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.,
February 1, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Snyder Oral History Transcripts]



Oral History Interview with
John W. Snyder

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

[246]
HESS: Mr. Snyder has indicated that he has the draft of a speech that he has been asked to give. Would you tell me about that sir and then we'll just read it right into the record.

SNYDER: Well, I don't know whether that this would be an appropriate part of our script that we are working on, Mr. Hess, but it is a result of an invitation that the Toledo, Ohio Rotary Club has extended to me to make a talk to them. I was president of that club last year, as you know, and we had some pretty good programs but that's what makes me even more hesitant about accepting this. I left with a very good record of producing good programs; I had great reluctance in undertaking a speech myself, but they have asked me to tell them something of my experiences and to crowd seventy-three years of life into a thirty

[247]

minute talk, has great difficulties as you can well imagine.

HESS: Especially an eventful life.

SNYDER: Well, thank you. I'll give this little talk here and we'll decide whether or not it should go in the record later.

HESS: If you want to take it out or edit it later, we can do that.

SNYDER: Thank you.

President Jules, Rotarians, ladies and gentlemen:

I hope that all of you are as pleased to see me as I am to see all of you.

In the arrangement for this program, President Jules, I hope that the program committee did not consult you or obtain your approval. I want you to have someone that you can blame.

The committee has asked me to tell you some

[248]

of my experiences in life. This I am going to try to do.

It may turn out to be one of the most profitable hours you have ever spent--not through learning how to do things, but how they should not be done.

Having been born of indulgent parents in a thriving city of 10,000 people down in Arkansas, I began my public career at the age of seven delivering papers for the Jonesboro Evening Sun. After two years of outstanding performance in throwing the daily into undiscoverable places, I had amassed sufficient savings to make the down payment on a set of encyclopedia. This investment plus a family subscription to National Geographic laid the basis for an avid curiosity and an intense desire to travel.

In 1904 I abandoned the news world when my father gave me a two weeks trip to the St. Louis World Fair. It was while drinking in the marvels

[249]

of electric lights, telephones, transcontinental trains and the largest Ferris wheel in the world, that I became imbued with the ambition to become an electrical worker. I also got the notion that you learned a lot traveling.

This desire to learn something about electricity took root and during my early youth it was uppermost in my mind while directing neighborhood wild west shows, organizing boys' clubs, being confirmed in the Episcopal Church, starting a high school newspaper, and acquiring a secondary education in Jonesboro.

I then went to Vanderbilt University to study electrical engineering. My first serious step in college was to join the A.T.O. fraternity, and learn more about the lasting qualities of friendship.

My formal education, unfortunately, was interrupted by World War I. After receiving a commission as a second lieutenant, Field Artillery, in the

[250]

Reserve Corps at the first Officers Training Camp at Fort Logan H. Roots, Arkansas, I used uncanny foresight in permitting myself to be assigned to the 32nd Division, composed of Michigan and Wisconsin troops. In this manner, I opened up a wide horizon, unfettered by facts of my unmilitary background, in which to launch my military career.

My first steps forward were to accept assignment to the Headquarters Staff of the 57th Field Artillery Brigade, to be appointed aide to General G. LeRoy Irwin, accept promotion to first lieutenant and then go to France to school to learn about the French and their artillery materiel. When our brigade was in training at Coetquidan I was made Brigade Operations Officer and was promoted to captain. About that time it was decided by G.H.Q. that our outfit might be useful at the front. Well, we were. In May 1918, we began battling our way through five sectors

[251]

ending up on Armistice Day as the Iron Brigade of the Red Arrow Division.

Yes, I could tell you many harrowing experiences, but one may suffice to give you the feel of what being under fire in the front line can really do to separate the men from the boys.

This has long been a vivid memory. The instance occurred while our artillery was supporting the 22nd Division Infantry at Montfaucon in the Muese-Argonne offensive in October, 1918. We had just taken over a highly developed German corps position and were under heavy bomb and artillery fire of the enemy. I was advised suddenly by my orderly, Hayes, that a shell had struck our elephant-iron mess shack, and that Leo, our Detroit Statler Hotel chef, was inside preparing the evening mess. I was stunned--Leo, our cook, was beloved by all. I went at once to see what could be done. The smoke

[252]

and dust of the shell explosion was curling out of a huge gap in the roof. When I arrived at the battered door and took one look in, I was sickened by what I saw. I called for a flash as the lights had been knocked out. With the aid of the flash, a gory sight was revealed. What appeared to be blood, brains, and shattered body lay before me--I took a firm grip on myself--and pushed in. Then the real shock came--it wasn't Leo--the shell had smashed a case of canned tomatoes.

During the war, I made three friends who have remained so to this day, Gene Tunney, Eddie Rickenbacker and Dwight Eisenhower.

