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
March 26, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess
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Transcript | Additional Snyder Oral History
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
March 26, 1969
By Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Snyder, the President's Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty
was established by Executive Order 9806 of November 25, 1946. What do
you recall about that commission?
SNYDER: The man in the Treasury who was named to that commission was
Edward H. Foley, Jr. who at the time was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.
The other members of that group which were representatives of their various
agencies were: A. Devitt Vanech, Special Assistant to the Attorney General
at the Justice Department, he was named chairman. Subsequently, I think
that Mr. Foley acted as chairman from time to time but Mr. Vanech was
the nominal chairman of the committee. And John E. Peurifoy of the Department
of State; Ken [Kenneth C.] Royall, Department of War;
John Sullivan, John L. Sullivan, Under Secretary of the Navy; and Harry
B. Mitchell, the president of the Civil Service Commission. Now, the purpose
was to make a study of all the procedures that were being followed by
the various agencies, then come to a uniform plan that would be a proper
program for looking into the loyalty of prospective employees, and also
review the files of the employees in the various agencies. The commission
was supposed to adopt a uniform set of guidelines on what should be checked
and what shouldn't be, and to see that all the various departments, particularly
those with security exposures, were, giving the right attention to their
employees which they already had, as well as the new ones. And I delegated
that work entirely to Mr. Foley. And I think that they did a very good
job. The hue and cry certainly diminished a great deal after that, except
in political areas where sometime later the
Republicans went back and tried to stir up a lot of problems in some
of those investigations that they conducted mostly after 1952.
HESS: I've heard some criticism of the commission in that instead of
trying to concentrate on finding serious security violations, communists
in high places, in other words, that it sort of degenerated into searching
for homosexuals and people of that nature in lower positions.
SNYDER: Unhappily, I think that there is some substance to that criticism.
The actions of the commission were somewhat motivated by the pressures
of the time. And I think that was wherein they fell into the trap, except
for trying to be so flexible as to run here and there instead of setting
up a program and going straight through on it. Fortunately, in the Treasury,
we did not have many great problems in the field of loyalty. The few we
had were that many too many but, generally
speaking, we were fortunate in having a higher record of loyalty, a better
record of employees not questionable in their loyalty, either as to security
HESS: What would be your evaluation of the overall effectiveness of the
SNYDER: I think that it served its purpose.
HESS: All right, fine. That's about everything on that isn't it?
SNYDER: I don't have anything pertinent to add.
HESS: Okay, fine.
SNYDER: There is no need in going in and rehashing all the publicity
and all the arguments that came up at the time because those pretty soon
gave way to other matters. I think by and large it pretty well straightened
out, although, as you know later some of the Republicans put in many hours
trying to dig up and rehash old stories.
HESS: Who were those who gave the most trouble along those lines. Do
you recall? During the days of Joe McCarthy?
SNYDER: Well, during the McCarthy days and later. I suppose that the
most of it was stirred up by the McCarthy investigation. Later, as I say,
guidelines were set up to help the personnel units of the various departments,
which I think were a help, and in dealing with the new employees particularly.
HESS: During the McCarthy era, did you ever have any Congressmen who
came down to the Treasury Department and wanted to go through personnel
SNYDER: I don't recall personally. Mr. Foley may have had some such approaches
but they were never
serious enough for him to bring them up to me that I recall.
HESS: Our next subject for the morning deals with the writing of the
State of the Union messages, shall we move right on into that?
SNYDER: Yes, if you like.
HESS: Did you help in the writing of any of the State of the Union messages?
SNYDER: It was President Truman's policy as he was preparing any of his
messages to Congress, or any public statement for that matter, to consult
with the department heads or agency heads whose activities were going
to be treated in his speech. Perhaps some action was going to be taken
or some new legislation was to be requested. If it affected any department
or agency he normally called in the head of those units to discuss at
least their phase of it. In the State of the Union
message, of course, that somewhat is a blanket speech that covers all
activities of the Government in the past and plans for the future. I was
always present at the preparation for the general review, and was always
consulted as to any matters that affected the Treasury operation or that
the Treasury Department was to be called on to take any particular action
or position. As a matter of fact, the President would give us a list of
things, of taxes or any new legislation having to do with the administration
of any of the various agencies, for instance the Internal Revenue or the
Customs. Those matters were presented to me, our staff would get to work
and we would prepare insertions in the speech for the President. And those
were presented to him and they may have been edited or expanded or contracted
as they saw fit and then passed back, and if they were within keeping
of the ideas and the workability of the Treasury, they went into the
speech. Then after all the various agencies and departments had gone
through the same procedure, then the draft of the speech itself would
be read before a certain group, largely White House staff people. The
Attorney General and I were usually invited in for that, or, if it vitally
affected any agency, the head was called in, and we would go over it paragraph
by paragraph and whatever discussion was brought out, it was duly weighed
by the President. Sometimes some rather lively discussions came up.
