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.,
March 12, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess

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

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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.,
March 12, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Snyder, Mr. Truman took no part in the 1946 campaign and very little in the one in 1950. Can you tell me why the decision was made to hold down his participation in those two campaigns? Let's start with 1946.

SNYDER: At that time Robert Hannegan was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He had been under Mr. Roosevelt. Mr. Roosevelt had given him that position, prior to his 1944 campaign. To answer your question, Mr. Hess, I can only give you my impression. It was for a combination of reasons. Basically, Mr. Truman felt that Mr. Roosevelt had been the one that was elected President, and that his policies and his plans were paramount in all decisions that were made, because he was the choice of the


people and they elected him on those plans and on those policies. So, when the campaign for 1946 began to get underway -- Bob Hannegan had been chairman of the Democratic National Party and he had steered the Roosevelt campaign to a resounding success -- Mr. Truman felt that he should be guided by the counsel and advice of Mr. Hannegan in the off-year election. It seemed to me that Mr. Hannegan decided, and those around him probably contributed to it, that it was Roosevelt's name that was magic with the voters, and what they ought to be playing on was the continuation of the Roosevelt era, and that Mr. Truman was pinch hitting for Mr. Roosevelt in his absence, and that the entire remainder of the term would be focused on the statements and on the policies and on the campaign promises of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The campaign began to shape up that way and Roosevelt was quoted in nearly every speech that was made. They kept


pointing to the great leader who carried us through the recovery from the depression; who helped build up a great new view of civil rights, and had inaugurated civil rights programs, and had started many of the social reforms; and that he was the one that brought in the Social Security, and the FDIC to guarantee their deposits, and protection of the little man. It got to the point that Hannegan was insisting on playing records at political gatherings of the voice of Roosevelt, and his speeches, or excerpts from them, would be played. I have heard Hannegan say at times, "Mr. President you don't need to bother about this, we'll take care of this particular place," a place where Mr. Truman might think he could have been helpful. "You have so much to do." He kept pressing that Mr. Truman had so much to do that they would put this across. Mr. Truman actually began to take less interest than probably he


normally would have. He would have contributed to the idea that this was a continuation of the Roosevelt policies and so forth, because he stayed with that as long as he was filling out Mr. Roosevelt's term. It became evident, in my opinion, along in October, that this was not taking well with the public. Traveling around I found that there was a slippage that was beginning to show up.

HESS: Where did you go?

SNYDER: I could get you my list of places, but I don't recall. The Secretary of the Treasury travels an awful lot making speeches and things. I happened to have the list right here and I would say I visited almost all part of the country.

That did not make too much of an impression on Mr. Truman because he didn't change his program any, and he didn't press to take a more


active part because he said that Hannegan was the chairman, and it was his job, and that the Congressmen and Senators who were up for election -- as a matter of fact there began to be some little dissension among them.

HESS: In what way?

SNYDER: Particularly that they felt that there ought to be a greater drive from the President.

To answer the question that you asked initially, I think that about covers my recollections and impressions unless you have some questions.

HESS: I have a couple. In your opinion did Mr. Truman feel that he was being shunted into the background?

SNYDER: I don't know that he exactly felt that way. He realized that possibly the emphasis was on Mr. Roosevelt, and he contributed to that idea somewhat because he was trying to carry out the


policies of Mr. Roosevelt. So I don't know if he actually felt that he was being shunted aside, but the end result was that.

HESS: What was Mr. Truman's view of Robert Hannegan after the defeat of 1946?

SNYDER: Well, Hannegan didn't stay much longer after that.

HESS: What brought about his departure?

SNYDER: His health. At least that was the statement.

HESS: He had high blood pressure.

SNYDER: He had high blood pressure and had a very serious operation performed on his spine that was to have corrected it.

HESS: Was that about this time that he had the operation?


SNYDER: Right around that period. I could find out for you, because he and Senator Symington had the same operation within a relatively short time. If it is important to know just when the operation was, why, it's easy to find. You have the date of his resignation there, don't you?

