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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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