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Thomas D. Cabot Oral History Interview

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Oral History Interview with
Thomas D. Cabot

Director, Office of International Security Affairs, Department of State, 1951; consultant, Special Mission to Egypt, 1953.

Boston, Massachusetts
June 6, 1975
by Richard D. McKinzie

[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. [45]) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 July, 1979
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


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


Oral History Interview with
Thomas D. Cabot


Boston, Massachusetts
June 6, 1975
by Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: How did you meet President Truman?

CABOT: The first time came about as follows: I had for a brief period been president of the United Fruit Company, and had argued over policies with the man who had been running the company for 20 years, Samuel Zemurray. He and I disagreed mostly over a question that I call, ”gunboat diplomacy." He had a group of consultants in Washington who might be called "influence peddlers" to get help from our Government in problems the company was having


with governments in Central America. I decided we were pulling the company apart, and resigned.

About that time I met Donald Carpenter, chairman of the Munitions Board in Washington, and told him about my troubles with Zemurray. He said, "Why don't you go to work in Washington?"

The Government seemed like a step up and I said, "Well, I might be interested in doing that." He gave my name to Louis Johnson, the Secretary of Defense. Johnson knew that there was a vacancy as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a vacancy as Assistant Secretary for Research and Development in the Pentagon, and he first tried to persuade me that the latter was what I should do. I felt the former was something that would interest me more. He said, "Well, come down to Washington; I'd like for you to meet the President."

This I did. He took me into the Oval Room with Steve Early, the Deputy Secretary of Defense.


Johnson had to leave almost immediately and left Early and myself with the President. It was a difficult time, because I didn't know what to talk about. Of course, I tried to tell him what I thought was needed by the Atomic Energy Commission, and why I thought that I might be qualified. Soon, I ran out of things to talk about and got up to make my excuses, but the President said, "No, don't leave, they'll bring in another customer on me."

Then he said to Early, "Steve, stay around for lunch, will you?"

I sat down again. He was fiddling with a block of plexiglas in which was imbedded a beautiful ear of corn. I said to him, "That's an interesting item, Mr. President." He had glanced at it and said, "Well, how do they get that ear of corn inside the glass?"

I started to tell him about how they put it in when the stuff is a liquid, how it is


polymerized and hardened, and soon I felt ridiculous: what was I telling the President of the United States about that for? He grinned, and changed the subject. After some small talk, I said, "Well, Mr. President, you want to have lunch with Mr. Early," and I got up and left. That was my first experience with Mr. Truman.

Later when I was in the Department of State I saw him perhaps a dozen times. Usually I went in with someone else, such as Chuck [Charles M.] Spofford, our Ambassador to NATO and sort of my opposite number in Europe. Once, I went in with Dean Acheson, once with Bob [Robert C.] Lovett, and various others in our Government. None of those talks were particularly significant. I don't remember what they were all about, but I do remember one other instance which I think is indicative of the kind of a man he was.

I think he was a real leader, despite the


fact that he considered himself a haberdasher who had been lucky in politics. He was very modest, but he was a leader in the sense that he allowed others to make decisions when they were competent, or when their decision was one that affected what they had control of. He didn't grab decisions away from his department heads, Cabinet members and so forth; he didn't grab decisions away from me. He, of course, made the big decisions, and I think he made some great and courageous decisions during his term of office.

One day, I went in alone to see him about moving the political headquarters of NATO from London to Paris, which was really in my bailiwick. I was director of International Security Affairs and spoke for the State Department on NATO affairs, and had charge of the program of arming our allies throughout the world.

I had my views, condensed down to about a


page, of why we should move the headquarters from London to Paris and brought it with me. I told him that that's what I'd come to see him about, and handed him this memo. He looked at it quickly and he said, "Have you talked to Dean Acheson about it?"

I said, "Yes, it has his support."

"Well, have you talked to General [George C.] Marshall about it?"

"Yes, I haven't talked directly with him, but I have talked to his subordinates and I understand it has the approval of the Pentagon."

He said! "Okay," and handed it back to me. I thought this was a dismissal to leave, and I started to get up. Then I noticed that he had been reading a book. This was at 11 o'clock in the morning of a busy day. He had been reading a book on the history of the Panhandle of Texas, which is an area that I know quite well because Pampa was the operating headquarters


of the Cabot Corporation. I mentioned the book to him. He said, "Have you read it?"

I said, "No, I know Frank Dobie, the author. He is a professor of history at the University of Texas, and I know a little about the history of the Panhandle because I visited the museum down in the Paloduro Canyon."

He said, "Oh, you've been down there, have you? Isn't that a great museum?" He'd been there and he knew far more than I did about what there was in the museum. We talked, I suppose, for 15 to 20 minutes about the history of the Panhandle of Texas, the museum, the Coronado expedition. This was a busy morning and I would have thought the President of the United States would have been far too busy for small talk with me.

