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Robert L. Dennison Oral History Interview, September 10, 1971

Oral History Interview with
Admiral Robert L. Dennison

Graduate of U.S. Naval Academy, 1923; Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, 1945-47; Commander of the U.S.S. Missouri, 1947-48; Naval Aide to President Harry S. Truman,1948-53; Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Command, Commander of the Atlantic Fleet, and Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic, 1960-63.

Washington, D.C.
September 10, 1971
By Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Dennison 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 June, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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


Oral History Interview with
Admiral Robert L. Dennison

Washington, D.C.
September 10, 1971
By Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Admiral, to get under way, would you tell me a little about your personal background; where were you born, where were you educated and what are a few of the positions that you have held?

DENNISON: I was born in April, 1901, in Warren, Pennsylvania. That's a small town up in the northwestern part of the State. I went to grade school and then spent two years in the Kiski School, which is a preparatory school near Pittsburgh, and from there I went to the Naval Academy and graduated in 1923.

I have a bachelor's degree from the Naval Academy, a master's degree from Pennsylvania State, and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. I've been in the Navy almost all of my life, 43 years, I think.

HESS: What is your doctorate in?

DENNISON: Engineering.

HESS: How valuable did you find that in your naval service?


DENNISON: I found it tremendously valuable. Although I never actually practiced engineering I found engineering to be a way of analyzing and tackling problems and making decisions. I had some engineering duty, but not very much. I was director of the mechanical engineering laboratory at the Engineering Experiment Station while I went to Hopkins.

HESS: What were a few of the commands that you had in the Navy before your White House days?

DENNISON: Oh, I commanded a number of various type ships. A submarine-rescue vessel was my first command, and one of my most interesting ones, and I have commanded submarines, and destroyers, the USS Missouri, a cruiser division, commanded the First Fleet in the Pacific. Later I was Commander in Chief of the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, then Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic for NATO, Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Command, and Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet.

HESS: Can you tell me about your first meeting with President Truman?

DENNISON: The first meeting. I never asked him whether he remembered it, but Jim [James V.]Forrestal was supposed to go to Japan and China to look into the problem of reparations.Ed [Edwin W.] Pauley was to go out with


him and meet with various authorities, including Chiang Kai-shek. For some reason or other, Forrestal at the last moment couldn't go, so he had Artemus Gates, who was the Under Secretary, go. I was going along because I was then Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Political and Military Affairs, and adviser to Forrestal, then Secretary of the Navy.

Well, somebody told me that President Truman was very fond of maps, which was certainly true. So, when Gates and I returned from the trip, we had seen Chiang Kai-shek, we had gone to Chungking to see him, spent the night there, and had seen a good many other people as well. I had a full account of this trip written up and I had made a number of maps, or marked up a lot of them. So, Gates and I were sent to the White House (I suppose President Truman invited us), to report on this trip. And he truly was fascinated by the maps and spent quite a little time with us. That was the first time that I met him.

HESS: When did you meet him the next time? Was that when you were Commander of the Missouri?

DENNISON: The next time I met him was in Rio. I was in command of the Missouri and also in command of a small task force and my job was to go down to Rio to meet


the President and bring him back. I had two or three destroyers and a supply ship, I believe.

I got there before the President, and soon after he arrived he sent for me. I went to his room where he was staying and my first impression of him (although I had seen him only a couple of years before), was to note the thickness of his glasses and the intensity of his eyes. He greeted me and said how glad he was to have the chance to go back with me. He was looking forward to it. So, we spent, as I recall, about eight days in Rio.

The occasion of his visit was the signing of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, called the Rio pact. It was signed on the second anniversary of the day that the surrender document was signed aboard the USS Missouri. We had a big reception on board, the President was there and President [General Eurico Gaspar] Dutra was there, and a lot of foreign dignitaries.And then I didn't see him again until he came aboard to sail. It was a perfectly marvelous voyage. I've never seen the ocean so calm.

HESS: I have heard that Mr. Truman enjoyed that voyage a great deal. Is that right? Do you think that he had a good time on the way back?

DENNISON: Well, I don't think it, I know it, because we


did everything possible. The weather was just great. We had a very elaborate crossing-the-line ceremony, and he spoke to the crew, describing himself as a Democrat with a little "d" I think he said. We had a whole gang of reporters on board. They had sweat shirts with "Truman Athletic Club" on them, and went out for calisthenics every day and worked out with the crew. He had a chance to relax, play cards, and nobody could bother him.

All presidential radio traffic came through me. It came over a high level Navy circuit and was very highly classified. The only people who knew the contents of the incoming messages were my decoding officer and myself.

One evening I received a message that was of some importance, so I took it to the President who was in his cabin, sitting at a table surrounded by some of his staff. I believe they were playing poker. I've forgotten that detail. But at any rate, I handed the President a sheet of paper containing the message. He read it and didn't tell anybody at the table what it was. He simply handed the message back to me and said, "Tell the son of a bitch he'll have to shoot his way in."


So I said, "Aye, aye, Sir," and left.

Well, the message was that Tito was reported to be massing a large number of troops on his northern border, apparently with the idea of moving into Trieste. We and the British, and I forget, perhaps some other allies, had forces in there, more for stabilization purposes than anything else.We had garrisons there, I forget the number of men, probably not over five thousand. But at any rate, this was the President's reaction to any possible move on Tito's part.

I've forgotten what I wrote and sent back, but I would imagine I probably sent back exactly what he said because there wasn't any way to paraphrase that. That said it. But whatever it was, I've forgotten. Nor did I know what the State Department did about it, how they got a message to Tito and what that said. But perhaps that's in the State Department records or files some place. But I do know that that was the end of any rumblings from Yugoslavia. Whatever message Tito got,he certainly understood it.

HESS: One further comment about Marshal Tito. Even though he is an avowed Communist, he is generally regarded as always having acted independently of Russia. He was one of the first major splits away from a monolithic


Communist Party. Was it discussed in the early Truman days that perhaps if we could not necessarily work with such movements, we might encourage such movements? Even though it would be encouraging a Communist Party, it would be encouraging one that was splitting away from the Russians. Was that discussed?

DENNISON: Yes, because it was well recognized at the time that anything we could do to fragment the strength of Soviet communism was probably to our advantage. Tito had done well in Yugoslavia with some help from us. He's completely nationalistic. He's not under the control of Soviet Russia. He is a Communist and I guess if he has to be a Communist it is better for him to be our Communist than the Soviet's Communist. But he's completely nationalistic, of course, as I just said, and we can't look to him to use any influence in the Middle East or anywhere else. I think what we want him to do is to generally approve of what we're doing and to say so, which he has, and keep out of the way.

HESS: All right. Before we move on further with Mr. Truman, you have mentioned your position on Mr. Forrestal's staff. Let's discuss Mr. James Forrestal just for a few minutes. What are your earliest


recollections of Secretary Forrestal?

DENNISON: My first real contact with him was when I became Assistant Chief of Naval Operations and Admiral [Chester W.] Nimitz was the Chief of Naval Operations at that time.I had done some work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the latter days of the war, and there were so many postwar problems appearing that involved the Navy and the Army, and the State Department. We didn't have any contacts with the State Department except for visas and things like that. So, I proposed to Admiral Nimitz that we organize a branch of his office to deal with the various committees and various people who were going to be handling some of these tremendously important problems.

So he said, "