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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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

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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, "All right, draw up a charter and go ahead with it." He said, "You have my blessing."

Well, I had a hell of a time because in those days the word "diplomat" was a dirty word and the Navy didn't want anything to do with the State Department. I did draft what I thought this organization should be and what it should do, and got the charter cleared by all the top people in the Navy Department, all the ones that were senior to me, and there were a good many of them, and took it in to Admiral Nimitz.


He read it and said, "This is fine, Dennison, just exactly what we ought to have."

And I said, "Admiral, I've completed my job. I want to go to sea,"

He said, "I don't want to hear another word out of you for a year about going to sea, and you're going to take this job."

I said, "Well, I'm only a Captain. It's written for a Rear Admiral. All the other services are going to have Generals on it to head their equivalent department."

But he said, "I want you to take it," which meant I'd better take it.

Well, then Forrestal heard about it. He thought it was a great idea. They were organizing what was called the State, War and Navy Coordinating Committee, and we had to have a staff, we had to have papers, we had to have somebody review these documents. So, I became his politico-military adviser. My office was on the floor above his in the old Navy Department. I was hooked up with him by a squawk box and attended a good many meetings with him and in his office and at briefings.


I worked very closely with John Sullivan, who was his Under Secretary, and later Secretary. I went with him, Forrestal, to meetings of what was called the "Committee of Three." I'll tell you about it in a moment.

But to get back to my first impression of Forrestal. He never indicated what he was thinking and you had to guess it. He always asked a lot of questions. He'd never read a memorandum more than one page long, and I know of a great many memoranda he never read. He gave me the impression once he had a piece of paper that said something, he automatically knew all about it, put it in a drawer and forgot it, or put it in his files, which later became the Forrestal papers which I was also mixed up in.

So that was my first impression. He seemed to me to be very nervous and very unfeeling about his personal staff. He'd go out late in the afternoon and play golf, expect the men to stay there, and then he'd come back and work until all hours of the night without any regard for these people. But he had a broad knowledge of people, he knew a lot of people and put me in touch with a lot of people who were helpful to me in some of our problems. He wasn't without ability, but he was a very difficult man.


And incidentally, a year to a day after my conversation with Nimitz, he sent for me. Then he said, "Go and pack your suitcase. You are going to sea."

I said, "Thank you very much, Admiral."

He said, "You're going to command the Missouri." It was the biggest and best command we had so it didn't take me long to get out of town. I can assure you of that. But this Committee of Three might be interesting to you.

This was the Secretary of State and the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy. They met once a week in the State Department. There were never any minutes kept. Nobody was to be there except these three people. Oh, the strangest things would happen. I'd get a telephone call from one of my opposite numbers in the Army or State asking, "When is the Navy going to do so and so?"

And I'd say, "Well, I never heard of it."

And they'd say, "Well, our Secretary told us that Mr. Forrestal said that he was going to do it."

So, I finally convinced Forrestal this couldn't go on, and...

HESS: You couldn't be kept in the dark this way.


DENNISON: No. It wasn't me. It was the whole Navy. And so he persuaded the others that each man ought to have somebody with him. The man with him wasn't to take any notes. They still didn't want any record of these meetings.

Another feature of these meetings was when they were through with this business they'd call on Admiral Leahy and immediately be transformed into the National Intelligence Agency, I believe it was called then, the forerunner of CIA.