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
August 6, 1968
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
August 6, 1968
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Ayers, in our last interview, you stated that you were in the Independence-Kansas City area with the President at the time of the Korean invasion in June of 1950. What do you recall of the events of that time?
AYERS: Well, that trip started out as simply a weekend visit for the President to his home, I think partly for business purposes and also to see the family. In connection with the trip, he was to go to Friendship Airport, which had just been completed outside of Baltimore, and dedicate that airport. As there was not any official relationship to his visit to Independence, no large staff accompanied him out there, Charlie Ross, the press secretary didn't go and I went in his place, and the chronology of it began on Saturday morning, June 24th. At that time the President was going to Friendship Airport. I left the White House with the President and General [Harry H.] Vaughan and we rode together over to the National Airport to board the Independence, the President's airplane. In the party on the plane were Admiral [Robert L.] Dennison, General [Robert B.] Landry, General [Wallace] Graham, Miss [Rose]
Conway, the President's personal secretary, and me.
Also, for the trip from the National Airport to Friendship Airport, some of the Maryland and Baltimore, particularly Baltimore, officials were taken along. So they boarded the plane there too; according to the notes that I made afterwards, I think these included Governor [William Preston] Lane of Maryland, Mayor [Thomas] D'Alesandro of Baltimore, and, I think, a couple of Congressmen and several other people. I know that there was some joking about the mayor, who I believe hadn't made an airplane flight before in his life, at least he was a little scared about it, and he was kidded a little bit, but he went through with it. So we flew over to the airport and got there about 11 o'clock, as I recall, and the President spoke briefly, dedicating the airport. He was there, actually, I think, a little less than an hour. Then those of us with the President boarded the plane again, leaving Maryland and Baltimore officials there, and we took off and flew directly to Independence. We didn't go back to Washington or stop anywhere en route. I think that we landed out there at Kansas City about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, that is, 4 o'clock eastern daylight, which was around 2 o'clock central time. The President
was met there by his sister, and some others, and he drove immediately out to his home in Independence. General Landry, the Air Force Aide, and I, went to the Muehlebach Hotel. I don't recall that Admiral Dennison went out to Independence. I have no clear recollection one way or the other, but I don't recall or find in my notes anything referring to him again. So I think he may not have made that part of the trip. There was a group of newspapermen, as usual, in a separate plane, a press plane, and they all stayed in Kansas City at the Muehlebach Hotel. Now, as I say, there was nothing of an official nature, and no news, actually, for the newspapermen, other than to record the President's safe arrival, and to know that he went to his home. So there was nothing that evening. I had dinner with one of the newspapermen, Anthony Leviero of the New York Times. And later in the evening, I did receive some queries, I think from the United Press man--it must have been Merriman Smith--I believe he was the one then--about reports of fighting in Korea where forces from the North were launching an attack on the South. But I didn't communicate with the President at all during the evening, as I knew that he would be notified directly if there was anything that he should actually know about. So I
retired, I guess, at the normal time. Anyway, some time during the middle of the night I was awakened by a hammering at the door, and one of the communications men delivered a message for the President to me. It was a message to the President, from, I think, Secretary of State Acheson, forwarding a report from the U.S. Ambassador at Seoul, Korea, informing him of the outbreak of hostilities. I debated with myself as to whether I should call him. I figured then, correctly, as it developed a little later, that Acheson would call him directly if he felt it was essential that the President know any more. And that's actually what did happen. I had already arranged during the evening with the Secret Service man [Howard S.] Anderson, who was Chief of the Kansas City Secret Service office then--he'd been in the White House detail, and I knew Anderson well--to drive me over to Independence the next morning. That was before we knew of any developments in Korea. I had never been to Independence and over to the house, in fact, I had never been to Kansas City before. So the next morning, after I awoke, I telephoned over to the house and found that the President had gotten up early and had left his home to drive out to his brother's farm, and to see his sister in Grandview. So I couldn't reach
him then, but Anderson came in shortly with his car and we drove over to Independence, and by the time we got over there and drove in the back yard, the President had returned. I was taken in the side door, or the back door, and the President came down and took me into the library, and I delivered the telegram from Acheson to him. And we sat and talked. He told me he had talked with Acheson by phone during the night and that Acheson told him that he had sent the telegram, which added little if anything to what he had already told him. He said the United Nations' Security Council had been called to meet in the afternoon, and the President said that unless something more developed, he didn't want to cut his visit short and return, and he didn't expect he'd have to. He felt if he were to do that it might alarm people, and he said that Acheson would phone him later if he felt the President should be notified or should go back to Washington. He told me of his visit out to the farm where he and his brother, Vivian, and their four sons and daughter and five grandchildren all were, and he looked over a milking machine, saw a new horse, and then went over to see his sister. He said he cleared up some personal business which he had with the family, and which had to do largely with some
work about the farm. Now that was all they had except that when I left the house and I went out the gate, all the newspapermen were there waiting. There was quite a crowd out, reporters, correspondents, and photographers.
