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Oral History Interview with
LUCIUS D. BATTLE
June 23, 1971
by Richard D. McKinzie and Theodore A. Wilson
BATTLE: . . . fairly close but somewhat peripheral. I
saw virtually every paper that ever went between Secretary [Dean] Acheson
and President Truman over the four years of that era, and I sat in on
the meetings. I was then assistant to Dean Acheson, and a very close
relationship existed between them; he admired President Truman enormously.
I was quite a young man at the time; I was 30. I had those
four years with Dean Acheson and then later came back and had a similar
job with Dean Rusk for a year or so. Then I was an Assistant Secretary
twice, and an Ambassador.
The interesting thing to me, I think, is the
parallel between those administrations and the current one in terms
of relationships between the White House and the executive agencies
of Government. This is, I think, rather timely. I read last night an
article by Dean Acheson in Foreign Affairs, which will interest
you; it is very much on the point we're talking about.
I remember most vividly--this is an interesting contrast--two
things that happened to me that I think tells something about the nature
of the Truman administration. Soon after I started to work for Acheson,
General [Harry] Vaughan called me and said, "The Secretary's office
is about to receive a recommendation on a problem." I've forgotten what
the issue was; it doesn't make any difference. He said, "I think this
is very wrong and I very much hope that you will see that the Secretary
follow the advice of the State Department."
The paper came up to me and I read it. It was rather concerned
about the fact that the White House had called me and I was--well, it
was one of the first times I suppose this had happened--and I went in
to see Dean (I did not call him Dean in those days), and I said, "I've
had a call about this matter from General Vaughan."
And he said, "Well, what's the recommendation?"
I said, "The recommendation of the Department of State
is so and so and so and so, but General Vaughan said . . ."
He said, "Well, I don't care what General Vaughan says."
Then he turned to me and said, "What do you think?"
And I said, "I don't really think General Vaughan's right.
I think the . . ."
He said, "That's quite enough. You don't even have to
talk with General Vaughan if you
don't want to." He said, "If you have
any problems around the White House, you just refuse to talk to them;
you don't have to talk to Vaughan if you don't want to." He said, "I'll
take it up with the President--whatever." He added, "Don't ever tell
me that I must do something because the White House says so. If the
President says so, that's a different thing. When the White House says
something," he said, "we won't pay any attention to that."
Well, that's a terribly interesting comment in terms of
the relationship between Dean Acheson and President Truman and the confidence
he had in that relationship and the certainty that he could go on his
course and follow what he thought to be right. As long as you had the
President with you there was no worry about it.
Now, Admiral [Sidney W.] Souers was the
of the NSC; he was around, but I never had many conversations with him
over a long period of time.
I never knew, at any point, of him veering from the perfect
balance of his posture and his place in Government. Now contrast that
with what happened to me many years later. I came back at the beginning
of the Kennedy administration. I had been out of Government for several
years. Dean Rusk asked me to come back and to take on a slightly different
kind of job as executive secretary of the State Department (which I
held for about a year and a half). The first day I came back Dean looked
at me--Dean Rusk looked at me--and said, "Look, the first thing I want
you to do is to try to get the White House under control." He said,
"This is just overwhelming."
Now, he knew that I knew Mac Bundy and Arthur Schlesinger
and all the group that were
around at that particular period. Well,
to my absolute astonishment, the volume of mail, memoranda--they weren't
going through one channel, they were going all over the building, all
over the White House, and Assistant Secretaries of State were writing
contradictory recommendations to the President, going through different
channels. We tried to get this in order and in time were reasonably
successful, not totally successful, but reasonably successful, given
the pressures on the White House staff that existed at that time. Mac
Bundy is an old friend of mine; I've known him for a long time and we're
still very good friends. He and I worked quite well together, but the
large activist group that we had around the White House at that time
was in sharp contrast to what we had had earlier in the Acheson period.
