Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum


Oral History Interview with
Dr. John R. Steelman

Commissioner of conciliation, U.S. Conciliation Service, 1934-36, director, 1937-44; Special Assistant to the President, 1945-46; The Assistant to the President, 1946-53. Also served as Director of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 1946; Chairman of the President's Scientific Research Board, 1946-47; Acting Chairman of the National Security Resources Board, 1948-50; and Acting Director of Defense Mobilization, 1952.

Naples, Florida
February 28 | February 29 | and March 1, 1996
by Niel M. Johnson

See Also January 15, 1963 interview.

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 May, 1999
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed| Additional Steelman Oral History Transcriptst]



Oral History Interview with
Dr. John R. Steelman

Naples, Florida
February 28, 1996
by Niel M. Johnson

 

[1]

JOHNSON: It's a real pleasure, of course, to be here to visit with Dr. Steelman.*

Now Dr. Steelman, I'm going to cover just a little bit of your family background. First of all I want to check the spelling of your father's name. I have it here on a biographical sheet. How did they spell that?

STEELMAN: Plez.

JOHNSON: Plez. Cydney.

STEELMAN: P.C.

JOHNSON: Unusual names. And Martha Ann Richardson Steelman was your mother.

STEELMAN: Right.

*Also present for this interview were Dr. Steelman's wife, Ellen, and his stepson, Robert Hart.

 

[2]

JOHNSON: I believe, looking at your genealogy folder in your papers, that you had an ancestor who was with the New Sweden Colony in New Jersey and Delaware. Swedish ancestry. Is that correct?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Do you happen to know the name of that Swedish ancestor?

STEELMAN: No, I don't recall.

JOHNSON: But it could have been Stohlman for instance. Stohl is Steel in Swedish, and if they Americanized the word Stohl, that would have been Steel, so that...

STEELMAN: Maybe that's the way it happened.

JOHNSON: Maybe that's the way Steelman came about, the name.

Do you want to remind us where you were born and when?

STEELMAN: Yes, Thornton, Arkansas, June 23, 1900.

JOHNSON: It says here your father was a farmer, but wasn't he also a logger?

 

[3]

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did both, farming and logging. How many brothers and sisters did you have?

STEELMAN: Five or six, I've forgotten exactly.

JOHNSON: Apparently, you were one of five children. How many brothers and how many sisters?

STEELMAN: I just had one sister.

JOHNSON: One sister and three brothers. Do you want to give me their first names?

STEELMAN: Let's see, Joel, Horace and Frank and P.C. (Ples).

JOHNSON: The sister, what was the sister's name?

STEELMAN: Annie.

JOHNSON: Were you the oldest, middle, or youngest?

STEELMAN: Oldest.

JOHNSON: How many of the others got a college education, got a bachelor's degree for instance?

STEELMAN: I don't think any of them did.

JOHNSON: Did any of them go to college?

 

[4]

STEELMAN: I don't believe so:

JOHNSON: They did not attend college, but you did.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: What motivated you to become so well-educated?

STEELMAN: Well, I don't know, except I remember my father said "If you'll outwork everybody there, wherever you go, you'll come out on top." I always remembered that and so it got me right into the White House. Everywhere I went, I out-worked everybody else who was there, and it took me into the White House.

JOHNSON: When did you get the idea that you might end up in the White House?

STEELMAN: I'm not sure when I first got that idea.

JOHNSON: Well, you went to work for Miss [Frances] Perkins but, of course, that wasn't in the White House, that was in the Labor Department.

STEELMAN: I was offered the job as Secretary of Labor. Some college wanted her to come and be president and she wanted to go, and the President said he would let her go if she could find somebody to take her place

 

[5]

that he liked. She said, "Well, how about this Dr. Steelman? Last week he was a mediator out in the field and last week Steelman settled a strike every day for seven days in a row, in a different State of the Union." The only thing is, I didn't get any sleep, you see.

JOHNSON: That was amazing.

STEELMAN: But that was just something that I did by accident in a way, because it usually takes a week to settle one strike, instead of seven.

STEELMAN: Okay, if we can back up a little bit, I see you identified yourself as a Methodist, and a 32nd Degree Mason. Of course, Truman was a Baptist and a Mason, in fact, Grand Master of Missouri in 1940. Truman said by the age of twelve he had read the family Bible twice through. He said he was kind of a student of the Bible and he said the Masonic experience made him even more familiar with the Bible. He seemed to get inspiration from it. This was an important source for his sense of morality. Would you identify yourself as being inspired by the Bible like Truman claimed he was?

STEELMAN: Yes, I think so.

 

[6]

Once, I was a log scaler down in the swamps and one morning I went out and jumped up on a wagon and I had my scale stick with me. But I'd forgotten my book, so I said to the driver, "You go ahead and I'll catch the next cart."

So he went down across the railroad and lightning struck and killed the man and the mules. So, then I thought, "Well, the Lord must have had some reason for making me miss that particular cart." I went to Henderson Brown College, which was a Methodist school, and that's how I came to be a Methodist.

JOHNSON: As a youngster, did you attend Sunday School or did the family have any involvement with the Church at all?

STEELMAN: Not particularly, as I recall at home.

JOHNSON: So, at Henderson Brown College, this was influential.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Anyone in particular there at Henderson Brown that might have influenced your thinking or your sense of duty or morality?

 

[7]

STEELMAN: There's this old professor, Dr. Foster, who had a lot of influence on me. I studied Sociology under him, and he said, "If you want to understand people, go out and mix with them in order to get firsthand information." So, that had a lot of influence on me.

JOHNSON: Dr. Foster. Do you remember his first name?

STEELMAN: No, I don't.

JOHNSON: But he was a most influential professor that you had in your undergraduate work.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: So you did go out to mix with people.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Henderson Brown is located in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, I see.

You became a Mason later on, I suppose.

STEELMAN: Yes, I've forgotten just when.

JOHNSON: But at Henderson Brown, that is where you got some of these ideas about what you should do in the future, what your duties perhaps should be and that sort of thing?

 

[8]

STEELMAN: And at Vanderbilt University. I went to Vanderbilt on a scholarship, and at Vanderbilt I had seven paying jobs. I made more money than the full-time professors. I was in charge of the dormitories, I was in charge of the university's libraries, and I was in charge of the cafeteria.

I remember the old Chancellor, old Chancellor Kirkland, said, "You're the first one that ever had the university's cafeteria in the black. How do you do it?" I said, "Well, I've got a good manager, and we serve good food. We have good prices." I said, "We not only serve college students, but we serve half of North Ashford." I said, "We serve 6,000 meals a day."

JOHNSON: Six thousand meals a day at Vanderbilt?

STEELMAN: Yes. So the old Chancellor. said, "Well, good for you."

I remember at one time there was a boy who kept violating some rule of the house in one of the dormitories and I said, "What time do you have?" And he said, "Three o'clock." I said, "Well, anytime between now and four, you check out of this building or I'll come up and throw you out the third story window." So he said, "You don't know who you're talking to." He

 

[9]

said, "My father is on the Board of Trustees of this University and he's president of American National Bank. I'm going over and see Chancellor Kirkland."

So, he went over and the Chancellor was almost ready to leave, so the secretary let him in, and he went in and talked to the Chancellor, and the Chancellor said, "Now, I have nothing to do with the dormitories." He said, "Mr. Steelman is in charge, and if I went in one of the dormitories and Steelman told me to get out, I would get, so I guess you better get."

So, this boy came back and told his roommate and the roommate told me. He thought it was funny.

JOHNSON: Did you take any business courses while either in undergraduate or graduate school?

STEELMAN: Yes, I'm sure I did; I've forgotten what, but I did.

JOHNSON: So that might have helped a little bit in your business.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: You were kind of an entrepreneur there in graduate school. So you got your scholarship from Henderson

 

[10]

Brown, and you were one of their outstanding students, I suppose.

STEELMAN: Yes, I had a scholarship to Harvard, and I went to Harvard. But I just stayed there one year, because they did not give a doctor's degree in sociology at the time. So, they sent me down to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

JOHNSON: Oh, you went to Harvard before you got your doctorate from North Carolina?

STEELMAN: Yes. At Harvard they didn't give a doctorate in sociology at the time. A year or two later they did get Dr. Sorokian from some university out west and they started giving it. So, they said, "Go to Chapel Hill, North Carolina." I said, "Why should I go there, I've never heard of it." They said, "Well, Dr. [Howard] Odum is there." They said, "You know, for graduate work the thing that you look at is not the university as such, but the department."

JOHNSON: Okay, you're mentioning Dr. Odum.

STEELMAN: Yes, he was the head of the Sociology Department at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

 

[11]

JOHNSON: He was sort of your mentor then?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: And he kind of inspired you to do good work?

STEELMAN: He did. And so I wanted to be a teacher, a college professor, and I did. I took a job at Alabama College, at Montevalla, Alabama. Dr. Odum said, "I've got a place we want you to go. I want you to teach at Montevalla, Alabama." And I said, "Never heard of it, why should I go there." He said, "Because the president is O.C. Carmichael, and Carmichael is the type of man who's going to go places and he'll take you with him."

So, sure enough, I hadn't been there long until Carmichael was made president of Vanderbilt University.

JOHNSON: In the meantime, you'd done your dissertation on mob violence in the South I see.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: In your research did you go to places where there had been lynching?

STEELMAN: Yes, and interviewed people and so forth.

 

[12]

JOHNSON: Did you interview people who were in the mobs?

STEELMAN: Yes, a lot of times.

JOHNSON: Did they ever express any regret for being part of a mob?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think they did. No, any black man who committed a crime, they'd like to string him up.

JOHNSON: Yes, before he even had a fair trial.

STEELMAN: Yes, no trial. They'd just hang him.

JOHNSON: At this point you were, of course, planning to be a professor, planning to teach in college.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you ever have any problem dealing with these people that you were interviewing for your dissertation? Because you were from Arkansas and all that, you were not an outsider? Is that the way they felt?

STEELMAN: Yes. That's right, yes.

JOHNSON: You were not a Yankee?

 

[13]

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: Well, what would have been their attitude if you'd have been from the Northeast, for instance, a Yankee?

STEELMAN: I don't know. They wouldn't have liked it: they wouldn't have cooperated with me.

JOHNSON: Well, what did you learn from that? What did that dissertation research and study, what did that tell you? What did that teach you?

STEELMAN: I don't know.

JOHNSON: Did it teach you any ways to prevent it? Were you interested in prevention?

STEELMAN: Yes. Yes, sir.

JOHNSON: I think you have identified yourself as a Republican or Independent, not as a Democrat.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: In the 1920s, were you voting Republican in...

STEELMAN: Yes, my father came from the mountainous section of North Carolina and during the Civil War that part of the mountainous section of North Carolina didn't secede

 

[14]

from the Union, didn't become a part of the South. So, my father was a Republican and so I called myself a Republican.

JOHNSON: There weren't many of them in Conway, Arkansas, I suppose.

STEELMAN: No, not many.

JOHNSON: Did you advertise the fact that you were Republican, or did you kind of keep it secret?

STEELMAN: I don't remember saying anything in particular about it.

JOHNSON: Did you do anything politically, other than vote?

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: They didn't have any precinct organizations or ward organizations, or anything like that?

STEELMAN: I was teaching at Alabama College in Montevalla, Alabama. I was class advisor for four years and my class came up for graduation, and so that put me more or less in charge of the commencement program. I thought Secretary Perkins, who was Secretary of Labor, might like to make a speech in the South, so I got Dr.