HESS: Not with me, no, I don't.

SNYDER: I do have and I will have to look it up for you, but I think that it was along in the first part of '47 when he had the operation, maybe in '46. He was not as fortunate as Mr. Symington. Maybe Mr. Symington took better care of himself and followed the doctor's instructions more carefully. He was a real success, whereas Mr. Hannegan's began to cause him considerable trouble. He attributed it both to his health and his desire to make a little money, because he had been in politics all his life, he said, and had never


had a chance to build up an estate for his family for the care of the children, education and so forth. So, it was a combination of the two. I think he publicly used the one about getting out in private life. Privately I think that we all understood that it was largely because of his health. You may find in the public record that his reason was...

HESS: To build up an estate for his family.


HESS: Why I brought it up about the date of his operation, I was wondering about the weight of the percentages behind the reason of his retirement, the health as opposed to the other.

SNYDER: Do you want to stop that a minute and I'll call Symington's secretary.

HESS: You mentioned Mr. Hannegan's successful handling


of the 1944 campaign as being among the reasons that the President placed some reliance in what he had to say in 1946. As I understand it we have covered this quite adequately on tape, I believe, about Mr. Hannegan's promotion of Mr. Truman for the vice-presidential spot in 1944.

SNYDER: Right, we discussed that.

HESS: Do you think that that was part of the reason...

SNYDER: He felt that Hannegan had the experience and the contacts, and so forth, because of his experience in the national campaign of 44.

HESS: All right, one hypothetical question. Mr. Hannegan's handling of the 1946 campaign did not seem to be too successful. Do you think that it would have prevented the loss of the Congress. to the Republicans if it had been


handled differently, if Mr. Truman had gone out and waged a vigorous campaign?

SNYDER: Mr. Hess, of course that is highly speculative. In the light of the success that Mr. Truman had two years later, I have always been inclined to think that if he had had a better exposure to the public in the 1946 campaign, the Nation and he would have greatly benefited by it. It took some time. I think that that would have given him a better opportunity to get the feel of national campaigning because if you recall Mr. Truman was given a very limited part of the campaigning in the 1944 campaign and really was not given free rein to develop his ideas about the national campaign techniques that he had to learn four years later when he was running for President. It was not until he threw aside many of the cut and dried beliefs and started out on his own on his whistlestop program that he really began to get


results from his campaigning. He might have learned that in the 1946 campaign if he had really had the motivation and the opportunity to put on an aggressive campaign. To try to say whether you could have changed the trend at the time, would be hard to say. I have always felt like he should have.

HESS: Another hypothetical question. In 1946 did Mr. Hannegan approach the President with the idea, "We will use Roosevelt's voice on tape, and we will slant this from the Roosevelt angle. We will read excerpts from Roosevelt speeches." Was that cleared with Mr. Truman? Do you know?

SNYDER: I don't know whether it was ever cleared with him, but he was told that it was going to happen and he didn't object to it.

HESS: Now my hypothetical question: Do you think


that after being told that this is the way that the campaign was going to be structured, as almost a Roosevelt campaign, that if he wanted to come out and campaign that it would have been throwing himself into competition, more or less, with the late President?

SNYDER: He would have been developing a controversial situation at that time, yes. There is no question but what the national committee had geared itself to the belief that Roosevelt was the great leader, the great name, the same way probably that the Republicans relied on Lincoln for so long, don't you see. Lincoln was the magic word. Remember, four times Mr. Roosevelt had been elected, and to this group that had been around him pretty closely, they just felt that his word was magic in the land, which it had been, of course.

HESS: Do you recall what some of the other major


Democratic politicians thought about this, at this time? Take Jake Arvey for instance.

