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.,
July 10, 1968
By Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Snyder Oral History Transcripts]


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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 September, 1970
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
John W. Snyder

Washington, D.C.,
July 10, 1968
By Jerry N. Hess

 

[738]

Nineteenth Oral History Interview with John W. Snyder, Washington, D.C., July 10, 1968. By Jerry N. Hess, Harry S. Truman Library.

HESS: Secretary Snyder, one of the books that I reviewed for some of the things that we covered earlier was Herman Miles Somers', Presidential Agency: OWMR, and at the time I was going through the book I found a statement dealing with the operations of the Cabinet, and since that's the subject that we're on right now, I'd like to paraphrase his statement in the book and get your reaction to it. He stated that for a time, early in the Truman administration, certain members of the Cabinet decided their positions in advance at a regular meeting and presented a united front to the President and tried to create pressure on Mr. Truman to follow their dictates. What do you recall about that?

SNYDER: Well, Mr. Hess, I am unaware that there was

 

[739]

any plan to predetermine positions of either the entire Cabinet or groups of the Cabinet prior to a Cabinet meeting. Now, our general plan, for luncheons or for Cabinet gatherings was something like this: The President had a Cabinet luncheon on Tuesdays. He had his Cabinet meetings on Friday. And for a period we had Cabinet luncheons, without the President, at the different departments. The purpose of these luncheons was largely, as I interpreted them (I was one of the leaders in arranging those luncheons), was to give the Cabinet members an opportunity to get better acquainted with each other without the formality of a presidential gathering, and to give an individual member an opportunity to express some views he had, try them out on the other Cabinet members, or to express a view -- if he had a strong view about some current matter or something brand

 

[740]

new that he was sending a trial balloon up on -- but so far as meeting for the purpose of creating a united front to pressure any particular position before the President, I was unaware that anything like that ever happened. There were occasions when something very important was before the Cabinet and was to come up at the next meeting -- we might have discussed it at some length to more or less develop among the Cabinet members a feeling for the subject and knowledge of what the action was intended to accomplish. These luncheons, however, with the changes in Cabinet and so forth, gradually stretched out into skipping weeks and so finally the Presidents luncheons became very sporadic. Regarding the individual Cabinet members' luncheons, I might have them in my private dining room in the Treasury or Jim Forrestal would have them, in his private dining room over at the Pentagon; General Marshall had a

 

[741]

luncheon or two when he was Secretary of Defense; and Dean Acheson had one over in the State Department. I remember the Postmaster General had one. Those luncheons though were not, in my mind, at least, held to create a united front.

HESS: Which Cabinet members wanted to have the luncheon meetings?

SNYDER: Frankly, as I remember it, I think that Jim Forrestal and I put more effort behind having them than any other of the Cabinet members because we thought it was a good thing to give the Cabinet members a chance to communicate with each other. Under the pressures here in Washington you don't get these opportunities. You meet at parties, you meet at functions, you meet at receptions but for the five or six or seven, or maybe the entire Cabinet to get together for the purpose of just having lunch

 

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and talking, was a rarity. We thought that it would tend towards a better understanding among the members of the Cabinet to have those informal get-togethers without, as I say, the President being there -- although he did come to one or two of them. I know he came to one of mine over at the Treasury. But that was unusual. It was some special occasion, when he did come, someone's birthday or something of that sort.

HESS: Were there any members of the Cabinet that you felt that might have been trying to change the purpose of these meetings into a discussion to develop a united front as we mentioned?

SNYDER: Not as a pattern. I was unaware of any such effort.

HESS: All right. Were there any of the Cabinet members that were opposed to such luncheons?

SNYDER: No, no, one or two didn't come often, and

 

[743]

several of them never entertained.

HESS: That probably pretty well covers that subject.

On our list last week we completed the gentleman who held the position of Secretary of State and we were discussing, as you well recall, just the general subject of why these particular men were chosen, why they left that position, any particular thing that you could remember about them. Now, on the Secretary of the Treasury, we have in times past, I believe we have pretty well covered the story of when Mr. Morgenthau left and Mr. Vinson took over as Secretary of the Treasury.

SNYDER: We had touched on that, yes.

HESS: Do you think we've covered that adequately? Is there more to that story?