Following the war, after serving some months in Germany in the Army of Occupation, I returned home to find that my uncle, Judge E. A. Rolfe, had decided that I should go to work in his little country bank in Forrest City, Arkansas.

[253]

This was a devastating blow to my goal of a place in the development of electricity. However, again grasping at the next rung on the ladder, fortified by my training in electrical engineering, and my experience in World War I, I decided to please my uncle and spend a few months in banking.

A great comfort to me in this readjustment period was my marriage to Miss Evlyn Cook. She remained a wonderful companion of mine throughout her life.

Well, being a banker wasn't exactly what I expected. After learning to sweep out, open the mail, post the books, make change and to try to collect some old loans, I was finally given a chance to actually make a small loan. About then, I joined my first Rotary Club.

In a few years I moved to Missouri.

It was during this period that my daughter, Drucie, was born. She has been my closest friend,

[254]

my most helpful consultant and my severest critic.

I failed to tell you that after I returned to civilian life, the War Department asked me to accept a commission in the Field Artillery Reserve. I did and was made colonel. In 1928 at Fort Riley, Kansas, a friendship was formed that completely reoriented my life seventeen years later. I met Colonel Harry S. Truman. We have been the closest of friends ever since.

In 1930, the first wave of bank failures swept the country. I suddenly found myself working for the Insolvent Division of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency of the United States Treasury, which at that time was under Andrew Mellon.

Later in 1932, I was placed in charge of several closed National banks in and around St. Louis--six in time. This was a period in which I was given an opportunity to learn how banks should not be run.

[255]

I had one bank in St. Louis that had been about everything in the world except being a bank. It was operating a trunk factory, a chain of sawmills in Arkansas, a truck body plant, a chain of forty-three small general merchandise stores in four states, three small banks in three states, a life insurance company and a few other enterprises. The examiners once told me that they always expected to find the assets in the elevator, passing between the bank on the ground floor and the insurance company on the fifth.

It was during this period that I received an invaluable lesson in diplomacy. In the fall of 1933, a group of our top financial leaders in St. Louis decided that the Grand National Bank, which was in my hands for reorganization, should be opened promptly in the interest of the community, banking circles, the economy

[256]

and the reputation of the Republican Party. They did not wish to talk with any intermediaries, but desired to have a visit with President Roosevelt himself to lay their matters before him. I promptly agreed to try to arrange such a conference. Bill Woodin was Secretary of the Treasury at the time. He quickly went along with the plan and made the appointment, with the condition, however, that I should accompany the group.

All the way to Washington I heard nothing but the plans to get F.D.R. told, and demand speedy action on the opening of the bank. Our appointment was for 11 a.m. so we went almost immediately from the train to the Treasury to join Secretary Woodin. He, however, thought it unnecessary for him to go as I had all the necessary information. We arrived at the White House, and in due course, were shown in to see the President.

[257]

His greeting was most cordial. He promptly and warmly thanked the busy gentlemen from St. Louis for coming to tell of conditions in their area. He assured them that he considered the Mississippi Valley to be the heart of the economic strength of the Nation, that leaders like them would be the real keys that would open up the restoration of confidence in the people of the Nation. In the midst of this though, Louis Howe came in and whispered to the President.

He promptly frowned, shook his head, and then took the group into his confidence. An urgent matter of national importance had just come up requiring his immediate attention. He regretted to curtail their appointment, was most grateful for their kindness in coming to see him and pressed them to come again, when they could really let their hair down. Louie Howe almost pushed them out the side door.

[258]

On the way back to the Treasury, all I could hear was praise of F.D.R.'s personality, his great interest in the St. Louis area and how well he looked--not one word had been said about the bank, it seemed to have been forgotten.

Then to the First National Bank in St. Louis, but not for long--Jesse Jones recruited me to run the St. Louis Agency of the RFC in making stabilizing loans to banks and industry.

From 1936 to 1940, I ran the RFC in St. Louis and became president of the Missouri Athletic Club.

A funny thing happened when I again was headed for the bank in 1940; yes, once more, Mr. Jones called me to Washington. This time to help set up the Defense Plant Corporation, a subsidiary of the RFC. This job which, according to Mr. Jones, was supposed to last two or three months stretched into four years. As most of you know, I was made head of DPC, and

[259]

during my tenure we made commitments to finance the construction and equipment of over eleven billion dollars in defense plants, including the jeep plant here.

The defense plants that DPC financed were often huge, frequently complicated sometimes mysterious. While inspecting a synthetic rubber plant, Senator Truman, chairman of the Truman Committee, and I were walking between the styrene plant, which cost two and a half million dollars, toward a copolymer plant, which cost five million. We passed a ditch in which a six-inch pipe was laid. "What's that?" asked Senator Truman. I told him the pipe took the product of the first plant to the second. "Cover it up quickly," he said. "Don't let the taxpayers see how little we're getting out of such a big investment."

