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Oscar L. Chapman Oral History Interview, August 2, 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
August 2, 1972
Jerry N. Hess

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


Notice
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.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
August 2, 1972
Jerry N. Hess

 

[217]

HESS: Mr. Chapman, to begin this morning, let's discuss an occurrence that took place in June during the trip to the West, and that was the flooding of the Northwest at that time. What difficulties arose because of the flooding just before the President’s trip?

CHAPMAN: Well, you understand the psychology of the public when there is a tragedy of such moment, as this was. There were many people who had lost their lives in this flood. The flood was around Portland, and extended down the river a considerable way. The measure of damage in dollars would be almost impossible to estimate at this time. You can't estimate the loss of life in terms of dollars. The people were very much disturbed, very much concerned, about some immediate help right now, to help these people, because some of them were wiped out completely. It was similar but on a much smaller scale than the recent flood

[218]

we have just had down in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

HESS: From Hurricane Agnes.

CHAPMAN: Yes, Hurricane Agnes. That one was not as large as Agnes, but it was, nevertheless, extremely heavy and a number of lives were taken in that flood. Actually the people were very unhappy and disturbed. They needed help and they needed it quickly. I got there into Portland, traveling for the President, trying to make arrangements for his appearance at each one of these towns that we stopped in, and there we had to change the program a little for this reason: We had a program set up where he would march in what we called the Rose Parade. Portland is noted for its beautiful roses at that time of the year, and they were gorgeous. The roses all over Portland were just beautiful. They were in full bloom. The

[219]

schedule was set up for him to make a little brief talk at one of the halls down in town, then getting cars and starting to march behind the parade, or in front of the parade rather. As they went by they came by this hall.

But I saw the atmosphere that had been created because of this terrible tragedy, and I saw the President and I told him that I would recommend strongly that we cancel what we called the Rose Parade and let him drive out in a car, or we could take his train if necessary to Salem. So instead of going to some building downtown to a couple of those meetings with the officials of the Rose Festival, we went over to Salem that morning and the regional Red Cross man met us there and he set forth the things that they were doing and would try to do immediately for them, a strict emergency thing, and it showed us right where we had to pick up on the Federal Government side.

I had his speech. He gave me a copy of his

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speech, and I had several of the men that were helping me on the train take that speech and outline the things in it that we could do as a follow-up to what the Red Cross representative had said. They took it and picked out the things that could be done immediately and fast, such as the Corps of Engineers sent in quite a crew of people to help clear the debris and the other things away from the river channel, and keep the channel open. There were trees and logs rolling down that river and some of them were hitting houses and knocking them over completely. If you have never seen a flood, real damage like that, it gives you a shock when you first see one. I had never seen one of that size before. The local people’s homes, you'd see them turned over sideways and mashed up against the banks and over in the trees.

These men took that speech of the Red Cross man and we analyzed it very carefully where we could pick up and go in. I had these fellows to

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stay on the train until we got down to San Francisco. By that time they had it all outlined, the whole thing.

Then we put some orders into effect, the President did, to have the Corps of Engineers to send their crew in immediately and start to work and see what they could do, the Reclamation Service of the Department of the Interior to see what they could do in the way of help, and to help immediately. We did it and in several cases we didn't overrun our budget; we just simply overspent for the emergency of this, some extra money that we had that we were saving for other things, and we took it and turned it into this and started into helping those people. For instance, they went into such detail of helping them. They went down and bought a lot of bedclothes and things like that for them to sleep on. Some of these families didn't have anything. They were just wiped out. They were people who had lived comfortably and had nice little houses, and they

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were people that were well-organized in life and worked hard for their living and they had nice little homes. They were small homes, as a rule, but they were nice houses. They didn't have, in some cases, any furniture whatever. Then they got them some furniture. The Red Cross did this part. Another thing they needed which people didn't think of, they needed groceries. They had to have some food. They didn't have any storage to keep any that hadn't been wiped out. So they got them adequate food supplies and what they did, they gave some kind of credit at two or three of the major stores in town where they could go and get what they wanted and just charge it. What they did, they gave them a limit, I think, so much, and they could go in and get their groceries and pay for it by just letting them tear off a little piece of paper off of this ticket that they had. Of course, this record just simplified it down to the nth degree, I honestly don't believe that there was a single case of unfair or

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dishonest taking of groceries or anything else that could have been so easily taken through that system. You couldn't use that system widespread. But those people there used it as conscientiously as if it had come out of their own pocket, and they bought just what they had to have, what they needed, and that's what they did.

HESS: Did you ever later talk to any of the Oregon Democratic politicians to find out or to ask what effect on the election Mr. Truman's handling and your handling of matters there might have had?

CHAPMAN: Well, I talked to several of the political leaders and was asking and inquired of them whether the flood and the effort we made to take care of the emergency had had any effect or changed those people's minds about Truman's competency in handling a real problem. There wasn't any question; everyone, to the last man, gave him, in

[224]

a complimentary way, a comment as to how decent he was to do this without trying to get a lot of publicity out of it, which he didn't try to do. He spoke over the radio with this Red Cross man. I didn't put anybody else on that program. I just had the Red Cross man. The Governor was not there or I would have put him on. I think it was Governor [Douglas] McKay who later became Secretary of the Interior.

