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
June 12, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
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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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
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Oral History Interview with
June 12, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Ayers, in our last interview we were discussing James Byrnes and a few of the things that you wanted to set down about him, and you have indicated that you have some more material, more information on Jimmy Byrnes. Would you like to tell me what it is?
AYERS: When going through my notes over the years, I find a great many references to Byrnes and his relations with the President, but one of the first that shows any real difference of opinion, it seems to me, was on Byrnes' return from the Moscow Foreign Ministers conference in late 1945. Byrnes arrived back in Washington on December 29th, shortly, I think, after or about noon that day. The President, meanwhile, was on board the Williamsburg for a rest trip down the Potomac and on Chesapeake Bay, accompanied by a few members of his staff. As I understand, he had not had any formal report from Byrnes on the conference, although I think he'd been in communication on occasion with him during the meeting in Moscow, but as I later learned, a message was received at the State Department from Byrnes requesting that arrangements be made for a radio broadcast by Byrnes on Sunday night--that would be the following night. Now, my first
information about this was telephoned to me from an employee in Byrnes' office at the State Department--he said this message was to be relayed to the ship. Now I have a copy of this message. As I understand, it was transmitted through the State Department--I don't know what means of communication they used, but it must have been a teletype or radio--and this was marked from Secretary of State Byrnes to the President, and it said, "Please have Charlie Ross contact NBC, Mutual, Columbia and American Broadcasting Companies requesting broadcasting time for Sunday to make a report." That was followed by a short message in which he said, addressing directly the President, "Hope you are well and having a pleasant trip. Will see you when you return."
Now, this, as I was informed, was the first word the President had from Byrnes following his return. He, apparently, from what I was informed later, mostly by Charlie Ross, who was aboard the ship with the President, he apparently intended to make this radio speech without any approval in advance from the President, and without any previous report to the President on the conference from which he was returning. It was following these messages that I found myself involved in this, what came to be a very confusing situation. I received a message
from Ross which was my first communication from the ship, in which he asked me to make every effort to line up the Columbia Broadcasting System for a half an hour on the air Sunday for Byrnes to explain the Moscow communiqué to the people. It seems that the National Broadcasting Company was already committed through arrangements made by Byrnes' office or Assistant Secretary of State William Benton to an exclusive broadcast by the National Broadcasting Company. Ross' message to me, pointing out that the National Broadcasting Company was already committed, said that the President desired to have the Columbia Broadcasting Company also available at that evening hour, and Ross in his message said to tell the Columbia Broadcasting Company that this was a request of the President. When I got that, I had an idea there might be some complications resulting, inasmuch as the National Broadcasting Company was scheduling the speech and I had a hunch that NBC thought they would have an exclusive broadcast coming up. So I checked with Carleton Smith of the National Broadcasting Company--he was the top man at that time here in Washington--and I was told definitely that they had an agreement with the State Department for an exclusive, and that if the speech was to be made available to others they'd give it up. I was told they
had cancelled about $30,000 worth of scheduled programs in order to carry it. They said they'd been struggling with the State Department since about 1 o'clock in the afternoon before getting the arrangements settled. So then I checked with the State Department and John Howe, the man in Benton's office who handled the radio arrangements, and he tried to get the White House involved in it; and, I understand, somebody--I don't know who--was also trying to get Paul Porter, who was then, I believe, chairman--at least a member--of the Federal Communications Commission, to put pressure on. I was told that he had called on the radio people to take on the speech. I was on the telephone to various people and they were on the phone to me, and I did ask NBC finally what they were going to do, and this is the answer they gave me, and this was after, reportedly, Paul Porter was dragged in; how far he got in I don't know to this day, but somebody there said, "What would you do if you had one hundred and fifty stations and were dependent on the FCC for licenses?" In their reply they were obviously trying to convey the idea of being pressured by somebody in the Government, and I gathered that they intended to loosen up and say, "All right, let CBS have it." Anyway, that's what I think finally happened.
