Oscar L. Chapman Oral History Interview, April 14, 1972

Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman

Assistant Secretary of the Interior, 1933-46; Under Secretary of the Interior, 1946-49; Secretary of the Interior, 1949-53.

Washington, DC
April 14, 1972
Jerry N. Hess

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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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 1980
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman

Washington, DC
April 14, 1972
Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Secretary, what are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?

CHAPMAN: Mrs. Chapman and I met Mr. and Mrs. Truman when he was in the Senate, and they were attending a reception which we were attending.

HESS: Do you recall where that was?

CHAPMAN: It was at the Carlton Hotel.

HESS: About when was that, do you recall?

CHAPMAN: His first year in the Senate.


HESS: He was elected in '34 and he came to Washington in '35.

CHAPMAN: That is correct.

HESS: What do you recall about Mr. Truman as Senator? Of course, he came here in '35 and he served as Senator until 1944.

CHAPMAN: The Department of the Interior, the functions of that department are so widespread and it contains such a conglomerate of functions, of so many wide and divergent subjects, like the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Park Service, the Indian Affairs, and the Territorial Division, it contains the islands. Even the Philippines were under the Department of the Interior at that moment; it wasn't for very long, of course. We soon got them underway and they got their independence.

Now, we had such a divergence of things at that time, I didn't have what I would consider an airtight operation of functions that dealt


solely within one area, whereby I would be before this particular committee so much that I would get to know them much more than I would others. Therefore, I was not before Mr. Truman's Committee very much, but I got very intrigued with his efforts of investigating and carrying on full-scale hearings on war contracts. I call them the overdrafts of payments to contractors for war materials, and for war functions that they carried on with the Government. That was where the private enterprise and the Government came together and functioned as a unit as best they could, but even with the best they could there were a lot of errors made.

I don't like to charge the industry with being dishonest about it, but there were so many errors involved that you couldn't afford to let them be passed up without checking them out to some degree of satisfaction that you had the truth about what their costs were and things of that nature.


He conducted that hearing so openhandedly and was so thoroughly honest that he made a terrific impression, even on those whom he was really giving a rough time, because they couldn't answer a lot of those questions he was putting to them. Mr. Truman, quite contrary to what a lot of people may think, did not depend upon his staff to prepare his questions and everything like that. Sure they helped, and gave him information, but Mr. Truman really was a man that did a lot of his own homework.

When he opened the hearing that morning he had the questions pretty much in his mind and what he was going to follow through with, and he expected the industry to furnish the answers to these questions. From there he would start, and sometimes without a note, he'd start off, "The truth will be known, and come out eventually if you keep asking a man the questions that force him to answer. Eventually these questions may


be embarrassing to the industry. But they're helpful to the Government if you get a refund or make them refund many millions of dollars for overcharges." And they got out of it in that way by making it an overcharge excuse, as I call it.

He collected and had refunds returned to the Government running into the millions of dollars. I couldn't possibly give you that figure here. I don't have it. But refunds that he got for the Government coming out of that hearing were fantastic and very little was really carried about that in the press. It was not emphasized in the press too much. I want to say the press did a very fine job in handling that Committee all the way through. I think they did an excellent job, because they got intrigued and interested in this country man out here off of the farm, practically, coming in here, and in his very simple way putting these


so-called brilliant industrial people on the witness stand and having them tangled up in two minutes on their operations and how they conducted them; how did they come out with this figure on a certain price, and how did it later happen that it came out 20 million or more higher than they said it would.

HESS: You did testify before his committee?

CHAPMAN: No, I never did. I never had anything in our department concerning the war materials program. I never testified before him, but I did go up and listen to some of the hearings.

HESS: What is your opinion of how he handled the hearings? Was it quite effective?

CHAPMAN: One of the finest I've ever seen, one of the most effective I've ever seen. What I have said is a background for that very question. It was one of the most effective hearings I've ever seen carried on, because he made absolutely


no effort to get publicity out of it for himself.

