Oscar L. Chapman Oral History Interview, September 11, 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
September 11, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
September 11, 1972
Jerry N. Hess


HESS: All right, Mr. Chapman, to begin this morning, lets discuss tidelands oil and I'll read just a few excerpts from the book, The Tidelands Oil Controversy by Ernest R. Bartley. And on page 139 he has this paragraph:

So far, the Ickes-Pauley feud had no outward bearing on the question at issue. Ickes saw fit, however, to appear twice before the Senate Naval Affairs Committee in February, 1946, and there gave testimony to the effect that Pauley was unfit to be confirmed to the post to which he had been nominated by President Truman. It was the contention of Ickes that on 6 September 1944 he had had a conversation with Pauley concerning the difficulty of raising campaign funds for the 1944 presidential campaign. At this meeting, Ickes alleged, Pauley promised to raise three hundred thousand dollars for a Democratic war chest if in turn Ickes would see that the federal government no longer pushed its claims to the submerged lands. Ickes now fought Pauley’s nomination with every means at his disposal. He traced the background of Pauley's operations in California oil. He aired the dirty linen of the Navy in regards to methods used in the naval reserves at Elk Hills, showing the incompetence of the Navy and insinuating that the Navy was unable to take care of those reserves over which it already had control.


What do you recall about the tidelands oil matter and the Ickes-Pauley disagreement?

CHAPMAN: At first I was not in all of the conferences between Mr. Pauley and Secretary Ickes. I was in some and participated in some discussion of it, and there were quite a few memoranda that were written in the Department for the Secretary, giving factual information about matters that we were enhancing in relation to the tidelands oil.

Remember the tidelands oil issue had been brewing for many years; it wasn't something that came up just new overnight. It had been discussed back and forth by two different groups of people throughout the country. Let me say your intellectuals, and educated people, your educators, pretty generally understood the problem involved, the principle involved, in the tidelands issue, and then there were some very good articles written by one or two men that were very helpful in clarifying that issue. This is not an easy issue to clarify in


any one conference because that issue was of such a long standing. That fight had been going on so long that it would take a person considerable time to clarify and really do a research job on that specific subject. It would take time because there were so many people who had worked on that.

HESS: Wasn't it understood for a long time that the state did have ownership rights to the mineral contents of the submerged land from low tide to three miles out?

CHAPMAN: Well, generally it was done with the Government people. The State Department, in dealing with another country, would generally use the language of a three mile limit, but actually that had never been officially established one way or another. It had been used, and had been accepted as one of the principles in the discussion of this, that the state had at one time had some jurisdiction, but they had never obtained any


affirmative rights to the minerals under the sea. They had never established it. Texas was the only state that had a real sound legal base for justifying their claim to their right to their own lands under the whole state, because when they came into the Union, there was a condition in the legislation that they kept all their public land; they kept all of their land. They didn't give any to the Federal Government; they kept it all.

HESS: That's right, there are no public lands in Texas.

CHAPMAN: In Texas, no, never has been. It never has been...

HESS: Didn't they join the rest of the states by treaty?

CHAPMAN: Yes, they came into the Union really through a treaty arrangement. That was the process that they used to come in and at their request, and then at our consent, they were taken into the


Union by negotiations. Many points like this one were clarified in that, and that's something that should be read to see the basis for that clarification--to see why they were concerned about it. By they, I mean the oil operators who were operating on the coast line, and they were having to use very expensive materials to get these wells drilled and produced under the water. They discovered it was obviously a more expensive operation than just straight dry land drilling up on high land. And that was an expensive problem that developed into this submerged water land, and when the cost of it was discovered, that slowed down the pressure for a while, of many people wanting to get these leases, because they didn't think they could afford to finance them in most cases. But then pretty soon the major companies worked out the problems. The engineering problems especially were so expensive, but they worked that out pretty soon and got that straight.