HESS: Do you recall any of those offhand?
SNYDER: Well, frankly, I don't. If it's of particular importance, we
could go back and look through some of the old drafts of speeches and
see if there were any points that were controversial.
My greatest problem was largely generated by the economic advisors. They
would come up
with various projections and proposals and notions that didn't jibe with
the economic facts or some of the views, and it was largely in that area
where I experienced the few controversial interludes that arose.
HESS: Who were the principal economic advisors that you used to have
these slight disagreements with?
SNYDER: Well, it was largely with one man.
HESS: Who was that?
SNYDER: Keyserling, Leon Keyserling. Leon was quite a person. He came
down to Washington as a clerk for Senator [Robert F.] Wagner in the housing
job and by some strange process he became reported to be a great economist.
Unless he did it by night school work, or correspondence course, I could
never find where he actually prepared himself to
be a professional economist. But he certainly has become widely reputed
as a liberal economist.
HESS: What seemed and seems to be the main philosophy of his school of
SNYDER: Well, it was largely, I think oriented towards the labor situation.
More liberal legislation affecting the labor unions, and more pressure
put on higher wages without properly weighing the price structure, things
of that character. Housing -- he was always for low-priced housing regardless
of the economics involved.
HESS: When he would submit a suggestion to the President and to the White
House staff that ran counter to your views, what would be your next step?
How would you try to counter his actions?
SNYDER: Well, it was just a matter of trying to talk with him or some
of his people about it and give
our views, and if we were persuasive enough, sometimes they dropped them.
If we were not, then the matter had to go to the President himself, and
to his staff. Normally, I say normally, and I think that this is true,
my staff and his staff were able to iron out a great many of the matters
without making them become a presidential controversy. But, if we weren't
able to, then it fell on me to go to the President, or discuss my views
in an open meeting of the staff.
HESS: Do you recall an example of something that may have been taken
to the President for a high-level settlement?
SNYDER: Oh, I think it was probably the language regarding pressures
to be put on price structures and more liberal attitudes toward labor.
I always had a strong feeling that if you're going to get a balance there
you had to give a consideration to both sides. The laborer should be willing
to work for his wage and produce the greatest amount of productivity
for the wage that he earns, and I thought that it was incumbent upon the
manufacturer to price his product at a proper level, but I always felt
that he had a right to make a profit on what he did. That's where some
of the controversy came from. The figures that were produced by the Economic
Council, at times, didn't jibe with the figures that were available to
me. I had accountants, usually one of the large public accounting firms,
make a projection for me on the necessary profit of corporations. The
Economic Council had the notion that a wage raise with no assurance of
increased productivity always could be absorbed without a price raise,
that seemed to be their regular refrain almost anytime that we came up
with the matter.
HESS: On all matters, not just prices and wages,
but whose view do you think that the President was more closely attuned
to, yours or Mr. Keyserling?
SNYDER: Well, I wouldn't want to comment on that. We got along all right.
SNYDER: And, when the decision was made, that was the decision, and we
went along with it whether it was pro or con for the Treasury. Once it
was made then it became administration policy and the Treasury supported
HESS: Did you or did you not feel that there were certain White House
staff members who might have been a little more receptive to Leon Keyserling...
SNYDER: Oh, why, sure there were, yes.
HESS: Who would you think would try to write in some of his ideas into
the President's speeches?
SNYDER: I think that, without doubt, Clifford leaned in that direction,
because he had somewhat labeled himself a liberal. You know, it's very
difficult to measure what a man means by saying that he has liberal views
and he is for liberal ideas and so forth. Mr. Clifford, in running his
law office in later years, was not too liberal with his fees and I have
never found that at any time, to my knowledge, did he ever make special
concessions, or take as clients, any of the group of people that he was
so concerned about as a liberal in the Government. Somehow he confined
his clientele to the very rich who could pay extremely favorable fees.
HESS: Why do you think he tried to take upon himself the label of a liberal
during his White House days?
SNYDER: He thought it was popular, I'm sure, he felt that it was politically
HESS: Do you think he would place political expediency above principle,
more or less?