It was in early 1940 that I learned an important principle of politics. When the time for the Democratic convention approached, Jim Farley was

[260]

much opposed to the third term. F.D.R. was adamant. Farley took a swing around the country to test the sentiment of the voters. When he returned, Jesse Jones and I had him to lunch and asked what he had learned. His reply was: "It was simple. There are still more poor people than rich people."

In 1943 I went back to the bank to stay. I was made executive vice president. At last I was settled! During the first six months in St. Louis, Mr. Jones kept asking me to come back to help in first one matter, then another. He did this under an agreement with Walter Smith, president of the First National, which Jones called a fifty-fifty deal. Walter finally called the plan to a halt when he found that to Jones, fifty-fifty meant one horse--one rabbit. The horse, of course, being Jesse's.

In the early part of 1945 the board of directors selected me for Walter's place as

[261]

president of the bank, effective July 1, 1945. Walter was to become chairman. My banking career, based on my electrical engineering training was assured. I was really fixed for life now!

In March 1945, after President Roosevelt returned from Yalta he called me to Washington to ask me to come back and run the Import-Export Bank. I begged off as I had plans to be president of the bank in St. Louis. While visiting I asked how things went in Yalta. He replied: "I can tell you in three words--Malta, Yalta, Vodka."

The United States banks with business transactions in Mexico had been experiencing considerable difficulty with multiple exchange rates in closing export and import transactions.

We finally arranged joint session of U.S.-Mexican bankers in Mexico City in early April of 1945 to try to work out satisfactory agreements. The meetings were highly successful.

[262]

To celebrate the outcome, Floyd Ransom gave a large luncheon at his country home. While seated at the table discussing F.D.R.'s health with A. P. Giannini, the butler came in to announce the death of President Roosevelt. A short time later a call came in saying that Mr. Truman wanted to talk with me that evening. Harold Helm of Chemical Bank in New York was with me in my room at the Reforma Hotel when the call came. Its purport was that the President would like for me to come to Washington as soon as possible. A day or two later, I was appointed Federal Loan Administrator. President Truman's first appointment.

Frankly, I resisted this appointment vigorously--I wanted to stay with the bank in the position I had worked so long and so hard to obtain. President Truman, however was insistent and finally Jimmie Byrnes said: "Harry, remember who you are now. Draft him!" This was before

[263]

they started burning draft cards.

And with that my private banking hopes went out the window.

I succeeded Fred Vinson as Federal Loan Administrator. My program, which I devised quickly, was to start converting to peace the work I had done for defense. On my request Congress authorized me to merge all the defense subsidiaries into the RFC, the parent company, and to begin selling the properties to the private industries, which held options to buy them as defense requirements were completed. I then began to work out plans between the RFC and the banks to finance the needs for reconversion, and, at the same time, we devised a plan to help the small businessman to switch from war to peace.

These programs were well under way when ten weeks after taking office, the President nominated me for director of OWMR, Office of War

[264]

Mobilization and Reconversion, another job I vigorously resisted.

During the twelve months that I was director of OWMR, the second job I took over from Fred Vinson, I had about as hectic a time as any in my life.

However, in spite of the hemming and hawing, the pushing and pulling, we managed to convert a great section of the economy from a war to a peacetime status, in much less time than had been prophesied on V-E Day.

I was able to report on the day that I left OWMR, June 24, 1946, that the Nation's industries had been largely reconverted, and the mightiest armed forces ever assembled had been demobilized in accordance with the demands of the people and the Congress. Industry was well on its way to full production, providing jobs and prosperity not only for the demobilized soldiers, sailors and airmen, but for all citizens.

[265]

The dire prediction of 8,000,000 unemployed never developed. The rapidity of the reconversion, I attributed at the time was largely due to the "ingenuity and the drive" of the American people. In my last OWMR report, the records showed that more Americans were working, producing more, earning more and consuming more than ever before in our economic history. This was accomplished within nine months after V-J Day, at which time the papers of that day, showed that some economic prognosticators foresaw a widespread industrial and business recession as an aftermath of the war. It had been a trying year.

A happy memory of that period, however, was the opportunity I had, as director of OWMR, to steer the G.I. bill through Congress. This bill provided, among other things, for G.I. education. Without doubt, the eager, serious manner in which the G.I.'s took advantage of this

[266]

opportunity, completely revitalized higher education in this country. As the years go by, I have appreciated, more and more, how significant the provisions in this bill had been in the advancement of higher education in the United States.