 

[15]

Carmichael to invite her to become our speaker, and she accepted.

So she came down and made the address. So, there were some boys -- a committee of strikers from the steel mills up in Birmingham, a committee of strikers -- and they wanted to talk to her. She wasn't supposed to leave until 5 o'clock in the afternoon, so she interviewed these boys, and then when they left, I asked her, "Did they tell you they have the national highway blockaded?"

She said, "Oh, no, you couldn't do that."

I said, "Yes, they did." I said, "Did they tell you they shoot up the mountainside and shoot holes in the water tanks and the gasoline tanks?" "No," she said, "I can't believe it." She said, "How do you know these things?" I said, "Well, I always like to have something interesting to tell my students, so I wonder around over weekends. I go up to the picket line and I talk to the strikers and then they let me through and I talk to the manager."

So, Miss Perkins said, "You ought to come up to Washington and help us settle some of these strikes." I thought she was just talking. Sure enough I get a wire saying could I come to Washington at Government

 

[16]

expense to discuss work in the U.S. Conciliation Service.

JOHNSON: You had been teaching from 1928, I believe. So it was in 1934 when you met Miss Perkins?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: In the meantime, of course, we had a stock market crash and the beginning of a great depression. Did they reduce faculty? Did the student enrollment down there drop off as a result of the Depression?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so.

JOHNSON: Did you take a pay cut?

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: You didn't feel any of the negative effects of the Depression?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so.

JOHNSON: At that time, who were you blaming for the Depression? Did you feel that Hoover had a responsibility for the Depression, or that he could have done more as President? What was your feeling about Hoover as a President at that time?

 

[17]

STEELMAN: Oh, I'm not sure. I recall one time Truman had a memorandum from some faculty members, who had been to a meeting over in Hot Springs, Virginia, and they said, "After every war there's a Depression, and this was the greatest war, therefore, look out for the greatest Depression." Truman showed me that memo, and said, "What do you think?" I said, "Mr. President, historically they're true: after every war there's a depression, but it doesn't make any sense." I said, "All we need to do is get to work."

Well, Truman said, "That sounds good. He said, "you see that we don't have a depression," and added, "I'm always looking for something easy to give you to do."

So, I sent for the businessmen, presidents of big corporations, and I said, "I understand you fellows are expecting a big depression." They said, "Yes." I said, "You don't want one do you?" "Oh, God, no." I said, "Well, you may be interested to know I have instructions to see that you don't have one." So I said, "What I want you to do is go home and start producing goods so fast that they'll be running out of our ears." And I said, "I can take price controls off, with the understanding that you won't be hoggish."

 

[18]

JOHNSON: Now, that's after World War II.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Can we go back to the beginning of the Depression years. In 1932 when Roosevelt was elected President, do you recall if you voted for Roosevelt in that election?

STEELMAN: I think I did.

JOHNSON: Were you looking for a change?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you expect the Federal Government to get more involved then in rescuing the economy?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Were the banks already closed down in Alabama? Do you remember banks closing and farmers going bankrupt, or being foreclosed on?

STEELMAN: Yes, that's right. You know the Federal Reserve is not under the President, it's under the Congress. But I remember going in one morning and saying to Truman, "Mr. President I just did a terrible thing, I

 

[19]

think you may hear about it and I ought to tell you." He said, "What's that?" I said, "I fired Marriner Eccles, the head of the Federal Reserve."

He said, "Oh, what did you do a thing like that for?" I said, "Well, he won't cooperate with me on a job you gave me to do." And Truman said, "Oh, well, that's okay then. Leave him fired." So, I fired the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Of course, that's Washington for you. After that Marriner and I socialized together, played golf together out at Burning Tree Golf Course, and so forth. So that's Washington for you.

JOHNSON: That's interesting. Okay, you'd agreed to go to Washington. That was a one-year leave from your teaching job.

STEELMAN: Yes. That's right.

JOHNSON: Into the Labor Department, to help Frances Perkins...

STEELMAN: To help settle some strikes.

JOHNSON: To mediate and conciliate these strikes.

STEELMAN: Yes.

 

[20]

JOHNSON: Now, these strikes that you have mentioned that you told her about when she came down to Alabama, were those strikes involving unionization? Were they trying to organize unions there in that area? Is that what brought on the strike?

STEELMAN: Well, no, they were already organized. They were striking over wage settlements, over wages.

JOHNSON: So now you're in Washington, as a conciliator with the Conciliation Service.

STEELMAN: That's right. Yes.

JOHNSON: And you were called a commissioner.

STEELMAN: Yes, sir. Commissioner of Conciliation. As I say, I did something that's never been done before, and never will again. For several nights in a row I wired Washington that I had settled a strike in a different state of the Union.

JOHNSON: And, of course, that really impressed them.

STEELMAN: That's right. That's right. Miss Perkins wanted to leave so Roosevelt said, "You can leave if you get me somebody that I like." She said, "How about this Dr.

 

[21]

Steelman that we were talking about at Cabinet meetings, and about what a whiz he was." And Roosevelt said, "That's okay, get him."

So she asked me, would I be Secretary of Labor, and I said, "No." I said, "Mr. Roosevelt doesn't want a Secretary of Labor; he's secretary of everything himself, he dabbles with everything. He just wants somebody to have that title. So," I said, "I'm a Republican and I don't want any political appointment under Mr. Roosevelt."

JOHNSON: Did you ever get to talk to President Roosevelt? Did you meet him and talk to him?

STEELMAN: Oh, yes.

JOHNSON: What were your impressions of President Roosevelt? When you went to meet him what kind of an impression did you get?

STEELMAN: Well, he impressed me. He was a real personality.

JOHNSON: Did you agree with his New Deal policies that he was promoting, such as the NRA and the WPA and CCC?

STEELMAN: Yes.

 

[22]

JOHNSON: Did you agree with all of those?

STEELMAN: I did.

JOHNSON: Was that the only way to put people to work? Is that the way you saw it?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Well, why weren't the corporations producing as much as they could in the early 1930s?

STEELMAN: I'll be darned if I know. They didn't produce because they couldn't sell, I think.

JOHNSON: They couldn't sell.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: When did you become acquainted with Keynesian economics? With the ideas of Maynard Keynes? Did you study him when you were doing graduate work?

STEELMAN: I think so.

JOHNSON: Did you agree with Maynard Keynes, with his ideas about compensatory spending, for instance, in which he said in case private enterprise spending dropped off, there should be increased government spending? Did you

 

[23]

agree with that?

STEELMAN: I think I did at the time, yes.

JOHNSON: As a kind of a last resort, the government should hire and they should lend money and that sort of thing as a last resort?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you lose any money in a bank? Did you have any money that you lost as a result of the bank failures and so on?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so.

JOHNSON: You didn't lose any bank deposits.

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: When you were hired in 1934, what was your beginning salary, as you recall, as a commissioner of the Conciliation Service?

STEELMAN: I think it was probably about $3,000.

JOHNSON: Three thousand.

STEELMAN: I think so.

 

[24]

JOHNSON: When you went out to mediate these strikes, how did you travel? Did you go by train or did you have a car? You weren't in Washington all that much apparently.

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: Were you out traveling let's say three out of five days? Or how much time did you spend out on the road?

STEELMAN: Well, I spent quite a bit I recall.

JOHNSON: How would you get there? Did you have a car? Did you drive to these places where they were having labor trouble?

STEELMAN: I think I did. I think I had a car.

JOHNSON: Do you remember what kind of a car you had?

STEELMAN: I think it was a Ford.

JOHNSON: So you went out to wherever there was a problem. Did you feel that you were getting some of the toughest labor troubles to deal with?

STEELMAN: Oh, yes.

JOHNSON: You were getting the tough ones then. You already

 

[25]

had a reputation that you were able to mediate these things and I have read about some of the tactics you used. Do you want to mention again what you found to be a successful way of preventing, or let's say, stopping or shortening these strikes? The friction between management and labor. What kind of tactic did you find was successful?

STEELMAN: Well, one time I was working as a log scaler down in the logging camps, and a couple of guys came along from Little Rock and they brought the first newspaper I ever saw, the Arkansas Gazette. In it, it had this cartoon of Jeff and somebody -- anyhow, the fellow couldn't find his horse, and so this guy said, "The way to find your horse is you imagine that you are a horse, so where would you go? And you go there and there it is." So, that meant a lot to me. I never forgot it. So I was always able to put myself into the other fellow's place.

JOHNSON: Where did you learn that?

STEELMAN: I remember a couple of fellows came along and got a job and they sawed down a big cypress tree and then they quit and went back to Little Rock.

So the boss came along, and he said, "I'll give

 

[26]

you $10 if you can find the saw. I found the sledge hammer and so forth, but I can't find the saw." So, as I say, I had read this cartoon "Mutt and Jeff." Jeff couldn't find his horse, and Mutt said, "Imagine you're a horse, where would you go." So be able to put yourself in the other fellow's place. And that stuck with me for life; it made me a good mediator.

JOHNSON: How about some of these commandments like "Love your neighbor as yourself?" Did that ever enter in, you know, these Biblical commandments? Or the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do to you," and "Love God, and your fellow man as you love yourself?" Did that ever enter your thinking?

STEELMAN: Yes, it did, because as I say, one morning down in the logging camps I jumped on one of the wagons to go out into the woods, and I forgot my book, so I said to the driver, "You go ahead, I'll catch the next wagon. I've got to go get my book." So he went down across the railroad and lightning struck and killed him, so that deeply impressed me and I said, "The Lord must have something in mind for me to do." So, it influenced my life.

JOHNSON: In other words, something to do besides getting

 

[27]

rich?

STEELMAN: That's right. I thought the Lord must want me to do good. So it had a great influence on my life.

JOHNSON: Is that one of the reasons you went into sociology, to work with people and perhaps to help people?

STEELMAN: Yes, and another thing. When I was a log scaler down in the camps, one day I walked up to a pile of logs and a log rolled off and crushed my left instep. I couldn't play football or basketball on account of this foot.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, for Harry Truman it was a problem with his eyes, what he called "flat eyeballs." He had to wear glasses, and so he couldn't play these roughhouse games. So that encouraged him to read a lot.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you go to country school?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: One-room country school?

 

[28]

STEELMAN: Well, I started out in one, and when I got through about the first grade or so, I had to go to town school. That was five miles away.

JOHNSON: Is this Thornton?

STEELMAN: Thornton, Arkansas. I'll never forget; one time we had a terrible snow, about three feet of snow, and it was over the weekend and I had gone home. I was five miles away from school, and so I started out at 4 o'clock in the morning on Monday to go through that snow, and some places were so deep I couldn't walk. I had to crawl, but I got to school on time. There was a boy there who lived in the house, next to the school grounds. He was a hundred yards away from the school classroom and I got to school on time, and he was late on account of the snow. So we kidded him the rest of our days about that. He couldn't even go a hundred yards.

JOHNSON: You had already had this idea that hard work is important and gets you places, right?

STEELMAN: Yes. That's right. My father said, "You outwork everybody there and you'll come out on top." I used that philosophy to get into the White House.

 

[29]

JOHNSON: It seems to have worked.

In 1937 you were appointed director of the U.S. Conciliation Service. The Truman Committee, of course, did not start until 1941. Did you ever have occasion to see or meet Senator Truman before he became Chairman of the Truman Committee? Was there any...