HESS: I think he was Governor at that time.

CHAPMAN: I think he was Governor at that time. Well, he was not there, or I would have had him. But the other officials all showed up and we spoke around 12 o'clock on the radio right on the steps of the capital. The checkup that I had made, I had asked two or three of the leaders there to make a little checkup for me to give me any idea as to whether this was having any effect on us one way or another, if we were lacking in anything we should do, to let me know. They

[225]

came back with glowing reports about the appreciation of the people. They were just thrilled, because by coincidence of facts that happened, I was in Portland before the water got through going down, and so consequently we were there on the grounds getting things lined up and I got the President's program outlined for him as far as what he had to do and should do. We got that straightened out for him and then I had several of the agencies of the Government that I had worked closely with and I contacted some of them direct and talked to them, and they started right in to help. They did it very quickly and very fast. It was one of the most efficient jobs that I ever had the pleasure of working on.

I like to work on a job that moves smoothly and nicely. This didn't have any crossing up of orders, and what one group was going to do and the other one was not going to do. And there wasn’t one bit. Just each group went ahead and did just what it was supposed to do. It was

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outlined to them very easily, because it was very easy to outline to the Corps of Engineers what they should do, and the Reclamation Service. Even the Grazing Service was brought in to this because there were so many sheep up through the valley; they run a lot of sheep, and they lost nearly all of them. There again is where your money value loss comes in. The poor fellow doesn't have anything coming in for the next fall for his income, for the loss of his sheep. Some cattle were lost, but not many cattle. Sheep was the biggest loss in that area.

All in all, I was very pleased with the reports I had gotten that the people had appreciated what the President had done so quickly, because he arrived there. I stayed there to meet him in Portland. I couldn't meet him in Denver. I stayed there to meet him in Portland, because I, by telephone, had pretty much lined up my San Francisco meeting anyway, and my plans I wanted to work out. I'd gotten

[227]

men I wanted to help me down there and I got so much better support and help than the press was giving us credit for having. There was a lot of gossip about the coolness of the people and so on. Well, you did have some of this. You had some of that where the politician was scared to get too close to Truman, afraid it wasn't going too well. But by the 15th of October, you couldn't hold them back. I could tell by the change in the mood of the crowd that Truman was really coming to the top. He was surfacing to the top, to the lead, in this program. I could tell by the mood of the crowds from one town to the next.

HESS: That things were progressing and getting better.

CHAPMAN: Oh, absolutely. It was so obvious that you could see so clearly what was happening. For instance, if he stopped at the littlest place, little town, there was nothing but a train stop once in a while, not necessarily a big town or anything of the kind. Remember, when the President

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goes anywhere and stops, the press has to be there, and they are there. I don't care if he spoke out there to just three people, if he made a speech and there was only three there, they'd have to write about it, even if they did have to write it about three people being there. They'd have to tell you why.

HESS: It would get in the papers.

CHAPMAN: It would get in the papers. And we got it in the papers by the sheer force of the office, you see.

We moved from that stand in Portland, which gave us a wonderful backdrop for the mistakes we made in Omaha.

HESS: Tell me about that.

CHAPMAN: Well, the Omaha situation just simply got crossed up between several people trying to set up the President's program.

HESS: Ed McKim was in charge of setting that up,

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was he not?

CHAPMAN: Well, he took charge. He took charge of it and was setting it up and the local people, because he had just been at the White House, had been working there; they thought he was really running the thing and they had gone to him and he had talked with them and he had lined up the program in such a way that it was impossible for the President to meet that evening, to have spoken. It was humanly impossible. He couldn't do it. He had doubled his program for that evening on a timetable that you couldn't possibly keep.

HESS: Did you point that out to him beforehand?

CHAPMAN: I did.

HESS: What did he say?

CHAPMAN: He said, "Now, I'm handling it. Now, you just don't understand Omaha. I know these people and I can handle them."

[230]

I said, "Ed, it's all right with me. You can handle it, but I'm going to leave tomorrow and go on to Cheyenne." That was Saturday and I was going to be in Cheyenne on Saturday night to get a lineup for the Sunday meeting. Sunday afternoon the train was to arrive at 4 o'clock. The new mansion that was built in the capital there for the Governor to live in is, I would say, two or three hundred yards (I'm not a good guesser on distances), from the station up to the Governor's mansion.

HESS: In Cheyenne?

CHAPMAN: Yes, to the Governor's mansion. The setting was perfect. We didn't plan for him to stay there. We didn't want him to take his time there, because the press we knew would be there. The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, all from Denver, sent their reporters up there to cover it. Our newspapers from over the areas sent their local reporters in, and then practically all of them, the major papers,

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I think, had someone on the train going with us. We had quite a good representation of the press on the train, better than I had expected, and it picked up as it went. By the time we got back to Washington we had...

HESS: Why do you think so many papers sent reporters along on this so-called "nonpolitica