Oscar L. Chapman Oral History Interview, May 19, 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
May 19, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
May 19, 1972
Jerry N. Hess


HESS: All right, Mr. Chapman, to begin this morning, we have a Xerox copy from the New York Times of August 1, 1948. It's entitled: "Professionals Take Full Charge of the President's Election Campaign." It's an article by Anthony Leviero. The first two heading the list are yourself and Oscar Ewing. What are your recollections when you look back on those days? Did you regard yourself as one of the top professionals that were taking over at this time?

CHAPMAN: Well, I never thought of myself as a professional. I thought of myself as a crusader on the issues that Truman was fighting for, and that was always utmost in my mind. I developed some experience in handling a presidential campaign. I had traveled throughout eleven western states for President Roosevelt on two campaigns for him, not as an advance man, but as one of his many men


that were gathering information and putting together groups that we could get together to develop a campaign.

HESS: What two campaigns did you do that for Roosevelt?

CHAPMAN: Well, I was working in the ‘36 and '40 campaigns very much, and in the '44, too. I worked in the ‘44 campaign. The '36 campaign was an easy road. That was an easy campaign.

HESS: You didn't get into Maine and Vermont in that one?

CHAPMAN: No, I didn't. I didn't get into Maine and Vermont. I followed the instructions of Jim Farley very carefully. He was chairman most of that time, and he was a very good chairman. He had an exceptionally good chairman, far better than the average man that could manage this kind of a thing. He had a personality that was very intriguing and interesting to people. He would


give me instructions to go into certain areas, spend some time there, as much as I felt was necessary, to gather the information and get some people lined up and get them together and get them to work together. That was a lot of my work.

HESS: To build an organization.

CHAPMAN: At that time it was to build an organization out in the states; that was primarily what I was doing then.

HESS: Did you concentrate on the Western States?

CHAPMAN: Pretty much.

HESS: Did you work in Colorado?

CHAPMAN: Yes. I pretty much concentrated on the Western States. I didn't go into the South at all, because as far as I was concerned, I was not the best person to work in the South with them, because I had been too outspoken on the


issues of civil rights and things like that, and I had done several things that gave my position a good airing, a good airing to the public mind, of my feelings about civil rights for people, particularly there the Negro was the principal one that needed help. However, there are many other minorities that needed the same help, and many the very same kind of help.

You see, you get to working in the civil rights question and you work from a principle that this individual has inherent rights, as you do. You begin to follow that through in a practical sense and to bring it about in a coordinated way so that the help that you want to give to the minority groups, and the Negro especially in history; he was so far behind in doing the little thing that should have been done a hundred years ago. There were so many things that were still undone, that had not been attended to, in clarifying their rights and letting them exercise their rights.


HESS: What is your opinion of Mr. Roosevelt's view of civil rights?

CHAPMAN: Oh, I was very much impressed with his fundamental belief and his sincerity in trying to help these people. He realized that there were limitations to what any one man can do before he would lose his power in getting together an audience.

You see, in President Roosevelt's last term, he was not too well, and when he came back from the Yalta Conference (that was his last trip), he was obviously, at that time, you could see his health had deteriorated very seriously. I had the opportunity to see him, visit with him one day, and I said, "Mr. President, I hope we can get some of these basic principles nailed down in law and some legislation to protect them, because whoever succeeds you will have a hard time trying to push the program that you have been pushing."


He said to me, "You know, you're mistaken about that. People get the wrong impression on that. As a matter of fact, a man that succeeds me can push it further than I did, because the groundwork has been laid so hard and so solid that my successor can even be more aggressive about it and can push it further and probably faster than I did." He had gotten the basic work done in terms of some legislation to create some of these things.

We so often think of the civil rights program as, say, giving a minority or the Negro, in this particular case, his rights to attend meetings with white people, and participate in sitting in hotel rooms and not be excluded from the right to use of a hotel, for instance right here in Washington. They couldn't do it when we first started. Before we finished the second term of President Roosevelt, practically every hotel had come around and let us use the hotel for a Negro banquet, we'll say, and it didn't cause us any


trouble after awhile.