HESS: One question there, did the President seem to be greatly concerned about the events in Korea at this time?
AYERS: Well, I don't know how you answer a question like that. The President was not one to show great concern about a thing. He wasn't going to get excited and carried away about anything. I think he was concerned, of course. When you ask questions like that, or when anybody does, about the concern of a President, and I think this would apply of any President probably--a man who gets to the point where he's President of the United States isn't going to get up and run around in little circles and get overly excited. He's going to keep his head. He just talked casually and easily about the situation, without any excitement about it.
When I went out the gate, of course, all these photographers and reporters began to ask questions and I just told them--they asked if he was concerned, and I said that naturally he was concerned, but he wasn't alarmed. That's the way I put it then, and I think that was a fair statement.
About an hour and a half later after I got back to the hotel, the word came that the President was going to go back to Washington as soon as possible, and that efforts were being made to round up everyone, others of the staff, the few that there were, and newspapermen. We couldn't locate the Air Aide, Landry, he had gone out somewhere to play golf, and we left it up to the Secret Service to try to find him. As a matter of fact, they never did find him before we took off.
HESS: Was he the only one of the aides that was left, the only one that missed the plane?
AYERS: Well, Vaughan didn't come back with us, but that was not because he missed the plane. He had gone to his family home which was in Glasgow, Missouri.
Well, we were trying to get these people, and the phone rang and it was Margaret calling. She came on and said her father had asked her to call me and she passed questions and answers back and forth. He was trying to get ready. She said the President would be at the airport between 2 and 2:15 local time. She said he had talked to Acheson and there were decisions to be made and he felt he should go back without delay. I, of course, was trying to get the newspapermen together. I didn't have to do that. There was one of the communications men, I think it was, who said he would round them up. I got
packed and got out to the airport about 2 o'clock. The President had already gotten there, Mrs. Truman and Margaret and the President's sister, Mary Jane, were out there and the crew of the plane was aboard. Vaughan was still in Glasgow. He was out there to see his mother. She was seriously ill, I think, at the time. And the newspapermen couldn't take off because they didn't have a plane, they couldn't find a plane, but the rest of us got aboard the presidential plane, and Miss Conway and I think her little niece was with her, and the President, myself--we were about the only ones on the plane coming back.
HESS: Did you make a stop in St. Louis and pick up John Snyder?