His principal effort, and strenuously so, was to get these men to tell him the story, the truth, about how they operated, and what caused them to make such a wide difference in their first bids and their final overpayment for a given job. His questioning of those people was simple and just down to the raw bone of how you would do something, and how you would operate it. You would have thought the man had been operating a big business all his life, and he had never run a big business at all. He went on the simple principle of just telling the truth, that you clarify any of these errors if they just tell the truth, and that it wouldn't necessarily be too hard on them if they did tell the truth, because they'd have to refund some money to the Government, and that was a foregone conclusion; as soon as the hearing got started you could see what it would lead up to if he kept up that



He worked hard. He would go and hold a hearing out in Nevada, for instance, where we had some Government plant going on, and he had information about that plant or its overcharge, or say its form of payment to it, led it to a very heavy overcharge, as far out of line, which normally could have been an overcharge, which was perfectly legitimate, but this was far beyond that. He would go from city to city and hold these hearings. He did that for a year or more. Then of course, many of the sessions were held here at this hearing room in the Senate. He got so engrossed in it and so intrigued in how this thing was operating that he got into it with his heart and soul to really find out the truth. He was shocked, really and truly he was shocked, by how some of them were operating, that caused so many of these terrific overcharges on a given project.

Now, he held many hearings here in Washington at his office, as I said, in his conference room, and he'd take his time; he wouldn't


rush them and he'd hear them, and he was courteous to them, never tried to browbeat them, because he was a Senator and they were industrial men. He was so fair with them. He joked with them on such a fair level, and it showed on the face of it to those men, that he wasn't trying to get them into a corner and trying to cause them trouble. He was trying to get them to tell the truth about what happened, and how it happened. They would have come out so much better with the amount they had to repay had they told the truth in the first case and stayed with it.

When you start dodging around in a Senate hearing, trying to cover something that you don't want to come out, then you're in trouble, because those men didn't get to Washington by just liking the city and wanting to come here for a visit. Most of those men were prepared far better than we give them credit for.

We generally don't give the Senators the


credit for their ability and preparation for being in the Senate. I give them a lot of credit.

Mr. Truman was the type of a man that had a pace that would work the average man to death. He was a terrific worker, and you had to be very fast to keep up with him, with his work that he was carrying on, whatever it was. If he assigned you something, he expected you to carry it out, and that was the end of it. He didn't bother with it. He expected you to do it, and it wasn't long before you found out that he meant just what he said. When he told you to get such and such a document, or such and such information, you soon found out that he meant exactly that, nothing else. He carried on such a fair hearing and the press was very fair to him, I thought. I thought the press was unusually fair to him all during that period, all during the hearing of that case or that subject; it's more than a case. He carried that on, as you know, for I don't know how many years. He


ran three I believe...

HESS: I think it was '41 to '44, and as you know he was still Chairman of the Truman Committee, that was the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, when the convention met in Chicago that year to choose a Presidential and a Vice Presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket. Mr. Truman went there as a Senator and came out as the Vice Presidential nominee.

CHAPMAN: He had no intention of being Vice President or trying to be.

HESS: How much importance would you place on his handling of the Truman Committee to his being given the Vice Presidential spot?

CHAPMAN: Well, let's put it this way, there wasn't any question but that gave him a background buildup to the public of the depth of the man, and it gave him a prestige in terms of, "Here's a man who knows what he's trying to do, and he's


honest about trying to get it. He's not just trying to get some contractor in trouble." Even these contractors soon began to have that feeling, even though they were scared to death in most of it, but they soon learned he wasn't trying to get them in a hole to prosecute them; he was trying to get the simple truth so he could settle their particular problem with the Government, or have the Government to settle it, either with refund or filing a case in court if necessary. Of course, that's your last resort that you would turn to if all others failed.

HESS: I have often heard that at the time Mr. Truman became President, that due to his handling of the Truman Committee many people, even conservative Republicans, thought Mr. Truman was going to be a very conservative President. What's your view on that?

CHAPMAN: That's exactly right. They thought that. I never did.


HESS: You did not?


HESS: Why didn't you?

CHAPMAN: Because I had had enough visits with him, enough talks with him, and had formed an opinion about him that he was quite a liberal man. Others thought he was a conservative.

HESS: A conservative Democrat?

CHAPMAN: A conservative Democrat that would make a good safe man for the conservatives. That's what they thought.