SNYDER: Well, it escapes my memory exactly how much

 

[744]

we discussed Mr. Morgenthau. Of course, as you know, he was only in the holdover Cabinet for a very short time, as it turned out. He left the office on July 21, 1945, so he had been in only about three months. However his term in office in the Treasury was third longest of all the Cabinet members, about twelve and a half years. I have always been very interested in that. Mr. [Albert] Gallatin and Mr. [Andrew W.] Mellon served longer than he did and then Secretary Morgenthau. There was one other who served about four days longer than I did. I ranked fifth in the length of time in the Treasury out of all the fifty-nine Secretaries of the Treasury that we've had. There has been a tremendous turnover in that office, some having served only three or four days, at the end of a term, who were given this more as a prestige appointment -- an honorary appointment. But

 

[745]

on the average, you see, there were nearly twice as many Secretaries of the Treasury as there have been Presidents. The turnover has been fairly heavy when you think of it. Take the three who served over thirty-six years, just the three, take them off, you see, and it turns the others over pretty fast.

HESS: Secretary Snyder, I believe that in our past discussions and interviews, we probably have already covered everything that we will want to say about Secretary Morgenthau and Secretary Vinson. Of course the next name on the list is yours, and so we'll flip over the list and take the Secretary of War. The first man was Henry Stimson.

SNYDER: Secretary Stimson was one among the really fine men that we've had serve as a Cabinet officer. He came into the War Department as

 

[746]

Secretary of War back in July of 1940, and served for a little over five years in that capacity, all during the war years, and did a magnificent job. As you probably remember, Henry Stimson was a Republican, and Mr. Roosevelt, in order to get a bipartison approach to the war problems, invited two very prominent Republicans, one to serve as Secretary of War, and one as Secretary of the Navy. Each delivered very, very significant service to the President and to our country. Secretary Stimson announced to President Truman shortly after he came in that he would like to be relieved as early as possible. With the cessation of the hostilities in Europe coming so quickly after President Truman took office, he did prevail upon Secretary Stimson to stay on until September. Therefore, he didn't go out in June with a great number of the holdover Cabinet members.

 

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He stayed on for a little over five months before he resigned on September 21, 1945. President Truman grew to have the very highest and warmest respect for Secretary Stimson's judgment, his knowledge and his diplomatic way of handling very difficult problems. He would have liked to have had him stay on longer and would have enjoyed the opportunity to have had the advantage of his views and to have had his continued assistance. The Secretary however felt that he had served during a most difficult period and therefore insisted on resigning. The President accepted his resignation, with deep regret and with great appreciation for the fine work that he had done.

He was succeeded by Robert Patterson.

HESS: What had been Mr. Patterson's background?

SNYDER: Bob Patterson was a lawyer in New York. He came down to Washington during the war and

 

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served in the War Department. He was there as Under Secretary of War, I believe. I had many contacts with him during the war while I was in the Defense Plant Corporation and always found him to have a very penetrating, analytical mind, who got at the root of problems before us and waded through much of the red tape and arrived at a decision, at a judgment, that was extremely valuable and helpful to us during the war period, and later during his period as Secretary of War he rendered remarkably fine service. He was extremely loyal to President Truman. He served from September 1945 until July the 24th of 1947, and that was during those very difficult reconversion days. The winding up of the hostilities, both V-E Day and V-J Day had occurred by the time he became Secretary of War, but his great problems were the demobilization, the redistribution of troops, the allocation of

 

[749]

caretaker troops, in and of protective troops, and the marshaling in Europe of the troops we were going to maintain there. I found him to be a most delightful and helpful person to work with in the Cabinet. And President Truman valued his judgment, his loyalty and his effectiveness very much. Bob finally decided that he had to go back to the practice of law, as he had devoted the whole war period to public service. Judge Patterson -- by the way, had been on the bench in New York -- was not a wealthy man, though he was a man of comfortable means. He felt that he had served well, and we all felt he had served faithfully and that he should be allowed to go back and take up his practice of law.