SNYDER: Oh, now, let's don't...
HESS: Okay, all on that subject?
SNYDER: I think so.
HESS: Mr. Snyder, one thing that will be of interest to historians would
be your recollections of Mr. Truman's reactions to the Korean invasion.
And on that subject, how long was it after he received the news, that
you saw him?
SNYDER: President Truman and I were out in Missouri at that time and
on Sunday morning he called me and told me that he had some very disturbing
news that there had been an invasion from the
north in Korea, and asked me to be ready to go back to Washington with
him that afternoon, that he would come by St. Louis and pick me up in
his plane. My records show that at 1:30 p.m. on June 25th that Mr. Truman
had the plane land in St. Louis and picked me up and we flew non-stop
on to Washington arriving here at 4:20 p.m. In the interim he had communicated
with Secretary Acheson and Secretary Johnson and told them to get together
the appropriate people to discuss this communiqué that they had
received and to explore what steps should be taken.
When we arrived at the airport, Secretary Acheson and Secretary Johnson
were there awaiting us.
HESS: One question. When you got on the plane in St. Louis, what seemed
to be his reaction? What seemed to be his mood at that time?
SNYDER: The President was tremendously disturbed
because he immediately said, "Of course, we don't know the depth of this.
We've had this communiqué that they moved in with force along the
border." This would be the first breach of an area of understanding between
the Communists and the free world as to encroachment on the independent
nations. The U.N. had been formed and was in operation and many members
of the smaller nations were really looking to the stronger nations to
protect them from encroachment, and this would, to him, probably be the
first test of just how strong the free world should stand against any
further infiltration of the independent countries that had associated
themselves with us in the United Nations. We, of course, had gone through
the attempted expansion of Communist influence into Turkey and Greece
right after the war, and had effectively held that back. But that was
just a general expansion of the Soviet Union in trying
to extend its lines as far into the west as it could following World
War II. Of course, we had set up NATO, and we had set up several other
organizations as protective forces to back up the U.N. in giving aid to
countries that were threatened with invasion, encroachment, or take over,
and this was the first time that an actual invasion had taken place. The
line dividing Korea into North and South Korea had been set up by agreement.
Governments had been established and had been in operation. The South
Korean government had become a Republic that was relying a great deal
on the United States for assistance, and we had quite a number of troops
in there under MacArthur's jurisdiction.
So, it was a matter of real concern to him and he was very anxious to
get to Washington and find the extent to which this invasion had taken
place and in what force. My recollection is that he was deeply concerned
HESS: Where did you land, Andrews Air Force Base?
SNYDER: No, we landed at National.
HESS: Who met the plane?
SNYDER: Well, there were several but the principal ones, I remember,
were Secretary Acheson and Secretary Johnson. We conferred briefly, and
then Mr. Truman discussed with them the question about where should they
meet, and he said, "Well, I think I should go directly to the Blair House,
and then you folks bring all the proper people there and bring such documents
as you have that will help us not only know the situation, the latest
communiqués, but also what other documents would help us in arriving
at a decision or what steps to take."
They advised of those they had already asked to be there -- who they
had already alerted -- and there was some adjustment in the people that
were coming. Mr. Truman and I proceeded to the Blair House and Secretary
Acheson and Johnson, as I recall, came on later in their own cars.
When we arrived at the Blair House some of the people had already arrived
and others came in and we went out on the patio to have our discussion.
It was in the summertime and there was a patio on the north side of the
Blair House -- the rear of the Blair House -- and we went out there to
have this discussion. My recollection is that we started right in with
the reading of the documents that some of them had brought. Secretary
Johnson brought the Defense Department's communiqués, and Secretary
Acheson brought the messages he had received from our ambassador in Seoul.
HESS: Who do you recall as being in attendance at the meeting?
SNYDER: Well, to my best recollection, Mr. Acheson
brought with him his Under Secretary James Webb, and Secretary Johnson,
as I recall, had Secretary [Thomas] Finletter, and probably [Frank] Pace.
He probably had Pace there, because of the fact that Finletter and Pace
had troops in South Korea -- Army and Air Force personnel, and also Secretary
of Navy Francis Matthews. And then Bradley was there and had with him,
as I recall, General [J. Lawton] Collins. Others present were: Air Force
Chief, General Hoyt Vandenburg; Chief of Naval Operations, Forrest Sherman;
Under Secretary of State Dean Rusk; Assistant Under Secretary of State,
John Hickerson; Ambassador at Large, Philip Jessup. Admiral [William D.]