In his conduct of those hearings he established himself, in the minds of all those same people, as a fair man. They didn't agree with all he was doing, but they thought he was fair about it. He had more general public support for what he was doing than any other committee I've ever seen on the Hill.

I've seen a lot of splashes of publicity,


headlines, that were beautiful headlines for a particular hearing, some other case, but they passed very soon from the front pages, and passed from the minds of the people that didn't know much about it. Why? Because they didn't go into it with the idea of following it through to the end as Mr. Truman had in mind the day he opened those hearings. See, that's where they missed him again; they misjudged his intentions and misjudged what he wanted to do. He didn't want to develop a political fight or an issue for a political campaign. He was absolutely working--and this is something people must really appreciate, and I don't know whether they do or not; fully appreciate the fact that he was working to the ultimate goal of getting the facts on this terrific expenditure of money, which was the greatest we had ever known in our Government. The overcharge was quite unusual, and he went at it in a very calm, careful approach of getting nothing but the truth.


A lot of people changed their minds after about six or eight months of hearings; they began to change their minds towards Truman, not only about what he intended to do, but what he was capable of doing. Truman was a very capable man, and they didn't give him that credit. They played him down; they rated him as a farm boy, period. They didn't rate him as a statesman, but Truman was a real statesman.

HESS: While we're discussing Mr. Truman's handling of fiscal matters, as you know, during the period of time he was in the White House, he did balance the budget, I think, a couple of times, and he tried to in other years. Do you think it would be fair to call Mr. Truman a "fiscal conservative" and if he was liberal, he was liberal in other areas?

CHAPMAN: That's partly true, not entirely, but partly. He was liberal. Let me put it this way to describe that: He was liberal on the human


side of an issue that came before him, but he was conservative on the expenditure side. He was conservative to try to save the money. But he wasn't so conservative that he was not liberal on the issues that required consideration for human needs.

HESS: List a few of those that come to mind.

CHAPMAN: Those are the cases in which he fought for appropriations for the HEW, and he put up a good budget for them, he supported a healthy budget for them. When I say HEW...

HESS: That was back before we had an HEW.

CHAPMAN: Yes, absolutely before we had one, he was supporting those issues and those principles, very successfully so.

HESS: Let me ask for a couple of definitions. You are known as one of the leading liberals in the Truman administration. First, would you think that was accurate?


CHAPMAN: Yes, I guess if you're going to catalogue a man.

HESS: Give me a couple of definitions. What is your definition of liberal and what is your definition of conservative?

CHAPMAN: There again is where you have to be very careful in getting the public to understand what you mean. Now, when you're talking about a liberal, he may be very liberal on one issue, but not so liberal on another issue, and you don't know which of those issues will finally stick and catalogue him as a liberal or as a conservative. You don't know which issues will do it, because no one issue establishes a man really as a liberal or a conservative; that isn't generally true.

If you go back and look through history and you'll see men like Senator [George] Norris, who, over the years, was a genuine liberal, and not on just one subject, but on practically everything that came before him. He was a liberal,


and all the way through.

Now, I don't want to compare myself with Norris, because he was a man of such great stature, and a man of great vision, so much more so than the public tried to give him credit for at that time. They were trying to discredit him at that time, and naturally he was having to carry the fight, particularly on public power. I was with him so openly and right after it on public power, that I became catalogued as a Norris liberal almost because of that. But my liberalism doesn't stop at public power. You could say it may have started there. It didn't stop there. That was just only a part, and I did follow Senator Norris' lead in that because I found he was right. Look what we got out of it; look what the Government got out of it, and its people, the whole Tennessee Valley, because one man fought it for fifteen years; he never quit. My liberalism also includes concern for


minority rights and help for the underprivileged.

Now, Truman had that same quality. He never quit. If he was for this last year he was for it this year, unless something dramatic would come about to make changes or require changes. Truman was solid, and not a fly-by-night type of a liberal. Truman was really a liberal, and so much more so than people ever thought he was going to be. They never dreamed that he would be the liberal that he turned out to be. It wasn't what they expected. I thought he was liberal, even at the convention. I was more or less committed to Henry Wallace.

HESS: Let’s discuss that for just a minute. Henry Wallace, of course, was Vice President at the time; he had been through the third term, and he wanted to remain, of course, he wanted to be renominated for Vice President.