HESS: One of the main problems that was faced during his term was the unification of the armed forces, which came to fruition about the time that he

 

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left in 1947. What was his position on that matter

SNYDER: Well, his position was one of absolute enthusiasm, as I recall it, for unification. He felt that it was long overdue, that there were so many overlapping costs and operations that could be unified under a unified general command. Matters of administration had become far more difficult with the development of a third department, as compared with the early days when we had the two departments. You see, in World War II days, what is now the Air Force was actually part of the War Department. During the period that Secretary Patterson was in office the Air Corps was still part of the War Department, initially was part of the Signal Corps of the Army, when we put our first airplanes into usage. When we employed airplanes for the first time they were in the Signal Corps and were up

 

[751]

until the beginning of World War II, and then they created what was called the Air Corps of the War Department. So there we had three great departments that all had a single purpose, defense. Many of the thinking heads of office in the Armed Services felt strongly that a unified command would bring greater coordination and great economy of equipment and unification of calibers of materiel. This, of course, took an awful long time and still has not been unified to the point that it should be. Why it takes a different caliber of gun for one service than another to do exactly the same thing is difficult to understand, that is, for a layman. Maybe if I was over in the military I would have a different view. But the experience that I had in the Field Artillery and years of study, because as you know, I stayed on in the Reserve Corps as a colonel up

 

[752]

until in the fifties, and I did have some knowledge of the vast difference of calibers and of specifications for the ordnance of the different services. It was extremely difficult to understand why they each needed so many different calibers to accomplish similar missions.

During the war, of course, we had so many other things to consider -- the purchasing of men's underwear, for instance: Why a sailor had to have a different type of underwear that was identical in all ways, except that it had a difference of a quarter or half an inch in the hem of the shorts. We had great storehouses for supplies in each service. One of these glaring examples was down in northern Florida. We had two huge quartermaster installations, one Navy and one Army, right there within sight of each other, and both of them were carrying clothing and blankets and things of that sort which were almost identical except for uniforms,

 

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and also huge warehouses of reserve supplies. It did appear that that could be somewhat unified and less costly for the Government as a whole. However, for years, actually, up until the time of McNamara, the effort to unify those three services was largely vocal rather than actual. Even to this day it's a very difficult situation. The high brass in each service wants some identification as an autonomous operation. For the amount of money that we spend and the efforts that we have made, we have made some progress. We've got troops practically in every crossroads country -- that is exaggerating a little, but it's almost true. We've got a contingency in every capital of the world; where formerly we used to perhaps have a couple of Marines, or something of that sort, we've got a whole company of them now, or a battalion. So, actually, we need unification

 

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more every day to have some central control over the allocation of what services will furnish these various outposts complements of military personnel. This also involves the State Department. They feel that they must have certain military personnel, and someone has got to come to a decision as to what service is going to furnish it. And those are things that must be taken away from the President, taken off his shoulders. As you know, I think there are some, between forty and fifty, special operations that are under the office of the President of the United States, in his Executive Office. Now, I'm talking about the Executive officers, those right there attached to the White House, and are housed in the old State Building. That has nothing to do with the phantasmagoria of agencies, departments and commissions that we have all over the Government cross section.

 

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HESS: Looking back, which branch of the service seemed to oppose unification the strongest?

SNYDER: I think that was pretty unified.

HESS: Their opposition to unification was unified.

SNYDER: Yes, they had the greatest unity in their opposition.

HESS: And then Kenneth Royall served as Secretary of War for just a very short time, during the transition.

SNYDER: Secretary Royall had been in the War Department as an Assistant Secretary and as an Under Secretary, and had rendered very excellent service. His background was in law, in North Carolina. When the unification act came about, he stayed on as Secretary of the Army under the Defense program.

 

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HESS: Under James Forrestal who came in at this time.

SNYDER: Yes, that's right. But Royall did stay on for a while as Secretary of the Army. He stayed actually two years in that position. But we'll get to him later.

HESS: Heading our next page is James Forrestal as Secretary of Defense. Why was Mr. Forrestal chosen to be the first Secretary of Defense under this new unified system?

SNYDER: Well, Secretary Forrestal was, I think, one of the very fine, capable people that we had in Government to come in from civilian life without any political background. Jim Forrestal was in the securities business in New York and Mr. Roosevelt brought him down here in the early days as one of his anonymity boys, and he was a hard-driving, deep-thinking, devoted official,

 

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in whatever capacity in which he served. He, after serving at the White House for quite a while, was placed in the Navy as one of the assistant secretaries of the Navy. He became the Secretary of Defense at the time of the unification.

