Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened April, 1977
Oral History Interview with
October 29, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Professor Blaisdell, how did you happen to come into Government service? It's particularly interesting because you began your career in the academic world.
BLAISDELL: Well, I came into Government service in 1936 as an assistant to M. L. Wilson, who was at that time Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. So, my first four years in Government service were in the Department
of Agriculture, and then I had a short period between '40 and '41 when I was employed by the Temporary National Economic Committee, which was a new-type joint committee of the two houses of Congress and the executive branch of the Government -- various Government departments -- as an economic analyst. And then from '41 to '51 I was in the State Department. From '51 to '53 I was in the Foreign Service as a Foreign Service reserve officer, and then in '53 I was separated from my position, which at that time was deputy chief of the State Department's permanent delegation at the International Organizations in Geneva, Switzerland.
Well, that's a very brief summary of my career. It runs from 1936 to 1953, about 17 years, you see, of Government service.
MCKINZIE: Could I ask you what prompted you to enter Government service in 1936, after you already had very distinguished teaching positions?
BLAISDELL: I will be glad to. I mentioned that I went to Washington as Mr. Wilson's assistant in the Department of Agriculture. I had met Mr. Wilson in Washington a year or so before when I was visiting. While I was in Washington I lived in the same house with Mr. Wilson and Rex [Rexford] Tugwell and one or two other New Dealers of those days, most of whom were in the Department of Agriculture. Frederick C. Howe was another one who lived in that house at that time. This was a group of New Dealers who had been called into Washington fairly early, and instead of
having separate digs they pooled their resources and rented a house in Georgetown and lived there. They had a cook, and everybody was taken care of that way. I was lucky enough to be invited to live with them when I was in Washington in the summer of 1935 maybe for a month. I lived there with that group and I became well-acquainted with Mr. Wilson at the time.
At that time Mr. Wilson had not become Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. He was then head of what was called the Subsistence Homesteads Division in the Department of the Interior under Harold Ickes, who was Secretary of the Interior at the time.
I'll have to get into Mr. Wilson's philosophy I think to explain this connection between him and the Subsistence Homestead project. Mr. Wilson was an agricultural
economist from the University of Montana in Bozeman who had done substantial work in the field of the economics of large-scale wheat farming. He went out there as a county agent in the dry farming area and his first assignment as a county agent was in one of those counties in southern Montana which later was divided up into four counties. So you can get some idea of the scale on which he was operating. As a matter of fact, he had made a trip to the Soviet Union earlier to advise them on their large-scale wheat program there. They were developing winter wheat at that time for use in their northern areas. Mr. Wilson was familiar with winter wheat in Montana, and up into Canada, of course, it was the same situation.
But, he came to FDR's attention in the summer of '32 at the time of the campaign by proposing to FDR what was later called the Domestic Allotment Program, a program for stabilizing farm income by guaranteeing prices on certain farm exports, e.g. wheat, of that part of the total crop consumed domestically. I think this has been documented. I know of at least one master's thesis or doctor's thesis has been done on this, on the contribution of M. L. Wilson to the domestic feature of the original AAA.
So, he became acquainted with Raymond Moley, who was one of the orginal braintrusters, and with Rexford Tugwell at the same time. As it happened, I had known both Moley and Tugwell at Columbia because
I had taught at Columbia. I got my degree there in 1929, and I taught from 1928 to 1930 in Columbia College. Raymond Moley at that time was a professor of government at Barnard College, and Rex Tugwell was a professor of economics in Columbia. Rex Tugwell had an office on the floor in Hamilton Hall immediately below mine, and I used to call on him and he used to ask me to come in from time to time. He was in the economics department and I was in the government department, and even in those days inter-penetration of government and economics was very much involved in the teaching that was going on at Columbia. The two departments of government and economics along with the two departments of philosophy and history were involved in what we called
the contemporary civilization program, that was a general survey course including all four disciplines and not involved in any one. All of us had to participate in the teaching of it. I had to teach philosophy and history and economics as well as government and the people in the other departments had to teach government as well, and this is the way we tried to work it.