SNYDER: No, Mr. Hess, I have told you a number of times I did not take an active part in politics, therefore, I did not attend many, practically none of the workshops, discussions, the planning, and meetings of that sort. It would only be when I was with Mr. Truman at the time the matter would come up. I do recall being at the White House one time, we were over in the State Dining Room, when they played one of the records of Mr. Roosevelt's voice.

HESS: Was this during the campaign?

SNYDER: It was right at the beginning of the campaign. I recall that one or two of us felt like it was calling for the voice from the grave.

HESS: Was the President present?


SNYDER: Yes, he was there. There was quite a number gathered there. I forgot the function, but we had gone over to the State Dining Room and this record was played at that time. I remember the deep impression that it made on me personally.

HESS: Do you recall the President's reaction?

SNYDER: It's hard to say. I think it was tongue in cheek. He would be the best source on that as to how he really felt about it.

HESS: Does that pretty well cover events in 1946?

SNYDER: Unless you have something else.

HESS: One other question. Mr. Truman took very little part in the 1950 campaign also, which was an off-year election. Do you recall why his participation was held down?

SNYDER: At that time he had so many real problems


on his hands with the Korean war and with our economy and fighting inflation and things of that sort that he really didn't have the time to devote to it. It would have been very effective if he could have, I think, but the reason was an entirely different reason than the '46 campaign. This time it was because of the tremendous weight of the load of the Presidency. Of course, Presidents normally have not taken a very active part in the off-year elections. I believe that you will find that the case if you check back.

HESS: There is one question on 1946, of course that is when the 80th Congress came in, and many historians say that that is when Mr. Truman was really allowed to go off the defensive and go on the offensive. Some even go so far as to say that he would not have won in 1948 if he hadn't had the 80th Congress to run against. What's


your view on that?

SNYDER: It was very effective anyway and he used it well and at the moment, why -- we are always looking for stalking-horses, you know, in both non-political and political campaigns. It was a good media and it struck the people as a good point because there were so many things that the Congress didn't act on that the President had recommended in his legislative programs. It happened that more people wanted the things that he recommended than didn't want them, and so he hit a responsive note there.

HESS: Mr. Snyder, I think that that fairly well covers everything that we want to put down on 1946 and 1950, other than the date of the operation, and when Senator Symington's secretary returns your call we can put that information in at that point.


One other question for this morning, on the general subject of civil rights, there are those that say that Mr. Truman was a man of principle seeking to gain as much for the Negro as the political processes would allow. Others say that he was a political opportunist compelled by pressures to move far beyond what he actually wanted to attain. What do you think is the proper view of Mr. Truman's attitude?

SNYDER: I think the first view is the proper one. Mr. Truman foresaw that this racial problem had to be met foursquare; that the people of this Nation should be all treated equally when it came to the civil processes of the country; that the right to vote ought to be freely offered; the right of jobs; and the right of education. He felt that very sincerely and positively. I think I can tell you a story that might be very effective in highlighting just how sincere he was and how


he conveyed his sincerity to a great many people.

I was at a luncheon at the Riding Club in Atlanta, Georgia with a group of Southern bankers. They began to give me quite a going over as to some of the things that Mr. Truman had said regarding civil rights and some of the programs that he was sponsoring up on the Hill in the way of legislation that had been proposed, but was still unpassed from the Roosevelt administration. A great number of those bills and legislative programs that went up shortly after Mr. Truman became President. This was in, oh, probably, 1948 when this occasion happened. They were just finding a great deal of fault with what Mr. Truman was saying and doing -- it was upsetting the South, and giving them additional problems for them in taxes and things of that sort. I said, "Now just wait a minute, gentlemen, you're finding great fault with Mr. Truman and chiding me for


my association with him without really facing the facts of the matter. It hasn't been over three or four years ago when I was right here with you and you were praising Mr. Roosevelt." That was during the lifetime of Mr. Roosevelt. "And you were all praising the great work that he had done in the war and in constituting reconstruction of the country after the depression and a great many things. You were all very high in your praises of him. You must remember that he was the one that started this civil rights program with all his other social legislation." One of them said, "Yes, but the trouble is, this fellow means it."