I think the contrast is even greater today, as you view
Henry Kissinger's staff of 100 or
more, and contrast the degree to which
the State Department has constantly been hammered down. But if you read
this article I was referring to last night, Acheson makes an exception
of his own period in terms of the gradual decline of the influence of
the Department of State and a sort of failure of the Department to continually
be able to assert itself, with its prerogatives, in the field of foreign
President Truman had two or three qualities I thought
were really quite remarkable. They were remarkable in an interesting
way, because they, I think, were based on a sense of humility. There
were very few people in public life that I admire as much as I admire
President Truman, but I think it's a mistake to consider him a brilliant
man. He wasn't; he was a limited man, but he had one or two great attributes.
One is he knew his limitations.
He knew that he didn't know everything;
he accepted his own limitations, and he did something about them, and
that's pretty strong stuff, you know, when you find anybody who is able
to--that's pretty good. He put together the best Cabinet that I have
ever served with and I have served with quite a number of them.
WILSON: That's a striking statement that's come up again
and again. We've had the experience now over the last two years of being
in gatherings when Dean Acheson and Averell Harriman and a number of
extremely powerful people, strong people; they just comment that this
was a good Cabinet, a strong Cabinet, they knew who was boss. With the
sort of limitations that we're all aware of, and with the kinds of very
strong personalities that were in this Cabinet, we're still at a loss
I think to explain the relationship that existed there.
MCKINZIE: The relationship between Dean Acheson and President
Truman, the President being a very salty and a very direct kind of man,
and Acheson being an urbane . . .
BATTLE: He's also salty. Well, the friendship surprises
me; it was a rather strange friendship. I never would have ever bet
on it at all, but it existed and it still exists. I've been with Acheson,
President Truman, six or eight people, and spent entire evenings with
them both in office and out of office, while President Truman was in
office, and really the relationship was quite obvious and very strong,
and they both recognized it. They were totally different people. They
both had guts about them, a courage and saltiness about them.
Dean's covered with a veneer of Eastern seaboard polish,
and Truman is sort of Middle West, but they both had that quality of
and directness that was really pretty remarkable. Acheson trusted
me totally, and I went everywhere with him. I went around all over town
I don't recall it ever happened before or after in the
State Department, but I would go over with him to see the President--not
often, but occasionally. I would often sit in meetings with him with
other members of the Cabinet who came over to see him, and I was around.
I was in the background; I had no role of my own. It was all sort of
indirect by virtue of my relationship with Acheson, but I saw the Cabinet
in action in a rather remarkable way at that time. And it was an astonishing
thing. There was apparently little backbiting; there was a remarkable
sense--except by Louis Johnson, who was a bastard. He really was. But
the rest of the group was quite remarkable; there were strong ones and
weak ones, but in the main
they were good. The Cabinet and the level
just below the Cabinet were quite remarkable. They had a sense of direction
and they sort of knew what they were about, where they were trying to
go, and what they were trying to do, and they did it very well.
WILSON: How much of the cohesion was the result in your
view of the kinds of problems that so many of these men had had in the
Roosevelt administration? We were amazed; of course, [John W.] Snyder
and Harriman and Acheson and a number of others had had that experience
in trying to get things done during the war and even before, in a very
different kind of administrative situation. Is it fair to say they were
so grateful, or did it have a sort of different atmosphere?
BATTLE: That might have been part of it, but I think there
were two or three elements that contributed greatly to it. First, nobody
expected President Truman to win; therefore, the group that was around
him came into being primarily because President Truman had no obligations.
He didn't have to pay off anybody. Therefore, his obligations to make
appointments because of large campaign contributions, and political
pressures, simply didn't exist. He could do what he wanted to do. And
therefore the Cabinet members were appointed because of their worth,
their individual worth, and not because of any specific thing they had
Secondly is, I think, that this produced a bit of quality
in a man, and there was a common sense of goal. They had a responsibility
for the whole direction of our country at a very key time. The next
thing was a new set of problems, and they were new, and they were untried
and they were untested and they were unknown, and really they were postwar
problems of a magnitude we've never seen. There was a kind of unity
Cabinet and those around and it was very true of the State Department
also, particularly through the [Joseph] McCarthy period; a common outside
enemy gave a cohesion inside. That may sound a little hard to believe,
but it's very true.
MCKINZIE: You say that in the State Department as well?