Well, Rex Tugwell and his group was involved in this contemporary civilization program.
MCKINZIE: It's now fashionable to call it an interdisciplinary approach.
BLAISDELL: Yes, that's right. That was the way it was called. Anyhow, I knew them, I can't
say I knew them well, but I went to Washington in 1935 and lived in the same house with Rex Tugwell and one or two others, including my brother Tom.
When I went to Washington in 1936 I already had known Rex Tugwell, and M. L. Wilson was very much promoted with FDR by Rex Tugwell. Rex Tugwell at that time was Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. He later became Under Secretary of Agriculture when M. L. Wilson was simultaneously Assistant Secretary and when I was with Mr. Wilson.
This is a long way around to get to the connection between working at a job in industry and having a subsistence homestead at someplace where you could raise a few vegetables and have a cow and have an acre of
land, with a horse maybe, in order to combine your wages as an industrial employee with a subsistence from your own crop. Mr. Wilson, as I came to know later, went back to the old Mormon idea which was so important in the Mormon settlements Of the inter-mountain area in the West where the Mormon towns always had enough land on each of the lots so the settler could have a cow or could raise a garden and could get his subsistence that way rather than being completely dependent on any other job that he might have had.
I didn't think Mr. Wilson ever put it in exactly those direct terms, but I can see this was the philosophical background out of which the idea of the subsistence homesteads came. And this was authorized in, I forget what legislation it was, but
I think it was one of the original Public Works authorizations and appropriations and it was put in the Department of the Interior, and Mr. Wilson came to Washington to head that up, I may be incorrect in that, but in any event he was head of the program.
MCKINZIE: Did you, as a man who just had met M. L. Wilson, subscribe to this idea of independence insofar as the industrial worker was concerned, the idea of raising part of his own food?
BLAISDELL: Yes, I think that I could say that this did appeal to me as something to try out. I had no idea, nobody had any idea, whether it was a viable way of dealing with unemployment or of providing for additional real income to the industrial worker in
normal times, so-called. But anyhow it did appeal to me, and this I think was one of the things that made me receptive to his idea that I come to Washington as his assistant, you see. This was in 1936. I had taught at Williams College from 1930 to 1934 and I went to the University of Wisconsin in 1935 as a visiting professor there. And then I got a grant of money from what was then called the Elmhurst Fund to start this job which later eventuated in the TNEC monograph, Economic Power and Political Pressures, Monograph 26 of the TNEC series. I started my research there at the University of Wisconsin in 1935 and '36. And then in the summer of '36 I went to Washington as M. L. Wilson's assistant, and I was there for four years, almost exactly, from '36 to 1940.
MCKINZIE: Had you anticipated being there that long when you went, because it did amount in a sense to a rather large career decision, didn't it?
BLAISDELL: That's right. Well, I was so pleased to be involved in the New Deal in any way, and particularly in the office of the Secretary of Agriculture where M. L. Wilson was Assistant Secretary that I jumped at the chance, because this seemed to me as a professor of political science an unusual opportunity to get into the actual operations of government, particularly in an area and at a time when innovations were being tried in many, many fields -- this subsistence homestead idea, the whole idea of the AAA and all the other New Deal features.
Mr. Wilson was a very attractive and
pleasing personality and he was a very unassuming man, but a very widely read man, and an authority on Abraham Lincoln. His middle name, incidentally, was Milburn Lincoln Wilson. He had been named Lincoln by his parents, apparently, because of their great admiration and then this prompted Mr. Wilson to become an authority on Lincoln, and this is one of the things that I absorbed from M. L. Wilson when I was working with him all the time. A very pleasing personality, as I say, but to some people too deliberate. You could never tell what was going on in Mr. Wilson's mind because he rarely just ad libbed. He rarely volunteered anything unless in answer to a question or when he was exchanging ideas with somebody whom he knew was
sympathetic with those ideas. He just didn't spark things off spontaneously.
