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Opened February, 1980
Oral History Interview with
August 8, 1977
by James R. Fuchs
DAWSON: My name is Donald S. Dawson. I was born in Eldorado Springs, Missouri, August 3, 1908. I received my education in the public schools of Eldorado Springs and Nevada, Missouri and then went to the University of Missouri, graduating with a B.S. degree, economics major. Later I graduated from George Washington University Law School. I then went to New York City and worked for three years in the investment banking business, after brief summer employment in Tulsa, Oklahoma with an oil royalty company.
In 1933 I came to Washington and went to work for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
FUCHS: How did you happen to go to Washington?
DAWSON: I was here on business, selling a legal service, which consisted of a listing of prominent lawyers for world-wide referral of legal matters. I ran into a friend of mine, Fletcher Farrell, a prominent Missourian who was the treasurer of Sinclair Oil Company. He was much older than I, of course, but we were friends and he asked why I didn't go to work for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which had been in operation about a year. He was well-known there and recommended me. As a result I was appointed April 27, 1933, and went to work that day in what was known as the Closed Bank Section which handled all of the loans that had been made to banks that had subsequently closed. It was our job to liquidate those loans and collect the money that
the RFC had loaned. Subsequently I was put in charge of the Trouble Section, which had to do with all of the serious loan problems. One of the loans under my supervision was the Dawes Bank (Dawes was vice-president) loan in Chicago, and others of similar nature, all large loans and all very seriously in trouble.
In 1939 I was appointed assistant to the Federal Loan Administrator, Jesse Jones, and served him in that capacity and also when he was Secretary of Commerce. During the period that I was in that job, the defense buildup for World War II began and I was in charge of all personnel for the Federal Loan Administration and the RFC in particular. I increased the size of that organization from 2700 employees to over thirty thousand, and then went in the Army as a private, by choice, having been offered commissions in both the Army and the Navy. I went through basic training in Greensboro, North Carolina,
BTC 10, then made Air Force Officer Candidate School, and graduated from there, after having been elected to the only elective post in the Officer Candidate School, that of Chairman of the Honor Council. As far as I know, 1 was the only cadet who served for two full terms, by election.
I graduated as a second lieutenant and was assigned back to Washington in exactly the same job that I would have had with a major's commission if I had accepted it.
FUCHS: What was that, sir?
DAWSON: That was in the Army Services of Supply, Office of Industrial Personnel. My background had been to a considerable extent in personnel and they wanted me for their industrial program. They had kept their eye on me, and there I was back in the Pentagon, exactly where I didn't want to be.
FUCHS: You were in the Air Force?
DAWSON: Well, that was the Air Corps in those days, part of the Army. The Officer Candidate School was the Air Corps Officer Candidate School. I didn't like being put back in a desk job in Washington, which I had tried to get out of. I managed to get transferred to the Air Transport Command.
I didn't know anything about what the Air Transport Command did; I just wanted to get out of the Pentagon. I was assigned to Headquarters, Air Transport Command, and put in Civilian Personnel again, but it was the Air Force, or Air Corps then, and so I was reasonably satisfied.
Shortly thereafter they organized a Ground Safety Division in the Air Force, and I was placed in charge of that program for the Air Transport Command as a first lieutenant and established a safety record that resulted in 67 percent accident frequency reduction in the
first year. The division subsequently was awarded the first World-Wide Safety Achievement Certificate by the National Safety Council. That was a program in force all over the world and was very effective. I was proud of that job.
Then I was shifted back to Civilian Personnel and placed in charge for the Air Transport Command. I built that operation up from something like three thousand civilian employees to over 110 thousand civilian employees world-wide. The objective was to release military personnel for other duties, especially overseas, by replacing them with civilian employees. That, of course, kept me on the move a good deal and I was discharged finally when peace came, as a major. I went back to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and proceeded to dismantle the 30,000-man organization that I had built up.
I was there about a year when the Chairman
of the Board called me one day and said that the President, who was then President Truman, wanted to see me at the White House. I was quite surprised and didn't know why he wanted to see me. I knew President Truman. I had met him when he came here as Senator, but I didn't know him in Missouri. I said, "What does he want with me?"
He said, "I think he wants you to go to work over there for him."