I always thought that that was the clearest exposition of the interpretation of most people as to his sincerity in what he was doing.


HESS: One question along these same lines. There are some historians that point out the fact that even though Mr. Truman made liberal statements and statements in approval of civil rights matters, that perhaps his actions did not match those statements. Some historians pointed out that there were very few high-level appointments of colored people during the Truman administration. What are your views on that?

SNYDER: I don't think that it was because of Mr. Truman's personal convictions that caused that. I think that it was largely because of the pressures that were put on him for appointments, and recommendations, and this idea was rather new at that time. Mr. Roosevelt had not appointed a great many of the Negro race to jobs. It was a new concept, or a new approach to an old concept, and I don't think that it was intentionally -- maybe he


wasn't aggressive enough in doing it and, of course, his successor, Eisenhower, didn't appoint a great many and it was not until Kennedy's time that they began to really step out and appoint quite a number. I think there were some judges, but you'd have to go back to your records to find out just how many presidential appointments of Negroes were made. I don't think that there was any feeling on Mr. Truman's part. It was a matter of finding competents for the job that was the principal thing.

HESS: What was the concept back at that time, how were they trying to implement civil rights matters? Was it in trying to get public housing for people, was it in the trying to get a minimum wage law, or was it in trying to improve welfare matters? Just what was the thinking?

SNYDER: All of those things were a part and parcel of the program. Social Security and education


were beginning to be pressed pretty strongly because it was felt that they had to see that these people had an education that would permit them to qualify for better jobs and better opportunities. Housing was a very important part of all this. I think that the grassroots of urban renewal was started then, trying to clean up some of the slum areas. How far that had penetrated the South, I just don't recall. I know that New York jumped on it very promptly and started some big projects up there. Job placement, the Full Employment Act, all of those things were used for the purpose of indiscriminately giving everybody an opportunity. The problem, of course, developed slowly in the South. It was quite a transition and it couldn't have just happened over night. It took long years and is still going on. We are blaming the South a great deal but the truth of the matter is, the migrants, the Negroes who have moved north in great quantities


to some of the large Negro settlements in the cities, are having as bad or worse experience than they are having in the South. Their opportunities in the South, actually, are about as good as they are in the North. The South is taking the brunt of a great deal of this civil rights opprobrium that rightly belongs in any place with large collections. We forget in our emotionalism what brought on the South's situation in the first place. Southern people didn't go over to Africa and bring the slaves over here, they were sold to them by Yankee traders and by the Caribbean operators who went over and exploited these people, and the Southerners put them to work when they arrived here. Climate and labor shortage on the plantations accounts largely for the slave sales in the South. The North used immigrants under near-slavery conditions in the steel mills, coal mines and railroad


building long after the Civil War. There are isolated cases of cruelty, and I say isolated because as a general thing, a Negro slave was a pretty fine piece of property. You don't ordinarily beat your horses up, it is a rare case, but even some people do beat up their horses. But they didn't do that as a general thing. It was a cruel thing, of course, to sell people on the auction block, and buying them that way, but they actually probably live better than they would have in Africa or than many of the people in the Northern slums at that time. But unhappily, the Negro race has not developed uniformly with other races in education. There seems to be a block.

HESS: What do you think brings this about?

SNYDER: It's inherent in their generic background, I guess. Consider the present problem of trying


to educate the black man over in Africa, that brings out the fact that there is a limit to the numbers who can assimilate an education beyond the primary grades. To say suddenly that it was all entirely the South's fault is pressing it a little too far. We're having the trouble right here in Washington with the educating of the Negroes. You saw that article the other day, and maybe heard on radio, where a survey was made and that the Negro jobholders who answered the telephone were having trouble making themselves understood, that they had a sort of a secondary language of their own. That's right here in the capital city, after all the years that they have been here. So it isn't purely the South's fault. We have got to quit that and make it a uniform national approach to this problem and not constantly be saying that it was a Southern fault. This "Old Tom" business I think has been used for propaganda purposes by the promoters


who are not strong for the real opportunity for the Negro to advance, but for personal opportunity of the speaker in keeping himself as the leader and in stirring up emotion.

