Oral History Interview with
Assistant Secretary of the Interior, 1933-46; Under Secretary
of the Interior, 1946-49; Secretary of the Interior, 1949-53.
Oscar L. Chapman
September 11, 1972
Jerry N. Hess
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Transcript | Additional Chapman Oral History
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry
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Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman
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
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 Pauleys 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
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
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
or his group; they'd buy it for a little of nothing as a rule.
HESS: Bartley said that Cords 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 Bartleys 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
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
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
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'
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,
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 cant 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 Im 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
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
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
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
dont 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
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
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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