1. Home
  2. Library Collections
  3. Oral History Interviews
  4. Oscar L. Chapman Oral History Interview, October 4, 1972

Oscar L. Chapman Oral History Interview, October 4, 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
October 4, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Chapman Oral History Transcripts]

Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman

Washington, DC
October 4, 1972
Jerry N. Hess



HESS: All right, to begin this morning, Mr. Chapman, let's discuss the New Deal and I want to get your views on whether or not the Fair Deal of Mr. Truman's was a continuation of the New Deal, or whether or not Mr. Truman made what you might consider too many changes in the New Deal, did not follow it through adequately. And to get into that, let me read a statement from the Journal of American History. This is an article by Lon Hamby, "The Liberals: Truman and FDR," this will tie two subjects together, the New Deal and the 1946 off-year congressional election.

In 1946 as disillusion with Truman deepened in the liberal movement and the liberal movement suffered repeated defeat, many liberals felt that the memory of FDR presented the best hope for the revival of their cause. John L. Nichols, a transportation consultant with an interest in democratic politics proposed an elaborate system of National Roosevelt Clubs in order to resurrect the spirit of the New Deal and identify it with the Democratic Party. Some important liberal politicians, Claude Pepper, Chester


Bowles and Oscar Chapman planned a national pressure group tentatively called the Roosevelt Forum. Those schemes proceeded from the assumption that Truman had rejected the New Deal. A memo outlining the ambitious plans for the Roosevelt Forum asserted that popular dissatisfaction with the Truman administration stemmed from 'the fact that the leadership of the Democratic Party has turned away from the Roosevelt program and politics.' Neither plan reached fruition because of the hostile Democratic National Committee and the intense activity underway on other fronts to rebuild the liberal movement.

CHAPMAN: I'm delighted to hear you quote Mr. Hamby on this article and what he has to say about it, but it gives you again a perfect example of what happens to what is originally said and then what is translated into another article by the interpretation of a third person of what he said that someone had said. You go from one to the second to the third.

Now what he did there, I'm quite sure--there was a lot of talk at that time by a lot of liberals about whether Truman was following the Roosevelt program strong enough, or whether he had initiated enough new programs. My honest belief is he did


exactly what the times and events called for; it's all he could do. Mr. Hanby was interpreting our basic memorandum that we had prepared discussing the full problem of the New Deal and what directions it was taking, what success we were having. We decided that we would try to have a conference with the President and discuss it with him. We wanted to be of some help to him and not be critical of him, leave him out on a limb with his own people. So, we were very cautious to move on that, because when we began to discuss it we found an awful lot of liberals that were not taking a part, but not even making much effort to help us in the last period of time, after Truman.

It isn't a question of whether Truman was following Roosevelt's policies, or whether he was carrying out his policies, as already laid down through major programs, or whether he was establishing some new programs. Well, you have to look at the times that we were going through;


what was our national posture at that time? You've got to remember when something in history that happens once in a century, such as the Republicans had succeeded in putting through that constitutional amendment to keep a President from running the third time. Now, President Truman took that to mean that he shouldn't run three times, that he should run only twice. He considered that after having served practically all of Roosevelt's fourth term, for all practical purposes, and the spirit of the Constitution as it was written, he had a full term there, practically, lacking 30-some days, lacking from January 20th to...

HESS: April the 12th.

CHAPMAN: ...April 12th.

HESS: Even though he personally was exempted from the provision of the amendment...

CHAPMAN: Yes. That provision did not technically tie


him to it and it did not apply to him.

HESS: That's right because it so stated that it did not apply to the President who was in the Presidency at...

CHAPMAN: At the time.

HESS: the time it was signed, at the time that the bill went into effect.

CHAPMAN: Now reviewing that, you will see that Truman had in mind far deeper thinking than a lot of these fellows were having at the time about two things. First is how much could we accomplish and get put on the books in the form of a law, or initiate new programs at that time, or whether we could just go along and pick out the major emphasis of the Roosevelt program that was popular and had strength to it. Truman picked that up and carried forward as he went along.

Now Truman did do that to a great extent.


He took the Roosevelt program and just continued it without any interference. He also had his friends in the administration, his little friends, like myself and others. We soon began to see where we might be on the wrong track of this thing from timing purposes, and you had to think of the next election.

Now, what we were going to do, in painting this picture, was to set up a peephole to look at the next election. You had to clarify the Roosevelt program, and to explain or make clear to the people where the Truman program followed the Roosevelt program. And if there were some points that were rather obvious or otherwise, Truman would have a chance and the time to clarify them in his speeches and in his campaign that was coming up.

HESS: Do you recall if you pointed out any programs where Mr. Truman may not have been following the Roosevelt model closely enough? Any particular programs?


CHAPMAN: You go by what a lot of people think. Now you have a difference of opinion among our own liberals on that, and our liberals were divided pretty much on the effectiveness of what the President was doing in regard to following all of Roosevelt's programs. There were quite a few programs that were considered by the liberals not to have been solid enough in President Truman's mind and, going forward with this, in trying to project it to the people strong enough, and...

HESS: Could you give a couple of examples; did you think he was falling behind for instance in civil rights?

CHAPMAN: They did at first, but what they did not understand about this man was, and I told them from the very beginning--one of the most serious things about the Truman administration was that we did not and couldn't get across to the American people the type of man we had, the good qualities


he had. The solid, solid qualities of this man were so clear and so definite as time went on,

Those of us who first thought about the possibility of assisting him with some kind of an auxiliary help, some committees, or something, to give help to him, we soon saw that Truman was following the President's program pretty close.

Now, let me take the department that I was most acquainted with. Harold Ickes was Secretary at the time, and I was his assistant, and I worked very closely in that program. I believed in it. That program carried with it the big Roosevelt spending program of money, where we did spend a good deal of money. However, when you look at the money that the present President is spending on his little war game he is carrying on over there at the mercy of the American people, that didn't look like much money to us now, but then 3, 4 and 5 billion dollars looked like a lot of money, and it was a lot of


money. But when he stepped out to put on what the money was asked for, they screamed to high heaven. And Truman asked for more money for the Public Works Administration.

Truman was an unusual fellow, as I told you; he kept strictly to his obligations and to the law, what he had to do, and he tried to push some liberal things in the direction that he believed in, and he was most helpful. I had been all my life a liberal in the sense that I was a crusading liberal on certain issues of the day. For instance, I did not have worked out in my mind a long-range liberal program to be followed. I had only gone as far as my time--I was young--as my time and experience gave me the opportunity. I began working on the immediate liberal program that was before me at the moment and before the public, such as the civil rights program. I was very much intrigued with the civil rights program and the timing was right.


I told Mr. Truman, "If we start on this thing you must go all the way; you can’t go halfway, because you'll leave them to sink on their own accord if you don't help them before you get them all the way across this great chasm between t