So, I finally sent a message to Ross telling him that National Broadcasting had made these arrangements for Byrnes to make the speech, and told him about the exclusive nature of it, and I told him that I wasn't approaching Columbia Broadcasting System, in view of that situation. Finally I got a reply back from Ross to do what I had told him. He thought we should not have anything to do further with the broadcast and that's what ended it. But what did follow up was the President, somewhere in this, sent another message to Byrnes, in reply, apparently, to the two messages that Byrnes had earlier sent--the two or the one, whichever it was--in which he asked to have the arrangements for the broadcast made. The President said he was happy to hear of his safe arrival, and he suggested Byrnes come down "today or tomorrow"--now that was on the same day, December 29th, that Byrnes had arrived to report on his mission. He said arrangements could be made by him through the Secret Service. The President said to him in this message, "We can then discuss, among other things, the advisability of a broadcast by you." And as a result, Byrnes did go down that afternoon or in the late evening--I don't know what time he got there, I don't remember about that--but he got down there, and after Byrnes arrival
on the ship, the two of them went into conference and they talked for about two hours; it was after they came out that the President told Ross, and Ross told me later, that the President had approved Byrnes' plan to speak and suggested that he be made to get the Columbia Broadcasting Company to carry the speech. Ross said that when Byrnes had told the President he was going to speak over the NBC network, he did not say that it was to be made exclusively over that chain, and afterwards Byrnes had dinner with the President and the others--he didn't stay that night, he came back the next day.
HESS: What seemed to be President Truman's general attitude toward Mr. Byrnes about this time?
AYERS: I think it was a very friendly attitude and a friendly feeling. I think he thought a great deal of Byrnes. He had known him for a long time, and despite differences on his handling of, perhaps, some of the things during his tenure as Secretary of State, I think they were more because of the way in which Byrnes did it and not because of any personal feelings toward Byrnes. I think that was an official attitude and not a personal one. I think he retained his personal fondness for him right through to the end, and that's evident in little things that were said at different times. I remember, I ran across in my notes
some of the things that came up like that. On one occasion that same year at a press conference the President had, in which he read a statement on foreign policy and that was on the day that Henry Wallace was asked to resign and he concluded a statement having to do with that, he said, "I have complete confidence in Mr. Byrnes and his delegation now representing this country at the Paris Peace Conference. And Mr. Byrnes consults with me often, and the policies which guide him and his delegation have my full endorsement."
Again I know there was, I guess it was early in 1947, there was a ceremony at which General Marshall was sworn in as Secretary of State succeeding Byrnes after Byrnes finally resigned, and in presenting the commission to Marshall the President said he regretted most sincerely that Mr. Byrnes found it necessary to leave as Secretary of State. On various occasions even after he had left office and when some time later their differences came to the surface again, even then he wasn't too critical of Byrnes until Byrnes disputed some of the President's statements--took the direct opposite of what the President considered to be the truth.
HESS: I have read that perhaps the reason that the President made Jimmy Byrnes Secretary of State was to try to
make it up to Mr. Byrnes for the fact that he did not get the vice-presidential nomination in 1944 and, therefore, when Mr. Roosevelt died, Mr. Truman became President and not Mr. Byrnes. Did you ever hear Mr. Truman say anything of that nature? Did you ever hear any talk in the White House along those lines?
AYERS: I can't tell you whether I did or not. You know that I have heard--I don't know whether I heard Mr. Truman himself tell the whole story but I'm sure he did more than once, because I heard him more than once. I know that one of the earliest versions of the Truman selection for the vice-presidential nomination was by Steve Early. I know that I made some notes on that after that. I'm trying to think whether I recall definitely the President himself telling me about it. I am sure that I do, but I'd have to check over my notes and see whether. . .
HESS: About the '44 nomination?
HESS: Do you have something there in your books about the '44 nomination, sir?