Now you come back to the question. Mr. Pauley was one of many who had applications for leases on the submerged lands that he had filed with the states. He also held what is known as land script. We used to refer to them, and we do now in the language of the bill and the language of all the memos and so on that went into this, as "land script." That was land that had been given to some individual, or to some corporations in a few cases, because of contributions that they had made. It gave certain individuals a lease to that land because of some great contribution he had made in the Civil War.

HESS: That's right; a good deal of land script was given out to survivors of the Civil War.

CHAPMAN: That's right, and you see a lot of people who made contributions to the war effort on the Federal side, who got a lot of land script leases. He'd be given 50,000 acres on


such and such a coast line, and be identified that way and he'd be given so many acres--and it was free; it didn't cost him anything. It was a free gift, outright, and they began to sell that script to different individuals. They began to trade it sort of like they would stock on the market.

HESS: Mr. Bartley mentions on page 245 of his book that one of the people who did this was Mr. E. L. Cord. He identifies him as the "onetime manufacturer of the fabulous front-wheel drive Cord automobile." He and ten associates managed to find and buy a goodly amount of script reportedly exceeding one million dollars in the process. So Cord was one of the men who did this too. Now this was down...

CHAPMAN: Now he was one of the men that was taking a leading part in buying up all the script he could buy from different private citizens who had some grants given to them, and they'd sell that script


to Cord or his group; they'd buy it for a little of nothing as a rule.

HESS: Bartley said that Cord’s group filed applications in the Gulf of Mexico and California offshore lands in the extent of 4,138 acres. So, when the Government gave the land script they thought it was to be used for land out West, but Cord and his associates were taking it and trying to obtain offshore submerged oil leases, right?

CHAPMAN: That was principally what they got off on. They wanted the submerged land to drill under when they discovered that it was so perfected in certain places, and those wells are rather productive when they do hit them.

HESS: You get your money back, don't you?

CHAPMAN: You do, and you can get it back and you get it back rather fast; and with this write-off that they have on their tax situation, they get that written off very fast. Of course, remember in


most cases they bought those leases for very little or nothing. Cord bought up for himself and this group; he bought up a lot of land I've forgotten how many acres it was, but it was a very large amount.

HESS: Well, it says here 4,138.

CHAPMAN: Well, that's about right; that's about what my memory is, that...

HESS: They went down to the Gulf of Mexico and positioned themselves around where he thought oil might be found; 1,932 acres he filed applications on, of submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico. Bartley said that he tried to bunch some of the script in one acre parcels around 34 producing wells. So, he would go out where there was a producing well and then lay claim to submerged lands around it.

CHAPMAN: That's right.

HESS: It says on November the 21st of 1951, you refused


to exchange the land for the land script on the grounds that the tracts were not public lands.

CHAPMAN: That's right.

I stuck to the principle that those lands were really not public lands, that the Federal Government had not made a final decision on that point. The court had never determined the issuing of those leases to those private citizens, whether they were constitutional or not. And second, I felt that there had to be some basis, legal basis, for giving away public land, or selling it or doing anything with it; you had to have some legal base that would hold up. And I stuck to the principle that I always had about that, that this was not really public land. It never had been, and was never intended to be in the sense that it was becoming to be used. And when we saw the vice that was being developed on this, we started in to fight it to try to get some legislation through to kill the whole thing; all


the activity on the submerged lands, and we wanted to get some affirmative legislation and get the bill to say just what we had repeated, that this was not public land and, therefore, it was not subject to public land use.

They never did get that through Congress. They never could get it through Congress, but I was convinced we could beat them in the Supreme Court if we ever got the case before the Supreme Court.

HESS: It mentions in the note here that Mastin G. White, who was a solicitor to the Department of Interior, had the opinion that those lands were not public land and could not be exchanged for script, because script could only be exchanged for surveyed land or lands subject to survey.

CHAPMAN: That is right, and Mastin White is one of the best lawyers that we ever had in that department as solicitor. He is now one of the examiners over at the Court of Appeals and he is a brilliant lawyer.


