Oral History Interview with
Counselor of Embassy for economic affairs, Mexico City, 1945-49; professor of international relations, American Institute of Foreign Trade, Phoenix, Arizona, 1949-50; member of U.S. delegation, GATT Conference, Torquay, England, 1950-51; U.S. Ambassador to the Inter-American Economic and Social Council, 1951-55, and U.S. Commissioner Joint Brazil-U.S. Economic Development Commission, 1952-53.
Merwin L. Bohan
June 15, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie
See also Merwin L. Bohan Papers finding aid
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 February, 1977
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Merwin L. Bohan
June 15, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Mr. Bohan, very many people who study history and government are interested in how people came to choose in the first place Government service. I'd be very interested to know how you made that career choice?
BOHAN: Well, I grew up between Mexico City and Dallas, Texas. My father was in the oil business in Mexico, and he was transferred to Dallas back in 1913. That was shortly after the famous Decena Trajica in Mexico, when [Victoriano] Huerta murdered [Francisco] Madero after his revolution. He died a year later after we
reached Dallas, and my mother wanted me to go on to college, but we were really quite hard up, and, feeling that I was unable to do so, I went to work at that time. A little later we went back to Mexico. Then, in 1921, I married a Dallas girl, a girl I'd fallen in love with at the Dallas High School. We came back to Dallas and I went to work for the Chamber of Commerce in the publicity department. Naturally, because of my background I was made Foreign Trade Secretary as well. Some years later there was an opening for a commercial attachés in South America, and the manager of the Department of Commerce office down in Houston called me up and said, "Do you know anyone who would like a job as commercial attaché?"
I said, "Yes. I know two people. One is Bob Smith," (whose picture is right behind you) "and the other is myself."
So, he sent both our names in, but Bob decided shortly thereafter that he was not interested because the first airmail line came into Dallas and he went to work for it. He later became the executive head of the Braniff airlines. During World War II he was in charge of air transport all over North Africa, and to make a long story short, he was retired as a major general.
I, however, stuck to my guns and said that I wanted to go to work for the Department of Commerce. This was back in 1927. On looking over my record they decided that in view of the fact that I had not gone to college I wasn't prepared intellectually for such an assignment and turned down the request. But the manager down in Houston decided that the Department of Commerce was wrong and insisted on my going up to Washington with him, and he arranged interviews with various and sundry officials there. So they gave me the examinations.
I was fired up with much enthusiasm, because at that time Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce, and certainly I don't think anyone will dispute the fact that he was the greatest we've ever had. We haven't had very many great ones, but in this case I think it was certainly true.
So in 1927 I went out as assistant commercial attaché for the Embassy in Havana. Subsequently I was sent as commercial attaché to Guatemala, San Salvador, and Honduras; still later to Peru and Ecuador; still later to Chile; later to Colombia; and then I was sent as head of a mission to Bolivia. After that and a short stay in Washington, I was made Counselor of Embassy for Economic Affairs in Buenos Aires, and have seen long service in Brazil. I had several special missions in Brazil and also in Mexico. So there are very few countries in Latin America that I haven't covered.
MCKINZIE: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your work in economics in Buenos Aires in 1942? I noticed that you were there at a very sensitive time, and I think when one talks about postwar relationships with Latin America you can't just pick it up when the war ended. There's too much that's rooted in the early and middle war period. It was kind of a sensitive place to be in 1942, wasn't it?
BOHAN: It most certainly was. It so happened that we had one of the greatest ambassadors we've ever sent to Latin America, Norman Armour, who was serving at the post at that time. I served Mr. Armour in Chile when he was assigned there as Ambassador; and the first job he gave me was to analyze the policies we were following in the economic field towards Argentina. Those policies at the time, when we had finished the analysis,
we described as being a series of pinpricks; that all we did was irritate them, but on the other hand we were desperately in need of many of their exports, particularly meat, but also grains and a number of other products, including quite a number of rare minerals. The result was that on one day in Washington we would insult them and call them names, and the next day we would receive instructions at the Embassy to go over and get down on our knees, so to speak, and beg them for increased production of this, that, and the other thing. It was an impossible situation. After we had analyzed the problem we decided on a program, which, incidentally, I have quite a file on because I've had to write it up in recent years. The policy was a simple one. The policy was simply this, that we were willing to give Argentina anything that was not in short supply in the United States, and that we would not ask them for any
favors except where anything that we wanted was not in short supply in Argentina. But if they wished to be considered for supplies that were in short supply or that were under quota in the United States, that they could have the same treatment as the other countries of Latin America, providing they gave the same amount of cooperation to the Allied cause that the other countries were giving. At that time you remember Argentina was the only country, because Chile had already joined, that was not cooperating in the Allied war effort.
At the beginning this program appeared to have great possibilities, because all of the industrial community was up in arms. The Argentines for all their pride would hardly claim that we were bringing undue pressure on them, because we were free to admit they could have anything that was not in short supply, and they could have short supply
items if they did the same things that other countries did to get them. To make a long story short, Mr. [Henry A.] Wallace and the FEA took umbrage with the fact that the decision had been made by the State Department, and that he hadn't been consulted, and FEA hadn't been consulted in connection with the policy. That was the first time, incidentally, of what later became a fad in Washington, for every agency to have a hand in cooking the stew, so to speak, of foreign policy. Up until that time the Department of State had pretty nearly been independent when it came to deciding on what our policy was, particularly Mr. [Summer] Welles, who incidentally was the last official for the Department of State that you could honestly say could make policy for the United States and have it stick. Anyway, FEA didn't cooperate and for several months we had a great deal of trouble with them. We finally did
win their cooperation, but just about that time the "Colonels revolt" came along, and Mr. Welles, if you will recall, was forced out because of the difficulties he was having with Mr. [Cordell] Hull.