STEELMAN: No, that's when Truman was in charge of some committee on the Hill...

JOHNSON: Yes, to investigate the national defense program.

STEELMAN: Yes. And so that's where he got to know me.

JOHNSON: Did you see him at one of those hearings?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you testify?

STEELMAN: I don't think so.

JOHNSON: They didn't ask you questions?

STEELMAN: One time I remember I was in New York and when Truman became President his secretary called me up and said, "Are you going to be in Washington any time soon?" I said, "Yes, as a matter of fact I've got a

 

[30]

couple of meetings down there next week." So he said, "Well, I don't know what it's about, but the President wants to see you. Could you come by?"

So I went in and Truman said, "I want you to come and work with me." He said, "I had my eye on you while I was in the Senate and you were head of the Conciliation Service." I said, "Well, Mr. President, I don't think I can do that." So Truman said, "I hate to do to you what Roosevelt did to me." I said, "What's that, Mr. President?" He said, "Roosevelt wanted me to run with him as Vice President and," he said, "I didn't like the idea. But Roosevelt said, 'Harry, are you going to do what I'm asking you, or are you going to let your country down?' Well," Truman said, "that's what I'm saying to you."

JOHNSON: Okay, going back again to around 1937 or so, I think there's a report that you were involved in some 80,000 labor disputes during the '30s and up to '44?

STEELMAN: Probably. Yes.

JOHNSON: Frances Perkins said that after you came they were resolving about 90 percent of these disputes as compared to maybe less than 60 percent or so before that time. Did you teach, or were you kind of a mentor

 

[31]

to some of the other Conciliators then? Did you teach them your tricks so to speak, your style, your methods.? Did they learn from you?

STEELMAN: Yes, to a certain degree, yes.

JOHNSON: Was there any one particular conciliator that stands out in your memory, after you became director, or before, anyone that stands out as a very efficient?

STEELMAN: I don't remember now.

JOHNSON: When did you first meet John L. Lewis?

STEELMAN: Well, I guess it was when I was the head of the Conciliation Service.

JOHNSON: When you were Director.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Was it before the war started, or after the war started? Was it in 1941 when I think there was a problem with the mine workers wanting to strike?

STEELMAN: I think it was probably about '41.

JOHNSON: Roosevelt had the reputation of giving in to the labor unions, and to John L. Lewis. What was your view

 

[32]

of Roosevelt's approach to the labor-management disputes and to labor unions?

STEELMAN: Well, I guess it was because he was crippled. Anyhow he dabbled with everything, and so it's like Miss Perkins said; she wanted to leave and go as president of some college that they offered her, and Roosevelt said, "I'll let you go if you find me somebody I like." She said, ".How about this Dr. Steelman we were discussing in Cabinet meeting the other day, that settled seven strikes in seven different states in seven days." And Roosevelt said, "Good, get him."

So she asked me and I said, "No, I don't want any political appointment under Mr. Roosevelt."

JOHNSON: Did you meet President Roosevelt in the Oval Office?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you talk about labor-management problems at all when you were there, or was it just some pleasantries? Did he ever try to give you any advice, on how to deal with these labor unions?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so. I don't think so, we just

 

[33]

had a little visit.

JOHNSON: A little pleasant visit.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Well, Sidney Hillman was supposed to be an influential labor boss, influential with Roosevelt.

STEELMAN: Yes. He was the head of the CIO. There were two labor organizations: American Federation of Labor and the Committee for Industrial Organization.

JOHNSON: Yes. Do you remember John L. Lewis taking his miners out on strike during the war, in 1943 for instance?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: What role did you play in resolving those disputes during the war? What role did you play? Did you meet directly with John L. Lewis?

STEELMAN: Oh yes, many times.

JOHNSON: Do you remember about when that first meeting was?

STEELMAN: I'll never forget one time I was in New York and had John Lewis and Ben Fairless, head of the U.S. Steel Corporation, and the miners had struck the so-called

 

[34]

captive mines, the mines owned by the steel company. That was in the hotel in New York and we negotiated week after week.

I'll never forget one time I told the press, "I see a little ray of light at the end of the tunnel," and the next morning Mayor LaGuardia came busting into our room where we were meeting and John Lewis said, "Did you ask him to come here?" I said, "No." He said, "Mr. Mayor, what are you busting in here for?" He said, "Well, I got the impression from Dr. Steelman that it might be possible to reach a settlement today and I thought maybe I could help push it over." Lewis said, "No, it's never going to be settled; you better get back down to City Hall."

So, the Mayor went back down and bought a thousand tons of dirty coal, coal that came out of some unorganized mines. In the organized mines when they dug coal, they would wash the dust off of it. So, the Mayor bought this dirty coal, as they called it, and the next day it was settled.

I remember Lewis and Ben Fairless; they would negotiate and when they would break up, the press would come in and Lewis would lambaste the management. He would say, "They sit here saying no, no, no." And then

 

[35]

when the press would leave, they'd walk down the hall with their arm around each other. Lewis and Ben Fairless, they were good friends." So this was a question of when they were going to settle.

JOHNSON: From my interview with David Stowe, I understand that Lewis liked Calvin Coolidge for some reason. He was a friend of Calvin Coolidge, or he liked Coolidge as a President. But I don't know what Coolidge ever did for him.

STEELMAN: I don't either.

JOHNSON: What was Lewis' attitude toward Roosevelt? Did he like Roosevelt, or did he like any of the Presidents?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think he cared much about any of them that I recall.

JOHNSON: He just saw them as politicians?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: Did he believe that the Government could do anything to help the miners, or was it the Union that had to do everything?

STEELMAN: I don't remember exactly.

 

[36]

JOHNSON: He didn't have much use for Government involvement, did he?

STEELMAN: No. No.

JOHNSON: Did he ever call you people bureaucrats? Did John L. Lewis ever say a harsh word, or an angry word to you?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so. I don't think he did.

JOHNSON: Okay, talking about tactics, when Ben Fairless and John L. Lewis were trying to settle some strike, where would you usually meet with them, or where would they be when you mediated?

STEELMAN: I think most of the time, I don't remember why, but we'd meet in the Waldorf Hotel in New York.

JOHNSON: Oh, the Waldorf Astoria.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: Would you meet with them in separate rooms?

STEELMAN: Sometimes, and then I'd bring them together.

JOHNSON: Then you'd bring them together, and you would try to show that you were a friend of both sides?

 

[37]

STEELMAN: That's right, yes.

JOHNSON: Were you always convincing? Were you always able to convince them that you were neutral?

STEELMAN: Yes, I think so.

JOHNSON: That you were impartial?

STEELMAN: Yes, I think so.

JOHNSON: So John L. Lewis didn't know whether you were pro-union or pro-management.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Well, what did he think about you? How did he see your job? Why did he feel that you were useful?

STEELMAN: Well, I think he appreciated my trying to get them together so we could reach an agreement.

JOHNSON: Was he willing to take a half a loaf if he couldn't get a full loaf?

STEELMAN: Sometimes, yes.

JOHNSON: He was willing to compromise?

STEELMAN: Yes, sometimes he would.

 

[38]

JOHNSON: But sometimes he wouldn't.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: In 1943 during the war, he called a strike and Truman never liked him after that. He called him a traitor.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: Did you ever use harsh words?

STEELMAN: I don't think so.

JOHNSON: Or tough language.

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: Well, there was an incident where a union man came in with a derby hat. He came in with this black derby hat and you told him that he had to take his hat off.

STEELMAN: Oh, yes. Yes, I've forgotten what the dispute was, but it was in New York; that's where I was. This boy came and sat down at the table with his hat on. And I said, "Stand up." He stood up, and I said, "Go over there and hang that hat up." So, he did and it was steel lined; it was a helmet. He was so accustomed

 

[39]

to getting hit over the head by the police that he wore a helmet.

JOHNSON: That reminds me. You know when the CIO was organizing, they had a sit-down strike in Detroit, and so these women, the wives, came by and they knocked the windows out so their men could get air and that sort of thing. Did you have any involvement at all in trying to mediate that sit-down strike between the CIO and General Motors? And at Ford? I guess Ford was part of it too, but I believe the sit-down mainly was General Motors. Did you have any involvement in helping to settle...

STEELMAN: Yes, I remember that one.

JOHNSON: ...that sit-down strike? Did you go to Detroit?

STEELMAN: No, I think I...

JOHNSON: You didn't go into a plant where they were sitting.

STEELMAN: No, I called them into my office I think.

JOHNSON: You called them in.

 

[40]

STEELMAN: Yes, to come in.

JOHNSON: Harry Truman did not like that sit down tactic. He did not like the sit-down strike, occupying property like that. What was your attitude toward that kind of a tactic?

STEELMAN: Well, I didn't like it either.

JOHNSON: Did you let anybody know that?

STEELMAN: Since I had to deal with them, I didn't say much about it.

JOHNSON: So, you managed to hold your tongue, in other words.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Well, how about patience? Did you feel that that had to be one of your virtues, being very patient?

STEELMAN: That's right. Yes.

JOHNSON: Well, how did you let off steam if you had to do that? Did you feel sometimes you had to let off steam?

STEELMAN: I don't recall.

JOHNSON: You didn't sit down and write these angry letters

 

[41]

like Harry Truman did?

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: You didn't write any angry letters, or notes?

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: How many days a week were you working there when you were in the Conciliation Service? What kind of a work week did you have?

STEELMAN: I worked seven days a week.

JOHNSON: Virtually seven days?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: What were supposed to be your office hours?

STEELMAN: Well, I was there all the time, day and night.

JOHNSON: You married in 1939. In 1939 you married Emma Zimmerman.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: And she apparently was a secretary in a union office.

STEELMAN: The AF of L, I think.

 

[42]

JOHNSON: So she worked for the union; she didn't work for management, and she didn't work for the Government.

Since she knew some of these people, did she give you some ideas as to what kind of persons they were?

STEELMAN: Oh, yes. Yes, she knew all of them.

JOHNSON: Did she have some information or ideas that were helpful to you?

STEELMAN: I think so, yes.

JOHNSON: You had awfully long hours. I don't know of anybody else that would have worked that hard or that long.

Did you know of anybody else that worked as hard as you did?

STEELMAN: No. No, I didn't.

JOHNSON: Well, what did you think of Frances Perkins? In a sense she was your boss.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did she ever act that role. Did she ever try to boss you at all?

 

[43]

STEELMAN: No, no. She said the Conciliation Service really ought to be independent; that it didn't belong in the Labor Department. So she said, "You go your way, and I'll never interfere."

JOHNSON: Did you get involved in any of these railroad strikes? There was a railroad labor board, or mediation board, wasn't there?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: That was just to deal with the railroad strikes, and I guess also later on in the air transportation business.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you ever get involved in that part of it at all, the railroad problems too?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: I mean in the '30s when you were in the Conciliation Service?

STEELMAN: Well, one time [after World War II] the Government seized the railroads, because the unions refused to accept the board's recommendations for

 

[44]

settlement of the dispute.

JOHNSON: The Railway Labor Board.

STEELMAN: And the railroad boys refused to go along and they struck. So the Government seized the railroads. I remember I called in the railroad presidents and I said, "Gentlemen, I find myself in possession of some properties that I don't how to operate and I want to appoint each one of you as my representative." So I remember the unions finally said, "Damn it, if we ever go to the White House again..." While they were there we seized the railroads and put them back to work, and the union said, "Well, can't you at least give us the increase that we had already agreed on? That they had already offered us." I said, "No;" I said, "you're working under the conditions that existed before the dispute started." So then the union president said, "Damned, if we ever go to the White House again."