HESS: So, I don't believe that any of those land script claims were ever honored, were they not?


HESS: I don't think so.

CHAPMAN: Ickes never honored any, and I never honored any.

HESS: Well, there's one point I want to bring up about Bartley’s contention that the mineral rights should be--he's a pro-states man, I should add.

CHAPMAN: Yes. Yes.

HESS: You mentioned last week when we discussed this book that you know this man, is that right?

CHAPMAN: I don't know him, I looked him up to see but he's not the same guy.

HESS: He's not the man:

CHAPMAN: No, not the man. I thought it was, but it's not.


HESS: Now one of the points that he brings up in the book; of course, he takes it state by state and the three states that he gives most of his time to are California, Texas and Louisiana, but he also mentions a good deal about Florida.

One of the things that he mentions as to why he thinks the states should have the right to these lands is that he thinks they have the duty and the responsibility for the submerged lands in so many other areas, such as in fishing. The states give fishing rights; the state is obligated to license boats that sail in this three mile area. He also mentioned the problem of the sponges off of Florida where there was a court case as to who is supposed to take care of, or who was supposed to administer the sponges on the seabed, and the court said that Florida was supposed to do this, not the national government; but the state was supposed to do this. In other words, it's his contention that in so many areas, boating, fishing, sponges, that the states


have been told, "This three mile limit is your responsibility to administer." But when they found that beneath the seabed of this area was such a vast amount of oil, then it's his contention that the Government changed their mind, and said, "We want the oil; it shouldn't go to the states." What do you think about that?

CHAPMAN: Well, that principle was argued rather effectively. Let me say he had all the mileage out of that point he could, and...

HESS: He wrote almost a whole book on it.

CHAPMAN: Yes. I could go with him so far as to say that Florida had a different claim to the rights of the minerals and everything under the water than the other states, because Florida proceeded exactly the way the Constitution tells you you have to, to acquire an addition to a state. You can't increase the size of your state without an act of Congress correlated with an act of the state of Florida let us say, by vote of the people


of Florida and on application to the Congress of the United States to apply to it. Then a Supreme Court decision to declare it constitutional must occur.

They had followed every requirement in the process of perfecting their rights to their claim, and it was the only state in the Union that had.

Now Texas was even in a stronger position to have made a case, and I so stated that technically, probably Texas could make a claim for technical reasons because she had never been a public land state. She was an independent republic, and upon the request of the people of Texas they asked us to take them in as a state to the Union and negotiated a treaty.

So they sat down and negotiated the treaty which kept all Gulf lands in the hands of the state, you see. So, whatever rights anybody had under the water or anywhere else, would apply in Texas where it wouldn't apply anywhere


else, like California--none of them. They had no legal claims at all that could stand up. Texas could have. Texas could have fought this case alone, and not let that bunch of politicians and bunch of--I would say very unscrupulous people, some of them were--try to make out a claim for a state that really and truly had no claim whatsoever.

The other states were not in the same position as Texas. But the situation was turned around, and the California and Louisiana cases were tried first.

HESS: California was first.

CHAPMAN: I think California was first. And they did not have a good case, based in law, to justify saying that the rights to minerals and to all of that property belonged to the Federal Government. There were no statutes, no law; there was nothing for them to base such a request on, and in lieu of that request the Constitution leaves it in the hands of the Federal Government. So you're left with that divided opinion, where laws pertaining


to the land in the State of Texas are based upon entirely a different act of Congress than any of the rest of them.

HESS: One thing that the lawyers tried to do, and Bartley gives a pretty good outline in his book, was to trade statements by Government officials on the ownership of the land. As he mentioned, in 1933 Secretary Ickes had stated that the ownership of the tidelands lay with the state, but he said that in the later thirties and early forties he encouraged the filing of suits to test the validity of the state's claims. In other words, his own views were changing. Do you recall that?

CHAPMAN: Well, I think he had some change of thoughts about that and I think that originally he probably thought the states may have had the right. I'm not too certain of this.

