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John Franklin Carter Oral History Interview

 

Oral History Interview
with
John Franklin Carter

Journalist (pen name, Jay Franklin)
Washington, D. C.
October 7, 1966
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendix | 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 February, 1967
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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

 



Oral History Interview with
John Franklin Carter

 

Washington, D. C.
October 7, 1966
by Jerry N. Hess

 

[1]

HESS: Mr. Carter, we're primarily interested in your relationship to Mr. Truman and to the Truman administration. What was that relationship and when did it begin?

CARTER: My relationship to the Truman administration began right after Roosevelt's death. I was then working on a general intelligence assignment for the White House, and I reported to Roosevelt and after Roosevelt's death I reported to Truman. And that was where I first came in direct contact with him. I reported to him right up until the end of '45 when that particular operation

 

[2]

was abolished.

HESS: Was that the Henry Field project?

CARTER: Henry Field was part of my project. Henry Field was my subordinate and I was responsible to the President for everything that he and my other employees did.

HESS: Could you tell me a little bit more about that project?

CARTER: I gave a complete account to the Archives people for the Roosevelt Library in connection with the Henry Field Bush Hill assignment. I think I'd better refer you to that to save time.

HESS: Did you speak to Mr. Truman during that time?

CARTER: Oh, yes, indeed, repeatedly.

 

[3]

HESS: When did you have your next contact?

CARTER: My next contact came in 1948. In the intervening period, I became somewhat disillusioned with the Democratic Party and the administration. I was strongly attracted to Bob Taft and I decided to make the switch. But after I attended the Republican convention, as a newspaperman in '48, I was so appalled by what I regarded as Dewey's arrogance, and what I also regarded as Taft's stupidity, that I saw nothing for it but to return to the fold. At that time I expected Dewey to win. But in order to clarify my thinking I sat down and made an election forecast and analysis, which I have here, and which I'll give to you. [See Appendix] It was based on the theory that the country was basically 60 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican, but that there would be a major defection from the Democrats due to Henry Wallace, and as

 

[4]

later turned up, to the Dixiecrats. I took Louis Bean's figures of how the states went, when there was a sixty-forty break between Democrats and Republicans, and set an arbitrary group of percentage figures for the Democratic defection and worked it out, and very much to my surprise and interest, I discovered that on that basis Truman would win by -- the actual figures I have here -- I gave Truman, at that time, 275 electoral votes, and I thought that was sufficiently interesting to call to the President's attention, so I called up and asked for an appointment and went over and saw him and told him what I thought of the Republican Party situation, and showed him these figures. He was very much interested and he told me to see J. Howard McGrath. McGrath could not have been more discouraged or discouraging.

 

[5]

HESS: What did he say?

CARTER: He just sort of sighed and said, "Well, I for one do not despair." And actually during the campaign -- this is my personal impression -- the campaign was really run by Harry Truman and a small group from the White House. The Democratic National Committee contributed virtually nothing to his campaign. It did, of course, work -- worked quite efficiently -- but the real work was done by a comparably small group on the White House payroll.

HESS: Who would you include in that group?

CARTER: Well, actually you see, nothing happened -- I'll have to go back a bit. After I saw McGrath, nothing happened. And I went back to my place in Virginia and one afternoon I got a telephone call from the White House and it was David Noyes asking me to come down. So I drove

 

[6]

down and as would happen on an occasion like that, I had a blowout on the road. I had an awful old car and I got dirty and bloody in changing the tires, but anyhow, I got there about an hour late. He was a pretty dapper individual, a little shocked at the appearance of this man he'd summoned, but, he asked me if I would go into speechwriting, and I said, "Yes."

So I was put on the White House payroll by Donald Dawson. And in that way I found myself in the group. The working group consisted, as far as I could make out, of Philleo Nash, whom I didn't see too much, but saw quite a bit; Charlie Murphy, with whom I worked almost continuously; and I think Charlie and I carried the main load of the big speechwriting operation. Then, of course, during the actual whistlestop campaign, George Elsey. George and I shared

 

[7]

a compartment on the Pullman, and I used to get up about 6 in the morning and work with George on some of these whistlestop speeches. Later in the day, Charlie and I would work on drafts for this, that, and the other major speech, but most of the speeches were written, except the whistlestops, by Charlie and myself, the major speeches, that is; with the exception, of course, of that Chicago speech, which represented some kind of a campaign commitment; a commitment that Truman had made. That's the only sense anyone could make out of it.

HESS: The Chicago speech was given a little bit further on into the campaign.

CARTER: That was about the last ten days.

HESS: That was in October.

CARTER: Late in October.

 

[8]

HESS: October the 25th. Could you give me the background for that speech?