But what we had not accomplished, we had not gone far enough to establish his economic rights and give him the opportunity to an economic foothold into the present economy of our country and into the level of society that we were trying to maintain. There is one of the weakest points that we have at the present time on the Negro and the minority groups, the economic opportunities that we've got to work out to help him. We've got to give him some help, too, so he can be able to make his own living, make a standard of living that is substantial and is adequate for his health and welfare.

HESS: How can that be done?

CHAPMAN: That can be done in many ways. For instance, if we spent one-tenth as much time trying to find a mechanism to work out help for the poor people of this country, regardless of their color, as


we spend on trying to give Lockheed three hundred million dollars to keep their manufacturing going, you'd find it mighty fast; you'd find it mighty quick, a method to do it. It can be done. There are several ways. I don't claim to be an expert to say that this is a better way to do it than we are now doing it, but we should improve it. We ought to improve it each year a little bit, and tighten it up in the administration as we go. That has to be done, and over the course of years it will be improved.

HESS: Some black leaders point out that it's often difficult for some of their men, some black men, to join unions, or to be accepted as trainees in unions.

CHAPMAN: That was one of the hardest places that we had difficulty with, but the union people...

HESS: That picture hasn't completely changed yet today, has it?


CHAPMAN: No, it hasn't completely changed, but it has begun. It has begun with a substantial, solid backing, and it's only a matter of a few years and you'll have that, I think, the other way. I think that will clear itself away in a short time, partly because of the need for a labor force that we need to have. You've got a certain number of unemployed practically all the time. I think it was five and one half million this year, approximately.

HESS: Let's go back a little bit more to civil rights and the conditions that existed here in the Nation's capital during World War II, shall we say. Now, it wasn't until after World War II when Negroes could eat in restaurants, was it not?

CHAPMAN: That's right.

HESS: And housing was and yet today is quite a factor.


CHAPMAN: Housing is still the hardest place to break through with harmony with the community and so on.

HESS: Did you have a lot of pressure brought against the things that you were trying to do by real estate interests?

CHAPMAN: Oh, yes. They were obviously trying to oppose any advance help towards the black man's having a free choice of buying a livable house in a community which he wanted. He had a lot of trouble with that. Now that still exists to quite an extent. It's not cleared yet.

HESS: It still exists today.

CHAPMAN: Yes, it does. Now, the Roosevelt campaign contrasted with Truman's quite differently, totally different. You had two types of men, two entirely different types of men. Truman had, but most people didn't appreciate it at first, Truman had a real understanding of what I


consider the real poor people, the real man on the farm and on the street looking for work. Truman had a much better understanding of him and his problems than even Roosevelt.

HESS: To what would you attribute that?

CHAPMAN: That was the difference in their backgrounds. The thing that Roosevelt had that more than made up for that, was his sincerity and desire to find a way to improve a situation that he found, and he wanted to improve it. He put a whole bunch of us young fellows to work on certain programs and tried to work them out, test them out, and try them out on different people, and find a better way to do certain things for the poor people that he wanted to help.

HESS: To what extent would political expediency enter into the thinking of both men?

CHAPMAN: Truman had absolutely no thought politically whatsoever in what he was doing on the issues.


What you had to do with President Truman was supply him with proper and adequate facts, give him the facts about a situation, and he knew which way he wanted to go. You didn't have to convince him about any part of the rights of these people. All you had to do was convince him of the true facts of life of what we could do.

HESS: We were discussing the political views of the two men.

CHAPMAN: The two men had the same objective in mind, in their hearts, but they had a little different approach about how to accomplish it, how to do it, you see. As I said to you, Truman understood the minds and the hearts of the poor people, the underdogs that needed help. What you had to do was to supply him with a formula and with information, or facts, that would support his position on this thing, and he wanted it solid and sound.


