. Then he would take up matters which were pending and on which he would like to have the expression of the various Cabinet members whose departments might be particularly interested in the subject matter of the pending legislation or action of the President or whatever it might be, perhaps an Executive order. Then he would go around the Cabinet according to protocol and ask each Cabinet member if he had any comments to make, any suggestions, any proposals, which would be helpful, any counsel that he might want to give. Toward the close, he would call on any Cabinet member who had a matter that he would want to bring up. He would give each an opportunity to set forth any particular matter that might affect some of the other departments.
Normally, if it was a matter that only affected the President and the department, the Secretary normally took that matter up with the President in a private conference, but if it was something that might have a bearing on some of the other departments, it was discussed at the Cabinet meeting. In that way it enabled the various Cabinet members to have splendid communications with the administration as a whole and in that way soothe many troubled waters. Many times things could come up, say in the Treasury Department, that might affect the Commerce Department, and if the Secretary and his staff had been so busy with the multitude of things that they have to do, that they failed to notify the Secretary, it could cause some little feeling of irritation when it was announced, or if a bill was sent up that hadn't been carefully cleared. Of course, there were many other
preventive measures to prevent that happening because the President himself and his staff carefully checked with any department before the President would approve a bill to go up to the Congress. Toward the end of the session the President usually would just start around the Cabinet and ask each one if they had anything to add to what had been said, or anything for the general good of the Government and of the administration. President Truman was most liberal in allotting time for private conferences with each of his Cabinet members. There was no difficulty in getting an appointment if you had a matter to take up with the President and wanted to get his personal views or wanted to express your views to the President on a matter that affected your department, or on which your department might want to take an action. Naturally you wanted to be sure that the President understood the intended action and approved
it. But sometimes there were things that happened that a department head had full authority on which to act, but the matter might be a little controversial and it would have been better, smoother, if the President had been consulted, and worked the thing our satisfactorily. But we didn't have too many instances of that character, not too many anyway. In the event that a Secretary had some matter about which he felt he must talk with the President, it might not have anything to do with his department, but it was a simple matter to get an audience with the President. If it came to a matter of politics or anything of that sort, the President rarely discussed politics in the Cabinet, but did have the door open at all times to receive any ideas that the Cabinet members might have. I personally took great advantage of the opportunity to discuss matters with the President,
If it came to a matter of politics or anything of that sort, the President rarely discussed politics in the Cabinet, but did have the door open at all times to receive any ideas that the Cabinet members might have. I personally took great advantage of the opportunity to discuss matters with the President, and I think that the secret of the Treasury's successful administration was the fact that at all times the President and I were in thorough accord with any action that I was taking, and I must say that I had the most splendid cooperation with the President. It is always an enormous asset to an administrator to have the confidence of his superior when he is charged with responsibilities of running a large organization, such as the size of any of the departments. In the days gone by some of the Cabinet positions used to be sinecures that were largely honors to
the recipient of the nomination, but actually didn't have a tremendous responsibility. Today there is no Cabinet job that hasn't many problems, many responsibilities that are of greatest importance to the Nation's welfare and operation. So to be appointed a member of the Cabinet today you must perform some vitally important duties because of the fact that the Government has taken on such tremendous responsibilities in the functions and operations of both national and international affairs.
HESS: Mr. Secretary, in your opinion, did Mr. Truman look upon the members of his Cabinet as his principal advisers in the operations of Government, or were there other people, perhaps on the White House staff, perhaps other places in Government, maybe even in the private sector, whose advice he might take before he took the advice of a Cabinet member?
SNYDER: I would say that the President consulted first the Cabinet member on matters of action concerning his department. If it was a matter of information, he might well consult an outsider, an expert in a certain field. He might hold conversations with groups regarding certain matters. He might call in experts in the field of agricultural, defense, or most any of the areas of Government. I don't remember how many exactly there are now of the different agencies and office in the Executive Office, but I think there are some thirty-five or forty. And each one of those has some contact with the departments, and with the operation of the administration. So the President is constantly seeking knowledge and information, counsel, on any subject that comes across his desk. Therefore he didn't confine his discussions and his counsel and the advice he seeks to the Cabinet
member, but he did lay great weight on the opinion and the advice of the Cabinet member regarding his own department.
HESS: A few moments ago you mentioned the instances in which a misunderstanding or lack of communication might arise between one department and another. That might happen inadvertently, but were there times during the Truman administration when one Cabinet member would set out with the purpose of taking over various functions that might fall in another Cabinet member's area of responsibility?
