Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened January, 1976
Oral History Interview with
December 18, 1972
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Mr. Adams could you say something about your recollection of President Truman's coming to office at the time of the death of Franklin Roosevelt?
ADAMS: I was in the State Department, and in those years the Department was right next to the White House -- occupied what was the State, Army, Navy Building.
I was in what subsequently became the Bureau of U. N. Affairs. At the time we were working on the preparations for the U. N. San Francisco Conference, the preparatory Dumbarton Oaks Conference having been held the previous fall. Our office was at the south end of the building on the ground floor, overlooking a lovely garden. It was late
in the afternoon, probably about 5 o'clock, when Mr. [Joseph E.] Johnson, our chief, came in the room and he said, "Gentlemen, the President is dead." The news, of course, was a great shock because no one had any notion then that the President was ailing. I think the last time I'd heard President Roosevelt was in the address he gave to Congress following his return from Yalta; and then the next thing he's dead. Hearing the news, my colleagues and I closed up work for the day. I personally walked out in front of the White House and just stood there. The flag was at half mast. People began to gather but no great crowd. Soon I went on home and listened to radio news bulletins and commemorative programs which continued through the night. I was alone at that time, my wife and son being in Chicago on their way back from Ecuador. I had been stationed in Quito but had returned to Washington a year before the President's death. My wife stayed on to work for Nelson Rockefeller's Coordinator's Office. She was returning to Washington,
and was in Chicago at the time of President Roosevelt's death.
She arrived in D. C. the next morning with our three-year old son, Tommy, who at that point spoke nothing but Spanish. He and his grandmother in Duluth apparently had had a rather difficult time, being unable to converse.
But anyway, it was quite remarkable how the radio stations, with almost no notice, carried long and detailed programs about the President's life and death. So, at that point begins the Truman story.
MCKINZIE: What did this do to your work? Did you find planning for the San Francisco Conference about the same way as before, or was there some uncertainty about what course President Truman might take?
ADAMS: As I recall, there was a brief interlude where there was uncertainty as to whether the conference should be convened on schedule but I don't recall that there was any question as to a shift in the
U. S. position on any U. N. Charter issue. I doubt that there was. Also the decision to proceed as planned on opening of the Conference was quickly taken. I personally did not attend the opening of the Conference. Officers in our division divided time at the Conference. I went out in mid-May and stayed until the finish.
I flew from Washington to San Francisco in a military plane, a DC-3 which was transporting military personnel. The only other civilian on the plane was Ambassador Julius Holmes. It took us nearly 20 hours to get across the country, with stops at military bases in Des Moines and Salt Lake City (or Ogden), where we had dinner.
Taking off at nightfall, we arrived over San Francisco about two in the morning, maybe a little earlier. It was a beautiful night, but there was fog and floating clouds over the bay area. The pilot made two runs at the airstrip south of San Francisco, emerging from the overcast both times over a yacht harbor. Obviously apprehensive, the pilot decided to go for the Oakland Airport
where there was no cloud cover. Once on the ground he told Ambassador Holmes that he'd lost instrument contact an hour out of San Francisco. In short, we had come in almost blind on those two approaches. We felt lucky to be alive.
In San Francisco I roomed with Andrew Cordier, who subsequently became Trygve Lie's principal aide. At this point he was one of the regular officers in the division.
One of the interesting things to the U. S. delegation was how Scotty [James] Reston of the New York Times obtained inside information as to what was going on in closed sessions of the committees. His stories were uncannily accurate and nobody could figure out his sources. Some years later Scotty divulged his source to be a member of the Chinese delegation who had supplied him with conference documents.
MCKINZIE: What was your own work there? Was it by this time a matter of formality, or were there still substantive issues with which you had to deal at the conference?
ADAMS: The veto, of course, became the overriding issue of the Conference. I personally worked on the security aspects of the Charter, which became chapters 6 and 7 of the Charter. My chief there was Joe Johnson, and our function was to sit in on the committee meetings and make informal notes and write up summaries of main points, not a verbatim record at all. That was basically my job.
One of the amusing aspects of the Conference was to observe Senator [Tom] Connally's performance in the committee sessions which I attended. With his stentorian voice and waving white locks he was a colorful figure. But he could never shake the habits of a life as U. S. Senator and frequently, while addressing this international committee, he would appeal to them, in flourishing gesture, as "Fellow Senators." Much to the amusement of all.
MCKINZIE: It was a huge Conference. Did you feel that things handled well? Was there more chaos than if it had not been such a large Conference?
ADAMS: No. I didn't have any sense of chaos but it was very exciting. I don't suppose there was any city in the world that could have been more exciting as a locale for the Conference. There was both the dramatic geography of the City and of the Bay area and also the fabulous restaurants. If you had the free time -- and often you didn't -- you could dine at a different restaurant every night. Then, of course, there was the political excitement that we were taking part in an epic historical event.
At the end of the Conference President Truman flew out and addressed the closing session. I remember seeing him in front of the Fairmont Hotel as he arrived in the flutter of flags and people.
MCKINZIE: Did you have any personal sense of something perhaps prosaic was going on there? What did you feel about the prospects of United Nations at that time?
ADAMS: We were all, of course, very hopeful and...