JOHNSON: When they settled though, sometimes those wages would be made retroactive.

STEELMAN: That's right, yes.

JOHNSON: Yes. Maybe we can finish this one tape, and then

 

[45]

perhaps we can take a break.

You agreed to wait until after the election of 1944 to resign.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: You went back to New York City to become a consultant, which lasted only about eleven months. You resigned in November of 1944, and then in October of 1945 you came back to Washington, at the request of President Truman.

STEELMAN: Right.

JOHNSON: Do you want to explain what he wanted you to do? When he asked you to come back, what did he ask you to do?

STEELMAN: He wanted me to be his assistant. He gave me the title, The Assistant to the President of the United States.

JOHNSON: That was a little bit later, though, wasn't it, in 1946…

STEELMAN: Somewhere like that.

JOHNSON: There was a labor-management conference in

 

[46]

November 1945, you know, that resulted in a fact finding board to help settle strikes. This was in December 1945, just a few weeks after you got there.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: This was to help end the strike of the UAW against General Motors.

STEELMAN: Oh yes.

JOHNSON: There was a long strike involving General Motors.

STEELMAN: Yes, that's right.

JOHNSON: Do you remember what your first job was when you came back? Did he ask you to help reorganize the Labor Department? To see if the Labor Department could be organized better?

STEELMAN: I don't remember.

JOHNSON: Lewis Schwellenbach had been appointed Secretary of Labor.

STEELMAN: Yes, and Schwellenbach didn't know anything about the Labor Department.

JOHNSON: Was he one of the first people you met? When you

 

[47]

came back to Washington, did you go in to meet the Secretary of Labor, Lewis Schwellenbach?

STEELMAN: I think so, yes.

JOHNSON: Is that the first time you had met him?

STEELMAN: I think it was, yes.

JOHNSON: So, what was your impression?

STEELMAN: Well, I liked him but he didn't know anything about the Labor Department.

JOHNSON: Did he confess that to you?

STEELMAN: Yes. Yes, he said he didn't know anything about it.

JOHNSON: So what did he ask you to do?

STEELMAN: Well, he wanted me to help him, but I don't remember what, just what he wanted me to do.

JOHNSON: They were already faced with the probability of strikes, weren't they?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Why were the unions so willing to go out on strike

 

[48]

in late 1945 and then in 1946? What grievance, or what problem did they have that they used as a reason for going out on strike? You know there were more strikes in 1946 than any other year in our history.

STEELMAN: Yes, well, they wanted wage increases.

JOHNSON: Even though profits were going up. They said profits were going up, but wages were not?

STEELMAN: That's right, yes.

JOHNSON: How about overtime pay? Did that enter in, the fact they'd had time and a half overtime pay during the war and now that was ended? So, their weekly take-home pay actually did decline.

STEELMAN: It declined a little I think.

JOHNSON: Right after the war ended.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Finally, there was an agreement in early '46, I think with the General Motors strike, and then it was applied to U.S. Steel and others. Truman was involved, and perhaps you were, in the formula, or pattern, that was accepted, which was an 18 ½ cent an hour

 

[49]

increase.

STEELMAN: I remember something about that.

JOHNSON: Did you advise Truman on that? Did you and Truman talk together about that?

STEELMAN: I think we did, yes.

JOHNSON: Did you have some input?

STEELMAN: Yes. I think so, yes.

JOHNSON: Is that what you had recommended, 18 ½ cents.

STEELMAN: I think so, yes.

JOHNSON: Well, that brings us into 1946 when there were strikes -- well, with U.S. Steel, General Motors, the packing house workers, then the railroads, and the miners.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: You had a lot of irons in the fire.

STEELMAN: It was a bad year, yes.

JOHNSON: Was the original agreement that you'd be there for six months?

 

[50]

STEELMAN: That's right. And that six months never did end.

JOHNSON: That was a long six months, wasn't it? More than six years.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: But you felt you were accomplishing things I suppose.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: What motivated you to remain in this job, rather than going back to New York?

STEELMAN: Well, I don't recall, but it seemed to me that some of the companies that I was advising, they wanted me to stay in Washington.

JOHNSON: They thought you could help them more there?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you ever receive gifts or payments at all from businesses or big corporations or whatever? When you were working for the Government? Were you ever offered gifts by the big business -- by either unions or businessmen?

 

[51]

STEELMAN: I don't think so, no.

JOHNSON: But they might have you come out to give a speech and then they'd pay you for the speech?

STEELMAN: I don't think so.

JOHNSON: You don't remember getting fees for speaking?

STEELMAN: I don't think so, no.

JOHNSON: So you never had a problem with accepting gifts from lobbyists or...

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: You had lobbyists trying to get to you, didn't you?

STEELMAN: Sometimes, yes.

JOHNSON: What did you tell them?

STEELMAN: I just wouldn't listen to them.

JOHNSON: If they wanted to take you out for dinner, would you go out for dinner with a lobbyist?

STEELMAN: Not likely. Not likely.

 

[52]

JOHNSON: Did Truman ever talk to you about the problem of accepting gifts from lobbyists or any kind of gift? Did he ever talk to you about that?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so. I can't think of his name now, but it was some former Senator who every so often would want to come and see Truman, and so I'd go in with him. He'd talk to Truman. He'd want Truman to do something for him. He was now a lobbyist: so when he'd leave, Truman would say, "John, you better watch that one, or they wouldn't have hired him to come and see me." Truman would say, "He probably got $10,000 for coming to see me, but you better watch it."

JOHNSON: You said this was a Senator, or someone who had been a Senator, and was now a lobbyist.

STEELMAN: That's right, yes. so, Truman would say, "You better watch it; he probably got $10,000 for seeing me."

JOHNSON: You don't know where that Senator was from or what his name was?

STEELMAN: It seemed to me like he was from Washington State, but I forget his name.

 

[53]

JOHNSON: Of course, he was a friend of Mon Walgren, you know.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: But it wasn't Mon Walgren?

STEELMAN: No; it wasn't him.

JOHNSON: In fact, you got acquainted with Mon Walgren, didn't you?

STEELMAN: Yes, I remember him.

JOHNSON: In fact, the President wanted to make him chairman of the National Security Resources Board, and the Senate would not confirm him.

STEELMAN: Yes, I remember that. I've forgotten what they held against him, but...

JOHNSON: Well, did they say he was just a crony, an old friend and crony of Harry Truman and that was the only qualifications that he had?

STEELMAN: Apparently so. Yes.

JOHNSON: So he dropped out of that one.

STEELMAN: Yes.

 

[54]

JOHNSON: Who do you remember taking into the Oval Office to see Harry Truman? Do you remember some of the people, the names that you took into the Oval Office?

STEELMAN: Offhand I don't.

JOHNSON: On January 12th, 1946, Truman announced that the Secretary of Labor, Lew Schwellenbach; John Snyder of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion; and Dr. John Steelman, Special Assistant to the President, "have been in conference most of the afternoon with Mr. Benjamin Fairless, representing the United States Steel Corporation and Mr. Philip Murray, representing the United Steel Workers." He noted that Fairless had made an offer and Murray had countered with an offer on behalf of the union, and Fairless wanted more time to consult with the steel companies concerning the union proposal.

Do you recall how you got Fairless and Murray together on that? Do you remember getting them together on that particular labor dispute in early 1946?

STEELMAN: I don't recall how I got them together.

JOHNSON: Was that the first time you had met Phil Murray,

 

[55]

or did you meet him back during the war?

STEELMAN: I guess I had met him during the war.

JOHNSON: So you were acquainted with Phil Murray, and you had become acquainted with Sidney Hillman.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Were you acquainted with the Reuther brothers?

STEELMAN: Walter, yes.

JOHNSON: There was a Jim Cary, who was an influential labor leader, and Bill Green, head of the AF of L.

STEELMAN: Yes, head of the AF of L, yes. William Green.

JOHNSON: Were you a friend of William Green's?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: When did you first meet him, do you have any idea?

STEELMAN: No, I don't recall when I first met him.

JOHNSON: Was it while you were in the Conciliation Service?

STEELMAN: Yes, that's when I got to know him.

JOHNSON: Did you ever meet with the heads of these major

 

[56]

unions before you became director of the Conciliation Service?

STEELMAN: Well, before I became director, I was a conciliator out in the field, and I met different ones.

JOHNSON: Yes, but would you necessarily meet the one at the top.

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: You'd meet the local union head?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: And the local business leader?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Okay, this dispute between U.S. Steel and the UAW, or the CIO, this dispute between Murray and Fairless, that's when the President said that he believed an 18 ½ cent an hour increase was fair. And he said that the fact-finding board in the General Motors case, after four weeks of study, had said that 19 ½ cent increase was fair. Then it settled on 18 ½ cents. Did that become the pattern for a settlement in most strikes?

 

[57]

STEELMAN: I think it did, yes. For awhile, yes.

JOHNSON: The War Labor Board was succeeded on January 1, 1946 by the Wage Stabilization Board to carry out the Stabilization Act of 1942, and I guess you were involved in helping to, let's say, disband, to terminate, these wartime agencies? Did you see that as one of your duties?

STEELMAN: Yes, that's right, yes.

JOHNSON: To terminate those or consolidate and get back to "normalcy."

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: As President Harding would have said.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Lon Hamby says that by mid-December 1946 Phil Murray was persona non grata at the White House, and that his counterparts in business were also alienated from the administration.* Do you remember President Truman being kind of unfriendly to Phil Murray or not liking Phil Murray?

*Alonzo Hamby, Man of the People (NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 376.

 

[58]

STEELMAN: No, I don't remember anything like that at all.

JOHNSON: Maybe we can finish up by discussing the problem with the miners, in 1946, with the miner's union, John L. Lewis and the UMW.

On April 1, 1946, Lewis took the United Mine Workers out on strike, and after futile efforts to affect a settlement, Truman seized the mines on May 21st. It has been said that you persuaded Truman to offer Lewis a contract with a five cent per ton royalty for medical and retirement benefits, when Lewis wanted ten cents. This satisfied Lewis for a while, but shortly before the Congressional elections of 1946, he called for another strike and you advised compromise. But Clifford prevailed and convinced the President to stand firm against Lewis.

This might have been the first time that you got quite a bit of publicity. Do you remember when you got into a discussion with the President and Clark Clifford and some of the others about what to do about John L. Lewis just before the election in 1946? Did he say he was going to take the miners out on strike even though there was an agreement that he signed with the government, and it was just before the elections in

 

[59]

1946? You were reported to have recommended compromise, but Clifford said, "We ought to stand firm. We've got to stand up to him."

STEELMAN: Yes. Clifford wanted to play politics. He thought it was good politics to have a fight with the union. So he and I didn't agree on that.

JOHNSON: Were you willing to make some concessions to John L. Lewis?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: You admired John L. Lewis, it seems.

STEELMAN: Yes I did. He was really a good leader.

JOHNSON: What did you like about John L. Lewis? What made you like him?

STEELMAN: Well, I don't know, except he was quite a leader.

JOHNSON: And he had a gift for language, didn't he?

STEELMAN: Oh, yes, yes.

JOHNSON: And he could use some pretty harsh language against Roosevelt and Truman, and Truman got some of this. Did he ever use any harsh language with you?