SNYDER: That didn't happen nearly so frequently in the Truman administration as it did in the Roosevelt administration. There were quite a number of empire builders back in the days of Mr. Roosevelt. That probably grew out of the length of time that he was in office and some
of the Cabinet members who had been there a long time began to feel that they had influence with the President and could bring him to their viewpoints.
HESS: Who would you classify as the worst offenders in that area?
SNYDER: Well, I think that possibly the Treasury Department, the Interior Department, the State Department, were the most aggressive. The greatest casualties to raiding, the Commerce Department and the Labor Department. They were stripped of many of their functions during the war. The Treasury took on a great number of functions during the war which I subsequently transferred back to various other departments that had had them prior to that time, or to new departments, such as purchasing and things of that sort, such as buying and selling of airplanes for instance. So there were quite a
number of things -- dealing in surplus property -- that had been brought into the Treasury that I soon (after I got into the Treasury) began to put back into more appropriate places.
HESS: You mentioned that the instances oŁ empire building, so to speak, were not as prevalent as in the Roosevelt administration, but who tried that in the Truman administration?
SNYDER: Well, I guess the State Department in connection with our new role as an international leader desired to take over a great many of the operations of Commerce and of Treasury because of their feeling their way along, and feeling that since they were more closely associated with the diplomatic side and the international political side, that they could handle these various functions, such as the industrial representative, the commercial representative, the financial representative.
However, that never became a serious matter, because the President was very farseeing and brought about a very close relationship.
HESS: One short question about your meetings with President Truman. Were those meetings usually arranged through his Appointments Secretary, Matt Connelly?
SNYDER: In the majority of the cases, yes. In my case, it didn't work out quite that way. Frequently, if I was going to see him in his office, yes, I would always arrange that through his Appointments Secretary. However, I frequently, three or four times a week, would drop over after the President had gone back to his quarters in the White House.
HESS: In the evening...
SNYDER: In the evening or before dinner, or maybe for dinner, and discuss matters with him. They
were completely off-the-record. I personally never went into Mr. Truman's office through the front reception room, because I wasn't seeking publicity. It probably would have been better, but I just had the feeling that I was trying to do a job for the President, and the matters were between us. If it required publicity I could release it at the press conferences which I held. If it was a matter that I felt that he ought to mention, we'd always arrange for him to say something about it, and if it wasn't of particular importance that the President himself voice an opinion on it, I would take the matter up at my press conferences, which I held nearly every week.
HESS: You stated that you never had any trouble getting in to see the President even when you would go through Matthew Connelly. And you ever hear of any times that Mr. Connelly
may have blocked someone as high as a Cabinet member from seeing the President? Would this be possible, could he do this?
SNYDER: I wouldn't want to comment one way or the other, because it would be in confidence. I wouldn't know whether there was such an occurrence.
HESS: I was just wondering if he could possibly have done that?
SNYDER: Oh, it would be easy enough to do; it all depends on the Cabinet member. He could do it once, or maybe twice. But if it had happened a third time and a Cabinet member said something to the President -- I'm not talking about Connelly particularly, but any secretary can do it, certainly; he can prevent anyone he wants to from getting in because he could just say, "Well, he's very busy and he can't see you,"
and so forth. But if it's a matter of real importance and the secretary continues to press, it doesn't take long for him to begin to feel like he is being excluded, and he can go right to the President himself. In fact, that's an awfully easy way to get those things straightened out. But to my knowledge, I know of no planned attempt to keep certain Cabinet members away. Remember this, that in spite of the fact that the secretary of a department has been selected by the President, invited to serve in his Cabinet, and has shown great consideration for the individual, the individual himself might feel very shy about pressing. If they are told that the President is busy, then they let it go, don't you see, unless it is something that is so urgent that he just has to see the President. Many times I have heard secretaries, Cabinet members, say, "Well, it's awfully hard to get in to see the President." But I recall that many
many times it was just because they hadn't tried very hard. It could be that they had called once and were told that the calendar was full for the day and they just passed it off with "Well, I can see him in the Cabinet," or something like that, and let it go. But if you really wanted to see him, it was really no problem. I never found it so in talking with any of the Cabinet members. If they really had something to talk with the President about, they could get to see him.
That may not have been true with some Presidents.
HESS: Who do you have reference to?
SNYDER; Well, I'm not going to make any pointed references but I do know that there are Cabinet members that rarely got to see the President in a private conversation.