Well, as Assistant to Mr. Wilson, I did a great variety of things. He was a great believer in this idea of what he called economic democracy, recognizing and putting in the hand of the individual some control over his own destiny so far as his employment was concerned. I think this is another thing that was involved in the subsistence homestead idea. Here was a kind of activity, economic activity, where the man was his own boss, so to speak, and he made all these decisions. They weren't dependent on somebody else for a decision. Anyhow, this idea of economic democracy was not original with M. L. Wilson either in industry or in agriculture.
MCKINZIE: It has pretty much gone by the boards, as it turns out.
BLAISDELL: Yes, mores the pity. But in those days this was a very active thing and he tried to promote this from his position as Assistant Secretary and then Under Secretary of Agriculture. When Rex Tugwell left the under-secretaryship to become governor of Puerto Rico, Mr. Wilson was moved in to the under-secretaryship and I just went along with him for that period. He did this in a great variety of ways. He promoted the writing and circulation among the extension people of a series of pamphlets on public issues as a means of educating people to a better understanding of the conditions in which they were working and doing their job, you see. He promoted a series of lectures in the Department of Agriculture
graduate school, which was a program of adult education which was well established even at that time, but which Mr. Wilson added greatly to. And he got experts in public administration and history and various other fields to come to Washington to lecture to the graduate school there. He promoted conferences with anybody who would listen to him, particularly bureau chiefs who had to listen to him (if they were under his supervision). He would bring in these ideas that he had about economic democracy. I was involved in that very much with him. I won't say he relied on me, but I did a whole lot of the donkey work for preparation of these things and some of the early writing and things of that kind -- I helped him out on that.
We went on many field trips together.
He was responsible for a number of the bureaus in the department, particularly the Forest Service, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine, and Animal Industry. There were many of these bureaus that he was responsible for as Assistant Secretary and then Under Secretary. I could remember the tension that used to prevail in the Department when Secretary Wallace was away and Mr. Wilson as the responsible officer in Washington signed the crop report. The crop report was an estimate by the Department of the production of grains and cereals for the forthcoming year, and this was very important for all farmers and all dealers. This was fast-breaking news and it was timed right down to the last second, so that at 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon when Mr. Wilson signed
the crop report all the newspaper reporters would get the copy and then dash to their telephones, you see, to get it into the wire services. Well, this was just one of the little dramatic things.
Another one was that when Henry Wallace would hold a press conference as Secretary of Agriculture, he invited M. L. Wilson and me and others to come in as observers, not to take part, but as observers. This too was also a very interesting procedure.
MCKINZIE: Did you have any sense of the relationship between M. L. Wilson and Secretary Wallace?
BLAISDELL: Oh, yes, very definitely. They were really very sympathetic people. Henry Wallace had a great admiration for M. L. Wilson and
this was reciprocated. Henry Wallace, I think, made his reputation as a plant breeder or geneticist, as much as anything, if not more than anything else. Mr. Wilson was not a plant breeder or a geneticist at all, but he had great respect for Mr. Wallace's scientific proclivities. And Mr. Wallace, on the other hand, had great respect for Mr. Wilson's economic ideas as they worked out in the domestic allotment plan and the AAA and things of that kind.
MCKINZIE: How does one go from those very basic and domestic concerns to involvement with the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies? What is the transition, how did that come about?
BLAISDELL: Yes, well, let's see, back in 1935 I guess it was, I had written a pamphlet
called "The Farmer's Stake in World Peace." This was for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which at that time was headed by James T. Shotwell, a professor of history at Columbia University. I had done this largely because a man with whom I have been associated ever since, Clark M. Eichelberger, was trying to promote the same kind of adult education among the farmers and the rural people and in the Midwest generally, that Mr. Wilson was trying to promote among the constituency of the Department of Agriculture.