HESS: Would you go so far as to say that the Negro seems to be basically and inherently somewhat inferior?

SNYDER: The problem in Africa where educational programs are being undertaken for the native, the Bantu, the native black man, and the problems there are just terrific. They just don't seem to be able to assimilate. Of course, we have the same problem, maybe, with our Indians here. However, there are quite a number of Indians who have been able to overcome that gap and proceed to higher education. I think that we must recognize the fact that you cannot take an average group, just march out a hundred Caucasians


and a hundred blacks and expect them to move right along in the same degree of assimilating education. I think that is where the great problem is going to come, in trying to force integration into high schools and things of that sort, you're going to slow down the educational processes in my opinion. It's perfectly proper to have the opportunity there for those who can take the higher education and the steps of the more involved educational subjects. Let's give them every opportunity to go right on through college to master's and doctor's degrees. But I do not think that because of trying to keep all the classes in the same stage of development that you are going to be able, certainly within the next few decades, to insist that you mix the school so that there is an equal or proportionate number of black and white in the classrooms as you hear some advocates propose. That's a


personal opinion from long years of observation. We should give the black student every opportunity to progress as far as he can go in educational matters. Some have demonstrated that they have been able to go on to higher education. The great majority of them reach a limit of assimilation of education by the time that they reach the high school grades.

HESS: What can the Negro of today do to help improve his own situation?

SNYDER: Be willing to work for his living and be willing to try to help himself and help his fellow black man. We have a great dearth of sincere willingness on the part of the black man who has made a success, who has been able to get a higher education, to get out and work for the betterment of his race. Most of the leaders are emotional, radical talking type of blacks


that are in the lead of these things. To get a good man who is willing to devote and to contribute -- there are many wealthy Negroes, but you don't find a great many of them that are willing to contribute in large sums to schools, to black schools, and to black hospitals and black developments, to scholarships; and I think they should. When they made a success they ought to try to help, and the individual himself ought to be willing to work for what he is after instead of having it handed to him by some Federal fiat.

HESS: Back on the Truman administration, were there any measures that you could have taken or you could take, or possibly did take, in the Treasury Department to further civil rights matters during your period?

SNYDER: We gave every opportunity for the black man to take jobs that he was qualified for in


in the Treasury. The question didn't come up in the Treasury except in one place, and that was equally with white and black, was in the training for some of the higher jobs in the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. We had some little problem there, but it was simply because the applicants, the ones that did apply, just were not able to acquire the qualification for that kind of work. Generally speaking, the Treasury was a large employer of the black man in Washington and in other parts of the country. Certainly, I never heard of any blame against the Treasury for discrimination in employment.

HESS: Did you have any of the leaders of the civil rights organization come in to see you?

SNYDER: No, never.

HESS: Do you think that they were somewhat laggard in not pressing this?


SNYDER: Pressing what?

HESS: Could they have gotten more jobs from the Treasury Department if they came in and asked for them?

SNYDER: I doubt it. At least I accepted the fact that their not coming indicated that they were satisfied that we were giving them a pretty fair chance.

HESS: One other question on this, and as you know the FEPC, the Fair Employment Practices Commission, was not fully established during the Truman years. They tried several times and it was not established. Do you recall anything about the FEPC and the efforts to establish that during the Truman administration?

SNYDER I remember the first discussion that came up. I think, largely, that it was maybe too radical


a change, some of the things that they were proposing, that they wanted to accomplish overnight, without building up a gradual approach to that program. We had great resistance from industrial employers on EEPC, because some of the proponents wanted to force any industrialist to hire them, regardless of whether they were fitted or qualified for the job or not. Maybe its poor reception could have been on account of those who were the vocal sponsors and that a better sponsorship should have been sought for that new concept.