 

[60]

John L. Lewis?

STEELMAN: I don't think so.

JOHNSON: Was he always pleasant and polite with you?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: But he wasn't that way with everybody by any means.

STEELMAN: No. No, he could be mean.

JOHNSON: Do you think maybe he put on an act, or sometimes he would act, put on an act? He would act as if he were angry with Fairless when he wasn't.

STEELMAN: That's right. Yes, he and Fairless would negotiate and then we'd break up, call in the press, and Lewis would rail against Fairless. He'd say, "He sits here and says no, no, no," and so forth. And then when the press would leave they'd walk down the hall with their arms around each other.

JOHNSON: In a longhand memo, Truman on December 11, 1946, noted that Lewis had called a coal strike in the spring of 1946, "For no good reason." He said Lewis called it after agreeing to carry on negotiations. Then he says,

 

[61]

"At least he told John Steelman to tell me that there would be no strike." That's what he wrote as a memo for record, that John L. Lewis had told you in the spring of 1946 there would be no strike in the coal mines. Do you remember that at all?

STEELMAN: No, I don't.

JOHNSON: Did Lewis ever say to you there would be no strike?

STEELMAN: I don't remember.

JOHNSON: Then of course, he did go on strike in the fall, apparently to embarrass Truman before that election.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Of course, that election didn't turn out very well for Truman. The first Republican Congress since 1930 or so.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: I suppose there is one thing that we ought to cover before we close here today, since it might be fresh in your mind. John Snyder was chairman of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion.

 

[62]

STEELMAN: Yes, OWMR, yes.

JOHNSON: Fred Vinson was Secretary of the Treasury at that time.

STEELMAN: That's right. Yes.

JOHNSON: John Snyder was getting some bad press, getting bad publicity, kind of harsh...

STEELMAN: Yes, from Drew Pearson. He criticized John every day, and I'll never forget one time John was in to see the President about something and he and I walked out the hall together, and John almost broke out to cry. He said, "If I had the nerve, I'd commit suicide." He said, "I can't stand this criticism of Pearson any longer."

So, there was conflict going on up in the Supreme Court and Truman said he wished I was a lawyer, so he could appoint me to the Court to get them together. I remember saying to the President, "Well, now Fred Vinson is as good a mediator as I am; let's put Fred Vinson on the Court and get John Snyder, who had been OWMR director, to go back to the Treasury. When he gets out of the White House, Drew Pearson will leave him alone.

 

[63]

And so that's the way we worked it out.

JOHNSON: And then you were to do what?

STEELMAN: I took over the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion.

JOHNSON: You were to take Snyder's place.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Now you're saying that that was your idea, and you suggested that to Truman and that's what he decided to do.

STEELMAN: Yes, I had influence. I could issue orders to Truman's Cabinet even. I had more power than the Cabinet. As I recall telling Truman once, "Mr. President, I've only issued two orders to Cabinet officers since I've been here, and I had an understanding with them before I issued each of the orders." So finally we abolished the OWMR office, and established the National Security Resources Board. So Truman made me head of that.

If Truman had a vacancy that he didn't want pressure put on him to fill, he'd tell them I was to fill it. He'd appoint me. I've always had three or

 

[64]

four different jobs. So, Truman would say, "John, you take this over until you find somebody to take your place."

JOHNSON: Well, did that mean you're kind of a troubleshooter?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: And a go-between?

STEELMAN: That's what I was, yes.

JOHNSON: You see, it was in December, 1946 when he announced that he was appointing you as Assistant to the President, and soon that became The Assistant. He said you were to "continue to aid me in coordinating Federal Agency programs and policies." He said that you would also serve as liaison between the Executive agencies and the President's Commission on Higher Education, as well as Chairman of the President's Scientific Research Board, which was established recently by an Executive order to report to the President on current scientific research programs of the Federal Government and the steps needed to coordinate and strengthen those programs.

In regard to the Commission on Higher Education,

 

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for some reason the records of that Commission got shredded or discarded by the National Archives.

STEELMAN: Is that right?

JOHNSON: Well, at least the bulk of them were; that's all we know.

STEELMAN: Well, I'll be darned.

JOHNSON: So we do not have those at the Truman Library.

STEELMAN: I'll be darned.

JOHNSON: I noticed in one of the press releases here, that in connection with that, that you were saying that everyone in America who was able to benefit from a college education, should have the opportunity to go to college.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: This is July 3rd of 1946 in the Washington Post. It says, "Reconversion Director, John R. Steelman, declared yesterday that a college education must be made available to all Americans regardless of their ability to pay." And then he quotes you as saying, "As a nation, we cannot afford ever again to permit the

 

[66]

accident of family income to determine who should go to college." The article says that you said that to the initial session of the President's National Commission on Higher Education.

Do you feel that you had some influence with that Commission on Higher Education?

STEELMAN: Yes, I think I did, yes.

JOHNSON: The growth of community colleges, junior colleges, two-year colleges, is that one of the things that evolved, or that grew out of this commission?

STEELMAN: Yes, I think so.

JOHNSON: The junior college.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: So you think you may have had some influence on the growth of the junior college, the local junior college.

STEELMAN: That's right, as a matter of fact.

JOHNSON: Of course, you had been able to work your way through college, but not every student could do that I suppose.

 

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STEELMAN: I guess not.

JOHNSON: Well, the minimum wage was 40 cents an hour.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: When the war ended. Truman wanted to raise that to 75 cents. Did you support the idea of raising the minimum wage?

STEELMAN: Yes, I remember I did.

JOHNSON: To 75 cents an hour.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: And that did not happen until about 1949, when the 81st Congress was elected.

STEELMAN: Oh, yes.

JOHNSON: He came out with a 21 point program, that is Harry Truman did. This is in September 1945, that he announced to Congress this rather large program of ideas that he had for the future. There were 21 points, so it was called the 21 point program. That included expanding Social Security to cover more people, raising the minimum wage, and you mentioned

 

[68]

health care. Well, within a month or two he came out with a formal proposal for a national health insurance system. Did he ever talk to you about the idea of a national health insurance program?

STEELMAN: I don't recall it.

JOHNSON: So you did not have any input necessarily on a national health insurance policy?

STEELMAN: I don't recall.

JOHNSON: You weren't involved in that.

STEELMAN: I'm sure that I would have had something to do with it.

JOHNSON: In other words, these 21 points became the foundation of the Fair Deal.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you support the Fair Deal?

STEELMAN: Yes. Yes, I remember. [After a brief break for rest, Dr. Steelman wished to reminisce about earlier times.)

I wanted to study sociology, and Dr Foster said, "If you want to understand people, go mix with them.

 

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Mix with all kinds of people." I remember going out when I was a student; I'd do different things each summer for experience and to make money to go to school on, so…

JOHNSON: Was there anybody you didn't like?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so. One summer I was a log scaler and that's when my left foot got crushed. And another summer Rand McNally Map Company hired me to sell maps, and they assigned me to Potowatamie County, Oklahoma with the Indians. So here I'm out selling maps to Indians. The Indians didn't have any use for a map, but I'd sell them. And so I'd work my way through college, I wanted to be a college teacher. There was an Indian college over in Pennsylvania; I've forgot the name of it. I was visiting an Indian, and his daughter was coming home and wanted to know if I could come to dinner with them. So I did. I'll never forget -- the Indians didn't have any chairs. You sat on the floor. You sit on the floor and eat off the table.

And after dinner he wanted me to talk to his daughter. Well, his daughter was late getting in from this school and she was still dressed the way she dressed over there, rather than as an Indian. I'll

 

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never forget an expression this Indian girl used. She said, "Don't tell my daddy, because he's going to kill me when I have to tell him next year when I graduate, when I come home." She said, "I don't like it out yonder." She called it "out yonder." She said, "I want to come home and dress like an Indian, and live like an Indian." She used that expression "out yonder." I don't like it "out yonder," she said.

JOHNSON: Beyond the reservation.

STEELMAN: Yes. I don't like it out yonder.

JOHNSON: So that's how you got acquainted with the Indians in Oklahoma?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Selling these maps.

STEELMAN: Selling maps, yes.

ELLEN STEELMAN: Daddy, did you tell about the insurance man who offered you the job? You went into the Governor's office, wasn't it, and you didn't have an appointment and you wanted to...

STEELMAN: Oh, the map company hired me as their trainer and

 

[71]

so I'd go to different counties and train a man to sell the map. And then when I was not assigned somewhere I was in Little Rock and there was an insurance guy there. What was his name -- Hugh Hart. He was the first person to form the Millionaire Club, he was the first to sell a million dollars of insurance.

JOHNSON: His name was Hart?

STEELMAN: Yes, Hugh Hart. And he tried to hire me to work for him and I said, "No, I have a scholarship to go to Vanderbilt." I said, "If you offered me a million dollars I wouldn't. I'm going to Vanderbilt to school. You only live once and I'm going to -- I want to get an education and so..."

JOHNSON: That took you places.

E. STEELMAN: This other story, I thought it was about the Governor and he went home and told his wife. He said, "I bought something, but I don't know what it is." And then when you delivered it, he took it home to his wife and said, "This is what I bought," or something along that line. That was a good story. Do you remember it.

STEELMAN: Oh, yes. I was selling maps. You had to get the most prominent person around to sign your book first so

 

[72]

you could show it to other people. And so I went down, and in Little Rock I had to sell to the Governor. So I ran over three different secretaries and skidded into his private secretary's office in a hurry. I said, "I need to see the Governor right away." She figured it must be important that I got that far. So the Governor came out and I sold him a map. And when I went back to deliver it, the Governor said, "You know, I remember talking to you that day you called me out of a conference," and he said, "I had a feeling I had bought something, but I wasn't sure." He said, "I'm going to take this map home." He gave me a new five dollar bill out of his pocket. He said, "I'm going to make this personal."

JOHNSON: Is that the only time you met the Governor?

STEELMAN: I think so, yes.

JOHNSON: By the way, was that Oklahoma? Was it the Governor of Oklahoma or the Governor of Arkansas?

STEELMAN: This was Arkansas.

JOHNSON: But you never got involved in state politics I guess or did you?

 

[73]

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: You never got involved.

STEELMAN: Not really. Yes sir, I remember Shawnee, Oklahoma. The girl said, "I don't like it out yonder. I'm going to come home and dress like an Indian and live like an Indian."

JOHNSON: Was she in college at the time?

STEELMAN: Yes, it was a school, a college for Indian people over in Pennsylvania. I've forgotten the name of the college, but that's where...

JOHNSON: Carlisle?

STEELMAN: Maybe it's Carlisle Institute. But anyhow, she said, "I'm going to come home and dress like an Indian and live like an Indian. I don't like it out yonder."

JOHNSON: You never had to deal with Indian problems when you were in the White House, or did you?

STEELMAN: Not particularly.

JOHNSON: Well, I guess I asked you if there is anybody you didn't like?

 

[74]

STEELMAN: I don't remember anybody.

JOHNSON: Not until later on maybe.

STEELMAN: Yes.

E. STEELMAN: How about Clark Clifford? Or haven't you mentioned him.

JOHNSON: Well, he hasn't quite entered the story, but we did mention the dispute with Lewis, John L. Lewis, and supposedly they came down on different sides. When did you first meet Clark Clifford?

STEELMAN: Yes. He was in the Navy and I've forgotten what they called them...