CHAPMAN: He did, badly. I committed myself to him. I shall never forget my conference with President Truman over that. I was going to the convention.


I got an appointment to see Senator Truman on Friday afternoon before I caught the 4 o'clock train to Chicago. The convention was all the following week.

HESS: Did you meet with Mr. Roosevelt before you went out?

CHAPMAN: Yes, I met with him.

HESS: What did he say at the time you met with him?

CHAPMAN: He would never be caught in a corner trying to direct you to say he wanted you to support John Smith or anybody, but he would lead you to the corner where you could see that's where he wanted you to go.

HESS: What corner did you think he was leading you to at that time just before the Chicago convention?

CHAPMAN: To Truman.

HESS: To Truman. What did he say?


CHAPMAN: It's impossible to quote verbatim what a man has said after more than twenty-five years. I did not have a long conference with him. I went by the White House to tell him; I said, "Mr. President, I'm going to the convention, and I'm going without any word or instructions from my leader whom I follow, and that's you." I said, "Do you have any word that you want to leave with me confidentially, or in any other way, that you want to say to me?"

He said, "No, you go to that convention and you do what you think is right. As far as a candidate is concerned, I would not try to dictate to individual delegates in any form."

HESS: Was Truman's name mentioned during the meeting?

CHAPMAN: Yes, yes.

HESS: In what context? What did he say?

CHAPMAN: It was mentioned in the context of those that are good men.


HESS: Whom else did he mention?

CHAPMAN: [William O.] Douglas, naturally.

HESS: But Mr. Roosevelt did mention a number of men with whom he would serve.

CHAPMAN: He did; he mentioned at least three or four that would make good men, and he mentioned Truman in a very fine context in our conversation, that could have left a man who had had no experience in political life with a pretty strong feeling that he'd like for you to go with that fellow. He could have done that.

HESS: Did you speak with Mr. Truman at the convention, before the nominees were chosen? James Byrnes also wanted the nomination.

CHAPMAN: Yes, Jimmy Byrnes double-crossed two or three people, including both Presidents. I'm being perfectly honest with you. He double-crossed


Roosevelt; then he tried to pull a fast one on Truman, and both of them pulled the rug out from under him each time. And he should have had sense enough to have known that he wasn't going to get away with that with Truman, even though he felt Truman was his boy, he could handle him. He was down at the White House the next day telling Truman what to do and not advising him, but telling him what to do. He didn't get away with it.

HESS: In Mr. Truman's Memoirs he states that one of the reasons that he appointed Byrnes as Secretary of State was more or less to make up for the fact that he was not President at that time, that he realized that Byrnes thought that he should have been nominated Vice President in Chicago, and if he had been, therefore he would have been President; so Mr. Truman, as sort of a consolation prize, appointed him as Secretary of State.

CHAPMAN: I think that's exactly right; that's exactly what he did do, and I told him he'd live to regret it.


HESS: You did?

CHAPMAN: Yes, I said, "He's going to double-cross you." I know how Byrnes worked. He was a fast worker; he was a political maneuverer, and one from the old school that was pretty rough, fast on his feet, and he would do it, too. I shouldn't say that about a man who is dead, but that really was my opinion of him then and it hasn't changed.

HESS: It hasn't changed?

CHAPMAN: It hasn't changed.

HESS: Moving back to Chicago in that summer of 1944, did you speak with Mr. Truman?

CHAPMAN: Let me go back on that to clarify one point. I told you that I had gone up to the Hill with an appointment to see Mr. Truman the day I went to Chicago.

HESS: In his office in the Senate?


CHAPMAN: In his office at the Senate. I went up to see him. He, of course, wouldn't remember it. He had hundreds and hundreds of people rushing in to see him every day at that time. I went up and I said, "Mr. Truman, I'm in a very tight and embarrassing position for a man that's conscientious as far as politics is concerned. I've always believed that a man that didn't keep his word in politics wouldn't keep it in anything else."

He said, "That's my credo exactly! And you are right, he won't."

