Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened December, 1970
March 5, 1970
by J. R. Fuchs
FUCHS: Mr. Abbott, to start, I wonder if you might give us a little of your background: a brief resumé of when and where you were born, your education, and how you got started in life until the time you came in touch with Mr. Truman and the Truman Committee when you were in the Navy.
ABBOTT: I was born in Flint, Michigan in 1911. I grew up in that town, graduated from high school there, and went to Marquette University in Milwaukee for college; graduated from the
Marquette School of Journalism. I followed journalism for the next several years, and came to California in 1936. I went to work for the United Press in Sacramento, the state capital, covering the legislature and the state departments there. I stayed in Sacramento, later transferring to the Associated Press, until 1940, and at that time I went to Washington and went to work for Congressman John H. Tolan of California. Mr. Tolan, shortly after I came to Washington was appointed the chairman of a select committee of the House with the responsibility of inquiring into the causes of destitute migration. This was during the era of the dust bowl and the great uprooting of people from the Southwestern United States, many thousands of whom came into California and other Western States. I stayed with that committee until 1942. During that period, also,
the Tolan committee responsibilities were changed somewhat and they were asked to inquire into what was then greater priority, since World War II had begun. That was the great movement on a nationwide basis to the war production centers, Navy and Army arsenals, shipyards, and so forth. So, again, I came back to the West Coast for a considerable period of time. The committee also made an investigation into the relocation of the Japanese people residing on the West Coast. During all of the period, 1940 to 1942, I was in frequent contact, of course, with the many members of the House and in some cases the Senate, although the committee's work, of course, related principally to the House.
In September 1942, I entered the military service and was commissioned a naval lieutenant junior grade at Washington, D.C. I was assigned shortly thereafter to training in South Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans, and eventually was
assigned to duty in the Armed Guard, a rather little known branch of the Naval service which had the duty of manning guns on merchant ships and transports. After about two years, or a little less, of sea duty, I was requested by the son of Congressman Tolan, John H. Tolan, Jr., to come to Washington for an interview for possible service at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Mr. Tolan was already at work as a naval lieutenant in that office, under the direction of Captain John A. Kennedy. The mission of that office was to act as a liaison service for the Chief of Naval Operations and the various bureaus, and the Secretary of the Navy, with some of the committees of the House and the Senate who were inquiring into the several phases of the conduct of the war. The foremost assignment of that office was the relationship which the Navy and also the Army had, although that was not a direct part of our responsibility,
we were in frequent contact with the Army. The chief responsibility was to keep the lines of information and communication open to the Truman Committee as it was then known. The official name of the committee was, as I recall, the Senate War Investigating Committee.
A word of background about the Committee might be in order -- at least from my standpoint. The Committee was appointed by the United States Senate, I believe, early in 1941, possibly a little in advance of that. It was done at the urging of Senator Truman who felt that the United States was embarked upon, at that time, the greatest and the most costly effort in its history, and Mr. Truman correctly foresaw that there would be, although I think that he did not see the full extent, he saw that this was to be an enormous effort.
Mr. Truman had told the Senate in justifying his requests that his principal objective
was to eliminate waste of money. He was likewise concerned, of course, and primarily concerned, with holding down the loss of lives, but he felt that this, was, except for within very narrow limits, not a proper function of the Senate. Mr. Truman frequently recalled, then and in later years, that his inspiration for this idea came from his own reading of history, especially the Civil War, where he had gone very deeply into the committee appointed during President Lincoln's administration called The Committee on the Conduct of the War. This committee took it upon itself to intervene directly into military operations. Mr. Truman's recollection from his reading was that President Lincoln was forced on several occasions to go before the Senate and justify, attempt to justify, his designation of generals and why he wasn't recalling this general, or why he wasn't appointing, and above all, why he wasn't winning the war. Mr. Truman
felt that the proper field for his committee if the Senate agreed, would be to work directly with the procurement divisions of the Army and Navy. His belief was, and it was later borne out by the Committee's records, that many billions of dollars could be saved by close attention to cost and to expenditures.
So much for background. I will return to my own participation. I was then, at this time, advanced to the rank of full lieutenant and assigned, along with Mr. Tolan and under Captain Kennedy's direction, to work with the Truman Committee. Our duty was to maintain a close relationship with the staff, principally the staff and the chief counsel of the Committee, and to carry the complaints received by the Committee, which were very numerous, ranging over a wide field, reports, rumors, information of all kinds coming to the Committee alleging waste all over the country. The Committee was fully
aware that under the stress of war there were undoubtedly great areas of waste. Their principal concern was to try to instill in the Army and the Navy, a sense of responsibility and a very vigorous effort to correct these errors and to establish strict policies within the various boards and bureaus who were spending the money, to arrest this waste whenever it was found and to do their best to hold down expenditures. No one on the Truman Committee nor anywhere else in the Congress was disposed to deny the Armed Services what they needed to win, but Mr. Truman thought this could be done and still save money. He gave a figure later on, I believe, of an estimated saving to the United States, of something in excess of 16 billion dollars, through the Truman Committee's work.
