Oral History Interview with
Seventeen year veteran with the Associated Press. Later news editor and acting managing editor of the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal-Bulletin, after which he served in the White House as liaison for the press-radio division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. In January, 1945, he became part of the White House staff as a press officer until he retired at the end of the Truman administration.
Eben A. Ayers
January 20, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts | 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.
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ayers Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed | Top of the Page]
Oral History Interview with
January 20, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin our session today, would you tell me something about the background of the announcement of the detonation of the first atomic bomb?
AYERS: I'll try to. Let me go back to the beginning, because as you probably know, I, like a lot of others, never had heard of this particular project. Fortunately, I had an idea about atomic energy, but I don't know why or where I picked it up, but I didn't know anything about this.
Now, let me go back. The President left the White House on July 6 to go to the Potsdam Conference. He took off late that evening; went down to Norfolk and took the Augusta cruiser over there. While he was over there, there was a conference itself going on from which some news came back that had to be distributed from the White House; and a lot in the White House -- odds and ends of things--but it was fairly quiet there all that time, and it wasn't until, I don't know the exact day, but it must have been around the first of August, between the first and third or fourth of August; and I was in my office and there was hardly anyone left around the White House except Bill Hassett, who was a
secretary to the President; he handled correspondence -- I'll go into that further sometime when we talk about the staff.
HESS: Charlie Ross went with the President.
AYERS: Charlie Ross went with the President; Admiral Leahy had gone with the President, and Jimmy Byrnes, who was then Secretary of State, was with the President; and there was quite a staff along.
HESS: But as far as the press office goes...
AYERS: As far as the press office and that whole executive office . . . in other words, only Hassett and I and the permanent staff, the working staff, the stenographers and those people, they were there; and on this day, as I say, it must have been somewhere between the first and, I guess, the third or fourth, I was in my office with nothing much doing, and I got a phone call from Bill Hassett asking me if I would come into his office. I went in there, and with him was General Alexander Surles, who was at that time the Information Officer for the War Department; head of the information setup there. And Surles said he had an important story--I think he used the word "tremendous" in connection with it--which was going to break, or going to be for release at the White House, but he couldn't tell just what day it would be.
It was very clear to both Hassett and me that it was something of great importance. Surles seemed to be quite excited, but he didn't say what it was, and I think that Hassett and I both said, "Don't tell us what it is."
We didn't want to know because there was this great secrecy around it, and what we didn't know, we couldn't be blamed for a leak if we didn't know about it, if there should be one. So, it was agreed that he was going to call me when he had this story, and bring it over, and it was left that way. I was a little bit tensed up about it, but not overly so, but I kept--each day when I went in--wondering, but nothing happened until Monday morning on the sixth of August. Shortly after I got to the office, I got a phone call from Surles, and he said he would be over soon with that story that he had told us about, but he had to await a message from somewhere, he didn't say where or what it was about then. I think it was shortly after that, or it may have been after I got another call from him, anyway he called in a short time, and said that it would be a short time more before he would be over.
Now, during this period while the President was away there was a group of newspapermen, the regulars or substitutes for the regulars who covered the White House,
who came up every morning. And I had, as I say, some announcements from time to time, appointments that the President had made, that were signed and had been sent back from over there, and things like that. That morning there were, I don't know how many, probably six or eight men out in the pressroom where the newspapermen worked and where their phones are, and where they hang around, and I didn't want them to get away; so, I went out there and I said--I don't know how I put it exactly--but anyway, I said "You better stick around awhile. I might have a little something." I didn't want them to get too steamed up. There had been at least one incident, that I recall, when one of my predecessors had a story coming, and he went out and told the newsmen and they notified their offices and there was a great to-do, and when the story came out it wasn't very big--kinda backfired on him. And I didn't want them to get overly excited because I didn't know really how big the story might be. I don't know how long it was after that second call, but not very long, when I got another call from Surles and he said he would be right over, and he came a few minutes before eleven o'clock on August 6th. With him was a junior officer and they were carrying a couple of bundles and took them right into the press secretary's office where I held the press
conferences every morning anyway, if I had anything; even if I didn't they came in and I would tell them to go for the day if you want to or something like that. So, these two bundles were opened up. One bundle had one sheet--it was made up of a single sheet--which was the first page of the news release and the other bundle was made up of three sheets clipped together. I think there were three in that one. And the reason for the one sheet was that of the original release, it was necessary to tear off and rewrite the first paragraph or so because the first paragraph set a time, which, I suppose, they couldn't fix originally. Then I called in one of the girl secretaries and had her stamp the date on it, on the first page, and I went through it then rather hastily and saw what it was. So then I had the secretary call the reporters in and I--do you want me to give the announcements?
HESS: Is this the same announcement that is in the 1945 volume of the Public Papers?
AYERS: I assume so. After they all lined up in front of the desk, I said, "I have got what I think is a darn good story," and then I explained this, "it's a statement by the President which starts off this way: 'Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.'"
HESS: That is the same thing that is already documented here in the 1945 volume.
AYERS: I didn't know it was in there. When I finished reading the first paragraph I said, "All right, you can go to it." One reporter there, I think it was Joe Fox of the Washington Star, he started out the door and Joe said, "It is a hell of a story."
But they didn't do what usually happens at a press meeting. They didn't ask any questions. They didn't hurry out. The thing didn't penetrate with most of them, and I believe that one of those reporters got to the telephone in the press room and had a dickens of a time getting her office to take it--I think it was a girl reporter. They wouldn't believe it.
The follow up was mostly done from the War Department. That statement of the President's was written, I think, at the War Department and taken to Potsdam by Secretary Stimson. That is my understanding. It was prepared by what was known as an Interim Committee that had been appointed by Truman; supposedly it was prepared by that committee. I won't go into that. I had nothing to do with that, so what I don't know about I am not going to talk about.
HESS: The note of the statement in the '45 volume says,
This statement was released in Washington. It was drafted before the President left Germany, and Secretary of War Stimson was authorized to release it when the bomb was delivered. On August 6, while returning from the Potsdam Conference aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, the President was handed a message from Secretary Stimson informing him that the bomb had been dropped at 7:15 p.m. on August 5.
So, it's mentioned that the statement had been drawn up before the President had gone to Germany.
AYERS: I don't know exactly when it was drafted. I know that Stimson didn't go over with the President, but he flew over while the President was enroute on the ship, so that he was over there when the President arrived. Now, the test explosion at Alamogordo was on July 16, as I remember, and they were very much elated when they got the word of that over there. I don't know who knew anything about this bomb. A great many people, of course, did know, but not people in the White House certainly. The only ones I know in the White House who were connected with the President who knew, Admiral Leahy, who had been with Roosevelt and did know about it, and was always skep