Leahy was present because there was a question regarding what was to be
done with the naval forces, how they were to be deployed. Those were the
ones that I recall specifically being present.
HESS: Were there any of the people that were there that were opposed
to the final action that was taken?
SNYDER: None that I recall. There was a great deal of discussion back
and forth as to what the effect was going to be and what should be done,
and, of course, Dean Acheson said that by all means we should bring the
U.N. in on this. Whatever action that we took should be done under the
direction of the U.N. Number one, the decision was, something must be
done, some action -- some positive action -- must be taken and taken quickly.
Then the decision was made to put the whole operation under the U.N. Secretary
Acheson and the President got in touch with Warren Austin, our Ambassador
at the U.N. at that time, and one of the first things that took place
the next day was the U.N.'s action condemning the invasion.
The matter was brought before the Security
Council of the U.N. They called on all the invading troops to return
north of the 38th parallel immediately, and member countries
of the U.N. were called on to give every assistance possible, including
troops, to the protection of the sanctity of the South Korean area. It
was pointed out very positively that the peace of the world was threatened
by a strong power impressing its will on an independent, reluctant member
nation of the U.N. As I recall, the statement of the U.N. was to the effect
that the Communists had defied the order of the Security Council to preserve
international peace and security, and that they had violated the commitments
under that order.
Of course, there was great confusion, at the time, as to just where the
support and the equipment and the training that was behind this North
Korean force had come from. Of course, it subsequently developed that
and many of the tanks, and many of the instructors for the various arms,
particularly the air force, were Russian. Supplies, however, were being
very liberally moved in by the Chinese, so they were actually getting
assistance from both sides of the Communist world at that time. The more
advanced, technical assistance came from the Russians. .And Russia was
a member of the U.N., China wasn't. China hadn't developed to a point
where they could supply the type of equipment, and we quickly learned
that the airplanes were Russian manufactured.
HESS: Were any of the congressional leaders consulted about the position
that was taken?
SNYDER: My recollection is that the phones were busy about this matter.
Of course, the time was so short that...
HESS: There were no congressional leaders at Blair
House on Sunday evening. Is that correct?
SNYDER: No. No, there was not, because this was a matter of deciding
what should be done, what we could do, and then what our position was
as a member of the U.N.
Well, of course, that came up later, Dean Acheson advanced it early because
he evidently had been giving it some very serious thought. I considered
it a very, very inspired thought right at the beginning, the minute he
mentioned it, because it was broadening this thing out and kept it from
being just an action by the United States, although we did bear the brunt
of the protection of South Korea. But for history it was a United Nations
action and they had taken the position, although, as you know, we got
very little real assistance other than the initial Security Council action.
HESS: There have been those that have said that the
United States should not become involved in a land war in Asia.
SNYDER: I believe that, and still do. I just think that it's like quicksand.
And with their vast areas, the unlimited number of people, the general
attitude of the Asiatic mind toward death -- they could sacrifice a million
people and no harm's done to them if they can win -- and even if they
don't win, they've only accomplished what in the old days famine used
to do and reduce the population to a more manageable proportion. That
is so clear. Never, never has there been any successful invasion of any
part of Asia, except economically and by trade.
HESS: Do you recall...
SNYDER: They can absorb so much, and time means nothing to them.
HESS: Do you recall if somebody mentioned that on
Sunday night during the discussion?
SNYDER: Yes, that was very positively brought out that we do not want
to get involved in a conflict with China, and that at least on the face
of it it should be kept in the confines of a dispute between these two
countries, North and South Korea. That's why we didn't want to go beyond
a certain point, the Yalu River.
HESS: Was the possibility of Chinese intervention discussed at this meeting?
SNYDER: I don't think that it came up at this particular meeting. Because
we were still feeling our way out -- we just weren't too darn sure. But
a warning went up that we did not want to get involved with a principal
nation, don't you see -- it would just be devastating, financially, economically,
and manpower wise because you could
see how the Chinese could lose millions of their citizens, and it would
mean very little to them. You can see in the case of this little Vietnamese
war: We call it little and it is little when you think of world battles,
but there is no way of getting a toehold there, you never know when you've
won. There are little pockets of resistance. And that would have been
true throughout Asia. You never would have known when you had actually
conquered anything because the government would fragment and then it would
all come back and be Chinese again. And that is a part of our greatest
difficulty in trying to probe the Oriental mind. They just don't think
like we do. Their standards are different from ours. Their morality is
different, their principles are different, and then you add to that the
Communist theory of the end justifies the means, and you see pretty clearly
how impossible the situation is getting involved with an Asiatic country.
