Oral History Interview with
During the Truman administration, Mr. Arneson served as the secretary of the Secretary of War's Interim Committee on Atomic Energy, 1945; member of staff, U.S. delegation to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, 1946-48; Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of State, 1948-50; and Special Assistant to the Secretary of State, 1950-54.
R. Gordon Arneson
Washington, D. C.
June 21, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendix | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
See also R. Gordon Arneson Papers finding aid
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 October, 1990
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendix | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
R. Gordon Arneson
Washington, D. C.
June 21, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
Subjects discussed include the Interim Committee (on atomic energy), press releases on the first use of the atomic bomb against Japan; Truman's note, "Release when ready, but not sooner than August 2;" destruction of the Japanese cyclotron; Potsdam Conference; Baruch plan; Acheson-Lilienthal report; Quebec Agreement; Joint Atomic Energy Committee; U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; Combined Policy Committee; McMahon bill; Atomic Energy Act of 1946; sharing of atomic energy information with Great Britain and Canada; United Nations Atomic Energy Commission; Merck Committee; international control of atomic energy; decision to develop the hydrogen bomb; NSC-68; State Defense Policy Review Group; sources of uranium ore; State Department's Policy Planning Staff; and the announcement of the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb test.
Names mentioned include James Landis, Dillon Anderson, Henry Stimson, Harvey Bundy, George Harrison, Arthur Page, James F. Byrnes, Harry Vaughan, Will Clayton, Paul Van Zeeland, Vannevar Bush, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Clement Attlee, McKinzie King, Cyril Smith, Dean Acheson, Leslie Groves, Lyman Briggs, Joseph Volpe, Bernard Baruch, Ed Gullion, John Hancock, Arthur Vandenberg, Fred Osborn, Andrew G.L. McNaughton, Henry Wallace, Cyril Smith, Lincoln Gordon, Donald Maclean, Charles Darwin, Niels Bohr, David Lilienthal, Paul Nitze, Adrian Fisher, Philip Jessup, Oliver Franks, Harry S. Truman, Robert Lovett, John W. Snyder, Robert Bacher, Lewis Strauss, Bedell Smith, and Robert Cutler.
JOHNSON: I'd like to begin, Mr. Arneson, by asking you to give us the place and date of your birth, and your parents' names.
ARNESON: I was born in Osnabrock, North Dakota, May 24, 1916, the youngest of 14 children. My parents' names were Martin and Gesine, both born in Norway near Stavanger.
JOHNSON: Were you educated there in North Dakota?
ARNESON: Yes, this was a very rough time, as you probably well know, during the Great Depression. The first few years of school weren't bad, but high school and college were really rough; most of us couldn't afford to be there, in the first place. But I got my bachelor's degree from North Dakota State University in Fargo. Then I was lucky enough to get
a two-year Rockefeller Fellowship in Public Administration, one year at the University of Minnesota, and the second year at the National Institute of Public Affairs in Washington.
JOHNSON: What major did you have in college?
ARNESON: At one time, as I was about to enter college, I thought, "Gosh, I'd like to be an architect." I had done some mechanical drawing and I thought I had a certain flair for it. I seldom asked my father's advice on anything, but this time I did; "Dad, what do I do about this?" He said, "Don't be stupid; you couldn't make a living these days being an architect if you tried, no matter how good you were." So I went in for political science and economics.
JOHNSON: What was your father's occupation?
ARNESON: He ran grain elevators. We lived in just about every small town in the state; every two years we moved. Before we came to Fargo where I entered junior high school we lived in six "jerk-water" towns: Osnabrock, Wales, Mayville, McClusky, Mapleton, and Kathryn. Then again, the Depression cut down the number of grain elevators that could make a profit; and he finally lost his job.
JOHNSON: Now, this was in North Dakota. Wasn't the Non-Partisan League very active up there, and did the state
actually own the elevators in North Dakota?
ARNESON: No, they had one state elevator, but most of the elevators were privately owned or were farmer's co-ops. My father's company was Andrews Grain Company.
JOHNSON: I guess during the Depression architects were one of the first professions to lose their jobs.