So, I went knowing full well that I didn't have the qualifications or the ability to be in the White House, but nevertheless, when the President asks for you to come over you go. I talked to him, told him just exactly what I said to you. He said, "Well, I think that you're the man I want," and I went to work August the 6th, 1947 in the White House as Special Executive Assistant to the President, later on the payroll known as Administrative Assistant.
I can stop now and let you ask questions, or you can let me ramble on, whatever you want
FUCHS: Well, I usually don't interrupt people.
Just to go back a bit, I don't know who your predecessors were in the Air Corps jobs at that time. Did you institute any major type of a change there? You built this Air Transport Command Division up considerably.
DAWSON: The Ground Safety Program was brand new; it had never been in existence before, so I started out from scratch with very little experience and built the organization to a peak of success. It was one of the outstanding programs in the entire Air Force. The demand had not been present for large civilian work forces, but I saw the need for civilian workers who could work in depots, in aircraft maintenance, and do base maintenance, and not take the time of enlisted or officer military personnel. So, I sold that idea to my commanding officer, and we proceeded to recruit large numbers of civilians
which were then available in the war effort and could release military personnel for duties for which they were trained more specially.
FUCHS: Well, had you a Reserve commission, or had you been in ROTC?
DAWSON: I had the two-year basic training course at the University of Missouri in artillery. That does not give you a Reserve commission. My commission came by way of the basic training and Officer Candidate School in the Air Force.
FUCHS: I see. Later on you did get over into the Reserves, is that correct?
DAWSON: Yes. I was asked if I would not stay in the Reserves at the time of demobilization, and said I would. I've remained very active in the Reserve program ever since. I only again accepted the appointment of legislative chairman of the Reserve Officers Association last week, to work on
military programs, Reserve programs in the Congress.
FUCHS: I believe you went ahead and completed your law degree in Washington, is that correct?
DAWSON: I went to night school at George Washington University and graduated, passed the bar in the District of Columbia, at a time when only 38 percent passed. Which was much to my surprise.
FUCHS: Very good, sir.
Well, coming down to the appointment to the White House, was there someone particular you think may have nominated you or brought you to the attention of the President at that time?
DAWSON: I have no idea who it was that may have recommended me to the President. He knew me so it was not a question of his taking on a stranger. It may have been Matt Connelly, his Appointments Secretary, or it may have been John Snyder who was the Secretary of the Treasury,
and who knew me from my work in the RFC, or it may have been a combination of persons. No one ever took the credit or the blame.
FUCHS: How did you happen to meet the President the first time? Do you recall?
DAWSON: He was a Senator here and his secretary was Vic Messall, from Oklahoma. Vic was a good friend of mine; he had been secretary to Frank Lee, a member of Congress from Joplin, Missouri. Things were on a much more relaxed basis then than now. He took me in to meet Senator Truman. I saw him frequently thereafter; went to his office many times and a mutual friendship developed, not of a buddy-buddy type, but one where you have full faith and confidence in the other friend.
FUCHS: Mr. Messall, I had the pleasure of talking with several times and had lunch with him, but I've never been able to get him to sit down for an interview. We finally got some of his papers,
but his health was failing then and I wasn't able to interview him. I'm wondering if you know why he left the employ of Senator Truman at the time?
DAWSON: So far as I know, and I think I know the real reason, he saw an opportunity to go into business for himself. On Government salaries in those days you didn't accumulate very much, so he took advantage of that opportunity and did very well.
FUCHS: Were you acquainted with your predecessor, Mr. Zimmerman, I believe, insofar as liaison management or personnel management went?
DAWSON: Zimmerman was not my predecessor.
FUCHS: He wasn't?
DAWSON: George Schoeneman was my predecessor. He moved over to the Bureau of Internal Revenue as the Director. That had been his career before he went with President Truman. Zimmerman
had been on the White House staff in another role, specially connected with personnel work. My job had a lot more to it than personnel work per se.
FUCHS: Mr. Schoeneman was more in that line...
FUCHS: ...and less in the personnel line.
DAWSON: That's right.
FUCHS: I had almost forgotten; he didn't stay there too long did he?
DAWSON: I merged the two jobs into one.
FUCHS: Oh, you did.
DAWSON: And carried on from that point. No, George Schoeneman had not been there very long, and I think his