HESS: We have a list of the men who served on the President's Cabinet during the Truman administration. Will you start at the beginning and tell me a little bit about each man, why they were chosen for that position, why they left if that was the case, their working relationship with the President and the other members of the Cabinet, and any items of interest that may come to your mind regarding those individual members.
SNYDER: Well, I'd have to start off by saying that there is no one who can answer that question in its entirety, except the President himself.
HESS: And it would take several volumes to do it, wouldn't it?
SNYDER: Yes, it would take several volumes. I can only tell you what comes to my mind, about matters on which I was informed, or heard or
something of that sort, because the President might or might not talk over an appointment with other Cabinet members. He might well discuss with one or two or three, but that doesn't mean he'd talk with every one about a new appointment.
HESS: I have a question on that. Because of your particular friendship with Mr. Truman, do you think (just your opinion) that he would discuss other Cabinet appointments with you a little more frequently than he might with some of the other Cabinet members?
SNYDER: I wouldn't want to venture such an opinion. We were good friends, but I don't want to presume on his friendship, and never did. Possibly that is why we are still good friends.
HESS: I thought that was an obvious question so I had better state it for the record.
SNYDER: It is so obvious that I won't try to answer it. Because it would be presumptuous on my part to say that the President -- well, I'll let the record speak for itself.
SNYDER: Under the circumstances of Mr. Truman's taking office on the death of Mr. Roosevelt, he was left with a holdover Cabinet, which does not necessarily take place when the election places a President in the office. Normally it is the custom for the Cabinet member to resign on the last day that a President is in office, and that gives the new President an opportunity, without any difficulty, to start naming his Cabinet. .And in some cases, but not all cases, there might be a little lap-over. But normally, a President, even in a party succession, starts choosing his Cabinet during his campaign even
for the nomination. And then certainly after he's nominated, he spends considerable time thinking of the team that he's going to ask to work with him if he's successful. That certainly was true with Mr. Eisenhower. He had his people all selected very quickly after his election. In the case of my successor, Mr. [George M.] Humphrey, I went so far as to set up offices for him and furnish him with personnel so he could come and bring his associates that he was going to bring in and study the operations of the Treasury. I gave him the work plan of the various departments, the job descriptions of the various offices, so as to make as smooth a transition as was possible.
HESS: Did you feel that they fully availed themselves of the opportunities that you presented?
SNYDER: Well, to a great extent, yes. To some
areas where I thought they should have paid more attention, they didn't. But generally speaking, yes. Because they were in there for nearly two months and must have absorbed a great deal during that time. Looking back over it, I think the biggest part of the time they spent was trying to figure out who they could fire first and replace them with folks of their own choosing, which is quite all right. I can't find any fault with that.
HESS: They had been a long time away from the water hole, hadn't they?
SNYDER: Yes, particularly in the Treasury there had been so many criticisms by some of the Republicans as to how things had been run, and so they actually did let a lot of people go that they shouldn't have, because they found out later that there wasn't as much deviation from good
sound fiscal policy in the Treasury as they had first thought, and particularly in the case of the interest rates which Randy [W. Randolph] Burgess felt they ought to turn loose and let the interest rates seek their own level. Well, they did that and ran the rates up so high that they just had a debacle with the bond departments, commercial bonds and securities of that sort, and they got the interest rates so out of line, that they had to take steps to bring the rates back down, because they let them get too out of line. It would have been much better if they had done it on a gradual basis instead of just throwing the doors open and saying, "Let the rates go where they want to."
That was what I undertook to do right after the war, it was my endeavor to let the rates gradually -- they had been held very low during the war which was very proper, but once the war was over, then my plan was to gradually let
interest rates rise as we were getting into peacetime operation. The banking fraternity, though, had a different notion. They had been held down, and they just wanted to go right to the top. The Federal Reserve in New York was particularly aggressive in that area. I had worked very carefully with them and we were going along pretty well until, all of a sudden, they wanted the rates to go up faster, and they violated the understanding we had with them. We allowed the rates on bills and on notes and on some bonds to begin to go up and we thought we were doing a real good job of it. But then it didn't suit the money operators in New York and they wanted to shoot the rates up faster. However, they did cooperate as long as I was there. I had worked out a famous "accord" with them and we did hold the rates down fairly well, we let them grow slowly, until after I
left. That was when I thought that they used poor judgment in throwing the gates wide open. In general, that is the approach.