ARNESON: It was one of the worst ideas I've ever had in my life.
JOHNSON: But now you're doing art work, so you...
ARNESON: Painting is very interesting and rewarding but not very profitable.
JOHNSON: How many of your brothers and sisters got a college education?
JOHNSON: You're the only one.
ARNESON: I'm the only one who went to high school and went on to college.
JOHNSON: Did your parents prod you, or did you...
ARNESON: I was self-propelled, and finished at the top of my class every year. I prodded myself, and my parents were
very proud of me. I was able to live at home during junior and high school and college.
JOHNSON: I imagine you were Norwegian Lutherans.
JOHNSON: But you didn't go to Concordia or St. Olaf.
ARNESON: No, but that reminds me of a very interesting aspect. My mother was really a wonderful person; she had to be to have fourteen children. In fact, one of my older sisters said that if they were handing out certificates of sainthood, she'd get one.
She was very shy and she preferred to speak Norwegian. Her English was passable. She was rather amusing at times; she'd talk about things being "expensy," and water being "luke," not lukewarm. She was religious, but didn't palm it off on anybody else. You did what you wanted to do about that. But when she could no longer find a Norwegian Lutheran church to attend, she stopped going to church and had her own service at home every day. She had a beautiful voice, sang a few songs, "A Mighty Fortress," "Rock of Ages," etc., read a passage, and sat quietly in meditation.
JOHNSON: So she read and sang in Norwegian?
JOHNSON: So you knew Norwegian?
ARNESON: I was one of the few of us who didn't really know it very well. I wasn't confirmed in Norwegian. All the older ones were confirmed in the Norwegian Lutheran church.
JOHNSON: But you did end up serving in the American Embassy in Oslo, late in the fifties.
ARNESON: Yes, it was very nice. I visited Stavanger, where my parents came from.
JOHNSON: This internship in public administration was sponsored by, or subsidized by whom?
ARNESON: By the Rockefeller Foundation. You know, they plant seed corn for all sorts of public service programs.
JOHNSON: What year was this?
ARNESON: This was in 1939-40. I was probably in the fourth or fifth class; it had started some years before.
JOHNSON: You interned for a year here in Washington. In what offices of Government did you intern?
ARNESON: I was interested in trade agreements at the time, so my internship was at the Tariff Commission. I would gladly have stayed with them but there were no openings when the
year was up. So I had to seize something to live on, and I worked for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in New York City for some months. About this time, the war agencies were ginning up; and I worked for the National Defense Advisory Commission, the Office of Production Management, and the War Production Board, until the Army caught up with me in 1943.
I was late being called up only because my local draft board had 5,115 registrants and I was number 5,000. I tried to persuade my boss at the War Production Board that I was essential to the war effort there but he didn't agree.
JOHNSON: What did you end up doing in the Army?
ARNESON: I went to Camp Lee, Virginia, to be classified. They were three men short on a company they were organizing called the 633rd Engineers Light Equipment Company. They looked at the master roster, and found Arneson, Aska and Auld; we were picked. We were engineers for a while. Camp McCain, Mississippi was the soft underbelly of the United States, I must say; it was a terrible place. Then I got the word that Jim Landis, Dean of the Harvard Law School, had come down to Washington. He had been working in civil defense and my wife had been working with him. He was appointed to go to Cairo as economics minister, to sort out
some lend-lease and reciprocal aid matters. He said, "I need some statisticians and economists to help me." And my wife said, "I've got just the man for you." So, I spent a year in Cairo, which was quite fascinating, being assigned to USAFIME (United States Armed Forces in the Middle East) as the unit historian, reports writer and so on.
JOHNSON: What year were you married?
ARNESON: I was married in '40.
Then I decided I had had enough of Cairo and I was going to go to Officer's Candidate School. I went before the board and was turned down; it damned near broke my heart. In fact I was hospitalized for two weeks with severe arrhythmia. I couldn't understand it. Dillon Anderson, Colonel Anderson, who was in charge of the outfit said, "Second Lieutenants are a dime a dozen. Why don't you just stay here; you're doing fine. You're not going to get shot at or anything." I said, "I don't want to stay here; I want to go to OCS."