JOHNSON: Oh, the Aides?

STEELMAN: Yes, the Military Aides to the President. That's when I first met him.

JOHNSON: Well, he was an assistant to [James K., Jr.] Vardaman. Do you remember that name, Vardaman?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Then when Vardaman went to the Federal Reserve Board, Clifford took his place.

 

[75]

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: And he had George Elsey working for him.

STEELMAN: Yes.

E. STEELMAN: Do you remember when you and [W.] Averell Harriman would get in a cab? Averell Harriman would ask you if you had any money to pay the cab.

STEELMAN: Yes.

E. STEELMAN: And that newspaper man that interviewed Averell, what did he ask him about the railroads. He said, "Aren't you a rich man?" That was very interesting. And he said, "Don't you own the Union Pacific?" "Oh," he said, "I believe I do." Something like that.

JOHNSON: At least his dad did and I think passed it down to him.

Well, Averell Harriman was brought back to be Secretary of Commerce for a year.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Was he one of your better friends there in the Cabinet; Averell Harriman?

 

[76]

STEELMAN: Yes, we got along just fine.

JOHNSON: You were supposed to be part of this conservative group: [John] Snyder, maybe Harriman, and [Charles] Sawyer who became Commerce Secretary after Harriman. Did you ever feel that you were part of one group and Clifford and his people were a part of another group? Did you ever get that feeling of cliques?

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so. I remember I would come in the staff meeting and I'd tell Truman, we'd decide to do this, this way, and so forth, and Clifford would speak up and say, "That's doesn't sound like good politics." And Truman would say, "Who's interested in politics. We're only interested in politics every four years, but in the meantime, we want to do what's right." So Clifford would leave, and Truman would say, "I wish Clark would learn to tend to his own business of speech writing and let you and me run the Government."

JOHNSON: Well, did you ever help Truman write any of his speeches? Were you involved at all in writing some of his speeches?

STEELMAN: Yes, I think I did, yes.

 

[77]

JOHNSON: Was this the way you'd kind of divide your duties? Clifford was responsible mainly for advising Truman, or helping Truman, on military and foreign affairs, and the rest of it was what you were mostly involved with?

STEELMAN: Clifford's job was speech writing, writing speeches for the President, and that was his job.

JOHNSON: But as far as the areas in which he was supposed to have expertise, or be good at. Did that tend to be foreign affairs, foreign policy and military...

STEELMAN: Oh, I don't know...

JOHNSON: You didn't see it necessarily that way.

STEELMAN: I don't think so at all.

JOHNSON: Of course, you were involved in -- had your hands in -- as has been mentioned, the Scientific Research Board, the Commission on Higher Education, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion. That was your main job there, wasn't it, that first year in the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion? Reconversion policy?

STEELMAN: Yes.

 

[78]

JOHNSON: You said you called in these corporation presidents and said, "We don't want a Depression." Truman had gone virtually bankrupt, because of recession after World War I. Did he ever talk to you about that haberdashery problem, the fact that there was a recession that put him out of business after World War I? Did he ever imply that that is one of the things that made him sensitive to the possibility of a depression?

STEELMAN: Yes, I think that he explained it to me, yes.

JOHNSON: What did he say about economics to you? What kind of advice or what kind of language did he use when he talked to you about this reconversion?

STEELMAN: As I say, the Cabinet members had been to a meeting with some corporation presidents down in Hot Springs, and they wrote a memorandum to Truman and they said, “After every war there’s a depression. And this is the greatest war, therefore look out for the greatest depression.” Truman showed that to me and I said, “Well, historically that’s correct,” but I said, “it doesn’t need to be.” I said, “What we need to do is get to work.”

 

[79]

So Truman said, "That sounds good to me." He said, "You see that we don't have a depression." [and sardonically] "I like to give you easy assignments."

JOHNSON: That's easier said than done.

STEELMAN: So I sent for these corporation presidents. I said, "I understand you fellows are expecting a big depression." They said, "Yes, we always have one after a war." I said, "You don't want one do you?" "Oh, God no." And I said, "Well, you may be interested to know Truman has assigned me to see that you don't have one.". I said, "What I want you to do is go home and produce goods so fast that they will be running out of our ears. I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll take price controls off as soon as I can with the understanding you won't be hoggish and raise [prices] and so forth."

So, they left it up to me.

JOHNSON: Would you say they lived up to their word?

STEELMAN: Yes, they did all right.

JOHNSON: Well, you had to keep a lid on inflation didn't you?

STEELMAN: Yes.

 

[80]

JOHNSON: We had the OPA, the Office of Price Administration, keeping the lid on prices. Controls stayed on for a while, didn't they?

STEELMAN: These corporation presidents when I told them I wanted them to produce goods until it was running out our ears, they said, "Well, the Federal Reserve won't loosen up on money." They said, "It's going to cost us three billion dollars to transfer back from War production to peacetime production."

So Marriner Eccles, the head of the Federal Reserve -- the Federal Reserve is not under the Executive Branch -- it's under the Congress. "Anyhow, I fired Marriner Eccles in Salt Lake City, and put a fellow in who would cooperate. So I told Truman one morning, I said, "Mr. President, I just did a terrible thing; you may hear about it, so I thought I'd better tell you." He said, "What." I said, "I fired Marriner Eccles, head of the Federal Reserve." Truman said, "What did you do a thing like that for?" And I said, "Well, he won't cooperate with me on a job you told me to do." And Truman said, "Oh, well, in that case, leave him

 

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fired."*

JOHNSON: And you remained a friend; you played golf with him.

STEELMAN: That's right. That's Washington for you.

JOHNSON: So, the Federal Reserve loosened up on money?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Does that me that they lowered the interest rates, or…

STEELMAN: Yes, made it easier for banks to borrow.

JOHNSON: They lowered interest rates?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: How about the GI Bill? Even though this may not have been its intention, the GI Bill which allowed these veterans to come back and go to college with a Federal subsidy, or Federal support, kept the veterans off the labor market, didn't it?

*This account is at variance with that in Marriner Eccles, Beckoning Frontiers (New York; Knopf, 1951), and in Sidney Hyman, Marriner Eccles (Stanford, California: Stanford University, School of Business, 1976) which assert that Steelman claimed that President Truman initiated this action to deny Eccles reappointment as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Eccles says he never received a clear explanation for the President's decision.

 

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STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Put them into the colleges. So that meant that a lot of people were able to keep their jobs who would have lost them otherwise.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Veterans had first choice, didn't they? If they wanted their old jobs back, the corporation had to give them that job, didn't they?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: Weren't you worried about two things, high unemployment and inflation, boom and bust?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Those two things you wanted to prevent?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Then Congress passed a law in 1946 called The Employment Act of 1946, in which the Congress said that the Federal Government will intervene in the economy if necessary to prevent excessive unemployment. Did you have any input into that Employment Act? Were you ever

 

[83]

consulted on that?

STEELMAN: I'm sure I was. I don't recall.

JOHNSON: The Council of Economic Advisors, was established by the Employment Act of 1946. So you think that you were consulted on that Employment Act?

STEELMAN: Oh, I'm sure I was, yes.

JOHNSON: Well, if you had Marriner Eccles fired, then you must have had some contacts with the Federal Reserve Board. Did you have other contacts with the Federal Reserve Board?

STEELMAN: Not particularly.

JOHNSON: That was the main one?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did Congress have to approve the firing of Eccles?

STEELMAN: I don't recall.

JOHNSON: Well, you got by with it apparently, didn't you?

STEELMAN: Well, I could -- more than anybody since Roosevelt. When I was head of the Conciliation Service, if there was a strike at a certain town, I'd know that the

 

[84]

Congressmen and the Senator would be getting letters and telephone calls and so I'd call them and tell them to tell the people that they'd been in touch with the Director of the U.S. Conciliation Service and that a man is on the way to settle it and get it back in order.

So, in ten years I touched practically every Senator and Congressman, and Truman said once that I had more influence with the Congress than he had because he could only control the Democrats maybe, but they all liked me. So, I had more influence with Congress than anybody since FDR.

JOHNSON: Because of your experience with the Reconciliation Service you got in touch with the Congressmen and the Senators in that area, so most of them knew you.

STEELMAN: Yes, that's right.

JOHNSON: And they knew you to be impartial, did they?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: You were not a political appointee.

STEELMAN: When we'd send a bill up to Congress, Truman would tell me, "John, you have more influence on the

 

[85]

Hill than I do; see that this bill gets passed." So, I'd call up whatever Senator was in charge of the bill and I'd say, "Senator, this bill number so and so, was sent up yesterday. Truman didn't write that, I did, and we need that done. Will you see to it?" And he would. I had more influence than anybody since FDR.

JOHNSON: On both sides, both Democrats and Republicans?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: Do you remember any particular Senators or Congressmen that were especially helpful to you?

STEELMAN: No, I don't at the time.

JOHNSON: Well, I was thinking that the Republicans kind of watered down the Employment Act. You know, at first it had the name Full Employment Act, and then it was sort of watered down and renamed the Employment Act of 1946.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Taft, I'm sure, had something to do with watering it down, or modifying it some. Robert Taft -- had you gotten acquainted with him back in the '30s?

STEELMAN: I think so. Anyhow, I could call Bob up and tell

 

[86]

him, "See that this bill goes through because I wrote that message; Truman didn't do it." So he'd say, "Okay, John."

JOHNSON: So you had a good relationship with Bob Taft.

STEELMAN: Oh yes.

JOHNSON: How about Vandenberg, Arthur Vandenberg?

STEELMAN: I had good relations with him too. And, as I say, I had more influence with the Congress than anybody since FDR.

JOHNSON: That's something. How about Senator [Charles] McNary, did you ever meet Senator McNary of Oregon?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: He ran with [Wendell] Willkie, you know, as the Vice Presidential candidate in 1940.

STEELMAN: Yes. Yes I did.

JOHNSON: Well, one of my relatives married into that family.

STEELMAN: Is that right?

JOHNSON: Yes. Truman apparently liked Senator McNary.

 

[87]

STEELMAN: I think he did.

JOHNSON: Do you know of any other Republican Congressmen or Senators that Truman liked?

STEELMAN: I don't remember any.

JOHNSON: He got to like Vandenberg I think, because Vandenberg cooperated on foreign policy, like the so-called Truman Doctrine.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: Were you ever asked for advice, you know, like the Truman Doctrine, aid to Greece and Turkey, or on the Marshall Plan? Were you ever asked to help out with those programs?

STEELMAN: Oh, yes, any program that came up.

JOHNSON: Did you sit in on these speech writing sessions and go over

STEELMAN: Sometimes, yes.

JOHNSON: Sometimes you'd go over speeches.

STEELMAN: Yes.

 

[88]

JOHNSON: When did you start attending Cabinet meetings? Right after you got there, or later on?

STEELMAN: Truman made me a member of the Cabinet when I first came back there.

JOHNSON: When you started helping Schwellenbach?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: So did you and Schwellenbach both attend Cabinet meetings then?