HESS: Bartley does not cite, as far as I can understand; he does not cite where he takes Ickes'


views from.


HESS: He just says Ickes had made those statements.

CHAPMAN: But he doesn't quote him there.

HESS: No, he doesn't quote it or cite where he took his information,

CHAPMAN: I'd try to research that. I couldn't find where Ickes had even said that. Now so while I can't just blankly say a man's mind had never been in this direction, that he had never had his mind made up on either side of the issue. I would assume from my talks with him in the early part, that he was not in favor of the states having jurisdiction. In my talks with him I had assumed that his own convictions were being firmed.

HESS: About what year was that?

CHAPMAN: That was in '35 and '37 and '38, along the last of the first term, Roosevelt's first term.


It began to surface about then. And then it began to come to the full brunt of the issue; it became a public issue and he just did a lot to make it a public issue. I think he felt that the people would feel that if they knew the truth about this that they wouldn't allow this to stand as giving away the public lands, the way they did, even though it was for some services this man had given to the Federal Government that was beyond the call of duty on him as a citizen. I can't recall what some of those things are, but they were different. Generals had been given...

HESS: The higher you were in rank, the more land script you received, I understand.

One question on Mr. Ickes' claim that Mr. Pauley had promised to come up with 30,000 dollars if the submerged lands case were dropped. Did you ever hear Mr. Ickes comment on that before he testified before Congress?

CHAPMAN: Yes, he had said that Mr. Pauley had made


such a statement to him in the presence of these people; I don't have the names of those people. Ickes had had a conference with Mr. Pauley who set up an appointment for him to come over, and I don't know who was in the conference. I was not. I had gone down to the Secretary's office, but I had not been invited to the conference. You don't go into a conference unless you are invited. So I went on back to my office, and he had this conference.

I talked with him the next day, or shortly after this conference, at which he made these very strong statements about Mr. Pauley making this statement that he had said he could get at least 300,000 dollars from Pauley if they would agree to drop the...

HESS: This is what he told you a day or two after that?

CHAPMAN: He made the comment to me, Ickes did,


that Pauley had said that to him.

HESS: Let me read one further paragraph from Bartley's book. This is on page 140:

As nearly as can be determined, Ickes never mentioned the affair to either Roosevelt or Truman. Even Abe Fortas, Under Secretary of the Department of Interior and Ickes' right-hand man and confidant, could not recall on the witness stand that Ickes ever told him of such an occurrence. Pauley admitted that he had had a talk with Ickes and that campaign funds had been discussed, even a 300 thousand dollar figure. Pauley contended, however, that this sum represented a hoped-for contribution from the District of Columbia and not from Pau1ey interests.

So, according to Bartley, Fortas didn't know anything about it. Do you recall anything on that?

CHAPMAN: Well, Ickes just made some comments to me in our conversation about Pauley's efforts to...

HESS: But he did say it was as sort of in exchange, 300 thousand dollars for the dropping of the submerged lands case?

CHAPMAN: That's right.


HESS: He did say that?

CHAPMAN: He said it to me about two or three days after the conference. I can’t remember whether it was two days or three days. But it was one or two days right after the conference that he mentioned to me and he was very much perturbed about it. He was disturbed.

HESS: This all came up when Mr. Pauley was being nominated as Under Secretary of the Navy.

CHAPMAN: That is right.

HESS: And I understand that Mr. Ickes threatened to resign first and then did resign at this time, in other words, hoping that the President would withdraw Pauley's nomination which the President did not. Did you think that Mr. Truman was backing the wrong man? There was a dispute between two members of the Administration, Ickes and Pauley, and it looked like Mr, Truman was backing Pauley.


CHAPMAN: The real story back of this is that Truman hadn't been convinced by anything that anybody told him. This had been an offer to raise money from a lot of people to get these leases. He didn't take it that way; at least I’m sure he didn't, just general conversations about it I interpreted to mean that.