HESS: What had been his attitude toward unification?

SNYDER: He worked very, very assiduously for unification and was one of the outstanding supporters of it. Incidentally, we'll come back at this a little later when we get to the Secretary of the Navy. We're skipping from the War Department -- as you know, when I first went into the Cabinet, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy were two separate Cabinet positions. With unification, the Secretary of Defense took over both of those Cabinet positions, and unified them into one. That was one unification that

 

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actually took place immediately. Up until the unification, we had not had a Secretary of the Air Force in the Cabinet. We had had a Secretary of War, Secretary of the Navy, and so we'll get to Secretary Forrestal's Navy experience a little later, but he was Secretary of the Navy at the time of the unification, and President Truman elected to name him as the Cabinet officer who would head up the Defense program. Mr. Forrestal served in that capacity from September of 1947 until March 1949. He met with considerable difficulty in trying to effect unification. He had the first onslaught of resistance in trying to unify the three services. He had a very frustrating, disappointing and actually crushing experience in trying to bring those three departments together. He found dissension at every hand. He found underhanded play among the different services, and it

 

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led to a nervous breakdown on his part, the realization of the futility of what he was trying to undertake in bringing these departments together by organization.

HESS: Looking back on those days, can you recall evidences of the pressure that he was under at that time?

SNYDER: Well, Jim Forrestal and I were very close friends. Some months before his resignation he began to realize that some of the people that he trusted the most were not as loyal to him as he had hoped and had a right to expect them to be.

HESS: Would you care to give any names?

SNYDER: No, I won't go into that. I'm sure that's been taken up in other areas. He became suspicious that there were different forces at work to

 

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undermine him and he began to feel that he was being threatened, his life threatened and that his work was threatened, and during the last few months he began to feel that practically the whole of the three services were working to undermine his administration, so much so that he called on me one day -- I had an apartment at the Wardman Park Hotel and he called me early one morning and came out and told me that he felt the telephones of his home were tapped and that he couldn't even have private, confidential conversations at home. He didn't trust his communications people on his staff to check it for him and asked me if I would do it. And I of course told him that I would be very happy to try. I had the Secret Service make a thorough check of all of his premises, all of his phones, there were no taps. He may have had feelings of this nature before this time, but if he did

 

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I was not aware of it. But he used to come by and pick me up several mornings a week and we'd drive down to work together, and he'd drop me off at the Treasury. He was continually mentioning some of his problems and so forth from that time -- you asked the question, "When did it first begin to show up?" It became increasingly apparent until finally the President felt that in the interest of his health that he should relieve him of the terrible strain that was on him.

HESS: His resignation was effective the last day of March 1949. Was this period you're referring to a matter of weeks or a matter of months?

SNYDER: Months.

HESS: Before this time.

SNYDER: Yes, it began several months before this,

 

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and became increasingly more apparent. As a matter of fact, at the time of the swearing in of his successor, he was disturbed that someone had a malicious intent towards him. He and I went to the ceremonies together and afterwards he asked me to follow a few steps behind and keep my eye on any motion that might be made towards him, and I took him home after the ceremony relieving him of the Secretary's job. He was then taken down to Hobe Sound where I think he had a place of his own, and Sam Pryor's sister had a place where quarters were provided for him so he could relax and so forth. But it wasn't the best thing for him. He began to have more and more difficulties and he was brought back to the naval hospital. The rest is all history.

HESS: That's right. And we've already mentioned Mr. Johnson.

 

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SNYDER: Yes, Louis Johnson came in. Louis had a lawyer's background, had been very active in the American Legion, he had been the head of the American Legion. He had been very active in the politics of the American Legion, he was very active in national politics and the Democratic Party. He was a very effective man, but he was a very ambitious man and during the Truman 1948 campaign, was extremely effective in raising funds for the campaign.

HESS: He had taken over the job as treasurer, hadn't he?

SNYDER: Yes, he eventually took over that job.

HESS: They were having a difficult time getting someone for that position.

SNYDER: That's right. And he did a really good job on that. So his one ambition at that

 

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particular time, as a step forward, was to head the Defense Department, because of his military background and his long Legion work and that sort of thing. So, because he thought Johnson could do the job, Mr. Truman appointed him and he was sworn in in March 28, 1949 and remained Secretary until September of 1950, a little over a year and a half.