STEELMAN: Yes. I remember somebody, I've forgotten his name now, some advisor to Truman who said to me, "John, you better resign from the Government and get back to New York, because, one after another of the Cabinet, they'll be jealous of you because you're a member of the Cabinet and you're closer to the President than they are. One after another, Cabinet members will get mad at you and finally Truman will have to fire all of them or you, and he'll fire you." So, it worried me, and I thought it over. The next day I told Truman, "Mr. President, you've made me a member of the Cabinet, but I'm the last member that you'll call on when you call on one after another in the Cabinet, and when you get to me, you'll say, 'Dr. Steelman, do you have

 

[89]

anything to bring up to the Cabinet.' I'll say, 'No, Mr. President, but I would like to make a comment on that problem that Secretary Sawyer brought up. You know, he and his staff are doing a wonderful job on that, for sure, and if there is any help I can give from this side of the street, let me know."' So Truman said, "John, don't you think I know what I'm doing?" He said, "I appointed the best mediator in America to be a member of my Cabinet, you know how to handle them."

So, one time Truman said, "John, I haven't heard from any member of the Cabinet in two weeks. Do you hear from them?" I said, "Lord, Mr. President, they keep me up to after midnight every night."

JOHNSON: Yes, you kept late hours.

STEELMAN: I sure did.

JOHNSON: Well, when did you start these hours till 8, 9 o'clock at night? When you first came back to the Government in '45, did you start keeping office hours until 8 and 9?

STEELMAN: Yes. I guess so.

JOHNSON: And up until midnight?

 

[90]

STEELMAN: Oh yes.

JOHNSON: Did your wife ever complain?

STEELMAN: I don't remember.

JOHNSON: Well, I know in one case you had an appointment at midnight; you said this person really wanted to see you they'd have to wait until midnight.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did you have midnight appointments now and then?

STEELMAN: Some of the Cabinet. The Cabinet would call up and tell my secretary they needed to see me, but if I couldn't see them before 12, to call them tomorrow morning. Otherwise, I'd call them up at 3 o'clock and say, "I'm ready to see you now."

As I say, my father said, "You outwork everybody there and you'll come out on top." So that was always my philosophy.

JOHNSON: Did you have a chauffeur driven car so anytime you wanted to go home, you'd call and a chauffeur would take you home?

 

[91]

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: And to work?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: So, you did have a chauffeur. Did all Cabinet members have chauffeurs?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: To take them to and from work.

STEELMAN: I don't know if they all had them.

JOHNSON: But at least you had transportation whenever you wanted it?

STEELMAN: Yes, I had it.

JOHNSON: I think there was an account that Truman, from his living quarters, could see your office.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: And he could see whether you were there, whether the light was on and you were working.

STEELMAN: That's right. Sometimes he'd buzz me and say, "What are you doing down there; why don't you go home

 

[92]

and get some sleep?"

JOHNSON: But would you wait to answer the phone, because you knew it was Harry Truman calling? And then you'd say, "Well, I was just going out the door."

STEELMAN: "I'm just on my way out."

JOHNSON: That's what you'd tell him, "I'm just on my way out?"

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Then after he put the phone down and went back to bed, what did you do?

STEELMAN: The operator would tip me off if Truman was about to call me, and so I'd know who it was calling.

JOHNSON: But then you didn't necessarily go home did you?

STEELMAN: No, I worked all night many, many times.

JOHNSON: And you were always at work at what time in the morning?

STEELMAN: Oh, I'd get down to the office about 8 or 8:15.

JOHNSON: You were always there at 8:15, regardless of when you got home?

 

[93]

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: Like 2 in the morning?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: You sound like Harry Truman on the farm, you know. He'd get in from his date with Bess Truman, maybe at 1 or 2 in the morning, and his dad would still get him out of bed at 5 o'clock.

STEELMAN: Yes.

E. STEELMAN: Daddy, did you tell Mr. Johnson how the President would point his finger and say, "Do you want to let your country down?"

STEELMAN: What's that, dear?

E. STEELMAN: Did he tell you that?

JOHNSON: Yes.

E. STEELMAN: The President said, "Are you going to work for me, or are you going to let your country down."

JOHNSON: Yes, when he was asking you to come back to the White House.

 

[94]

STEELMAN: Oh yes, yes.

JOHNSON: He put a "guilt trip" on you.

STEELMAN: Yes, he sure did.

JOHNSON: Just like it had been put on him when Roosevelt talked on the phone when he was in Chicago.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Roosevelt said, "Well, you tell him that if he wants to break up the Democrat Party and let the country down in the middle of the war, that's his responsibility."

STEELMAN: That's his responsibility.

E. STEELMAN: Did you tell him about being Ambassador to China?

JOHNSON: Oh, yes. It's not on tape I guess.

E. STEELMAN: Right now he calls people and says, "This is Ambassador Steelman talking." He calls himself Ambassador.

JOHNSON: Oh, yes. Did the President want to appoint you as Ambassador to China?

 

[95]

STEELMAN: Well, he did. He did appoint me. My best friend when I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt University was a big Chinese guy we called J.L. Huang. So, Huang and I were very close and one time Truman was trying to get Chiang Kai Shek to do something, I've forgot what, but to do something to keep these Communists from taking over China. And whatever it was that Truman was trying to get Chiang Kai Shek to do, I mentioned to Truman one day that I had run into my old friend J.L. Huang over at a State Department meeting. Truman said, "I'll appoint you Ambassador to China and you go over and work through him to get Chiang Kai Shek to do whatever it was," I forgot.

E. STEELMAN: In the meantime, Daddy, Huang was Ambassador to some country and he had been appointed by Chiang Kai Shek, wasn't he in Panama or something. Anyway he was a man of influence, this Huang was.

STEELMAN: Yes, he was. Well, anyway, Truman appointed me as Ambassador to China and you have to go through a lot of stuff before the State Department will clear you for going abroad. And you have to take all kinds of shots. I remember the cholera shot, and the yellow fever shots almost killed me. I went through all of that and I got

 

[96]

ready and so Truman said, "Well, now, I'm going to sign your appointment as Ambassador to China, but I won't announce it until you're in the air tomorrow on your way."

So, overnight, Chiang Kai Shek fled from China and went to Taiwan. So the next morning Truman said, "Well, there's nothing you can do; we're calling it off." Truman said, "I'll have to rescind your appointment." So I have a world's record. I said to Truman, "Isn't that a shame. Of all the pain I've gone through to get ready to go." And Truman said, "Well, look at it this way. Take a positive view. Don't be a negative personality. Now you have a world's record. You have the shortest term ever served as Ambassador to a foreign country. Yet," he said, "Ambassador is a title of honor, and the rest of your life you'll be Ambassador Steelman. That's the way to look at it."

JOHNSON: Well, we mentioned that it was "Dr. Steelman" for what, a few weeks, then it became John, and you said that when he started calling you John...

STEELMAN: Calling me John, I knew I had it made.

ROBERT HART: He was a file clerk, too. Let him tell you about when he was a file clerk. He had a job as a file

 

[97]

clerk.

STEELMAN: Oh, yes. We were down in Key West and were playing poker. Truman played poker all the time, every weekend, and I only played when we were at Key West. But I accidentally beat Truman out of, I think, a $38 pot or something. So I'm raking in the chips and Truman said, "John, what was your title when you left Washington the day before yesterday?" I said, "Mr. President, of all people to ask me that, you know what my title is, you gave it to me." Well, he said, "From now on you're chief file clerk of the White House."

So, all the rest of that trip he'd say, "Deal, file clerk." He said it so many times I thought maybe it was going to stick. But we get back to Washington and he calls me in and says. "John, I've got to reinstate you to your former position. A problem has come up that a file clerk couldn't possibly handle." He said, "The Government of Italy is about to fall Communist," and he said, "If that happens we're going to have trouble all over the world." So, he said, "You are hereby reappointed." And he said, "You see that Italy does not fall." So out I went.*

*See Interview #2 for an extension of this topic.

 

[98]

JOHNSON: You had some big jobs.

STEELMAN: Well, out I went with a task.

JOHNSON: That had to do, I think, with food aid for Europe. Of course, the Marshall Plan was to help rebuild their economies. In fact, what did he usually say was the best defense against Communism? Was it economic aid and economic growth?

STEELMAN: Yes, that's right.

JOHNSON: And fair distribution of wealth?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: It wasn't McCarthy's kind of tactic.

E. STEELMAN: And he got a beautiful medal from the King of Italy wasn't it, and it was lost a long time and they finally found it in a barrel someplace. Do you remember that?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: The President of Italy?

E. STEELMAN: Do you remember that?

 

[99]

HART: He wasn't allowed to receive it. He wasn't allowed to receive the medal because you talked about that gift. You remember they wouldn't let you receive the medal.

STEELMAN: It was in the State Department; they would hold it until I left the Government.

JOHNSON: Oh yes. Well, Harry Vaughan got into trouble because of a medal from the Government of Argentina, Peron's government. Eisenhower and Marshall, and others had received the medal, but when Vaughan got it, Drew Pearson wrote this scathing column and then Drew Pearson said, "Well, the President should fire him." Do you remember what Truman said to this Army Reserve group? He said, "No S.O.B. can tell me who I should hire and fire." The S.O.B. incident?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did he ever talk to you about that?

STEELMAN: I don't remember.

JOHNSON: I think Drew Pearson said it might mean "sons of brotherhood."

STEELMAN: I remember one time there was a squabble going on

 

[100]

up in the Supreme Court and the President got word about it and he said to me, "They need a mediator up there; I wish you were a lawyer. I'd send you to the Supreme Court." I remember I said, "Well, Fred Vinson is a good mediator, as good as I am." I said, "Just appoint Fred, who's now Secretary of the Treasury, just appoint him and let's send him up there. And John Snyder, who's the Office of War Mobilization Director, and Pearson writes him up every day, criticizes him, let's send John back over as Secretary of the Treasury, that's where he belonged anyhow. And then I'll take over the old OWMR office." And so that's the way we worked it out.

JOHNSON: You said that he was a good conciliator. In other words, had you gotten acquainted with him when you were director of the Conciliation Service?

STEELMAN: That's right, yes.

JOHNSON: And you were impressed with Fred Vinson?

STEELMAN: Yes. Yes, I liked him.

JOHNSON: And Truman certainly liked him. He was a good poker player too, right.

 

[101]

STEELMAN: Oh, yes. Yes.

JOHNSON: Did he play poker with you down here at Key West?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Now, there's a subject we're going to get into tomorrow more. That is your adventures in Key West. So if you want to think a little bit about that for tomorrow, and then we'll be getting probably up to the election in 1948, the campaign of 1948, and how you held down the White House while the President was gone on that campaign. Then perhaps there will be some other topics that I might pull out from this list.

HART: Tell him the story about Truman quoting something from a book that was on the Williamsburg, about his photographic memory? That's a good story.

E. STEELMAN: Oh, yes, that's wonderful.

HART: And the story about where you and he were sitting on the beach and you're talking about what happens if both of you would go out in the ocean and be gone: what the President's attitude was about it.

E. STEELMAN: He just said, "We're both farm boys."

HART: He said, "We're both farm boys and if we both walked

 

[102]

out..." You'll recall the story, and another one was when he was having an argument with somebody about what a quote was of some philosopher a long time ago and Truman quoted him out of a book.

STEELMAN: Oh, yes, I remember that. Fred Vinson was visiting with us down in Key West and he made some statement, quoted something. And Truman said, "That's not what the man said." Fred Vinson said, "Why Mr. President, I've been using that phrase in speeches for 30 years." Mr. Truman said, "Oh, it's worse than I thought. I thought you just had a slip of the tongue." He said, "That's not what he said, he said so and so."

JOHNSON: Was this in Latin? Was this a Latin quotation?

STEELMAN: Latin or Greek. Anyway, Truman had a perfect photographic memory.