HESS: That pretty well cover the meeting on Sunday night?
SNYDER: I think so, as I recall, unless you've got some questions.
HESS: That's all on that. Now, as you know, in September of that year
General [George C.] Marshall replaced Louis Johnson as Secretary of Defense.
When was the decision made to replace Louis Johnson, do you recall?
SNYDER: I think along in August, it began to be discussed.
HESS: I have heard, I don't know if it's true or not, that it was even
discussed prior to the Korean invasion. Is that incorrect?
SNYDER: I don't want to say positively because I don't remember right
this minute. Louis Johnson
was a very aggressive person and he began to tread on the toes of quite
a number of people in the State Department, the Commerce Department, and
several of the others, and unfortunately, because of the very driving
person that he was he was creating an atmosphere in the Cabinet and in
the administration that President Truman did not want to develop. It began
to appear in the early summer and late spring of 1950 that there were
areas of argument and controversy and encroachment of jurisdiction. But
it was probably augmented by the Korean situation, as I recall.
HESS: What do you recall about the President's reactions when the Chinese
Communists crossed the Yalu River in late November that year?
SNYDER: Well, it was pretty shocking because it was then clearly evident
that the Chinese were pouring great strength behind it, and any move that
we made to go beyond the Yalu River then
appeared to be a threat of invading the soil of a great power. There
was a great deal of controversy about bombing beyond the Yalu River. That
is a matter that I will have to leave to the military experts. In my visits
with General MacArthur in November of 1949, the General felt that given
the proper forces that they could hold the situation. There had been some
rumblings and so forth, this wasn't just overnight, although General MacArthur
had not given any imminent danger signals. The real problem came from
airplanes flying way back inside the Chinese borders beyond North Korea.
And so that only came to light after they actually started their invasion,
don't you see.
HESS: Is it true that in their meeting at Wake Island on October 15,
1950 that General MacArthur told President Truman that in his best opinion
the Chinese Communists would not invade?
SNYDER: That is my understanding, I was not there, but I was told that
when they came back.
HESS: By whom? President Truman?
SNYDER: I'm pretty sure it was.
HESS: What do you recall about the events that surrounded the...
SNYDER: You see, when they got back I talked with quite a number of them,
particularly General [Harry H.] Vaughan who was along, but I was given
to understand that MacArthur had assured Mr. Truman that there was not
any real danger of the Chinese invading as a Chinese army. They thought
that there might be some danger of the so-called volunteer Chinese units
becoming involved in fighting.
HESS Tell me just a little bit more about the trip that you took to see
the General. Who sent you
and just exactly what was the mission?
SNYDER: Well, that will take some time, it really should be the subject
of one of our interviews.
HESS: All right.
SNYDER: Actually, the official mission was to inspect Coast Guard installations.
My trip was really three-fold. It was based, however, on the visit to
General MacArthur to review and check up on the assistance that the Treasury
had rendered to General MacArthur in setting up tax reforms, monetary
assistance, schools reforms and I think that could well be a topic for
HESS: What time was that trip? Do you recall offhand?
SNYDER: If you can cut it off just a minute I can tell you.
HESS: All right.
SNYDER: In answer to inquiry about when that trip was made, I left Washington
on November 11, 1949, and was visiting in Tokyo from November 15 through
the 21st. I was there about a week. I was the houseguest of General MacArthur
during that period. So we'll take that matter up then unless you have
a closing question that you want to ask.
HESS: Well, just one question. You said that it was a three-fold mission?
SNYDER: One of the missions was to check with the Coast Guard and our
commitment for weather observation (Loran) that the Coast Guard was charged
with in operating those outposts for inter-ocean travel. We had these
weather stations all over Alaska, Japan, and in the Philippines, Wake
Island, places of that sort. And I took with me the Commander of the Coast
Guard Admiral [Merlin] O'Neill and a staff of his
officers. One of our objectives was to check all of those operations
of the Coast Guard in those areas. Another was to consult with the Philippine
government about a surplus property problem that had developed in the
south seas there which was operating out of Manila, and the other was
to spend time with General MacArthur reviewing these various operations
that the Treasury had sent a taskforce over to help him accomplish. So
that was the three-fold purpose of the trip. But I repeat: The official
mission was to check Coast Guard installations.
HESS: Fine. Let's discuss that the next time and then move on into the
events surrounding the dismissal of General MacArthur and make that our
next interview. Will that be all right?
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