HESS: I have one question on him before we proceed. Before we get into the subject of his resignation itself, I have heard that Mr. Johnson tried to run some of the business of some of the other Cabinet members. In other words, he might have been a little more prone to get out of his field and to get into the field of some of the other Cabinet members. Is that true?

SNYDER: As I mentioned, he was a very aggressive man, and he was a very ambitious man, and there may

 

[765]

well have been times when, because of his legal training and his long experience with administration of the American Legion affairs, and politics, that he might have felt that he was in a position to be of great service to other Cabinet members and maybe moved to help them, sometimes maybe a little more than they fully expected or desired themselves.

HESS: Did he ever try to offer you any of this unrequested help?

SNYDER: Louis Johnson and I were very close friends, very good friends until his death. Our relationship was one of complete cooperation. As a matter of fact, I recall very little effort on the part of any Cabinet member to ever try to encroach on the duties of the Secretary of the Treasury. There were more fruitful fields for their efforts, I think.

 

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HESS: That's one of the departments where they didn't want to take over the responsibility.

SNYDER: No, the only time that they all got very busy was the time of getting a tax bill or something of that sort.

HESS: What do you recall -- if we're ready to move on to his resignation -- what do you recall about the events surrounding Louis Johnson's resignation, which was, of course, after the Korean invasion.

SNYDER: Unhappily, there began to be dissension among certain Cabinet members who couldn't get along with Secretary Johnson.

HESS: Was this before or after the latter part of June when Korea was invaded?

SNYDER: It began just before that and came to a focus at the time of the Korean invasion.

 

[767]

HESS: What were some of the difficulties?

SNYDER: Oh, I don't recall.

HESS: All right. Then let's move on to the resignation.

SNYDER: Well, he resigned in September, 1950, a few months after the -- what was the exact date of the Korean...

HESS: It was on Saturday, June 24th.

SNYDER: Yes, so it was just about three or four months after that that he turned in his resignation.

HESS: Did Mr. Johnson offer his resignation willingly? Was it his idea?

SNYDER: Well, I think he resigned after a discussion with President Truman.

 

[768]

HESS: Was he more or less persuaded to resign, do you think?

SNYDER: That you'll have to get from President Truman.

HESS: Are you ready to go on to the next man?

SNYDER: Yes, we'll try to get through with the Defense Department.

Because of Korea coming up and the problems that we were going to have in the armed services in properly rearming ourselves or re-equipping ourselves, reorganization of our military equipment, which had been allowed to deteriorate somewhat after World War II in our efforts to get back to peacetime operations and cut expenses and the unification, President Truman felt like the ideal man to step into that Defense job would be General Marshall, who had been Chief of Staff during World War II and had had a very

 

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magnificent background of experience and administration in the armed services.

HESS: He had also been Secretary of State.

SNYDER: Well, yes, he had just resigned a short time before that, which we talked about last week. He left the State Department in January of 1949. So he had been out of the Cabinet only about a year and a half when President Truman asked him, to come back and take up this Secretary of Defense job, which, while he was most reluctant to do it, his great loyalty and his enthusiasm for his country and his patriotism directed that when the President asked him to do something, that he responded. In my mind, his year's service there was extremely effective and was of great comfort to President Truman. As I've said before, President Truman held General Marshall in highest esteem in any

 

[770]

capacity in which he ever served. He resigned, finally; he just felt like he had to get out of service and do a few things that he and Mrs. Marshall had wanted to do -- they had a lovely home down in Virginia and General Marshall was a great gardener and he just wanted to collect his papers and do some research and reading. So on September 12, of 1951, President Truman accepted his resignation and appointed in his stead his Under Secretary of Defense, Bob Lovett. Bob served from that time until the end of the Truman administration. Bob had been in the service during the war. General Marshall had asked him to come down and help him as Secretary of State, which he did, very effectively. Bob Lovett was interested in the Union Pacific Railroad, very heavily invested in the Union Pacific Railroad, and was one of its officers. He was also in the security business. That was his

 

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background. Bob had served during the entire war period in the War Department headquarters and went over to the State Department at General Marshall's request. General Marshall had become closely acquainted with him and associated with him during the war period.

HESS: I think we've taxed your voice enough for one day.

SNYDER: Yes.

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