I said, "Following that, I've gotten myself into a position that is embarrassing. I feel that the President wants you. I feel that President Roosevelt really wants you, and naturally, you know, I'm obligated to Roosevelt for the very courtesy of his appointing me to my position, and he has supported me so wonderfully," as he did. He supported me really against some


tough odds sometimes. He supported me at some really hard points. And I said, "I have talked with the President, and I have come away with the feeling that he does want you, and I want to do what Roosevelt wants, and I would like to support you." I said, "But I made a mistake in committing myself too early, and I committed myself to Henry Wallace, and I just don't think a man--I made the mistake and it's made, I can't undo that. That's done. I have to do what is right, the best I know how, to get out of this the best I can."

He said, "Don't you worry about it one minute. You go to that convention; you support Henry Wallace, or anybody you want. I am not a candidate, and I'm not asking my closest friends, because I know Bob Hannegan is pushing me and is steering it and all that. He's not doing it with my support and with my good grace, because I do not want it." He said, "I am not a candidate in any sense of the word. Of course, no man will turn down the office of the President of the United States if it's given


to him by his party; no man will do that. But I don't want those things to happen to me."

He was the most modest man and the most honest I ever saw, and he was really that way. I saw him in Chicago, met him on the floor after we had been maneuvering for a day, and I met him and I said, "Mr. Senator, how do you feel about today?"

He said, "Just like I did the last time I talked to you."

Well, I said, "I feel the way that I did then; I feel I'm caught with a commitment that I can't change without hurting my own integrity to myself, and that I can't do."

He said, "Don't you do it. Don't you change for me or anybody else. A man's word in politics is worth just as much to me as it is in a million-dollar deal, trying to buy a piece of property or anything else." He said, "If anything, they are more; they are more apt to be solid in


their convictions about what they say to you than the average man is in talking to you about a piece of business."

He was very, very interested in that. Now with this, let me lead you into another subject that has been misinterpreted, my position of recommending to Truman to recognize Israel. This was something that had been in my mind for years, and it wouldn't have made any difference had they been Jewish, Arabs, or any other people. I had always felt that my Government could make a strong position for itself in the eyes of the public if it would take a leading role in recognizing small countries and seeing that they were given justice in the councils of the United Nations, because that was set up for the purpose of preventing all kinds of mistreatments of various people.

I for a long time had had in my mind that my Government would strengthen its position in


the world and would become a leader in the eyes of the world as being a country that was ready to risk a little something to help a small country establish itself and support itself, not because they were Jews or Arabs who would give us good support politically. Of course, I didn't underrate the fact that it did. I knew it would; I knew enough about politics to know what it meant for us, but my real basis was the other principle that I had had in my mind for many years and had discussed it so many times with people that were interested in such courses and policy or government, following the foreign affairs field. And I had expressed it to quite a few groups of people to whom I would be talking, and I expressed to some of the young people I was talking to at that time, that I wanted to see my Government take the lead in defending and in supporting these small countries trying to establish their own independence and their right to serve


themselves in their own way and their own system, whatever it was. I never thought of communism versus something else. I was thinking only in terms of a small country needing help from a powerful country to get established. And there was practically always some case up before the eyes of the world in which the people, the citizens of a given area, were trying and wanted to establish their own government and run their own government and be independent.

Now, there were many; Israel wasn't just one. Israel was fortunate enough to get better publicity for her case and circumstances forced in to the world's mind and attention because events were taking place at that time that forced the attention of the world on Israel as to her problem. That situation was greatly to her benefit and helped put across her great desires to become an independent little country. They wanted a home of their own; they wanted a land they could call their own; they wanted a country and government of their


own. I didn't know what kind of government. That was for them to decide, but I was looking for them, as I would have looked at any other small group, to give them a chance to get their independence; let them make their mistakes as we made them here establishing our Government, and let them have a chance to develop their own government. Now, that was the forefront and also the whole background of my life and training for this Jewish question. It didn't just come up to me because the campaign was on.

It would be understood in the minds of most public officials and anybody else who had worked with me that I would appreciate the fact that the endorsement of Israel at an early stage was politically valuable for Truman, it would be of great help to him, and I thought that it was. I thought that he should do it early. I wanted him to be the first one to recognize Israel, so that we would be the first country to recognize them.


HESS: Which we were.

CHAPMAN: And we were.

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