And then for the third time, I succeeded Fred Vinson, who had been named Chief Justice, when President Truman sent my nomination as Secretary of the Treasury to the Senate. On June 25, 1946, I became the first native-born Arkansan to become a member of any President's Cabinet. A delightful memento of the occasion is an original Berryman cartoon which was published in the Evening Star. It depicted President Truman at his desk with me sitting with a brief case on my lap, on which was lettered (1) Federal Loan Administrator (scratched out) (2) OWMR (scratched out) (3) Secretary

[267]

of the Treasury. The President was saying, "John, did you ever study law?"

It definitely was a delightful transition from the maelstrom of OWMR to the surface quiet of supervising the work of the one hundred twenty thousand individual thinking men and women in the Treasury.

It has been most difficult to condense into a few paragraphs the events of a full and active life. It now becomes even more so when I attempt to summarize nearly seven years as chief administrator of the Treasury. It takes fifteen minutes to simply read the listing of the duties and responsibilities assigned to the Secretary of the Treasury, which doesn't even mention, parties, receptions, traveling around the world, congressional hearings or countless other demands that go with public life in Washington.

When I entered the Treasury the national debt was around two hundred and eighty billion dollars.

[268]
One of my predecessors, Albert Gallatin, probably summed up the alpha and the omega of Treasury administration in two statements attributed to him. One made at the time he assumed his post, and the other some years later. The first was: "The affairs of Government finance can be only conducted by cool reasoning and the lessons of experience." The second, said much later: "Never has a man been so oppressed by the financial burdens of his nation as am I this night. I know not how to face the morrow's problems." At that time the national debt totaled eighty million dollars.

The Treasury is the business agent of the Government. Its administration must be flexible, informed, capable and versatile.

One day it is planning legislation to raise revenues--the next, devising ways of collecting

[269]
the levies. It finds itself buried in technicalities of management of the debt through the selection of proper forms of investments that offer a balanced supply of securities to the public. The Treasury prints your money, your postage stamps, your revenue stamps, your bonds; it mints your coins; it provides protection to the President and his family, it supervises narcotics controls; it supervises national banks, it collects customs, it administers the fiscal responsibilities of the Government, it manages the public debt, and it represents the administration in its international fiscal and monetary participations. It does a multitude of things in order to make the operations of the Government run more smoothly.

Whole volumes have been written about its various functions; whole speeches are made about single facets.

We have been able to touch, therefore, only some of the highlights here.

[270]
Working for the Government offers many opportunities to serve your country and also to enjoy many opportunities to advance your own knowledge and contacts. It has been my privilege to know every President personally, beginning with President Wilson, except Presidents Harding and Coolidge. I stood with President Wilson on the balcony of the Crillon Hotel in Paris to watch part of the victory parade in 1919; I first met President Hoover in Paris in 1919, we remained friends until his death. I became well acquainted with President Roosevelt during his time in office; President Truman has been a close friend since 1928; I met President Eisenhower in 1918 in France, we continue as friends; President Kennedy, I met through his father when he first came to Washington as a young Congressman. Our present President, Mr. Johnson, I have known since the late thirties.

[271]
One also meets many of the leaders of foreign lands. Today, I shall tell only of one.

In January, 1953, Winston Churchill came over to extend President Truman good wishes as he was preparing to leave office. At a dinner at the White House, I shall always recall his remarks when he learned that none of Truman's Cabinet intended to continue in Government. He forcefully said, "You Americans are so wasteful. We have a better system. We keep our displaced Cabinet members in Parliament to have their valuable experiences available when needed. Think of the waste of your system." As it turned out, however, several of those who were there that evening have been called in, from time to time, for consultations.

My residence in Toledo is known to most of you. I have enjoyed my life here and will always treasure my experiences and the many

[272]
friends made here. Outstanding in my memory will be the honors you have bestowed upon me in an Honorary Degree at Toledo University, a 33 in the Masonic Order, and culminating in my election as president of your Rotary Club.

In closing, I want to leave with you one or two observations.

This is a great country in which we live. Its history is one replete with the courage, the vision, the ingenuity, the drive, the integrity and the faith of its citizens.

Our country's people have faced moments of triumph, moments of doubt, moments of discouragement, moments of despair. But through it all, this country has offered its citizens the greatest opportunities to grow, to improve, to create, to prosper, to share, of any country in the world's history.

Within my lifetime, we have gone from

[273]
cranking telephones to interplanetary communications; from five-day transcontinental train trips to four hours in the air; from stereopticon views to Telestar world T.V.; from homeopathic remedies to heart transplants.

In these present years, we doubtlessly feel at times that our country is overcommiting its resources in its efforts to fulfill its inherited international leadership.

But truly, it's a wonderful country; it's our country! One we can live for, one we can work for, and one, when our security is threatened, we must fight for.

Thanks for inviting me here today.

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Snyder Oral History Transcripts]