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Nathan M. Becker Oral History Interview

   

Oral History Interview with
Nathan M. Becker

Economic adviser, Coordinator of Information, Board of Economic Warfare, and US Department of State, 1941-47; and economic adviser, General Staff US-UN Forces, Korea, 1952-53.

New York, New York
January 19, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

 

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 

 


 

NOTICE
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.

As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hard copy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the Nathan M. Becker transcript.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 February, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 



Oral History Interview with
Nathan M. Becker

New York, New York
January 19, 1973
Richard D. McKinzie

[1]

MCKINZIE: Perhaps you could say something about the kind of training you had and what brought you originally into Government service? I guess that's a good place to start.

BECKER: That's a strange story itself. I'm an economist, of course, not a political scientist or historian, and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the reform of the Chinese monetary system, of all things, and worked with one of the outstanding men in the field of Far Eastern economics, Carl [Dr. Charles Frederick] Remer, at Michigan. Even though I took my degree

[2]

at Cincinnati, I did part of my work with Remer at Michigan. That was in '38 when I got my degree. It's hard to realize it, it's the 35th anniversary of that coming up in June.

But, well, with the war starting to roll forward, the summer before Pearl Harbor I had been called to Washington on two or three occasions in a very secretive fashion. All I knew was that Carl Remer was involved in it, but when I got there there were a few other people whom I had met and knew, who had been associated with Far Eastern affairs politically, sociologically, or otherwise, and they wanted comments on various matters.

They sort of plucked my brains (or what little brains I had at the time), for what it was worth, a day or two at a time. I might say, that while I knew this had something to do with the Executive Office of the President, no organization name was used. I wasn't supposed to know with whom I was talking or anything else. Carl had mentioned

[3]

the fact that they might want me to come down for a longer period of time and asked if I could get away. I was teaching then at the University of Toledo. "Well," I said, "I presume I could if the circumstances were appropriate."

So that fall, of '4l, in early October--the semester had already started--I got a hurry-up call to come down to Washington again where they suggested that it would be nice if I could come down to help them for about six months. "Well," I said, "the semester has already started, this is a little tough on the university, but let me go back and see."

I went back and talked to Phil [Philip Curtis] Nash, who incidentally was a very active member of various international groups. Phil Nash was the president, and he said, in effect, "You've got a hell of a lot of nerve wanting to leave in October."

I said, "Well, I don't want to leave, I've

[4]

been asked to come down."

He said, "Well, who wants you?"

And I said, "I don't know."

"Now," he said, "that's kind of strange."

I said, "Well, I know it has something to do with the Executive Office of the President, but beyond that I don't know and if I did know, I wouldn't be permitted to tell you."

He said, "That's the most outlandish thing." This was the day before we became accustomed to secrecy in such activities. So finally, he said--well, this had gone on for several days and he said, "I'll tell you what." He said, "If I get a call from the White House saying that they want you down there," he said, "I'll let you go regardless of the inconvenience." He thought that he had effectively killed the idea with that.

I called Washington and told them the story and Phil Nash called me a couple of hours later and said, "I got the call." He said, "Pack your

[5]

bags." Within a day or two I got a telegram confirming the appointment and by the end of the month, October 30th, I was off.

What had been gathered there was a wholly new idea in a kind of intellectual detection, if you like, of scholarship. What this turned out to be, of course, was Bill Donovan's outfit, which was then called the Coordinator of Information, an innocuous title which included everything from what later became OSS and then the CIA, to the branches that were involved with the Office of War Information, and other things of that sort.

Well, actually what they were developing were some regional staffs and we worked for some months then trying to make up, really, for the shortage that we could obviously see in terms of our military and economic intelligence. I was in the Far Eastern group, and we had Bert Fahs and John Fairbank and Dirk Bodda, Ken (there I go, see, I've lost that last name now). Ken's

[6]

wife wrote the well-known Anna and the King of Siam, Ken [Kenneth P.] Landon.

It's funny I couldn't--see, it does come back after a while. But there were a number of outstanding scholars there and there were some others of us as well.

But well before the six months were up, of course, Pearl Harbor came along. So the question of my returning after six months became academic. The university actually kept me on leave of absence for a number of years after that, and later terminated it at my request. I stayed with that organization for some time until, as a matter of fact, it was getting ready for a reorganization in the spring.

MCKINZIE: Still called the Office of Information or something?

BECKER: The Coordinator of Information. Right before it broke up into various constituent parts, I left and joined what became the Board of Economic

[7]

Warfare.

MCKINZIE: With Henry Wallace?