Now I don't know, I thought Mr. Fortas was in that conference. I don't remember who was in that conference with Ickes that morning. You see Mr. Fortas was Ickes' closest confidant at that time.

HESS: He was Under Secretary then.

CHAPMAN: You stayed in good graces with Ickes for about 30 days and then you are off about 30 days and then he'd see you and tend to business with you regularly, but then you'd be in the dark for a while.

HESS: This was just an established pattern with him?


CHAPMAN: Just a pattern with him, and I soon learned that's what he did and he tested your own loyalties a good deal by whether you stood for certain things.

HESS: So, this was during a period of time when Fortas was in a state of grace more or less, is that right?


HESS: In good graces.

CHAPMAN: Yes, a short time after that.

HESS: What was your, own situation at this time?

CHAPMAN: I was in good.

HESS: You were in good graces.

CHAPMAN: I was in good operating graces with him at that time.

HESS: While we're on that point, what were a few of the things that you might have done during


the many years that you worked for him that caused a falling out with him? When your 30 day period would come around what would bring it about, anything in particular?

CHAPMAN: Bring what about?

HESS: Well, you mentioned that you would be in good graces for about 30 days and then out for 30 days.

CHAPMAN: Oh, I see. Oh, he'd disagree with me over something that I--a memorandum that I put in the file.

HESS: That he disagreed with. Anything in general, just...

CHAPMAN: Just be anything; it might be the fees that he wanted to put on the Park Service on the Washington Monument. And I said, "That's the one place in America that we ought to leave free to the people so that if they want to walk 555 steps up, let them do it."


HESS: If they want to walk up, let them walk up.

CHAPMAN: Let them walk up free.

HESS: And he didn't think so?

CHAPMAN: And he didn't think so. He'd get enough out of that to pay the cost of operating it.

HESS: What do they charge for it anyway, a quarter?

CHAPMAN: Ten cents.

HESS: Ten cents.

CHAPMAN: I think it may have gone to a quarter. I think it has.

HESS: It's been a long time since I was there.

CHAPMAN: Anyway he put the ten cents on.

HESS: We can see the Monument by looking out the window, I walked down twice, but I've never walked up yet.

CHAPMAN: Don't try it! Don't try it! I tried it


once and I quit, got back on where I could.

HESS: Yes, that's quite a walk.

Well, anyway, on the Ickes-Pauley dispute, do you think Mr. Truman was backing the wrong man?

CHAPMAN: No, not necessarily. Not necessarily. I think this: I think Mr. Truman and Secretary Ickes were both on the wrong issue. One was fighting on a personality, and that was Pauley and Ickes, and Ickes didn't like him; and Truman was fighting on the principle that the public lands ought to be kept under the Federal Government. He was more or less sympathetic towards that position with me; in talking with me he was. And I told him, I did tell him before I was appointed.

HESS: All right, Mr. Bartley on page 211 has the following:

In furtherance of his authority, Oscar L. Chapman, Secretary of the Interior, on


11 December 1950 issued a notice covering oil and gas operations in the submerged coastal lands off the Gulf of Mexico. This notice declared that the United States ‘has paramount rights in, full dominion and power over, and ownership of,' these lands. One might inquire as to where, in the face of the numerous actions of the court, Chapman drew his authority to declare ownership.

CHAPMAN: That's a very good question to have clarified and it's a very technical one, and that's the one I relied upon. I did personally a very careful research on this issue and there isn't a better man in Washington to clarify an issue of this kind than Mastin White, Solicitor of the Department. And I had him to make a thorough clarification of that one point. Did the Government, the Federal Government, have the basic authority in its own hands for the disposition or use and control of the public lands under the water? After considerable time--he took several weeks on it, and he devoted a lot of time to it, and he studied it, and he researched it. And he did it himself and he researched it and he came in to


see me. He said, "I don't know how you want this, but he says I can tell you first I've come to the conclusion that the Federal Government did have basic legal authority for the control and ownership of the public lands under the sea." He called them public lands under the sea. I wouldn't call them public lands under the sea, but I would simply refer to them in a layman's way and not being too technical at this point, but being political in my expression here. I was saying that the Government had the authority to manage and control all the lands under the sea, and it was not necessarily limited to three miles. I went further in that statement in that order.