HESS: One question on race relations in general. Approximately what were the percentage of the colored people in Jonesboro when you were growing up? Do you recall?

SNYDER: It would be hard to say. I would say 10 percent maybe.


HESS: Did they have segregated schools there at that time?


HESS: Did you have any relationships with colored people?

SNYDER: Oh, I've always gotten along just splendidly. I've been real close friends with Negroes all my life. When I got into the banking business down in Forrest City at least half of our Negro depositors would come to me for counsel and advice. I remember one instance when Scott Bond, who was a landowner, in St. Francis County, came to me and said that Judge Rolfe had suggested that he talk with me to see if I could help him in some of his legal problems. It appeared that Scott had overbought. He had tried to extend himself too rapidly and then when he had


the set-back in the price of cotton -- he was entirely a cotton farmer, he had not attempted any diversification at that time, nor had anyone else. A little alfalfa was beginning to be planted during World War I and afterwards, but real diversification on the farm was not started. So, he was caught with this problem, and through sitting down and working with him we were able to let some of the lesser desirable pieces of property, small farms of forty, fifty, sixty, eighty acres, that he had added, to drop those out of his program and we reshaped his affairs to where when he died Scott Bond left an estate of some five or six hundred thousand dollars.

That's one example of the type of help that I have always tried to extend to Negroes. We had another family there, the Williams family, who were able to assimilate higher education. One became a doctor, one became a pharmacist and one became an insurance man. I carried


their accounts, helped them, advised them, extended loans to them, and they became great successes and good leaders of the colored people in our community.

After I got into Government in St. Louis I had many, many Negro leaders who would come to me to consult about things. I would go out and talk with their groups there. After I got into Government, I always had a great number of colored people who came to me for counsel, who are still writing me notes, and at Christmas I get little messages from them. I don't know whether this fits with what you asked, but even though I was born in the South, I've always taken a great interest in the development of the Negro.

HESS: Was there anyone in the Treasury Department in a management position, in an executive position, that was colored?


SNYDER: I don't think so.

HESS: We haven't put down on our tape yet our information about Mr. Hannegan's operation.

SNYDER: The operation for the high blood pressure problem, that Hannegan and Symington were afflicted with, was in the summer of 1947. He did not turn out quite so well and that, coupled with his desire to get out and try to make a little money to leave for the education of his children, caused him to resign. The situation at that time, we were beginning to do quite a bit of reorganization in the Bureau of Internal Revenue and some problems were developing that Mr. Hannegan did not want to get involved with. I would say that he probably didn't want to become involved after having had these people come to him for sponsorship.

You see, he had been Commissioner of Internal Revenue before he was made Chairman of the National


Democratic Party. He was brought from St. Louis and given that job. He came up here under [Guy T.] Helvering, and succeeded Helvering as Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Unfortunately, he had used it for political purposes, in my opinion. He put a great many politicians in jobs that they shouldn't have been in.

HESS: Then his retirement was in December of that year 1947. Do you recall offhand how long he lived after that?

SNYDER: A year or so, I don't know exactly.

HESS: What was his personal relationship with President Truman? Did it somewhat diminish after 1946?

SNYDER: I think it did.

HESS: Did you ever hear President Truman say anything about Mr. Hannegan?


SNYDER: Mr. Truman never said anything about people other than, "Oh, he's a great fellow," or something like that.

HESS: Whether he thought so or not?

SNYDER: Many times, whether he thought so or not, yes. Mr. Truman was not a vindictive sort of person in spite of all the advertising he got for saying things off-the-cuff. He was very, very careful. He didn't pretend, of course. If he definitely didn't like you, you knew that you weren't one of his best friends. But, he was not one inclined to be vindictive about his feelings towards people, he just let them alone. Mr. Hannegan did become less and less influential around Washington.

HESS: All for one morning?

SNYDER: I think that's sufficient.

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