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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

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Chapman Oral History Transcripts]

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 Nationa