So, when I came into the Department of Agriculture I had just written this pamphlet. As a matter of fact, it had gone into its second printing the first year I was in the Department of Agriculture. So, one of my parallel activities in those
years from 1936 on -- and this carries on right to the present time as a matter of fact -- was my association with Clark Eichelberger and the various organizational activities that he was involved in one way or another to get the United States to accept what he thought was its fair share of maintaining the peace. This he saw through some kind of a world-wide organization, comparable to the League of Nations from the First World War and, of course, anticipating the United Nations after World War II. One of the organizational efforts that he made was in 1939, just at the time of the outbreak of war, setting up the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. It was known at that time as the William Allen White Committee. He was an Emporia, Kansas editor and a well-known Republican figure, and Mr. Eichelberger and
one or two others who were involved in this were able to persuade Mr. White to become the titular head of it; that's what it was because he never was a very active person organizationally, or anything of that kind. He lent his name to it and his prestige; and I was involved in that in Washington.
The short space of time after I left the Department of Agriculture in 1940 in June, until I went with the Department of State in late December 1941, all of that time I spent in my activities for the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. A Washington office was established. Livingston Hartler and I ran it. We tried to get out a weekly bulletin for the various chapters. The big job we did was in the Lend-Lease Act in 1941, being a sort of information office for the various local chapters over the country
on the progress of the lend-lease act and various other things, the relationship between the United States and Britain particularly, but the other allies as well.
MCKINZIE: You must have had a good feel for the temper of the American people by the time of Pearl Harbor?
BLAISDELL: That's right. By that time, December 1941, I was in the Department of State, although not in the division I spent most of my time with. I first went into the Department of State in June of '41 as an assistant to Lynn Edminster, who at that time was one of the assistants of Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, and who had been with the Tariff Commission as an economist before that.
The Lend-Lease Act had been passed in March of '41. In setting up an office to administer it, the Department of State was drawn in by the White House and the person designated by the White House to play some kind of a role in the determination of the needs of foreign countries for American supplies and ammunitions was Oscar Cox, a lawyer in the Treasury Department. The munitions end of this, of course, was handled almost entirely by the War Department. But on civilian supplies and raw materials, the State Department was involved. Mr. Edminister's office was designated by the Secretary of State to be the focal point in those early days for working out the proper procedures and the proper angles of the assistance that the United States could lend to the other countries, particularly Britain at that time.
This involved me, because Mr. Edminster brought me in to be his liaison with Oscar Cox on all of the interdepartmental committees that were centralized under Oscar Cox. This is one of the cases where they used an innocuous name to veil a very important significant, strategic operation. They called it the Office of Lend-lease Reports; this was like the Manhattan Project a little later on. The idea was to us a completely innocuous title to cover up something of much greater significance. Oscar Cox headed up the Office of Lend-lease Reports. His office was the contact between all the purchasing agents of the British Government and the other governments in this country for supplies under the lend-lease program.
MCKINZIE: Did you apply, or were you contacted
to come in as a result of your work with the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies?
BLAISDELL: I don't think that figured very largely, I just don't know, although I had known Lynn Edminster earlier, when I was in the Department of Agriculture. He and I and others sat on interdepartmental programs that had been set up under the reciprocal trade agreements program in 1933. One of the procedures was the setting up of these various interdepartmental committees to hold hearings on the effect of tariff reductions on domestic industry and domestic activities. Edminster and I had sat together on a number of those committees so he knew of me that way. He probably knew, at the same time, that I had been identified with the Committee to Defend America.
I didn't get into the news very often, once or twice I did. I remember a meeting had been scheduled at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington at which somebody was to debate with Norman Thomas on whether, and if so how much more, aid we ought to give to Britain at this stage in the war. This was in 1940 or early '41 -- before the Lend-Lease Act was passed. Anyhow, at the last moment the man whom they had gotten to debate Norman Thomas couldn't come so they ran me in to debate Norman Thomas on this subject and, well, I felt that high, because Norman Thomas is a formidable debater. He was a very fine public speaker, of course, and a very fine looking man on the platform, a tremendous platform manner. Here I was trying to uphold the idea that we ought to give more aid to Britain and he was saying in America's interest we ought not to give any more aid to Britain, you see.