BATTLE: Yes. There was very little ratting and running
in the period of McCarthy. There was really, of the senior people, only
one, that ratted and ran. The pressure I'm sure was great on a lot of
people; they thought that the Democrats had had it, and that the administration
was on its last legs, and--this, that, and the other thing. I'm sure
that the appeal of being able to deal with the enemies of that group,
the Republicans of the period, and McCarthy particularly, who wanted
information on individuals and so on--I'm sure of this group.
I knew only one person who was an exception and I won't
mention his name. I'm not particularly reticent about such things, but
nothing is a certainty and therefore I don't want to engage in being
critical. There was very little that I would call ratting and running
on our own thing, and everybody held together remarkably well
in the State Department in the face of enormous outside challenge. All
sorts of charges were leveled at us; charges of Communist sympathizers,
homosexuality, God only knows what, were bantered around in those days.
It's hard to believe.
WILSON: That's very interesting, but as you know, the
public record, and the historical record, has it a little differently.
It has the revival or some temporary cohesion of the Department of State
taking place under George Marshall, because he put in organizational
charts and the [George F.] Kennan approach--the idea of, "Well, the
Department's finally doing what they were set up to do--to engage
in longterm planning." And then the interpretation is that there is
a slight drag of erosion under McCarthy and under charges of Dean Acheson
being an Anglophile--you know, that sort of problem.
BATTLE: I don't agree with that. There was an erosion,
but it was not erosion of the common sense of purpose that existed then.
Some people got out. The effects of the period were probably felt later
rather than immediately, but at the top structure of the problem, except
for Phil [Phillip C.] Jessup, who was one of the finest human beings
I ever knew in my entire life--no one around the top structure was really
charged with anything. Of course, those were McCarthy days. But the
top structure held together remarkably well. Down in the bowels of the
place I suppose there was erosion, and certainly there was later; I
felt it particularly
at the beginning of the Kennedy administration.
I remember those around Arthur Schlesinger, and we were
talking about the abolition of the OCB and the fact that the Department
of State in his judgment had to grasp the initiative (I hate the phrase,
but nevertheless, I use it), and take the leadership of the foreign
policy again. Somehow it was up to the Department--the Foreign Service--to
assert itself. I said, "Arthur, I agree with you in principle completely,
but I completely disagree with you in practicality and in practice.
It isn't going to work." I said, "You are right in terms of what it
ought to be, but it isn't. It can't be, and the reason for that is,
one, you have the Foreign Service at their very lowest point."
He said, "They're all Republicans."
I said, "They are not; I suspect that you'd carry them
overwhelmingly to the Democratic
side if you took a poll." But, I said,
"They are demoralized for two basic reasons. One is the aftermath of
McCarthy, and all that it did--the failure of the Eisenhower administration
really to challenge it as far as the State Department was concerned.
Secondly, you have the failure of John Foster Dulles to use the Department
of State at all. He mistrusted it totally, and he would have nothing
to do with it if he could avoid it. He used almost none of the staff
around the place. He made foreign policy out of his vest pocket. So
did Dean Rusk later, but for a different, a slightly different set of
reasons. And these factors I think had made the top structure of the
Foreign Service a pretty defunct thing; there wasn't much left of it.
It got back on its feet pretty well for a time, and then
it had its problems later. All in all I think it's done much better
years; but the problem was you had had the senior people who
had grown up in the eight years of the Eisenhower administration in
which McCarthy ran rampant. That's when the greatest disservice to the
State Department and the Foreign Service occurred, because in those
eight years you felt the impact of the earlier McCarthy movement, but
you also had a Republican administration which had in its capacity the
chance to challenge McCarthy and was not willing to do so.
Therefore, the Foreign Service sort of went along for
several years being beat from the outside and not used within. At least
in the Acheson era they continued to be used and to be trusted, and
the top structure held together remarkably well, remarkably well.
WILSON: You mentioned that at the time of Truman's election,
this group at the top had sense of new problems. Would it be fair to
say that in
part the approach taken was just to consciously cut the
United States away from the impedimenta of the war, of the wartime planning,
postwar planning, of international and multilateral approaches to solve
certain problems and basically to say in 1949, "Okay, if these solutions,
these approaches aren't going to work, the United States is going to
have to take the lead, consciously assert it's power and see what can
be done with it." Is that a fair statement?