I think the Committee's method of operation is of some significance, because in some respects it indicated Mr. Truman's basic approach to
government. He had a profound knowledge of American history; he had a profound faith in the American people, once they were given full information, to reach sensible decisions. He felt if this idea could be put across to the Armed Services, that they were also men of good will, and the net result would be an enormous gain all around. The thing Mr. Truman kept stressing was that there had to be a complete and full cooperation between the Armed Services and his Committee. He suggested soon after the formation of the Committee to the two Secretaries -- it is to be borne in mind that at that time there was no separate division of the Air Force. It was then called the Air Corps and was a part of the Army, the Marines, of course, being a part of the Navy. He suggested to the two Secretaries that in general a procedure somewhat as follows be set up: The Committee would receive complaints, and was already receiving complaints.
They would do their own evaluation. When they came upon something which they considered of broad significance or possessing unusual merit, or calling for corrective measures, whatever the avenues might be, the Armed Services, Navy or Army, would be called in and consulted. A determination would be made as to the seriousness of the situation, and a formula agreed upon for correction. Mr. Truman, his directness, his bluntness, his plainness, came very much to the fore in this kind of exchange. He later on told me, as I know he told many other people, that he considered this to be a fair bargain and was told by the two Secretaries at that time, that they considered it to be a fair bargain, and that he expected it to be carried out. Naturally, my own role, although of very little significance, the same as with Lieutenant Tolan or Captain Kennedy, left us in the position of not being able to win on
either side. We would come back from the Truman Committee offices laden with complaints and be directed to carry those off to which ever of the offending bureaus were at fault, or thought to be at fault. So, it was our somewhat melancholy and unpleasant duty to tromp down the hall and tell some senior admiral that the Truman Committee thought that he was doing a very poor job at an ordnance plant or shipyard, or some other facility. But of course, Mr. Truman stuck with it. He exacted these conditions, he expected them to be followed out, and I can recall on one or two instances, that when the going got a little rough for the Navy, and they began to have some second thoughts about the bargain, Mr. Truman wasted no time. He sent a note to the Secretary of the Navy on one occasion, and said that -- reminded him of the agreement -- he said, I believe it was the Bureau of Ships, as it was then called, didn't want to
give the Committee the information that they felt they had a right to see; and he told the Secretary that if the records were not forthcoming by 9 o'clock the next morning, it then being, as I recall around 5 or 6 in the evening, he would send a truck and a subpoena down and get the records with any number of men necessary to carry them out. Needless to say, the Committee got the records. Mr. Truman did not do this in my opinion to show off or throw his weight around or anything else. He felt that he and his colleagues who were nine on the Committee altogether, were engaged in an effort of utmost importance to the country as a whole, and he felt that the Navy and the Army would be much better off if they cooperated. And that was his approach. It was, as I say, a part of his overall philosophy of government, that you kept your word. It was a part, as he often said, of human relationships. You made a
bargain with someone, and it was the public's business, and the people who wanted to take another look, that was too bad. It was the public that was at stake. That was the way he felt about things.
My own estimate is that he did indeed, and the Committee indeed, did make a very important contribution. There have been numerous works, numerous authors, many articles, writings by Mr. Truman himself and others, detailing the work of the Committee, which is now many years in the past. I believe that full credit is still lacking to this work that Mr. Truman carried out. To carry this forward, at a time when the public was demanding to win the war, was not always a popular thing to do. And yet, he persevered and through his sincerity and his fairness he carried through the work of his Committee until he left as chairman, to my recollection, without a single
dissenting report, which is a remarkable record. There were nine Senators, as I said earlier, and it was divided along the Democratic majority of five and four Republicans. Mr. Truman ran this in a wholly nonpartisan way. He had divided up the work of the Committee into subcommittees, three or four in nature, and divided them roughly according to subject, and invariably they brought in a unified and unanimous report on whatever they were doing, and that stands to the credit, not only of Mr. Truman, of course, but of all his colleagues.
So, I think this may be a little background as to the kind of man Harry Truman was, and that activity which took him out of relative obscurity as a junior Senator from Missouri to nationwide prominence. It was no small factor in the opinion of most observers in his selection ultimately as vice-presidential
candidate; but it was not a desire for publicity that motivated it. This is, I think, worth thinking about, but he did not do it. The Committee's first appropriation, as I recall, was for $15,000. Anyone looking at today's dollar and today's sums would consider that it was a modest sum. True, but it was somewhat scaled in proportion to his approach. He was a modest man; he sincerely thought that he would not need a tremendous sum. He thought, however, that the job would get larger, but he said, "Well, if we can't do anything with $15,000 we can't do anything with $50,000. So let's see where we can go. There's enough trouble I know around, I'm not looking for trouble. It's coming in my offic