I did get into the newspapers because of that debate, but I came off very poorly, a very poor second.
Well, through this, Edminster and others in the State Department may have known of my former work. I'm sure they did, because Clark Eichelberger was known in the State Department. He was known by the Secretary of State. He was known by various of the assistants that Cordell Hull had in his immediate office.
MCKINZIE: Are you speaking of Leo Pasvolsky?
BLAISDELL: Leo Pasvolsky, particularly, yes. So, in answer to your question, I would guess that Edminster and the others probably did know that I was involved in the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and that was one of the reasons that they were
willing to have me come in, if not anxious to have me come into the Department.
In any event, I found myself in a rather interesting position as Edminster's deputy and liaison with Oscar Cox and his Office of Lend-Lease Reports. As I said earlier, that was the focal point with the people whom the British were sending over here, not on the military end but on the civilian end for all the supplies and equipment that the British needed in their war effort, you see.
So, I found myself involved in a mushrooming bureaucratic operation where we were devising forms and applications and estimating needs and things of this kind in order to pass on these requests that were being submitted.
This got to be such a job, as a matter
of fact, that the Secretary set up a division in the State Department to handle it, the Division of Defense Materials. Tom [Thomas K.] Finletter from New York, who later became Secretary of the Air Force under Harry Truman, was the head of this Division of Defense Materials. I was transferred from Edminster's office to the Division of Defense Materials as an assistant bureau chief at that time.
Acheson, who was Assistant Secretary at that time, brought Finletter down from New York, he brought Charles Bunn from the University of Wisconsin down on this operation. This was the beginning of this recruitment of a lot of people from academia and from the law offices and civilian activities into the State Department and then other branches of the Government for this civilian effort. Early on,
before we got into the war at the time of Pearl Harbor, I was in the Division of Defense Materials, but not very long, Pasvolsky was then recruiting his Division of Political Studies and his Division of Economic Studies, and there was a third division that was being set up there that was going to deal with all of these colonial areas, or dependent areas I think the euphemism was. Anyhow, my work had been noticed by one of Pasvolsky's assistants, Harley Notter, who was scheduled to be the chief of this Division of Political Studies. Harley Notter was from Stanford University, or had done his work out at Stanford University, earned his degree there. When Pasvolsky brought him into the Department I just don't know, but it wasn't very long before this time I'm speaking of. Anyhow, he asked me to come
in, to be transferred from Defense Materials to the Division of Political Studies and I was transferred in January of '42, I think. I was still in Edminster's office at the time of Pearl Harbor. I can remember his coming in the day after Pearl Harbor and he had been talking with some of the people in the Secretary's office about the extent of destruction at the attack, and his saying that it was so much worse than had been let out publicly at the time. But of course, immediately after they just didn't know how extensive the destruction was, all these ships that had been sunk at their moorings there at Pearl Harbor. Anyhow, I remember that very distinctly the morning afterwards. It was a Monday morning, the 7th of December of '41 was a Sunday, and the 8th the next day was a Monday morning and when we came
in to work -- I remember this very, very vividly.
Well, it was January, I think, of '42 that I was transferred over to the Division of Political Studies. I don't know what they called me, I was an economic analyst with TNEC. The Civil Service descriptions I had to become familiar with because later on I became Assistant Chief and Acting Chief of this Division of Political Studies, you see. But at this time I wasn't.
MCKINZIE: But at this time this new work you were involved in was not aired very much publicly, was it?