HESS: How far out did you go?

CHAPMAN: I didn't limit it, because I said, "Congress has to limit that. Congress has to limit that some day some where." Now they have worked in this twelve mile zone.


HESS: Do you think that it should be further than that?

CHAPMAN: Yes, I think it's going to be.

HESS: In the last few days Iceland has moved their fishing rights out 50 miles and right today they are having disputes. They haven't started shooting yet, between the Iceland gunboats and the British fishing vessels, but Iceland has moved out to a 50 mile limit. What do Ecuador and Peru have; don't they have 200 mile limits?

CHAPMAN: They have 200 miles. Now this is what you are faced with, you as a country in this hemisphere we'll say, particularly in that case, where they have extended their boundaries 200 miles out to sea. They have done it without any agreement or consultation with our government.

HESS: Unilaterally, is that right?

CHAPMAN: It's a unilateral...


HESS: Just make a statement,

CHAPMAN: They just make a statement and the President signed it. This is what it is; he called it a decree, and...

HESS: But it isn't an agreement between nations.

CHAPMAN: No agreement involved whatever and there were no conferences on it. In the State Department they may have had some conferences, I really don’t know, but they never reached the stage of public discussion.

HESS: How far out do you think that countries should own and control the ocean surrounding them?

CHAPMAN: I think you've got to do this: I think you've got to try to find the economic base of a given piece of land. It may be an island or it may be a peninsula, or whatever the area is; you've got to find the economic base for the support of a population. Now where that given population should be, what amount, I don't know;


that's something you should study. You should study that and we should study the whole economic support of that country's economy. Where does it come from and so on, because there are some countries that are small countries that practically get more than 50 percent of their income and revenues off fish. And I don't know; I'm saying that, not being exact, because I'm not certain of the exact amount, but several countries have an income that I know is more than 50 percent of their revenues otherwise.

HESS: The territorial limits then might vary on the need of the area.

CHAPMAN: Exactly, exactly. You should determine these boundaries according to the needs of the human beings. Now you've got to tie those two things together and settle them together. Now, you can't just sit down in a conference room with a group of Senators and hope that you could just come to an agreement. You've got to have a good


senatorial hearing with a good study made by the Senate. It would be preferable for the Senate to start a hearing on the whole subject of this boundary business. This should absolutely be done by the Senate now, in cooperation with the present administration. Then, the Senate should come up with a report. Now they can appoint another committee, to include an economics professor. Look at Harvard. What's our good friend's name up there?

HESS: J. Kenneth Galbraith.

CHAPMAN: Yes, a man of that type would be a good man to be on a committee. I wouldn't necessarily make him chairman, but he would be a good type of a man to have on the committee. There's another type of businessman that I'd like to see on a committee of that kind, a good type of businessman who can speak more than one language and can sit in on a conference and talk their


language. That ought to be done, and he should be carefully selected on that basis. Appoint your committee of about seven or eight, but don't make it too big which would make it useless. You do ruin them if you make them too big, but let the Senate select what they want. They want a big committee; all right, but I wouldn't think they could ever have a very successful investigative report made. This is not for the purpose of investigating any department or the Administration. It's all for the purpose of determining a fair and equitable base that you will present to the states, to the Latin-American states...

HESS: Organization of American States?

CHAPMAN: Organization of American States. You want to present it to them and have conferences; invite them to a conference let's say. Now there's no one who can sit down that's got all the brains that you need. There is no


one man who can draw the line on another and say this is what we ought to do, and do this. I don't know of any one man that's got that much knowledge, that he could do all that. He needs some group study, group discussion about this.

HESS: That would be a good thing.

CHAPMAN: I would like to close about this point and for us to have another session right quickly before you get away.

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