MCKINZIE: But not certain?
ADAMS: Not certain -- no. There was no certainty. But I think the overriding feeling which had permeated the preparations in the State Department both for the earlier Dumbarton Oaks Conference and the San Francisco Conference was the determination that this time, in contrast to World War I and our experience with the League of Nations, whatever was adopted must be accepted by the Senate. They didn't want a repetition of an American President or Government proposing something and then having it turned down by our own Senate. So both the House and Senate were brought into the planning process, both within U. S. Government preparatory deliberations and at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco. At both conferences two Senators and two Congressmen were on the U. S. delegation -- the Chairman and Deputy of the respective Foreign Affairs and Foreign Relations Committees. This included, Mr. [Arthur H.] Vandenberg, a leading Republican Senator. So, the Congress was in on it all the way. At the same time a great effort was made to inform the press
as to just what was going on so that the American public would be fully informed and support whatever was done.
MCKINZIE: The issue that you mentioned that as an overriding issue at the Conference -- namely, the veto -- was originally insisted upon by the United States as a means of making the Senate feel that the United States would not be dragooned into any kind of international action. The veto -- even though the Soviet used it most the first years -- was nonetheless a necessary thing for the United States.
ADAMS: I was never personally involved in discussions within the American Government on this particular point and obviously it was decided at the Presidential level. But I always assumed that the United States would itself have insisted upon the veto, and of course agreement on the veto was reached at the Yalta Conference. The feeling, I think, at the San Francisco Conference was
that this system was not going to work unless the big powers agreed. The war in Europe, which ended during the Conference, and the war in the Far East which was still going on, had produced a feeling of cooperation among the allies. There was a hope -- I suppose it wasn't any more than that -- that at least some of this would be extended into the future. By virtue of the pure physical size of the United States and the Soviet Union no sanctions could be imposed successfully against either. That is, there could be no military sanction, because if either the U.S.S.R. or the United States is opposed to contributing forces to a U. N. action or actively opposes such an action, it is bound to fail. So, the veto was built on this assumption that the two powers must agree. Three other countries also had the veto but militarily they were very weak, had been practically prostrated by the war (the British, and the French, and China). What we are really talking about was the United States and Soviet Union.
MCKINZIE: The Department at that time operated somewhat differently, I guess, than it did later when Mr. Acheson became Secretary and George Marshall was Secretary. You had a feeling in the Department at that time that the shots were being called by Edward Stettinius? Or was it more of a committee operation? Did you think Stettinius was strong?
ADAMS: No. I had the feeling that Mr. Stettinius was taking his directions from the White House, and relying heavily on bureaucratic advice. Mr. Stettinius, of course, came into this picture very late in the game. Cordell Hull had been Secretary right up to about the time of the Conference. Hull had been at Dumbarton Oaks the fall before. I would say that below the President it was a committee operation. Yes. Because there were very strong advisers to the U. S. delegation, as I mentioned, the Senators and the Congressmen, the top people in the State Department, Defense Department, Treasury, and Mr.
Stettinius. I think they worked as a team.
I remember one amusing incident in a morning meeting of the American delegation. Some issues was up and Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the U.S. representative on one of the committees, was trying to pin down the position he was to take, was very irate when the meeting arrived at no conclusion. Mr. Armstrong said, "How can I go into this meeting without a decision? I want a decision."
At that moment Secretary Stettinius walked out of the meeting, saying he had to telephone the President. Armstrong was left in a livid state. Perhaps Mr. Stettinius got a decision on the particular point in his conversation with the President -- this is just speculation; I don't know.
MCKINZIE: When you came back to Washington after the San Francisco Conference, did you immediately start work then on other international conferences?
ADAMS: Yes. The whole inter-departmental staff then got to work on preparing the actual U. S. participation in the United Nations itself.
In the following winter the first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations met in London. Our Bureau then became the Office of United Nations Affairs, our job being to backstop the U. S. delegation to various U. N. bodies and help prepare the U. S. position on various issues.
One of them, of course, was the organization of the Military Staff Committee. This was to be a committee representative of the five countries with the veto, whose military forces were under the Charter to be contributed to the U. N. for an effective military action. The Military Staff Committee was to be kind of "high command" of the U. N. enforcement body.
After the U. N. was set up, this Military Staff Committee met repeatedly regarding contributions of forces but in the end there was no agreement. This aspect of the U. N. Charter became a dead letter. There is no Military Staff Committee and there never -- the idea of using the U. N. as having military sanction was never put into effect in
MCKINZIE: At any point in that did you ever have the feeling that it might be? And when was there a high point in all this?
ADAMS: Well, again you're hopeful, but it soon became apparent that, because of developing differences between the U.S. and the USSR -- some .in the U.N. and some outside -- there would be no agreement on the Military Staff Committee and the use of a U.N. armed force.
To change the subject, I would mention the prominence or notoriety subsequently achieved by members of the Office of International Security Affairs in which I worked at that time. It was quite remarkable. In charge of the whole U.N. office in State was Alger Hiss, who had been the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference and was subsequently to be a key figure in the McCarthy era, the pumpkin papers and Whittaker Chambers. Our immediate chief was Joseph Johnson who was later to b