AYERS: Stop in St. Louis? We made no stops anywhere. We didn't come near St. Louis. I know I said when we took off--it was a beautiful day, a beautiful flight, clear, you could see everything, there wasn't a bank of clouds under us or anything, and we were high, way high, and I know I said, "I'm going to see the Mississippi River. I've gone across that Mississippi, but I've never seen it in my life because it's always been after dark." And we followed the Missouri until we went across the Mississippi, and I'm bringing this in because you asked about
St. Louis, because way down to the south you could just see the smoke and so on of St. Louis. We stopped nowhere. That I know is accurate, because I was there. I didn't have any lengthy conversation with the President on the plane going back. We landed about 7:15 eastern standard time over at the airport. Acheson was there to meet him along with Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, Under Secretary of State [James E.] Webb, and he took them in his car to Blair House where they were joined by others, and they had dinner there. I came back to the White House and then I went over to Blair House--I wasn't present at their meeting, but I stuck around over there because the newspapermen, of course, had learned of the gathering there. As I say, there were fourteen at the dinner, and they stayed there in session until about 11 o'clock. You probably have all about that group and he probably has it in his Memoirs--I don't know whether he has or not. The group included Acheson, Webb, Johnson, Secretary of the Army [Frank] Pace, Secretary of the Navy [Francis] Matthews, Secretary of the Air [Thomas K.] Finletter, General Omar Bradley, General [J. Lawton] Collins, General Hoyt Vandenberg of the Air Force, and Admiral [Forrest] Sherman, the Chief of Staff, Dean Rusk, John Hickerson and Philip Jessup of the State Department.
don't know whether that's all of them or not. You'll have to count them up and see whether it comes out right After they had finished, I waited until they left and then I talked with the President. All he would say for use publicly, at least, was that the meeting was most satisfactory, but he said they hadn't actually finished. He expected to see Acheson and Johnson the next morning. But he didn't go into any details with me. I didn't ask for too many.
When I came out all these conferees had left by the back entrance, from Blair House. Of course, that was long before they put that big Federal building up back there. The President often used that entrance while he was living at the Blair House. When he was going somewhere in his car he would almost always leave by that back entrance. I left with him on one or two occasions in his car from the back. No one would know that he left because he came out on 17th Street. These conferees left that way so these newspapermen didn't catch them. I told the newspapermen at the time they broke up, that there wasn't anything to add to it.
Now, that covered that day. That was the two days that the invasion really started, if you go back to the first notification that the President received, which was
perhaps before the beginning of the day, close to midnight, at least, on the 24th, the night of the 24th. Sunday was the second day, and that was the 25th. The 25th was the day we came back.
HESS: That's right, flew out on the 24th and flew back on the 25th.
AYERS: That's right. Then on Monday, the 26th, the President had no appointments, because he expected to stay another day out in Kansas City, so there hadn't been any made, which meant there were none to be broken. It was a fortunate thing in that respect. Acheson came in to see the President and the Korean ambassador was in to renew requests for aid and I think Admiral [Roscoe H.] Hillenkoetter, who was then head of the CIA, was one of them . . . and I guess there were others. I don't recall.
Now that is virtually all I've got on it up until that time. I could go on with the next day on Tuesday--that's when he had a staff meeting.
HESS: What did he say at the staff meeting? What comes to mind?
AYERS: Well, at the staff meeting--Charlie Ross had had an appointment with the doctor that morning, and he had gotten in ahead of the rest of us, and when I went in
he had a draft of a proposed statement by the President on the Korean situation. Some changes had been made in this draft and the President asked me to check those changes with Secretary Acheson and then have some dozen copies made. The President had called a meeting for 11:20 with the members of the Foreign Affairs and Foreign Relations Committees from Congress. So, I called Acheson's office and he was in conference, and an assistant went over these changes with me, and then with his secretary; he called back with some changes, I went in to the President and went over them with him, and finally we got the statement straightened out. I was having that typed when the President called and said there were a couple of changes which he suggested I get from Acheson--that's the way those things went. I checked with his office and finally we reached an agreement on all the changes. Later a copy that the State Department had was brought over to me and checked with me. This necessitated retyping the twelve copies and all that fussing. I took them into the President, in his office, and he was with Acheson preparing to go into the Cabinet Room for an 11:30 meeting. But, finally, about noon they got this darn statement out. This was a statement outlining the action taken with the Security Council of the United
Nations, stating that the President had ordered U.S. air and sea forces to give the Korean government troops cover and support. That was really an order that brought us into military action. I don't need to go into that statement because it's all on the record anyway.
Now, that statement was an outgrowth, really, of another conference the President had had at Blair House the previous night, with the same group that he had had on Sunday night. At this second meeting the decisions covered by the statement were made and the orders to carry them out were sent out immediately after that. Now that, I think, pretty well covers the start of the Korean war.
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