BATTLE: Yes, I think that's a fair statement. The remarkable
thing to me is that President Truman with his--no majority at all, a
very slim one, in the Congress--was able to direct and preside over
a total departure from our heritage in terms of foreign policy.
Now, admittedly, the American public was ready for something,
was ready to be led. It's a rather strange thing to me that he could
it possible to get as much money through the Congress and with
a Secretary of State, who after the Hiss statement, became rather generally
brushed aside, at least in political arrangements, but who was still
accepted as a major intellectual force, and a leader in the Western
World. It's a remarkable thing, and yet somehow a whole series of new
directions were carved out. I got many letters from Dean Acheson over
the years, including one from him about the middle of the Dulles era
in which he said, "You know, the real problem is that this administration
is following us too slavishly." He said, "They really ought to be looking
at themselves. They're not absolutely sticking to the courses that were
I think the tragedy, and I'm going beyond what I'm supposed
to be talking about, but I think the whole tragedy of Vietnam and of
the period that we're in now, is a following too slavishly of what had
gone on in the Truman era, and also over-reaction to the dangers that
era flushed out.
I believe, myself, that the tragedy of Vietnam is understandable
in the context of history. I think our presence there was part of the
sweep of history. The charges that were leveled at Truman for having
lost China and the charge that the Far East had been sold down the river
because of Communists in Government and all that rot--that had a tremendous
influence on both Kennedy and Johnson in terms of their refusal to be
put in the same position. And there was the idea that you don't want
to be the first President to ever lose a war--all this I think was an
aftermath of the Truman era. The policy of containment, that's a simplification,
but the policy of opposing communism around the globe, was an oversold,
over-followed policy. It should have been tested a little more carefully
earlier, and the American public prepared for
it. But the same sorts
of speeches were still being made, the same kind of arguments were still
being advanced in the early sixties that were advanced in the late forties.
What we really got was an entirely different turn of events.
WILSON: We have the impression that, with George Kennan
aside, that within the Department of State there was not automatic willingness
to apply the doctrines or the prescriptions of containment everywhere
in this 1949, 1950, 1951 period in other agencies.
BATTLE: I would agree. I think there was a greater willingness
to test inside of the Department, but the real limit was the American
electorate, and the real limit was the Congress, and the real limit
was that the margin of victory was rather slight in the 1960 election.
Everybody was a little afraid at being called too liberal;
still worries about charges of being pro-Communist and things of that
sort, and the 1954 agreements and all that they were supposed to represent.
The whole realm of the past, I think, had a great deal to do with our
Not on the basis of that should you forgive us for not
having seen the light of it earlier than we did, but try to explain
how we got in the morass, not how we should have gotten out of it or
why. I think we were caught in a stream. The involvement was bit by
bit by bit and it all went back to both the masterful job of selling
a philosophy, in the 1949 to 1952 era, plus the McCarthy challenge,
and the challenge really of the Republican Party, on the loss of China.
WILSON: What role did the outbreak of the Korean war have
in confirming an effort to apply containment generally? If, speculating,
Korea had not occurred or had not occurred quite that way, might
there have been a different course?
BATTLE: Possibly. Quite possibly.
MCKINZIE: We have the impression that many of the things
that were on the board were quickly revised. Particularly, aid of an
economic nature which had been for, say, industrial development before
1950, suddenly became a kind of military assistance, which, of course,
has something to do with industrial development and so refocuses the
whole bit. You had something to do, I think, with that whole . . .
BATTLE: Yes, I was rather deeply involved in the Korean
thing. I was involved only in the sense that I represented my boss,
but I was involved. Not that I had any independent authority or independent
position, as his assistant, but I
was present at most of the meetings,
keeping current on the aftermath of that and later the whole period
leading up to the [General Douglas] MacArthur firing, and all that.
I was deeply involved in it from the beginning, and it was an incredible
WILSON: Recently at a meeting of historians in New Orleans,
Lawton Collins spoke before a gathering of diplomatic historians. He
suggested, and I think his book suggests also, that MacArthur really
sold, in a way, and forced the response of the administration by the
way he presented the problem when he came in--the Korean attack, and
if we don't do something within a very short time, you must wake up
the President, and that sort of thing. Might you say something in general
about the administration's relations with the Far East, or with MacArthur?
