Breadcrumb

Ralph Block Oral History Interview

 

Oral History Interview with
Ralph Block

Special Asst. to the Personal Rep. of the Pres. in India, 1943; Gen. Rep. in India, Overseas Operations, U.S. Office of War Information and Sp. Asst. to U.S. Commissioner in India, 1944-45; Chief Public Affairs Officer, American Mission, New Delhi, India, 1945-46; Special Asst. to Director, Office of Internat. Information, Dept. of State, 1947; Information Policy Adv. to Asst. Sec. of State for Public Affairs, 1949-50; Act. Dir. For. Information Policy Staff, Dept. of State, 1951-52; and Dir. Gen., Staff Policy and Plans Div., Internat. Information Admin., 1952-53.

Washington, D.C.
July 8, 1966
by Jerry N. Hess

[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.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 May, 1967
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

 

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

 



Oral History Interview with
Ralph Block

 

Washington, D.C.
July 8, 1966
by Jerry N. Hess

 

[1]

HESS: Mr. Block, would you, for the record, give me a brief run-down on your background, where you were born, your education and a brief resume of your career?

BLOCK: I am a first generation American. My father was born in what is now called Czechoslovakia and my mother was born in Poland. As a matter of fact I went back to Poland, German Poland, with her when I was eleven years old. I was born in Cherokee, Iowa in 1889, June 21st. The town had been settled about forty years before, and moved from one area to another when the railroad came in. The Indians had left there, some twenty-five years before, although Sitting Bull died after I was

 

[2]

born. Actually this background occupies a full chapter in an autobiographical record which is now being reviewed by a publisher for possible publication (not accepted). I graduated from the local high school and while I wanted to go to Harvard, which was at that time the aim of all aspiring young men, my father said, "No, your mother isn't well." As a matter of fact, she outlived him by some twenty years or more. So we compromised on Ann Arbor.

I've never discovered the basis of the name Cherokee; the Cherokee Indians were much further south. Originally the town had been settled by the New Milford Settlement Company of New England. Most young men in Cherokee went to Ames or Iowa City or even Madison, Wisconsin, but few had gone to Ann Arbor. I remember that my father took me to Chicago and we talked to the Pullman porter about Ann Arbor. He said to me, "Now if you want to change your mind, even now, and come back and go into business with me, you can, and nobody will think any the worse of you." I realized then that

 

[3]

I was already older than my father.

I graduated at Ann Arbor with a Phi Beta Kappa key, etc., etc. I majored in philosophy, which was unusual in those days. I was going to Harvard for a graduate year and then into law. A graduate student convinced me that law was business. I didn't know anything about business, he said, and I cancelled the Harvard acceptance. My father had retired and had moved sixty miles further west to Sioux City. I went home, to the public library there and looked at the newspaper rack. I had heard of Henry Watterson, and I wrote him a letter, saying that I was a brilliant young man and I would make a fine editorial writer. On copy paper, with green ink, he wrote, "We have no jobs, but if you want to work for nothing, come ahead." I was in Louisville many years later and they interviewed me and quoted it. I went to the Courier-Journal and worked for nothing. But one day I wrote a funny story abort an Indian medicine man who had a big car with his name on it. He had been in a wreck in a fashionable district; but nobody

 

[4]

had been hurt. The story was printed on the front page. The next day I was put on salary at $12.50 a week.

I went from Louisville to Detroit, the morning Detroit News. But Detroit, which was a city of about a half million then, and was bustling with all the fever of motor car manufacture, was too much for me; I didn't stay very long. I went home, worked briefly on a local newspaper, the News, owned by a man who later headed the Liberty Loan, named Wilson. Then I went to Kansas City to the Star, morning issue, the Times, and then later the Star, the afternoon issue. I really got my education in journalism then. Toward the end of my stay there, I was associate news editor, sat on the desk at noon, ran either the city desk or the telegraph desk Saturday night, and I wrote a weekly column on art. In those days the Post Impressionists were just beginning to be known in America, Degas, Monet, etc.