AYERS: Yes, I have a little something here about it. This was at a luncheon one day at the White House or in a lunchroom down in the White House Office Building, and
Steve Early was there, and Attorney General Clark, and three or four others of us, Brigadier General Vaughan, Charlie Ross and the Naval Aide, Foskett, Mr. Latta and myself, and we were having a rather general conversation about various things which led up to the--some way or other--to the 1944 campaign. I think the President himself asked Early if he was with President Roosevelt at San Diego, California in '44 during the Democratic National Convention, and Early said he wasn't, said he was in Washington "sitting on the lid" as he put it, and Roosevelt had gone west on an off-the-record wartime trip; and then this led the President himself to go into the events at that time. The President said on the afternoon of Thursday of the Democratic Convention, Roosevelt had telephoned about 3 p.m., Chicago time, to Robert Hannegan, who was then the Democratic National Chairman, and the President, who was then Senator, said he was at Hannegan's side when the telephone call came. In the room, also, he said were Ed Flynn, the New York Bronx Democratic leader; Ed Kelly, Mayor of Chicago, and Democratic boss of Chicago, and some others including, I think, Jim Farley. The President said he could hear what Roosevelt said over the telephone and that the President after some--that is, President Roosevelt--
after some few words with Hannegan, said that this fellow--presumably Mr. Truman--was stubborn and it'd be his funeral. if he broke up the Democratic Party; and the President (Mr. Truman) said he didn't want the office but he guessed he'd have to do it, so he agreed to run. He said they'd have to get someone to nominate him, and the name of Bennett Clark, who was then a United States Senator, was suggested. The President said he named some others, Senator Hatch, Senator Kilgore, and so forth, who would be satisfactory--then he set out to find Clark. He said he found him at 5 o'clock the following morning in his room at the Sherman Hotel with a big pot of coffee in front of him, and he was not feeling too well at the time, but he agreed to make the nominating speech, and they got him set and he did. He didn't at that time, as I recall, make any reference to Byrnes, but I am sure that at some time or another in my presence, or if not, somebody else who knew it equally well, has told about his having to tell Byrnes that he couldn't make the nominating speech for him as he had previously promised to do. Now that's all I have on that particular subject--the '44 nomination. I may have somewhere else some other--because I've heard the story enough times so that I could almost recite it, because it's been written. I think the President has it
in his Memoirs pretty well, doesn't he? I think all that I've ever heard jibes with the Memoirs. I've read those, but I'm sure that his story of it in his Memoirs is accurate.
HESS: Does that pretty well cover what you had down for Mr. Byrnes?
AYERS: I think so.
HESS: All right, we just touched upon Henry Wallace a little while ago. Could you tell about the resignation of Henry Wallace as Secretary of Commerce? What do you recall about those events?
AYERS: I doubt if I know anything more than what is already included in the President's Memoirs and what's been written by others. I have quite a lot in my own notes about it--about what happened at the time--but I don't know that it will add anything to the story of it.
HESS: Do you have anything in there that might not be generally known?
AYERS: Well, let's see what I might have in here. I don't think that it's worthwhile for me to attempt to say any more about the resignation, because anything I might say would duplicate what has already been said by the President in his Memoirs and by other writers; but there might be a little interest in something that came up on one
occasion during, I think that was during--before the campaign in '48, about a year and a half before that--and some references to Vice President Wallace at a luncheon one day downstairs in the White House office lunchroom. Steve Early, who was President Roosevelt's press secretary, was there, and I don't know what brought it up, but he said something about the letters Mr. Wallace had written in the past which they thought might possibly be brought into the campaign in '48. I think there were none outside of Early himself who knew anything much about these letters, although it had been rumored from time to time that there were some peculiar letters that Wallace had written to a woman. I don't know where she lived or who she was, but she was supposedly a clairvoyant, or someone of that type, and I understood she was the wife of some Government employee. These letters, Early said, didn't contain any real names but code names of various people and were signed by a code name for Wallace. Early said he had seen them for only a few minutes at one time, and he didn't read all of them. They were for a time locked up somewhere in the White House. How these letters came into the possession of a newspaper I don't know, and I don't think that Early knew, or if he did, that he told how. But at the time
of the Democratic National Convention in 1940, it was learned that the letters were in the hands of a reporter who was enroute to Chicago to meet Wallace on his arrival there, and there was a hasty conference at the White House about what to do if it was thought that the publication of these letters would kill Wallace politically and do great damage to the Democratic campaign. As I understand it, the letters were peculiar things. They were termed "mystic" letters by some. Anyhow, there was a conference and discussion of what they should do to prevent the letters from getting out. Someone suggested a New York lawyer, Morris Ernst--and Early said that Ernst was reached by telephone and asked to go to Chicago and he was flown out there, and that the train on which Wallace was riding was halted in the Chicago yards and Ernst was put aboard and was aboard when they pulled into the station. Ernst met the reporter and threatened libel if they were published and that the publication was halted. Now, the letters, supposedly, were in the hands either at that time or later, of a Pittsburgh publisher, but that the time Early was talking about them, which was April, 1947, he didn't know--it wasn't sure where they were then. Someone said, in my presence I know, right around this time when Early was telling about it, that he understood they
were in the hands of Frank Gannett the publisher--the New York state publisher--who himself was a strong Republican and whose name had been mentioned sometimes in connection with Republican politics--presidential politics--but whether these were just copies, I don't know. Early said he didn't know how many of these letters there were, but that the file was quite a thick one; so just whatever became of the letters, I don't know. I don't think any of them were published, maybe they may have been somewhere, but I doubt it very much, and I don't think they were much more than a tempest in a teapot so far as that was concerned. They might have been very harmful in a political campaign--sometimes lots of things are that aren't really important actually.