Roosevelt would strike out and he would throw two or three balls in the air at once. He’d have Congress fighting over three bills at one time, and he’d always get two of them through. That was one of his unique ways. But if he'd put three bills up there on Monday morning, and I've seen him do it, he'd get through with two of them.

HESS: Would he do this on purpose, knowing that one would probably fail?


HESS: He knew it would fail. He knew he wouldn't get all he wanted.

CHAPMAN: But he’d get it later. If he got the other two through, later on they'd give him this one. He had a unique way of approaching Congress.

HESS: How did he do that?

CHAPMAN: Well, in the first place, he kept a rather


close contact with the leadership in Congress, much more than people realized. He kept a close contact. The fact that he couldn't get around and go walking, getting out of the way, he was more available all the time to see more people, and he saw more people. He worked; that man worked the hardest I ever saw anybody work. Roosevelt really was working. You see, when we were working out a plan for him to visit, say, San Francisco, I would have two or three Secret Service men from the White House; they would be there with me, and I would work out with them the details of what I wanted to do, then they would trim it and set it to a security base for protection. They were the last word. I always left the last word to them on security, and there were some very good men, very good men. They never did mix with the political phase of it at all. They were there to watch the President, looking out for him.

HESS: Strictly the security angle.


CHAPMAN: Strictly. They never interfered with our program at all.

Now, Roosevelt, as I said, had a different approach from Truman, but it was extremely good for the time, the timing of it.

I want to read this when you get it put in typed form, and I'll probably have to make some adjustments in the language if nothing more.

HESS: That's a normal thing. When we get the drafts back, we can make changes, additions. It's usually an excellent place to make a good addition, because quite often we find a place where we started to say something, started to tell a story, and something came up and we did not. We can just write it out in longhand and insert it, so when the final transcript comes out, the full story will be there.

CHAPMAN: That's it. I want to be careful not to appear that I'm attacking somebody in this thing. I don't want to get into that. All I want to do


is tell the story of my experience with Truman and what he said and what he was doing, and how he was doing it. I caught his technique on that first trip I handled entirely by myself.

HESS: The June trip.

CHAPMAN: I want you and me to research the records to see if he didn't make a May trip as well as June.

HESS: He made a May trip in 1950. He went out to the rededication of Grand Coulee Dam in May of 1950.

CHAPMAN: That's right, that's when he dedicated another generator.

HESS: For some reason they were rededicating the dam again.

CHAPMAN: That's what they all kidded me about, all the reporters on the train. They said, "How many


times are you going to rededicate this thing?"

I said, "Oh, every time we add another million kilowatts, we rededicate it."

HESS: Was that the reason?

CHAPMAN: No, we really did dedicate these generators when we put them in.

HESS: That's right, but it doesn't necessarily take the President of the United States to do it though. What was the reason for the May 1950 trip?

CHAPMAN: Let's be sure to pinpoint that trip as to what time, what year it was made in. My memory has absolutely done tricks on me with that trip and I can't pinpoint it to the right year and time.

HESS: I feel pretty sure it was ‘50.

CHAPMAN: You're probably right. I just absolutely can't...


HESS: Then in ’48 was the June trip; that was the trip out to Berkeley to receive the degree.

CHAPMAN: That’s right.

HESS: You also stopped by Grand Coulee on that one, too.

CHAPMAN: Do you remember, they had a big flood up there in Oregon, what year was that? They had a big flood and we called the Red Cross in. There were a lot of people killed in that flood in Oregon. What I did, I canceled the part of the program I had lined up for Truman, because I had him scheduled to ride in the head of the march for the Rose Petal Day--I’ve forgotten what they called it--but that was the city of roses, beautiful roses there at that time of the year in Oregon.


The roses were pretty, and they had beautiful girls lined up. The local people handled that; I didn't have anything to do with it, for this was something they were handling.