CARTER: Well, the background was roughly this. David Noyes did represent some kind of a group, out on the West Coast, of Democrats, and my belief was that there was a commitment that he was going to draft a special speech to be delivered in Chicago, which would play up a sort of anti-Hitler line in connection with Dewey. (This is jumping ahead of the game a bit.) Both Charlie and I, when we read the draft, were shocked by it, because we thought it was bad politics, and that it would specifically invite Dewey to come down from his mountaintop and start slugging. And things were very, very tricky then and if he had started slugging, I think he might have very well have pulled off a victory. As I say, this is not exclusively a moral judgment, this is a practical political

 

[9]

judgment. Charlie told me that he had told the President that if he delivered the speech as it was originally written, that he (Murphy) would vote for Dewey. The speech was toned down but even so it was very bad in its effect, and subsequently Dewey told me that at the time he had wanted to descend from his mountaintop and really crack back but that all of his advisers had assured him that he was going so well that he didn't need to worry about it. He felt at the time it was a mistake not to have done it, but he hadn't done it, and I think that had a real effect on the final result. But all the other major speeches from about Louisville on, Charlie and I did. Of course we didn't do them exclusively, let me make it clear, they had a pretty effective assembly line system. Charlie and I would work on the draft, it wouldn't matter whether I wrote the first draft or he

 

[10]

wrote the first draft, our drafts worked together very well. We found that we thought in the same terms and we were a very congenial working team. Then Charlie would take it over to Clark Clifford at the White House. Clifford, and, I guess, Matt Connelly to a certain extent, and Mrs. Truman, and the President would go over it. And they would make changes, obviously, but they never called us in to sort of consult about the changes. We were working on the next speech by the time they were going over the speech we'd already written.

HESS: Can you tell me about the assistance that Mrs. Truman might have given?

CARTER: I was only told this. I didn't have that direct contact with Truman during the campaign until just the very end. But I was told she read most of the major speeches and gave the

 

[11]

President her judgment on them, whether they were good, whether they were bad, whether certain phrases or ideas would be effective or not. I was just told that. I don't know that for my own knowledge, but I believe it to be the case.

HESS: In your article in Life magazine on November 15, 1948 you mentioned that Mrs. Truman and Margaret both sometimes did that.

CARTER: Yes, I was told Margaret too.

HESS: But you didn't see them actually...

CARTER: Oh, no. We had a straight military chain of command there, and it was very effective too; the best way of writing speeches I've ever struck, much better than Dewey's system. Dewey gets the roundrobin -- about eight or ten people in a room and they all work. They all

 

[12]

spend two or three days on the same speech and they all get completely exhausted and by the time the speech is done, it's a work of art, but has no spontaneity and everybody is absolutely exhausted. I told Dewey that, but that's the way he works.

HESS: On that Chicago speech, in Charles Murphy's files out at the Library, I found a draft of the Chicago speech with your initials "JFC" on the speech and it did not have any of the, what we might call, rougher elements.

CARTER: I suspect that what happened was that he and I worked on a draft which was put aside in favor of this rough one.

HESS: I have read in many places -- I think you also mention it in your article -- that the speech that was finally given was toned down some from the original draft.

 

[13]

CARTER: Yes, definitely, but it was still too rough. It made a personal attack on Dewey. It said he looked like Hitler and sort of acted like him. It was a personal attack rather than a political attack and was completely out of tune with the kind of campaign which Truman had been waging, which was I thought exceedingly the best, actually. You may not recollect the circumstances yourself, but he always had the Republicans guessing whether he was going to speak in a light, not exactly frivolous tone, but a humorous tone, or whether he was going to suddenly do a straight down the line, hard-hitting speech. They never knew what to expect. Although Dewey told me -- this may interest you -- that when he heard that speech that Truman gave at Pittsburgh where he used the doctor image for the first time, well, the doctor idea was Charlie's, and Charlie and I

 

[14]

dressed it up a bit and we used it several times during the campaign after that. But Dewey said when he heard that, his blood ran cold. He said: "Something new has been added. What in hell is going on?" And he didn't know how to deal with it, and he never did deal with it.

HESS: What other major speeches did you work on? First let's get a little chronology. What was the date that you joined the staff?

CARTER: Roughly about the middle of September. It was after Labor Day, I know that.

The first part of the campaign, so far as I was concerned, was a little floundering, the speeches were being prepared and so forth. But bit by bit, Charlie and I by, I would hope, superior industry, and perhaps superior skill and judgment, became the chief source of the

 

[15]

semifinal draft, because the final draft always depended on the President himself, plus circumstances. As you know very well, a dandy speech can be ruined by some event entirely outside your control, and you have to just throw away a remarkably fine speech because it no longer fits the set of circumstances. Charlie and I did, from I should say, from about the thirtieth of September on, we did all the major speeches. For example, as we were coming east on that final swing, Sam Rosenman set up a couple of drafts of speeches, and they were very fine speeches for Franklin Roosevelt to have delivered in 1944, but they had nothing to do with Harry Truman in 1948. So Charlie and I sat down and did entirely new drafts of them. We got ourselves in tune with Truman and with the country and with the way things were developing, and between us, I think we really did as good a

 

[16]

job of speechwriting as was done in that or any other campaign, particularly a close one. Of course, in a winning, avalanche campaign, it doesn't matter. The candidate can recite the alphabet and still get in.

HESS: Did Mr. Rosenman provide any other assistance at any other times?

CARTER: He may have been consulted; I wouldn't know.

HESS: Well, you mentioned the date, September 30th, and that was the date that the Louisville speech was given, and in Philleo Nash's files in the Library, I found a draft with your initials on them, but after Louisville you put a question mark, so you probably were just writing a speech which could have been given someplace else. The draft was generally anti-Republican, anti-80th Congress, and anti-Progressive Party,

 

[17]

and that wasn’t given at Louisville, that happened to be an inflation-housing speech, but of course, Mr. Truman did speak on those other thing