HESS: Mr. Ayers, did you ever hear the President say anything about how much trouble he thought that the Wallace candidacy was going to give him in the 1948 election?
AYERS: Well, I couldn't specifically think of anything now, but I know there were passing references and there may have been some little discussions from time to time at the staff meetings, but my impression now is, which might be somewhat less than it should be, that he was not overly concerned about Wallace.
One occasion when the President discussed Wallace at some length was aboard the presidential yacht, the Williamsburg, early in January, 1948. The President had given something of a New Year's party on, I think, January 14th and my notes show that among those present were: Matt Connelly, Steve Early, Edwin Locke, George Schoeneman, Internal Revenue Collector, David Niles, Don Dawson, Brigadier General Graham, Judge Richmond Keech, Rear Admiral Foskett (Naval Aide), Admiral Leahy and myself. It was at dinner the next day, I believe, that the Wallace candidacy came up and the President got to talking about him. He said Wallace had forgotten all that the President had done for him in the past, and was actuated through anger and in a spirit of revenge because he had been dropped as Secretary of Commerce.
He said he probably saved Wallace from not being confirmed by the Senate when his name came up on Roosevelt's nomination of him as Secretary of Commerce. At that time the offices of Commerce Secretary and head of the RFC (Reconstruction Finance Corporation), had been combined under Jesse Jones. When Jones left the Cabinet and Wallace was named to succeed him, the Republicans prepared to oppose confirmation, chiefly on the ground that Wallace should not head the RFC. A resolution was
offered to separate the two offices and Senator Barkley was to look out for calling the matter up in the Senate. The President said he was presiding at the time as Vice President. He said he saved Wallace by recognizing Barkley although Senator Taft was trying to get recognition. Instead, the resolution was defeated and Wallace was confirmed as Secretary of Commerce.
The President, I think, felt that the Wallace candidacy, which he repudiated, you may recall, in a speech on March l7th--St. Patrick's Day--in 1948 in New York, that he felt it would not hurt him any. In that speech, you may remember, he repudiated Wallace's candidacy and said, as I recall, that if he had to have Communist support to be elected, he didn't want to be elected--that was, in effect, what he said. I don't think he ever felt that the Wallace candidacy was a very serious thing from his standpoint; he always thought he was going to be re-elected, or felt pretty sure of it.
HESS: Did you know he was going to make that statement in New York at that time?
AYERS: No, I didn't, I was there and at that dinner. I didn't know it until he made it, and Charlie Ross was there, and I know we left--had to leave at the end of the speech and we had to move rather rapidly because the
Secret Service wanted to get us to the train. I think it was on the way to the train, or after we got there, that I asked Ross if he knew about it and he said, as I recall, he didn't know it in advance. I think Matt Connelly said he had a tip, but I think the President wanted to spring a little surprise on the people around him--I think he did tip off some of the newspapermen the last minute.
HESS: Why was he trying to surprise some of the staff members?
AYERS: Oh, I don't know. It's just a little pixie.
HESS: Did he try that very often?
AYERS: No. He liked to have a little fun now and then. There were lots of little things that happened--he liked a little fun.
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