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Henry L. Deimel Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
Henry L. Deimel

During the years of the Truman administration, was wartime shipping adviser; Special Assistant to Director for Near Eastern and African Affairs, Department of State, 1945-1949; Foreign Service Officer (appointed), 1949; Counselor for Economic Affairs, American Embassy, India, 1949-1952; and Civil Air Attaché, American Embassy, France, 1952-1956.

Washington, D.C.
June 5, 1975
by Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 February, 1982
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
Henry L. Deimel


Washington, D.C.
June 5, 1975
by Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: Dr. Deimel, I think that many historians are interested in how people decided to go into Government service. A good place for us to start would be if you could say something about your background, your education, and how you came to decide upon a career in Government.

DEIMEL: Yes, I can tell that very easily. Just by way of background, I was born in June, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. I spent my first three years traveling in Europe, in Germany and England -- my father had business affairs abroad -- and then California -- San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose. Then by 1907, I was in school


in Yonkers, New York. Then we went to Brussels; I attended a German school, so I just naturally picked up German and French there, because I had to. English was a taught language in this Deutsche Gymnasium in Brussels, where I was from 1907 to 1910. Then we moved to England; I went to a local preparatory school and then three years, from 1913 to 1916, to an English public school, Malvern College in the West of England, in Worcestershire.

I was one of a big family; there were eleven children. My mother died when I was three, so there was a second mother -- oh, a mother to me. So there were eleven of us, of whom five [Now, in 1980, only two remain -- my youngest sister and myself], may I say, are still living. Most of the family had returned to the United States, to New York and then to San Francisco, in 1914, leaving myself and an elder brother in England. We returned from England in 1916 (just before the all-out submarine warfare), to California in 1916, and then I spent seven years at the University of California in Berkeley, got my A.B. in economics, and a teaching fellowship for


three years, and my Ph.D. in May, '23.

Well, how did I get into the Government service? My problem was, I was usually pretty good most of the time at my studies, but as for occupation, I didn't know what to choose because I didn't know what there was to choose. That was the problem in those days. I had no driving thought; did I want to be a doctor, did I want to be a lawyer? Well, I didn't know anything about the needs and possibilities. But sort of by good luck Henry Francis Grady became my mentor; he had been commercial attaché in London and The Hague after the First World War. I became his teaching fellow my last year, and he became chairman of my Ph.D. committee when I finally found something to try to write a thesis on. And while he was there, he suggested that I apply to the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce for employment. That was the great new Bureau which was growing in the Department of Commerce under Herbert Hoover. Henry Grady had been in the Bureau before he came out to California. A friend of his in the


Bureau, L. [Louis] Domeratzky -- who was the assistant director of technical affairs in that Bureau -- came out to California and I met him. So I asked him, "Do you think there's a job for me there?"

He said, "Well, write to me when you're ready."

So, when I got my thesis done, or was just finishing it, I wrote to him and sent applications, and through him I got a job. I had to rush -- I didn't even stop to collect my degree; it was conferred in absentia -- because I got word from one of the division chiefs, a man named Henry Chalmers, chief of the Division of Foreign Tariffs. He had a position as assistant chief open, and if I could be there by May 15, I'd be considered for it. And meanwhile, he’d see that there would be two other possibilities, so it would be worth making the trip. So, I came out, and after some hemming and hawing I was appointed to that job, assistant chief of the Division of Foreign Tariffs, on May 30, 1923. That was a stroke of luck, because it was not only a better job than most entering jobs, it paid enough


so that winter I got married and my wife came out from San Francisco. But also, it was a remarkably good observation post.

The Division of Foreign Tariffs was set up to provide American business with information about the tariff duties and import rules and regulations in foreign countries. Our business was to keep up-to-date on all of that. We had quite a library. For those days, it was a large division; it was about 20 people. I was thrown into job number two. We not only had to be able to answer letters -- inform Black and Decker what the duties on their products were if they tried to find a market in France, for instance -- but we had to keep our own records up and publish the changes. The Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce for that day was a bureau with a mission: to promote American exports. It was one of the characteristics of that sterile era, that exports were considered good, imports were bad. It was shortly after the Fordney McCumber Tariff Act was passed in 1922; it was a deadly era.


MCKINZIE: Wasn't it difficult to promote foreign exports when, at the same time, you had to justify high American tariffs?

DEIMEL: It should have been. It wasn't, so far as I was concerned, for two reasons. We were in a service of information, and there were plenty of people wanting the information, so I didn't have to concern myself with imports. There was a lesson to it, though. I wonder if this story about Herbert Hoover would be interesting.

One of the lucky things about my job was that, as an assistant chief of division, I was admitted to his staff conferences; they were supposed to run every other week, every other Saturday morning, I think, but actually he'd skip a number. But you know, for a new, young fellow coming out of nowhere -- of course Berkeley was not exactly nowhere; it certainly isn't now -- to Washington to sit at the feet of a great figure like that and hear him tell what's what; that was a marvelous experience until I discovered the feet


of clay. I must say that I have a warm admiration for Herbert Hoover as a man. I had a few personal encounters with him and I was struck by the kindness, the warmth of his blue eyes, the friendliness. But that wasn't his public figure at all. But when it came to the discussion of import tariffs, he laid down a dictum and that was part of, what shall we say, the book we went by -- it wasn't published but I don't see any reason why not to say it: "Import duties are a controversial matter; therefore, we do not discuss them." And when it came to dicta like that, he was direct, straight-forward, and completely arbitrary. To a young man just out of university -- well, as I say, there were feet of clay.

So, we had to develop all sorts of ideological ways around that. When some American firm would complain about the high duties that they had to pay to sell into a foreign country, we'd have to say, "The height of import duties is an internal affair. A foreign government has nothing to say about it, so long as there is not discrimination.


But if there is discrimination against American goods, then we can ask our Embassies, our commercial attachés, to take up the matter." As a result, we made all sorts of efforts to find discrimination.

I remember once, for instance, that I was busy dictating an instruction, a memorandum, to go to our commercial attaché in Berlin I think. It was on the subject of the duty on canned sardines. The German import duty on our sardines, which were a large fish called the pilchard, canned in tomato sauce, was much higher than the duty on the true sardine, a smaller fish canned in olive oil from Portugal. So, I was trying to develop a thesis that that was discrimination, enough of a thesis so that the commercial attaché could go to whatever office he would go to -- I didn't know who he went to in those days -- and say, "This isn't really right, and we're good friends; can't you do something about that?"

So that's the way we tried to get around the problem, but it always did seem to me a sterile


situation and that, really, to my mind, characterized our foreign relations, and I think, our economic domestic affairs generally, too. The sterile twenties, it seemed to me, were characterized for instance by President Coolidge's famous dictum, "The business of America is business;" and Coolidge on the war debt, "They hired the money, didn't they?" The major effort of the very good few men in the Economic Advisors Office in the State Department was to settle the war debts, the thesis being they should be paid. Well, now, I don't want to blame Herbert Hoover or the officials in the State Department or anybody else or even the Congress. It was the spirit of the times; the tariff act of 1930, Hawley-Smoot was a culminating example -- it was the spirit of the times. We had had, as I see it, in World War I, a high-pressure introduction to the world, and perhaps some little excessive idealism that kind of fell flat after the war. We tried to draw back into our shell,