JOHNSON: He could just see it through his mind.

STEELMAN: Yes, sir, he had a perfect photographic memory. He could see something, and he'd never forget it.

HART: Finish the story about what he told the guy to do, he'd sent him out to the boat to get the book off of the Williamsburg I guess it was. He could almost quote

 

[103]

him the page and paragraph where it came from.

STEELMAN: That's right, Fred Vinson quoted something, and Truman said, "That's not what the man said." Vinson said, "Well, Mr. President, what are you talking about, I've been using that phrase in speeches for 30 years." And Truman said, "Oh, it's worse than I thought. I thought you just had a slip of the tongue." So Truman said to Matt Connelly, "Go down to the boat;" Truman's yacht was there. He said, "Look on the shelf next to the bottom, three feet to the right, and get this book and look at page so and so. And there's this statement that he's been misquoting." And Truman said, "You better bring the book up here and let me show him." So he showed it to him and Vinson said, "Damned if I'll ever argue with you again."

JOHNSON: Truman was a great reader. You know, he knew ancient history. Did you ever hear him give examples, or analogies from ancient history that apply to the present?

STEELMAN: That's right. If a problem came up Truman would say, "Well, you know, they had this same problem in Greece in 600 BC, and here's the way they solved it." Yes, he knew the history of the world.

 

[104]

JOHNSON: Cato, the elder, I believe it was, he thought was so great, and Cincinnatus. He said he would like to pattern himself after Cincinnatus the Roman General that won the wars and then went back to the farm and plowed ground; didn't try to become a dictator.

Did you ever hear Truman talk about Potomac fever? Did he warn you about not getting Potomac Fever?

STEELMAN: Yes. Yes.

JOHNSON: When you came back to Washington?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: How did he put that? What did he say?

STEELMAN: I don't recall just how he put it. But "don't ever get Potomac fever."

JOHNSON: Or high hat and stuffed shirt. Those are terms he liked to use.

STEELMAN: Yes.

E. STEELMAN: Who had Potomac fever? Who had it of your group?

JOHNSON: Who do you think had that Potomac fever?

 

[105]

STEELMAN: Well, Clifford for one. I don't know who else.

JOHNSON: Prima Donnas, that was another term he liked to use for people. High hats, stuffed shirt and Prima Donnas.

STEELMAN: And Prima Donnas, yes.

JOHNSON: But Clifford -- Truman must have felt that he was useful to him.

STEELMAN: Well, he was our speech writer.

JOHNSON: Do you think a good speech writer? Was he good at it?

STEELMAN: Yes, he was pretty good at it, yes. And some of Truman's administrative assistants would help with the speech writing.

JOHNSON: Well, now David Stowe...

STEELMAN: David Stowe was one of them.

JOHNSON: ...I've interviewed him and I know David Stowe rather well, a very fine fellow.

E. STEELMAN: Oh, he's wonderful. He was my top assistant.

 

[106]

JOHNSON: Where did he learn his mediation skills? Did he learn them from you?

STEELMAN: I guess.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, you got involved with the Railroad Brotherhoods, especially, I think it was, the firemen and the locomotive engineers, led by Jock [Alexander F.] Whitney and Johnston.

STEELMAN: Yes, Alvaney Johnston.

JOHNSON: Were they thorns in Truman's side, and your side too? Were they troublesome to you and to Truman?

STEELMAN: Well, sometimes they were, yes.

JOHNSON: But did you remain friends with both of them?

STEELMAN: Well, yes, I did, but I don't remember when we seized the railroads.

JOHNSON: Well, several times. There were maybe three times during his administration that the Government seized them.

STEELMAN: Turned them over to me.

JOHNSON: When they turned them over to you, you just kind

 

[107]

of assigned the same people to do what they had been doing, right?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: Did you really have to spend much time monitoring the railroads when the Government was in control?

STEELMAN: Well, I called in the presidents of the railroad unions, and I said, "I find myself in possession of some properties that I'm not personally acquainted with, and I want to appoint you as my top assistant and give you the job of running it." So, I'd let the railroad presidents run the railroad.

JOHNSON: Did they have to report to you though? Did they have to give you written reports? You had to have some kind of reports, didn't you, from these people? Was it just oral or written?

STEELMAN: I think oral mostly. Yes.

JOHNSON: But would they call you then, or you'd call them to find out how things were going and kind of keep in touch? What did you spend most of your time on, when you were The Assistant to the President? What would you say you generally spent the majority of your time

 

[108]

doing?

STEELMAN: Lord, I don't know how to answer that. All kinds of problems came to me. All the Cabinet officers and so forth.

JOHNSON: Now you were on the phone a lot.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: In fact, I think it said somewhere that you had a slight paralysis in one hand from holding the phone so much.

STEELMAN: I held the phone so long, yes.

JOHNSON: And if you weren't on the phone, then you were being visited by Cabinet members and union people?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Management people?

STEELMAN: All kinds of people.

JOHNSON: Lobbyists?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: But usually you didn't spend much time with

 

[109]

lobbyists because they couldn't get much -- or could they? Could the lobbyists get much through you?

STEELMAN: No.

JOHNSON: But with Cabinet members and agency heads, were you supposed to be the liaison between the White House and them, such as the RFC?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: The head of the RFC. How about the ICC, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission? Did you always have to keep tabs with them?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Then there was the OPA [Office of Price Administration]. You had to help terminate the Office of Price Administration.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: You got involved with rationing and trying to end rationing, and in fact, by the end of 1946 almost all rationing was ended wasn't it.

STEELMAN: I think so, yes.

 

[110]

JOHNSON: And Price Controls were pretty much ended except for, what, rents, rice and sugar, I believe.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Then you got this kind of inflationary trend, and you had to keep an eye on that.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: So you had to be worried about the economy. You had to be worried about these regulatory agencies; you had to keep Cabinet people happy.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: You didn't have much spare time.

STEELMAN: I sure didn't. I sure didn't.

JOHNSON: But they were pretty cooperative.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: With any exceptions? How about exceptions? Now you mentioned Marriner Eccles that he was fired, or let go. Did Clark Clifford ever come to you and ask you for advice on anything?

 

[111]

STEELMAN: No, I don't think so.

JOHNSON: Did he expect you to come to him and ask him for advice?

STEELMAN: No, but he didn't need any advice. He thought he knew all the answers.

JOHNSON: He was over there in the West Wing, near the Oval office, and you were over on the East Wing.

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: In fact, we've got a layout of the White House that shows where your offices were.

How big a staff did you have?

STEELMAN: Well, when I went into the East Wing of the White House as The Assistant to the President, I inherited a staff of 350 people, and I fired all except 10 percent. I kept 35. So I still had a bigger staff than Truman had. I had a staff of 35 people.

JOHNSON: You've mentioned David Stowe being very helpful. How about some other names of those who were especially helpful and useful to you.

STEELMAN: I don't recall.

 

[112]

JOHNSON: Was David Bell involved with your operation?

STEELMAN: Yes, Dave Bell, I remember him. He was one of the President's special assistants.

JOHNSON: Did David Lloyd ever come over and help you out? David Lloyd, he was another speech writer.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Charlie Murphy?

STEELMAN: Yes. Charlie Murphy, I remember Charles Murphy.

JOHNSON: He eventually took Clifford's place.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: But before that, he came over to visit you I believe, and he noticed that you were having staff meetings. Did you have one every day with your staff?

STEELMAN: Yes, I think I did. Just about every day, yes.

JOHNSON: And he thought there were things going on that he ought to know about. Do you remember Charlie Murphy asking if he could sit in on your staff meetings?

STEELMAN: No, I don't remember it.

 

[113]

JOHNSON: Do you remember him sitting in, or listening in to any of your staff meetings?

STEELMAN: No, I don't. Maybe he did attend some, but I just don't recall.

JOHNSON: Was Charlie Murphy one of these people who would circulate, more or less, between the East Wing and the West Wing. In other words, did he keep tabs on what was going on, on both wings of the White House?

STEELMAN: Yes, I guess he knew pretty well. He was a good man.

JOHNSON: How did he differ from Clark Clifford?

STEELMAN: Well, he was just more cooperative all the way around.

JOHNSON: Of course, he took Clifford's place about 1950. Was Charlie Murphy ever involved in your labor-management. problems?

STEELMAN: Not particularly as I recall, no.

JOHNSON: Was he helpful to you in any other way?

STEELMAN: Clifford resigned and left the White House and

 

[114]

went out into town as a lobbyist to make money.

JOHNSON: Well, did you see him as a lobbyist when he became an attorney there in Washington?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Although he claims, you know, that he didn't peddle influence, or try to...

STEELMAN: Well, that's what he was.

JOHNSON: Leon Keyserling. Do you remember Leon Keyserling?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Did he have Potomac fever?

STEELMAN: Who, Keyserling?

JOHNSON: Yes.

STEELMAN: I think he did. I think he did.

JOHNSON: You had some differences of opinion with Leon Keyserling?

STEELMAN: I think we did sometimes.

JOHNSON: How about [Edwin A.] Nourse. He was considered the conservative member of the Council of Economic

 

[115]

Advisors.

STEELMAN: That's right, Nourse.

JOHNSON: Do you remember him?

STEELMAN: Yes, I remember him.

JOHNSON: Did you get along with him?

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Well, I think tomorrow we'll talk a little bit about your relations with the Council of Economic Advisors. We'll talk a little more about your Key West trips. You were mentioning that the President looked out at the ocean and said, "We could..." How was it?

STEELMAN: He said, "If we walked out there, and we drowned, this great country would go right on without us." So he said, "Let's don't ever overestimate our importance." He said, "This great country would go right on without us."

JOHNSON: You're not indispensable.

STEELMAN: No sir.

JOHNSON: So that was a sign of what? His modesty?

 

[116]

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: You saw him as a modest person?

STEELMAN: Yes, he was.

JOHNSON: He was concerned that power would not go to his head?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: And he had to remind himself not to let that happen?

STEELMAN: That's right.

JOHNSON: And he felt that you were helpful to him because you did not let power go to your head?

STEELMAN: That's right. Yes.

JOHNSON: So, he liked that.

STEELMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: But did he ever say, "Now, John, don't get Potomac fever."

STEELMAN: I don't think he had to. He didn't have to.

 

[117]

JOHNSON: He didn't have to lecture you on that.

STEELMAN: No.

E. STEELMAN: Daddy, that Mr. Rausch that you communicate with, I asked you who he was, and I thought you said he was on your staff at the White House. Rausch, and he sends you clippings all the time now from Washington papers.

JOHNSON: Mr. Rausch?

E. STEELMAN: Yes. Don't you remember, Robert, I mentioned his name, Rausch. I said, "What connection did you have with him in Washington?" And I thought you said that…

JOHNSON: Oh, Bausch. Here it says Bausch.

STEELMAN: Oh, Bausch. Oh, yes, Bausch.

E. STEELMAN: Is it Bausch? What was he? You have mentioned David Stowe.

JOHNSON: Was he another assistant?

STEELMAN: Bausch, I think he was a lobbyist for some company.

 

[118]

E. STEELMAN: I thought he was on your staff. I asked what was your connection with him in Washington, you know, because he started sending you all of these newspaper articles of some important things in Washington recently.

STEELMAN: We had adjoining offices when I was in the Albee Building in Washington.

JOHNSON: Oh, that was after you left the White House?

STEELMAN: Yes.

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