Well then, in one of those twists of fate, Colonel Bellm, who was on the USAFIME staff, happened to be back in New York on leave. At a cocktail party he ran into a Sergeant Lilienthal of the Air Force, who was between assignments and he was looking for a place to go. Bellm suggested, "Why don't you come out to Cairo?" Bellm, being
a civilian colonel, didn't know that you can't be over complement in the Army, so when Lilienthal shows up, we have one too many enlisted men. So I made OCS the second time before the board.
JOHNSON: Lilienthal, not the [David] Lilienthal.
ARNESON: No, no. This guy was a Republican. He arrived with an autographed portrait of Tom Dewey! I went to Camp Barkley, Texas, and trained for the Medical Administrative Corps. I finally got through that. We took turns drilling the troops. I am left-handed, so I had trouble remembering which hand was left and which was right, and damn near flunked. But no one in the Medical Administrative Corps cared much about drilling anyway.
My great claim to fame in Officers Candidate School was during a baseball match with another company. I wasn't much of a baseball player, and they put me out in left field where I would be harmless. It was the bottom of the ninth, two out, and two on base; and I was up. I hit a two-bagger and won the game! Instant hero!
On being commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, I was supposed to go to Fort Hamilton, Ohio, a VA hospital there. We were allowed ten days delay enroute, you know, and I came back to the Washington area to be with my wife for a few days. One day I went over to the Pentagon to see if any of my
Cairo associates were there. A couple were, including my former boss, Colonel Dillon Anderson. Anderson, by the way, was later Executive Secretary of the NSC, for a short period after the war. I thought he owed me one. I said, "Now look, Colonel, do you know of any interesting assignments in the Pentagon?" His reply: "By golly, I do. You go see Harvey Bundy. He's a very special friend and associate of the Secretary of War [Henry] Stimson."
ARNESON: Harvey Bundy, the father of McGeorge and Bill Bundy, a lawyer from Boston. I went to see him. It seems he had a Captain Hodge who had been working for him, and wanted overseas duty. So Bundy asked me whether I would like to take the job. I didn't even know what the job was, but I said, "Sure, it would be great." I'd get to stay in the Washington area; I had been abroad long enough. For two weeks after taking the job I had no idea what it was all about. In fact, I was getting bored, because all I was doing was drafting replies for Stimson to send to little old ladies who were complaining that their sons had not yet made General. After all, they had finished basic training already!
And then one day, Bundy said, "See the safe over here in the corner? I want you to familiarize yourself
thoroughly with its contents. It has to do with a weapon that's going to win the war." That's how I got involved in the atom bomb.
JOHNSON: According to Hewitt and Anderson's history of the project, you worked in the office of George Harrison, a consultant to Secretary of War [Henry] Stimson.
ARNESON: Yes, that happened when Stimson was finally persuaded to organize an Interim Committee to advise him about the various aspects of this new force. Incidentally, he did not ask their opinion about use; he said the question of use of this weapon was peculiarly one for him and General Marshall to recommend to the President. So when the Interim Committee was formed, Bundy said, "I guess Gordon maybe you had better be the committee's Recording Secretary." I started working for George Harrison, who was deputy chairman of the Committee.
JOHNSON: Harrison's position was just as a consultant to
ARNESON: A special assistant.
JOHNSON: This meant writing, a quite a bit of writing. Had you been a writer prior to this?
ARNESON: Yes, I had done all of the historical work in Cairo, where I was the unit historian.
JOHNSON: I know that the Army set up a historical program; that was part of the Army's historical program?
ARNESON: It must have been, yes.
JOHNSON: How many were there working as historians there in Cairo? Were you the only one?
ARNESON: As far as I know, I was the only one. I was the historian and the weekly progress report writer.
JOHNSON: Was this attached to the headquarters there?
ARNESON: Yes. Colonel Anderson was the chief honcho.
JOHNSON: That was the experience that really paid off for you then.
ARNESON: I was very acutely aware that the meetings of this committee were of historic importance, and I had better make damn sure that I was reporting them