BATTLE: I think we had created a figure there that was
hard to deal with on any basis. I shudder to think how he saw himself.
I happened to have been on the receiving end of his telegrams for a
very long time. I was in the war in the Pacific myself; I was on staff
jobs and I used to read all those things on MacArthur, when he was managing
the South Pacific. I was accustomed to reading his telegrams at that
time and then again back in the State Department. That went on a few
more years. We created a very real problem. I think part of this has
to be again in the stream of history. It goes back even before World
War II and to the nature of our own involvement, particularly in the
postwar period. I think we groped around for answers to a problem that
we couldn't solve. Look at the excesses of the Congress in the period
before the Korean War; I remember vividly the legislation that was passed.
It would have been, I suppose, early 1950 when the
300 million dollars
for use in the general area of China were passed. The administration
hadn't asked for it; the Congress in its ultimate wisdom and overwhelming
generosity gave us 300 million to be spent in the general area of China,
to combat the spread of communism in the area. "General area" covered
anything you wanted to do with it. They had to give themselves a sense
of having done something.
I remember a Friday when we had a briefing on the status
of China, on what pockets there were that we could aid with some of
this large amount of money. A group of CIA and military people were
there, and they said, "Well, there were a couple of pockets in the north
and west of China that they thought could hold on indefinitely with
support from outside, and that we really should proceed to aid them
militarily and otherwise."
The following Monday, or perhaps Tuesday,
that could last forever were gone. Now this gives some idea of the rapidity
with which the scene was changing and the fact that we didn't know where
to turn. Moreover, there was no shortage of money. Chiang Kaishek was
known to have vast hordes of money in bank accounts here and elsewhere;
there was no shortage of funds. He had all the military equipment needed.
He was losing it faster than they could get it out there; it was all
going. Whether you were really helping them or not, was entirely doubtful,
but that was all too simple to have been understood. Instead, there
was the charge that somehow the Administration was letting Chiang Kai-shek
fall; that stalwart democrat, Chiang Kai-shek, who was anything but
an exemplary person in any possible way. We as a country, I think, in
that period had something to do with making this so. We are always dealing
in extremes. Everything is either all
the way one thing, or all the
way the other, and usually, very often, the middle course is the proper
WILSON: What did you do, what did the Department do in
its approach to Congressmen, the China lobby or the "Asia firsters?"
Just hopeless, or were there any continued efforts to try to . . .
BATTLE: Well, there were continued efforts to placate;
there were some efforts to explain. They never quite caught up with
the problem, because the disaster was occurring. No one ever quite understood
why. The historical antecedents of it were not new, and we did a few
things. We issued the White Paper, and I heard a series of comments
over the last several days referring to that in terms of the New York
Times papers on Vietnam. That's an interesting parallel.
MCKINZIE: It is.
BATTLE: Poor Phil Jessup, who had nothing whatever to
do with the preparation, originally, of the White Paper. I happened
to be present when Dean Acheson asked him, in the summer of 1950, maybe
in the spring, to look at the White Paper that had been in preparation
and see whether it held together as a document and also whether it would
do any damage in terms of our relations with other countries. Phil reviewed
it and perhaps made some changes in it, but he certainly had not put
it together. He later got tagged with the responsibility for having
written and put out the White Paper. The implication was that somehow
the Administration had wanted China to go over to the Communist side,
which is, of course, ridiculous. But there were various efforts to explain
and justifying what course we were taking. A lot of catch phrases came
out at the time. There was a charge that Acheson had said we could do
nothing in China; we must wait until the dust
My recollection is that the phrase did not originate with
him; it was Patrick Hurley. We tried to run it down at one point and
I think we could not find any place where Acheson had said it, and we
found it back in an earlier statement by Patrick Hurley. Perhaps this
is not a totally fair thing. The statement was thrown around as coming
from the Administration and it was shocking that there was really very
little you could do.
I think the issue that has plagued us, and still plagues
us, is how far we will involve ourselves in a land war on the Continent.
It has come up over and over and over again. It came up in the context
of China, and of Chiang Kai-shek on the mainland. It came up in the
context of Korea, and whether we had won the war that was there. It
came up later in the Matsu and the offshore islands debate and it has
plagued us, and will plague us for a long
time in respect to Vietnam.