HESS: What years...

 

[5]

BLOCK: That was about 1916. I was also drama critic, all at $35 a week. When I said that in a month from then I was going to New York the city editor went to the managing editor, came back and said, "Fifty?", and I said, "No." My wife who had been a graduate of the University of Michigan, went to business college and took a job so that I could go East.

I had a letter from an aunt of Alexander Woollcott, then the drama critic of the New York Times. I also had a letter to Arthur Hopkins, then the chief dramatic producer in New York. One of his assistants was Ruth Hale, later to become the wife of Heywood Broun, first of the New York Tribune, and then of the World. In a way Broun and Woollcott became my godfathers. I remember Woollcott saying, "Anytime you want to come down and see me, I'll take you over to the Astor and we'll have a chocolate ice cream soda." I was on the Tribune first as a very insignificant worker with the art editor, covering art auctions, on space which paid $12 a column. I went from there to the Evening Sun. I

 

[6]

used to get down at five in the morning and write the whole front page for the street edition. From there I went back to the Tribune as the day assignment editor. Then the war came along and because the Star had a reputation for “miscellany," -- I used to cull all the foreign newspapers. One day I had a letter from Ruth Hale saying, "When you read this, Heywood and I will be on the sea bound for France."

The managing editor said, "You know something about the theater, so take charge."

George S. Kaufman was my assistant. "F.P.A.", Franklin P. Adams said, "Kaufman should have had the job."

And I said, "Yes, he probably should have, but I have it." George S. Kaufman went to the Times; a fine and able man, later to become famous as a playwright.

The war bothered me. After a brief stint on the New Republic the managing editor of the New York Tribune said, "Washington is more of a theater

 

[7]

than Broadway. You'd better go down there and be attached to the bureau. I'll print all your stuff on the editorial page."

Here on the wall is a piece about FDR; four books have quoted it. He was then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The last paragraph is the one that attracted attention. That was June, 1918. I wrote in the column "He isn't hidden nor inconspicuous, but he is a man whose obvious powers are such as to make you wonder how a Democracy of opportunity can afford to leave him subordinated now, when the need is not so much for measures, of which there have been, heaven knows, enough, but for men."

At the end of the war I went back to New York as editor of one of the Tribune Sunday magazines, The Review. In a way it was a precursor of Time. Then I had a quarrel with the managing editor and I quit. I was going out in the country to write fiction, and somebody said, "Look, there's a movie job open." Movies at that time were pretty low. But my wife said, "Well, look into it, at least."

 

[8]

I became the director of publicity for Samuel Goldwyn and a few months later my salary was doubled, as the head of publicity, exploitation, and advertising. Howard Dietz, who later became vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was my assistant.

In 1920, I went out to the coast, came back, went to England, and in 1922 I moved over to Paramount. I had a long history in Hollywood of more than twenty years as a producer and writer, and towards the end of it I was active politically. I ran the local campaign for FDR in 1940, in Hollywood. I was asked to run for Congress from the Sixteenth District, which is next to the district in which Helen Gahagan was defeated, by Nixon, but rejected the idea.

When the war came in 1941, I was asked to become Assistant Regional Director of Civil Defense for the eight Western states, the Federal district. During that year, 1942, the Office of War Information was born, and I was asked to head the office on the west coast. I couldn't tell them why I

 

[9]

couldn't do it, that there was a Japanese task force threatening the coast. After the Battle of Midway, I wrote to Elmer Davis that I was now free and I was asked to go to India.

I spent four years in India. I was special assistant to Ambassador [William] Phillips, the personal representative of the President and Special Assistant to the United States Commissioner after Phillips resigned. But my real job was as head of the Office of War Information in South Asia. I had 150 men doing psychological warfare up near the Burma line. After the war ended the State Department asked me to stay another year as the Public Affairs Officer of the American Mission, which was quasi-diplomatic, at that time because India was still under the British Government. Toward the end of that period, in 1946, there were just enough troops left to take care of the piles of war materiel. A U. S. Colonel came to my office and said, "I have been asked to decorate you. I haven't got any troops. The medal you're supposed to get is the Medal of Freedom, but

 

[10]

I've never seen the goddamned thing."

