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 20, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 20, 1967
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Ayers, in 1951 you became special assistant in the White House office. We've already mentioned one assignment that you were given as special assistant, the trip to Independence to gather material about Mr. Truman's activities in Jackson County before 1935, but for the record could you outline what your duties and functions were as special assistant from 1951 on? Just what did the job entail?
AYERS: Well, it's a little difficult to answer that question because there was no program laid out. Mr. Truman said he would like to have me get together his papers, but he apparently had no specific plan in mind, and I had never thought about it before and I no plan in mind either, so I started from scratch. At the outset I thought I would get together as much of a record as I could of his administration with the papers and documents which supported that record. Well, that was a little too much for any one individual to do in the time that was left, but I started out by recording--by writing myself--the story of his succession to the Presidency, and such of the events on which I could find anything on which to base a record. It became very evident to me in the first few weeks that I could never accomplish what I'd set out to do--
that would have been a job for a whole staff of researchers. So then I began to take up the record of the administration by subjects. I would write on--let's say foreign affairs--the President suggested that on one occasion--he rarely did suggest any subjects--but I would begin by trying to get together the documents that related to it--the releases, the news releases, the speeches and the messages to Congress--those things. They were all available, of course, to anyone who wanted to glance through them, but there were also in his papers that he had that were in the White House files other materials that related to those things, and I would get them together and then I would tie them together by writing myself. When I had any one subject finished--what I thought was finished--I would take it in and give it to the President. He had told me at the outset when we started in on this, that he would see me anytime I wanted to come in--come in anytime, he said. So I would take them in and give them to him--leave them with him. Usually I got them back within a day or so--very quickly--and almost without exception, without any change. Usually maybe he'd jot down at the end of it, "This is fine," or "This is just what I want." I think on perhaps two or three occasions on going through, he made a slight correction.
I was glad he did because it showed me that he did read them. I know on one--I don't remember which one it was, perhaps it was on the foreign affairs thing--he corrected a date that was typographically wrong, and that was about the extent of it. He may have here and there put in a word, but I don't believe that in the thousands of words I wrote, that there are half a dozen pages that show any correction or any addition by him. He did from time to time, usually at my suggestion, write a little memorandum, perhaps on something that I didn't have anything on--for instance, I asked him about his meeting with Molotov, and I got a handwritten note--not overly long--but it described the meeting with Molotov, Molotov's visit to Washington enroute to the San Francisco Conference- -United Nations Conference--and several times he wrote something like that. He wrote one for me about the Potsdam Conference and his meetings with Stalin, but otherwise I got together this material and wrote, as I say, thousands of words. All of that material was put together and kept in a file, or in files in my office, and sent to Independence at the end of his administration. At the time I went through papers of his, he had papers in his desk at the White House, that is, the White House proper--the living quarters--and he
told me one day he wished I would get them from his desk, up in the study in the house proper, and go through it. Well, I went through those things .
HESS: Do you recall what you found in the desk besides the paper about Jimmy Byrnes' difficulties with the President? That we've already mentioned on tape.
AYERS: I can't recall specifically what was in all that material that came from the house. I know there was quite a lot of stuff, and the White House carpenters made a wooden chest with a lock and I got the Chief Usher, Mr. [Howell G.] Crim, to get the stuff out for me. I didn't want to go into the President's private quarters and rustle around in his desk taking everything out of it and I asked him to do it, and I think he checked with the President but he did it anyway, and I got this small chest full of papers of one kind and another. I don't recall specifically what they all were, but I do know that I also went over in the basement of the Treasury in one of those vaults way down where someone told me that some of his stuff had been put.
HESS: Wasn't that some of the senatorial material?
AYERS: That proved to be mostly senatorial material. Well, I got some senatorial material and put it in a drawer and it went out to Independence. There was some that
was out in the University of Missouri and I checked up on that. I don't remember if that came back to me or whether it went directly, but I know there was some there. Then when the work on the White House was started--the renovation of the White House--and the family had to move out into Blair House, most of the President's books and a great deal of similar material were sent up to the Library of Congress temporarily and put in--well, if you could find the place, you would have to be an explorer like Stanley and Livingston. I went up there. Well, I found up there quite a quantity of stuff--personal stuff as well as his books--the hundreds of books that he had--and I got that material that I thought was relevant to what I was doing, and that included not only his but some of Margaret's school books and things of that sort. I brought all those into my office, and somewhere in the course of all this I found many documents that had to do with his official acts--on, international affairs--and I had all of those, but I didn't do anything with them other than to separate them from all the rest of the stuff and put them in files so that they could be sent out to Independence. Well, that's what my work consisted of. The President had few suggestions to make and he seemed to be satisfied--rather
pleased with what was done with them. At least he expressed appreciation repeatedly and he said it was very helpful. Now what was done with it once it left on January 20, 1953, I don't know about that. It went out to the Library as far as I know.
HESS: Am I correct in assuming that you have a complete duplicate set of copies of those?
AYERS: Yes, I kept a copy as a safeguard. If anything happened to any of those--after all, if you write twenty or thirty or fifty thousand words and its lost, you don't want to have to try to repeat it; so I did keep a complete record, I think. That record that I kept is supplemented somewhat by the fact that I had many notes of my own on many of the subjects and a great many notes that I had accumulated in my years in the press office as assistant press secretary. The employees used to have it available for the newspapermen who came in and wanted to know what John Jones--where he came from and what he did. Well, I had to have that handy in the office, all sorts of things of that kind. That's also in my files together with all these other things, and I tried as a matter of reference to keep-I don't like the word "diary" because it wasn't--I suppose you could call it that--but it wasn't in my mind a diary so much as it was a record for my own
reference purposes. I had done that from the first time I went to the White House as a liaison with the Office of Inter-American Affairs, to know what happened in the past and have some kind of a reference when something came up, and I continued to do that, and I find now as I look back that there are many things in that record that I kept that otherwise would be gone entirely from my mind. I find things that I had forgotten completely, I think--perhaps I'm wrong about it--but I attribute that partly to my newspaper background. For years I was a newspaperman, and as a reporter you make notes of something and you write the news story and that story is as dead as a doornail tomorrow, and so why clutter up your mind with it anymore--it goes out of your mind--you're on something else the next day, and I think that becomes a mental habit. A psychologist could explain it better than I can. You may recall it if you have something to bring it back to your mind and that's what's happening now with you asking me questions, it brings