President Truman, as I mentioned, inherited a holdover Cabinet. Starting with the senior Cabinet member, Ed [Edward] Stettinius, Jr. had been appointed Secretary of State by Mr. Roosevelt in December of 1944, and had served about five months at the time Mr. Truman became President. And he resigned rather quickly and was succeeded by Jim [James F.] Byrnes on June 27, 1945. Ed was not a particularly strong Cabinet member and he certainly was not in rapport with Mr. Truman. It was mutually understood that he would step out very quickly. As a matter of fact, all the Roosevelt Cabinet members did offer their resignation to Mr. Truman, but he asked them to stay on until he could work things out satisfactorily to all concerned.
HESS: What seemed to be the basis of their lack of rapport, or misunderstanding, would you say?
SNYDER: Well, they were just two different kinds of people. It wasn't that Mr. Truman just didn't particularly...
HESS: They didn't hit it off, so to speak.
SNYDER: Well, that's the easiest way to put it...
HESS: It wasn't a misunderstanding, they just didn't...
SNYDER: No, no, it was just a matter of Mr. Truman having his own team, don't you see.
Jim Byrnes had known Mr. Truman for many years in the Senate, and had, of course, served on the Supreme Court. After he resigned from the Court he went into the White House as adviser to Mr. Roosevelt and was apparently very close to him. Mr. Roosevelt subsequently made him the head
of OWMR, at which time someone, maybe some of the newspaper people, applied the title, "Assistant President" to Byrnes. He had great aspirations to be nominated the running mate for Mr. Roosevelt in the 1944 campaign. As a matter of fact, he had asked Mr. Truman to place his name in nomination, and the Senator had agreed to do it at the Chicago convention. So they had been very close friends, and Mr. Truman had great respect for his experience and his knowledge.
HESS: Some historians say that his appointment as Secretary of State by Mr. Truman was sort of a consolation being offered by the then President Truman to Byrnes for the fact that he was not President at this time.
SNYDER: No, I don't agree with that. I think Mr. Truman asked him to be Secretary of State
because he thought he could trust him and that he had the capacity to fill the job. Senators develop a great feeling of confidence between each other, and as a Senator and with all these other background qualities that he had, I think Mr. Truman selected him as the man he thought could handle the job. I honestly don't believe that there was any -- unless Mr. Truman himself has said so -- to my knowledge there was never any feeling that he was paying for the disappointment. Mr. Byrnes stayed on for about a year and a half.
HESS: I have one other question on Byrnes before we leave him. As you know, near the time that he resigned, he returned from Moscow and Mr. Truman let it be known that he would like for him to check with him before he made any statements regarding the conference in Moscow and on foreign policy.
SNYDER: As time went on, Secretary Byrnes did begin to take on a great number of prerogatives which were not rightly his in connection with transactions with heads of state. Particularly on one occasion he arranged for a nationwide broadcast of his report on his talks with Stalin before he had even set up an appointment with the President to discuss it. Mr. Truman sent word for him to come to see him before he made any statements. He met the President down on the presidential yacht, the Williamsburg, where they had a dinner conversation there. From that time on things were cooler between the two of them.
HESS: Were you present at that time?
HESS: What are your recollections of that evening?
SNYDER: Well, the President and Secretary Byrnes had their conversation in private. It wasn't open. None of the folks on board the ship were in on the conversation. They, however, did greet and visit with him, asked some of his experiences and he told us some of them, but the conversation was between the President and Secretary Byrnes. And their relationship began to cool from then on because Byrnes had some exaggerated notions as to his prerogatives. Mr. Truman felt, and quite rightly so, that the President was the one person who had to pass on all of the international arrangements.
HESS: Did this attitude on Mr. Byrnes' part that he could act without checking with the President develop during this period of time, or did he come to the State Department with that attitude?