I said, "Please don't be so hot under the collar about it."

He replied, "When you go home call the Adjutant General of the district. He'll have the decoration for you."

My successor was due in November of '46. I'd gotten a house for the imminent arrival of my wife and daughter. They went by freighter to Manila, and the Army flew them to Calcutta, where I met them.

That year, when I came home, a colonel came over from the Adjutant General's office and said, "You're to be decorated. Where do you want it?"

I said, "Well, I've never been baptized that way before so I'd rather have it over there at the Pentagon."

I brought my wife and daughter down from New York where they were visiting and we went to the Pentagon. Much to my pleasure I found that all the old India hands had gathered there, including Dean Rusk, now Secretary of State, who had been Deputy

 

[11]

Chief of Staff of the American command in Delhi. I was decorated with the Medal of Freedom, by order of President Truman.

I found that I couldn't go back to Hollywood. Hollywood had changed; I had changed; I had been spending time in a cause that was other than selfish. I was asked to head a secret office of one of the divisions of the State Department that had to do with U. S. occupied areas of the world.

An Army colonel, an Air Force colonel, a Navy captain and a CIA man were on my staff, with special quarters for them. Then the whole information process changed and I became the head of the foreign information policy staff of the State Department. I finally changed from Foreign Service Reserve to Civil Service so I could stay on until I was seventy. Even then they kept me on an extra year. That's the general background.

I want to tell you about President Truman. I received a decoration "by order of the President," although I'm sure he never knew about it. It came from the old War Department which was the

 

[12]

predecessor of the Department of Defense. I never knew Harry Truman in Kansas City. The haberdashery shop came after I left.

The only member of the governing body of the county that I knew was Judge Porterfield, then chief of the Jackson County board of supervisors. When I came into the Kansas City Star office one Saturday morning, the city editor's desk said, "The Colonel," [William Rockhill Nelson] "wants a story about macadam roads, and he wants to get it from Judge Porterfield."

I called Judge Porterfield but couldn't reach him. I tried all day and finally, at a quarter of twelve that night, I got him somewhere out in Sni-A-Bar township. I told him that the Colonel wanted him to give me a story on macadam roads.

He said, "You know as much about it as I do. You write it and I'll stand for it."

So I wrote a long story about Judge Porterfield's opinion of macadam roads and it appeared on the front pages of the Star the next morning.

I met Miss Margaret Truman after she was

 

[13]

married, when she attended an Elmer Davis commemoration at Columbia University, and I told her that her father had once given me a decoration.

I liked Harry Truman. My daughter, who went to Woodrow Wilson High School, a hotbed of Republicanism, stood staunchly for Harry Truman in 1946. He had quality. After all, that middle country was my country. I understood him, and I've always had that feeling about him.

HESS: Do you remember anything about the general political situation?

BLOCK: Yes, I do. Our first house was in Westport, near Kansas City, a bungalow -- Sunset Hill was already fashionable, further out. Then we moved to a bungalow, a very pleasant place one door away from the Paseo. On the corner was the house of a secretary of the Commerce Trust Company, Mr. [Henry C.] Schwitzgebel. As a reporter at that time I always came home pretty tired. I had one palm beach suit which I washed and ironed myself.

After the Fourth of July in 1913, in the front

 

[14]

room I was already asleep, but my wife was still reading. Suddenly in my dream I heard a sound, like firecrackers. I woke, and she said, "Turn out the lights quickly. Somebody's shooting." I had no gun and I got a stick and went out. Schwitzgebel's son had come to the window fronting on our place, and he had said, "Come out of there or I'll s