BLAISDELL: No, it wasn't. I don't know when it became publicly known. You're familiar, of course, with Harley Notter's work on
postwar planning. Anyhow he's got all of these dates and details in that. I just can't say when it became generally known. I can remember this, Harley Notter was a very soft-spoken person. It wasn't until 1945 that I began to have my hearing difficulty, but even before then I had difficulty hearing Harley Notter and Leo Pasvolsky when I was sitting with them in a meeting. I don't know how wide-spread this was among the bureaucracy in Washington, but anything that had to do with the war was spoken of in subdued terms, very low, you didn't raise your voice, you didn't speak clearly, you sort of mumbled in your beard, with the result that anybody like me who was beginning to have a hearing problem, found it to be a very great handicap. Later on my hearing
became very much worse, but that's another story.
Harley Notter asked me if I wouldn't come over to the Division of Political Studies and I was delighted with this prospect because this got me into the area that I had done my doctor's degree work in, public law and government, and because of my work with the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. My general orientation was in international organization and international relations at that time, along with American Government.
So, I was delighted to accept this offer to go into the Division of Political Studies. I didn't know what they wanted me to do and I don't think they did because they were feeling their way along. This
thing had just been approved by Cordell Hull and FDR, because Hull and Pasvolsky had been in a huddle with FDR on the setting up of this postwar planning operation. At Hull's suggestion, I think, FDR agreed to putting Pasvolsky in charge of the whole thing. He was a special assistant to Hull at the time and had Hull's confidence and this gave him a position in the Department and among the other departments that meant that he could exercise some influence in the way this planning was developing from the beginning.
MCKINZIE: May I ask you how you felt at that time about the prospects for the future, because if you look at the people who came in it was quite an amazing group. Clark Eichelberger was there, Clarence Streit was brought in as a consultant from
time to time. Eleanor Dulles was involved in some of the economic things and you can go down the list of a really spectacular group of minds.
BLAISDELL: That's right.
MCKINZIE: At that time did you really think that there was a possibility, after the war, assuming that the right side won, that there could be some different kind of international setup, one which might modify some ideas about sovereignty or involved more integration of economics? How optimistic could one get in 1942 about what was going to happen when the fighting was over? Did you allow yourself that kind of optimism?
BLAISDELL: Well, these were very glum, grim days in early '42 obviously, and that's when we
started this operation. I think that I can say that so far as I was concerned, I felt that there was an even chance that we could set up an international organization, not obviously identical to the League of Nations, but some kind of a league rather than a world government to deal with this question of international security which would make it possible for the peaceful settlement of disputes, rather than resort to a war to settle disputes.
I can't say that I had really studied this very closely. I never studied diplomatic history particularly, as a field of history. I was more interested in comparative government than I was in history or diplomatic history as a field of specialization. This was one of my major emphases at Columbia when I did my work there. My graduate work was
comparative European governments, you see, along with international organization and international relations. I had my major in international law and relations and my minor was in European governments, so this was the orientation that I had at that time.
Looking back on it, you mentioned Clarence Streit as a consultant at this time. I can remember being rather favorably impressed with Clarence Streit and with Ely Culbertson, who was another one. I don't think he was ever brought in as a consultant to the Department, I may be wrong about that, but anyhow, his idea, worked out from the mind of a bridge player, was considered by the Division of Political Studies when we were looking at all of these ideas which were being sent out by individuals, by groups, by organizations, by
governments for organizing the postwar world.
Ely Culbertson's idea -- I remember studying that at some length at some time, and the logical consistency of it impressed me. I mean this is the result of a bridge player's mind. He has to know where all the cards are and you can give a weight to every card, and this is what Culbertson did. He used this ability that he had -- he put it over into a field, of course, which was totally different from playing bridge -- but nevertheless it had a certain appeal because of its logical consistency. I think many of the people who were adherents of the idea of world organization like Streit were appealed to.
Many of the people who were brought
in to Pasvolsky's groups I had known of, many of them I hadn't known of. I had known of Pasvolsky because of his connection with the Brookings Institution. I hadn't known of Harley Notter; I hadn't known of David Harris, who was another one of the people whom Pasvolsky brought in, he was also from Stanford, and he headed up the Division of Historical Studies which was a parallel division with Political Studies; and I hadn't known Ben Gerig -- well, I