I mention this episode because to me this was the strength of the man; he really had the sense of history and of his position in history.


He concerned himself with those decisions which he couldn't leave to others, and that really affected the history of our country. I think he made great and wise decisions.

MCKINZIE: Mr. Cabot, could you talk something about your own initial involvement in the Department of State and how you came to take the position as director of the Office of International Security Affairs?

CABOT: This I have put in writing; you can find it in an article in Atlantic Monthly which I wrote shortly after I left office. I don't know exactly why I was invited, but my assumption is so well in accord with my knowledge of the people and the facts of the case that I think this undoubtedly is true. The assumption I have is this: Jim [James E.] Webb, Under Secretary of State at that time, had some sense of the political situation in Washington, although he


had very little knowledge of foreign affairs. He had never been to Europe, knew almost nothing about its history or culture. Jim Webb did have the ear of the President. He had been director of the Budget and I'm sure that the President had consulted him on some political things. I assume that the President and Jim Webb had discussed the fact that Acheson's popularity in the Congress, particularly the House of Representatives was not very high. Acheson was going to have some trouble in getting a bill passed that needed 12 billion dollars, for the arming of our Allies, in fiscal year 1952. Webb suggested to the President that he ought to put a Republican businessman in charge of it. The President thought this was a good idea and asked Webb to seek such a man. Webb consulted Don [Donald K.] David, the Dean of the Harvard Business School. I was not a graduate of the Harvard Business School, but Don


David knew me quite well, and he mentioned my name. I expect he put my name first of several candidates he mentioned to Webb and Webb thought this was a good idea.

He called me and asked me if I would come to Washington to see Acheson. We arranged a mutually convenient date; it's not easy for me to decline to go see the Secretary of State. The arrangement was that I was to meet Webb in his office. When I came into his office Webb had there, obviously by prearrangement, Averell Harriman, Bob Lovett and Bill Foster. I knew and admired them all; they were obviously people who had come out of business and had done very well in Government. Webb started by saying that I should be another like them. They tried to tell me what a great thing it was to work for Government, and how it was just like working for business except you added three zeros on top of every financial problem that you considered. They all urged me to stay


in Washington and talked of the needs of that crucial period. I had certain things that I had to go home for, but I did agree that I would come to Washington, to get briefed, in December. I had been engaged to go cruising with some of my family and I came back right after New Years and settled into the job. That's how I happened to get there, and I'm glad I did.

I felt terribly naive when I arrived. I found it very puzzling. I found practically everything that they handed me was "secret" or "top secret," and I was so naive that I thought that meant important. I found very soon it didn't always, particularly in those days.

I had, as my executive assistant, a man who had been in the State Department for several years, Bill [William J.] Sheppard. He straightened me out very fast, took me around to meet all of those members of the Cabinet


that I would have dealings with; General Marshall, Dean Acheson, Secretary [John W.] Snyder of the Treasury, and some of the lower in rank, such as Bill Martin then the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, and later head of the Federal Reserve Board. Martin was a great fellow, by the way. I enjoyed him very much indeed.

Also I met General Omar Bradley, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I'll tell you an amusing thing about that. When I got in to see him, he thought I was some new security officer to try to keep the secrets inside of the Pentagon as Director of International Security Affairs. I talked for a while and then I discovered he was treating me as having nothing to do with anything abroad and was obviously not impressed with what I was doing. When I told him what my job was, he started right over again, being very cordial to me indeed.

MCKINZIE: Mr. Cabot, was there bipartisanship in


foreign policy in that period? Dean Acheson always contended that it was, with some notable exceptions, a period in which bipartisan foreign policy worked.

CABOT: Within the State Department there was real bipartisanship in the sense that there were some prominent Republicans working in the State Department as a member of the team. They had access to all of the information that they needed, though there undoubtedly were political things that they didn't have access to. I'm not claiming, of course, that Webb couldn't talk to Dean Acheson about things that concerned only the Democratic Party. During most of the time I was there Foster Dulles was working on the Japanese treaty. My deputy, Charlie Coolidge, was a Republican and much more a party man than I. There had been quite a number of others. The predecessor in my job for a brief period was Jim Bruce. I think he was


a Republican. I'm sure there are many others. Paul Nitze, for instance, was the head of Policy planning. He's a Republican and well-known. George Perkins, who had charge of the European area was a Republican. Yes, I would say there was distinctly bipartisanship there. There was real bitter scrapping with the [Joseph R.] McCarthy group, [Patrick A.] McCarran, and Bill [William F.] Knowland in the Senate. They thought they knew how to run foreign policy better than the State Department did, and the State Department was fighting with them. Those were partisan fights.

MCKINZIE: The work you were doing, coordinating the military assistance with economic assistance, was a very large problem for the United States after the Korean war broke out. There have been some criti