BECKER: Yes. And worked in the Board of Economic Warfare. Most of my time, during the period of hostilities I was in charge of the Iberian section, part of the Blockade Division. We and our British cousins ran a joint operation in terms of the blockade of the neutral countries and in the negotiation of war trade agreements. We engaged in sub rosa activities as well as those that were not sub rosa. It involved preclusive purchasing, trying to get materials away from the enemy. And in Spain and Portugal this became a real rat race, in which we were all very much concerned (jointly with the British). I spent most of my time in Washington, but also overseas in Africa and Spain, Portugal, England, on some fieldwork and negotiations there.

In that work, of course, we also worked closely with a constituent branch of the State

[7a]

Department. And after a few years it's hard to imagine all the throes of organization and reorganization that were going on in Washington. I remember once coming back from Europe, touching neutral Ireland, and being informed by the Irish immigration officer that the name of my organization as shown on the passport was no longer valid because it had been changed yesterday. He got a great boot out of that.

Of course, the Irish were very good as neutrals, they let us do most anything that was reasonable. They let me pitch my confidential papers over the rail to the American consular officer who was waiting for me so it wouldn't have to go through inspection.

But at any rate, I left BEW and joined the State Department. At first, continuing the same work in a division which was technically--well, you know, the old State Department initial system, every division and office is known by its initials, this was "LA," Liberated Areas, or rather

[8]

it became Liberated Areas, but part of it had been the group dealing with the neutrals as well, but merged with LA.

MCKINZIE: You know the old BEW, I guess, fell apart, because it didn't have much internal cohesion some way. Were you aware of that at the time?

BECKER: Oh, yes. In the old OEW, which preceded, the Office of Economic Warfare--and there was more than just a change of name there, because it was again constantly changing functions -- -you had the Office of Exports and you had the Office of Imports, and their duties and interests were rather opposite to each other. "Imports" was primarily a matter of the rationing of transportation, or the stimulation of production in outlying regions of necessary war materials -- the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, for example, was the mother of dozens of organizations performing specific functions.

[9]

One of these organizations, called the USCC, was the sister organization to the British one called UKCC. These were the buying agencies, and when we conducted preclusive operations in Spain these were always joint activities of the two corporations, acting under directions from the policymaking committees, the operating committees which met in Washington and London.

MCKINZIE: These would be the joint boards?

BECKER: These were not "boards" actually, these were joint committees. The Blockade Committee itself met in London, as did the NAVICERT Committee; but we had an equivalent organization in Washington, which met weekly, and which consisted of the British representatives from their various interested offices and the Board of Economic Warfare, or whatever its name happened to be, and the State Department. And then we'd agree in terms of our policy and coordinate it with the British, as well, in London. On several

[10]

occasions, when I was in London, I attended the meetings of the regular parent committees in London.

Here's where you get a kind of conflict, because the policy was determined then in what was--in the Board of Economic Warfare, called the Blockade Division, which was part of the Office of Exports; whereas, the USCC functioned, really, under the administrative control of the Office of Imports, because many of its other functions were related to that office.

That in itself wasn't a great conflict, but the two offices were always sort of involved in rivalry. I know we had opposite numbers in the Office of Imports. I think they tended to think of themselves as the so-called more practical people and looked askance at some of the theoretical directives that came from the Blockade people, but I guess this was no more than the normal clash of knowledge, experience, and outlook. I don't admit for one moment that they were any

[11]

more "practical," but that was supposed to be their primary interest.

MCKINZIE: Did you think that the direction of Henry Wallace, who by that time was involved in it, had anything to do with that? Some of his critics have said that he wasn't a very good administrator.

BECKER: I guess one would have to say that. I had a few personal contacts with him, and of course, I saw him often enough. He was an "awful" nice guy. I think he was made a fool of by a number of people later, but I never really can satisfy myself whether he was naive or just disinterested in certain things. But he represented a certain point of view, and I have no doubt that his lack of attention, let's say to the details of administration, certainly contributed to the vagueness or the unclear lines of authority that sometimes existed. But then, I don't know, all the people who knew FDR used to say that he did

[12]

that on purpose, that this was a mark of his administrative genius or lack of it, whichever point of view you want to take.

There's the kind of administrator who administers by looking at every detail and the kind who delegates authority, and the other kind who doesn't really give a damn what happens as long as in some vague and general way they're moving towards whatever goals they have established. I don't know that any one kind of administration is superior to another, but--well, at the risk of something or other, I'd say that by in large I am always skeptical of an administrator who hasn't done the kind of jobs that he's supervising so that he knows what is involved, and I think that much of the conflict arises from this kind of situation.

I don't think the details of my personal policy are of too much interest here, but as the war began to reach its climax and conclusion we began to shift around. So several of us, plus

[13]

a couple of others, were drawn together then within the Department in this new staff that we spoke of before, in the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs' office. The special assistant was C. Tyler Wood, and we were his supporting staff; Dal [Dallas W.] Dort, Dave Pursinger, and myself, and--who have