But it's all part of the same problem. It's all part of
the question, will the United States involve itself in a land war with
troops on the mainland of China?
MCKINZIE: When discussions came up regarding the alternatives
to the land war with China, there were evidently quite divergent views
on how the United States should go about preventing the further spread
of communism. There were people who argued that we needed a kind of
people-to-people approach with broad technical assistance programs and
then there were others who argued that you could best do it through
massive injections of American investment capital. Were you part of
this kind of debate, or did it seem to rock the State Department much
at the time?
BATTLE: Well, as was so often true of my life at that
point and totally untrue of it later, I
just sat there and heard it
all. I wasn't supposed to speak, just listen. I involved myself to a
degree, probably much more than was profitable to my role in life. But
I had no responsibility except to my boss and I was not independently
responsible for any part of the operation. There weren't great divergencies
of view. I think the overwhelming view inside the Department and inside
the Government was there wasn't a thing you could do about the fall
of China. There were uncertainties about whether there would be lasting
resistance within China itself, about how complete the control of the
Chinese would be over the mainland and how successful it could be, and
indeed about what Russia's own involvements would be in the control
of China. There were a lot of questions raised, but I think no one really
saw anything very precise we could do. Again, if you had started much
earlier, and if you had had a
different kind of administration to work
with, it's conceivable that something might have happened. But given
the fact that you had Chiang Kai-shek, an extremely ripe old government
and hardly one that's going to bring land reform and all the changes
that were needed on the continent, little could be done, and especially
not in the context of a civil war in the country. It was very hard to
do anything unless you had something to work with. We might have done
something a bit earlier; I think that's conceivable. I don't think anything
we did then was going to change the course of things. I think it was
too late by the time I knew anything about it to do anything with it.
Actually I think that was already the case before the 1948 election,
and I had nothing to do with that part of it. I came to work with Dean
in March of 1949, the first day of March 1949, and he'd been in office
Well, by early spring we were already in very serious
trouble. I said a moment ago the White Paper was 1950, I think it was
WILSON: You were presented--or Secretary Acheson was presented--with
the Point IV idea when he came in, which was not originally a State
Department idea. Point IV received an enormous amount of publicity and
attention, but received very little money for the next four years. What
was the nature of State's attitude toward Point IV?
BATTLE: You are quite right; Point IV was not dreamed
up by the State Department. It was totally contrary to routine philosophy
at the time. In fact, the Foreign Service in the middle forties, let
us say, when I first joined, in 1946, was, I thought painting a very
narrow view of itself, and of our country, and what direction the Service
and we should be moving.
The Foreign Service Act of 1946 is a remarkable piece
of legislation, but for all the wrong reasons. It's remarkable because
it's very flexible and not very clear, and therefore permits you to
do just about anything you want to, but it has nothing to do with the
vision of those that prepared it. It was prepared on the basis of exactly
the wrong direction, that what we really needed in our country was a
small elite corps, and that the real key--I talked with the people at
the time who were preparing it--what we really needed was a very small
corps and we should all recognize the political relationships, the political
aspects with a controlling doctrine, and that these newer things--economics,
and information, and intelligence--were not really basic. They were
one whack below what a Foreign Service officer should be dealing with,
and the Department refused to really try to gain control
several emerging new agencies in those fields. The new agencies came
along afterwards. The information agency was set up later, and the aid
agency was set up later; the CIG, later CIA, was set up later. But initially
all these functions were more or less residual functions remaining in
some of the wartime agencies, but in terms of peacetime had not been
placed as functions, and were still available to be tools of foreign
policy. The Foreign Service, those who were really guiding the direction
of it at that point, didn't see it. To me it was the biggest mistake
the Service ever made.
I was president later, many years later, of the Foreign
Service Association, and I dealt with that period in my final speech
to it. In the speech I said I felt this was the major failure the Service
had made, that is, in not anticipating what the needs of our own country
were in meeting its diplomatic requirements of the years ahead. By not
training themselves, by not broadening, by not bringing in economists,
by not bringing in people who knew something about information and intelligence
and that sort of thing, they let themselves be dominated by others instead
of dominating them, and that was the be