Mr. Hull was a gentleman whom I sincerely revere, but I can't say that I admire his policy towards Argentina. It was a regular old Tennessee feud, and every time he could sneak around the tree and see an Argentine in the sights of his musket he'd let go at him. It really became a personal vendetta, nothing more and nothing less. You know, Mr. [Sir Winston] Churchill complained quite a number of times to President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt. And this is merely a personal opinion, I can't say it's historical, yet it's based on a pretty close study of the memoirs of Mr. Hull, and also on a number of the writings of Mr. Welles. I really and truly feel that Mr. Roosevelt, more or less gave Argentina to Mr. Hull to play with,
to keep him out of his hair. Now, that's a rather sad judgment, but I think it has a certain amount of historical truth in it. To make a long story short, in 1944 we withdrew Mr. Armour. Shortly thereafter, I wrote the Department and told them I thought that insofar as my usefulness in Argentina was concerned, that it was at an end, and I asked them if there was any other place where my services could be used to better advantage.
MCKINZIE: What were you able to do by 1944 in your own work?
BOHAN: Between the time that Mr. [Dean] Acheson, who at that time was the Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs, and Mr. Welles had approved the embassy policy, until about six or eight months after the Colonel's revolt we were hopeful that we were going to succeed, that we were going to bring Argentina into line. That was made completely impossible by the vendettas that developed on the
part of the Secretary of State. Hence, from about the beginning of, say, the middle of '44 on, it was just a hopeless situation. We were just mad at each other, and that was about all that could be said. So the Department transferred me to Washington.
Now, I have done a certain amount of writing on that period, and that is one of the files, if you think the Truman Library would be interested in it, that I will send for them to look over.
MCKINZIE: By all means.
BOHAN: You can go today to the National Archives and the files show no evidence of this policy ever having been discussed or having been decided upon; and yet for a period of about six or eight months it was the official policy of the United States Government. It was explained in the utmost detail to the Argentines and to anyone who cared
to listen. Yet, if you look at the official record, while you see reference to the fact that we were doing such and such, there is no clear-cut evidence that we had a policy at least for eight months.
MCKINZIE: You then came back to Washington in 1944 and 1945. Planning began in early 1945 for the Inter-American Conference on War and Peace at Chapultepec. Did you have anything to do with preparations for that? There was, of course, a lot of talk about how Argentina was going to be treated there.
BOHAN: Bill [William] Sanders, who later became the Deputy Director of the Pan American Union, and I went down. He was on the political side and I was on the economic side, and we worked with [George S.] Messersmith. We talked to the Mexican Foreign Minister, Luis Padilla Nervo, whom you will
recall, played such a large part in the Chapultepec Conference. He was one of the truly great statesmen developed in this century by Mexico. We had long conferences with him, I suppose a dozen or more. We explored all of the possibilities both in the political and the economic field, all of which was reported back to Washington by me. Whether it had any real impact in Washington, I don't know, because when our delegation came down one of the surprising things to me was that Mr. Rockefeller, who was there, seemed to play no particular part in the economic side. The economic side was dominated by the E area of State, which at that time was still a comparatively new part of the Department, and they were thinking in terms of a "one world" affair. If you will examine the documents in the National Archives you will see that I played quite a role. I can promise you that I had absolutely no influence whatsoever, in the course of events in Mexico City. I attended
the staff meetings, I spoke my piece, but the E area by that time was thinking in terms of what we were going to do in the United Nations. We were going to have this one beautiful world. They had great doubts that regionalism had any importance whatsoever. That was the beginning of the end of the "Good Neighbor Policy" in Latin America.
MCKINZIE: I take it in these staff meetings that you attended before the conference convened that you became sympathetic to the Mexican idea of regional cooperation?
BOHAN: Very definitely.
MCKINZIE: There was a great deal of talk, if I understand correctly, among Latin Americans about regional cooperation in lots of ways other than what the State Department evidently had in mind. When [Edward R., Jr.] Stettinius came
down he was interested in scheduling some future conference on collective security for the hemisphere; but, as I read the records, he wasn't very anxious to have much collective economic activity or even very anxious to have too much talk about the economic program in the postwar period. Have I read that correctly?
BOHAN: Well, certainly my impression checks very closely with your own. I would only add, that of all the Secretaries of State that I have known, Mr. Stettinius came as near zero as I think you can come to that symbol, frankly. I thought that I was attending a meeting of -- without casting aspersions on the Rotarians -- a Rotary meeting or something; "up and at 'em boys," that kind of approach. Incidentally, I can point to a much more illustrious observer than I am, Mr. Acheson in his memoirs. If you want to know what I think of Mr. Stettinius read Mr. Acheson.
MCKINZIE: What then, so far as you were concerned, was the aftermath of the Chapultepec Conference?
BOHAN: The aftermath was that from the Chapultepec Conference until the time that Edward Miller was made Assistant Secretary of State, we just marked time in Latin America. And actually, when you mark time you go backwards, because other programs of cooperation were going forward. But let me emphasize that it wasn't a deliberate policy against Latin America, it was just the real beginning of a loss of interest in Latin America. Really and truly, you might use that as the historical point at which the policy of the "good neighbor" and all that