SNYDER: No, it wasn't evident until he began to have
these conversations with the heads of state. That's the first that I observed it, at least. He did not leave the Cabinet until some months later. He resigned effective January 21, 1947. He was succeeded by General [George C.] Marshall. General Marshall took office on January 21, 1947. The General, of course, was sought by Mr. Truman for that job. He had made a trip to China for the President. To correct some false impressions, General Marshall did not go over there and take anything away from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. He had already lost the loyalty of most of his generals, and General Marshall found that there were many supplies from the U.S. that had been intercepted by certain of the so-called loyal commanding officers and had been disposed of to the Communist troops without ever being of any benefit to the Nationalist regime. And it was not through any negotiations, actions
or instructions from Marshall that caused any weakening in the power of the Generalissimo. That has been played up by so many people, erroneously, but it was not the case. The Nationalist regime was badly split and the Communists had taken hold very thoroughly in the North. The Generalissimo had fled from the capital of the country and so Marshall was sent over by the President to try to find the facts, which to my satisfaction he did. But there were a number of people like Paul Hoffman and others who went over on sort of self-appointed delegations who came back and said we could save the whole Chinese situation by pouring a great deal of money into agriculture and into manufacturing, and all that sort of thing, which was simply ridiculous in line with the facts because the army had largely been taken over, and the land had been taken over by the Communist
regime. And it was crowding in on the Nationalist portion of it, the land actually held by the Nationalists became smaller and smaller, and finally the Generalissimo went over to Formosa with the remains of his Nationalist government.
HESS: Was one of General Marshall's main objectives at that time to get the Nationalists and the Chinese Communists together into a coalition government?
SNYDER: Well, he hoped so. General Marshall was one of the greats that we had in the Truman Cabinet, in my opinion. Mr. Truman was an admirer of General Marshall, and had been through the years. They were the closest of friends. By that I mean in absolute trust, one of the other. General Marshall was not an intimate of President Truman, but a very responsive, reliable Cabinet officer and
associate and counselor for President Truman, and his respect for him continued throughout the General's life. And as you know, he asked him to go back over to Defense and take over that job, which we will discuss later. But in the Secretary of State's job he performed a splendid service to the President thoroughness in carrying out many of the vitally important functions of the State Department during those reorganization days. And, of course, with the assistance of Dean Acheson, who was his Under Secretary, and Bob Lovett -- they performed a magnificent service, which Mr. Truman to this day greatly values.
HESS: Two of the most important items that came up during those times were the Truman doctrine and the Marshall plan. We'll postpone our discussion of those subjects until a later date, because actually today we want to spend most of our time
discussing the men themselves.
One question on General Marshall: He left, of course, at the end of the, first term when Dean Acheson came in. Did General Marshall want to leave at this time? Was this a planned move?
SNYDER: Yes, the General actually took the job with great reluctance. He had retired and had hoped to do some writing and do some things that he had planned for many years. But, as I say, as a loyal patriot, when Mr. Truman asked him to go to China, he got right back into harness and went there, then he came back from China to take the job as Secretary of State, reluctantly always, but as a loyal patriot he did it because the President said he wanted him. And then when he went over to Defense, it was again with great reluctance, but as a service that he felt was due to our head of state in carrying the great
burden that he was carrying.
HESS: Why was Mr. Acheson picked to replace Secretary Marshall?
SNYDER: Well, I considered Mr. Acheson's selection to succeed Secretary Marshall -- General Marshall -- as one of the most natural, most important and most effective selections of a Cabinet member that the President made while he was in office. Dean Acheson's capable performance, and loyal performance, was outstanding. He was well prepared for the job. He had had considerable experience in the State Department. He had great knowledge of international law. He was a very able attorney in addition to his experience in the State Department, and he was as well or better equipped than anyone that could be found at that time. I was highly pleased with the appointment. I count Dean among my good friends, did then in the Cabinet, and do today. We've
remained very good friends. He and I have just completed writing the foreword for Charles Sawyer's reminiscences. We'll get into more of his work in the Cabinet a little later, but his tremendous leadership and his capacity for negotiating with heads of state, the opposite number in foreign countries that we were dealing with was outstanding. His counsel to the President on diplomatic matters, international affairs, was outstandingly sound. Many of the principles for which he stood so firmly and many of those for which he was taken to task have turned around to prove how sound and how correct he was in his earlier decisions. He, as you know, suffered considerably from improper and misguided criticisms during the latter years.
HESS: What seemed to be the basis for that?
SNYDER: Well, it was just a great deal like the same
situation as we have today with Vietnam. There are a lot of people that think differently, and they didn't like the way that we were handling our affairs with Russia, and didn't like the way we handled our affairs with England, or with Korea. They were just dissenters, you know, who without a thorough knowledge of all the facts pretend to be capable of giving counsel on matters for which they are not competent. Of course, a great deal of that was led by reporters and commentators and presumed experts in the diplomatic field in magazines, books, newspapers, and radio.
HESS: Three of the items that we will want to discuss about Mr. Acheson at a later date are the continuation of the activities around the Marshall plan, the instigation of point 4, and then the matters revolving around the invasion of South Korea, But those are all major
subjects and we will take them up individually at a later date.
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