But I took Truman out of that niche and got him to cancel his part of the program of marching in the parade, because too many people had been killed and their bodies were still not found when we were there, and you didn't want get the President in a position of having a good time visiting Portland and seeing...

HESS: Right after a tragedy.

CHAPMAN: That's right. It was not a good time, and I called the President and told him that I was to cancel it entirely, any speeches. He said "Set the whole thing up to suit you." And I did. I set it up, and we had good coverage on that with both of the radio stations and everything.

We had the Red Cross man to come and appear with Truman, and make his commitment, that they


would have their field men there tomorrow delivering some goods to the families that had been very seriously damaged, some of them having been killed. Then we brought in the Corps of Engineers and the Reclamation Service to help develop some protective features to that river there. We had had so much destruction that year, and had had then once before, but it was many, many years before, and this particular year was the most devastating that we'd had.

That incident is the thing I can't put together as to the time. It's in my mind that it was the first of May, and I can't be certain of it at all. I was out there, of course, ahead of him, on the June trip anyway. He may have made two trips. I'm not sure.

HESS: I know that he went out West in June of '48 and in May of '50. We can find out when the Oregon flood occurred and that will pretty well pin it down.


CHAPMAN: Yes, that will pin it down, because that was specific and definite. We canceled his program of participating in the rose parade, that and one other program that they had for that night that I didn't think he ought to go to, and he didn't.

Now, we came out of that from Oregon and I don't know whether we dedicated the dam on that trip or the next, I've forgotten. I'll have to research that to see. Now, that you can get from the files.

HESS: I feel quite sure that the dedication of the dam was in '50, and in June of '48 he stopped by the dam. He visited the dam, but I don't believe there was any dedication.

CHAPMAN: Just stopped by to see how it was progressing and so on.

Now as to the form of what my work consisted of during that period from the convention time on, I devoted my full time to his campaign entirely.


I took leave without pay--no, that was another time I took a leave. But I devoted full time to his campaign.

You should have in your files up there a book that thick, a very thick book, of a breakdown of Truman's trip, where he stopped and what he talked about in each place, because we got together for him, from each department, things that Truman had made decisions about, something in that community, and we would make a brief paragraph or two on that and refer to it as to the subject matter which he spoke about and so on.

Now, a lot of that trip was keyed to the Reclamation Development Program. Naturally since I was in the Department of Interior, I was interested in reclamation, and I keyed a lot of it to that. I knew that better than I did the other, and it was more substantial than anything else, except the farm end of it was substantial, more so than the reclamation.


HESS: Is this the way an itinerary is drawn up? Different people with different expertise in different fields will recommend where the President should go in a certain area. Perhaps the Department of Agriculture could recommend where he should speak in the farm belt, and yourself in the Department of Interior could recommend where he should speak in the West?

CHAPMAN: Well, to be rather closely accurate to that idea, Charlie Brannan and I, between us, pretty much indicated the places we preferred him to speak, and the subject matter he should cover in that area. That was what I referred to you in my last interview, that Brannan had done a magnificent job of really putting together a fine schedule for the President, and the subject matters he ought to discuss and where. He did a superb job of that and it made the President's work come out looking better at the end, because he placed him properly.


HESS: At the time that you would recommend subject matter for the specific speeches, did you also turn in a draft of a speech, or an outline of a speech?

CHAPMAN: No, I never drafted a speech. I was not a speechwriter. I would give him the subject matter.

HESS: Would you get someone in the department to submit drafts?

CHAPMAN: Well, what I would do, for instance, if we were going to Kansas, Omaha and through there, some of Charlie Brannan's men would prepare drafts of speeches.

HESS: Farm subjects.

CHAPMAN: Yes, Charlie himself would pitch in on that.

Now, do you want to have a meeting next Friday?

HESS: Fine. Same time next Friday?


CHAPMAN: Same time next Friday. This is the best time for me to cut out appointments from clients at this hour in order to finish up my homework in the office here.

HESS: Do you want to cut it off for today?


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