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Robert L. Dennison Oral History Interview, October 6, 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.
October 6, 1971
By Jerry N. Hess

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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

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Oral History Interview with
Admiral Robert L. Dennison

Washington, D.C.
October 6, 1971
By Jerry N. Hess

[57]

HESS: All right, Admiral, before we continue on with where we left off last time, I have a couple of other items I would like to insert. One deals with an item in the Forrestal Diaries, and it's the events surrounding the resignation of Henry Wallace in September of 1946. In the Diaries there's a memo on page 207. It's from John L. Sullivan, who was Under Secretary of the Navy at the time, describing the events of a meeting at the office of the Acting Secretary of State Will [William L,] Clayton.

Now this was a meeting held on September 12th, the day of Wallace's speech in Madison Square Garden, and those at the meeting when it opened were Sullivan, Clayton, James W. Riddleberger (Acting Head of the Division of European Affairs), Loy Henderson (head of the Division of Near and Middle Eastern Affairs), and yourself as Assistant Chief of Naval Operations. Secretary [Robert P.] Patterson came in later in the evening at 6:20, but what do you recall of those events?

DENNISON: I don't remember how Secretary Sullivan and I learned about this speech. Perhaps we read the advance

[58]

draft. The grouping in Clayton's office would suggest that Clayton thought this matter within the competence of the State, War and Navy Coordinating Committee. That would account for Sullivan's being there, and my being there as his adviser, and Patterson, and some of the State Department people such as Loy Henderson.

But in any event, Sullivan and I were the only ones who seemed to understand and appreciate how serious this matter was, because obviously if that speech.were delivered it would represent a split between Wallace's views and the foreign policy of the United States. We expressed our views rather vigorously, Sullivan in particular. Patterson didn't seem to understand the importance of this at all. He either didn't understand it, or didn't think anybody was going to pay any attention to what Wallace said.

So, it was Sullivan who called up Charlie Ross to find out if there would be some way to get hold of Wallace and ask him to modify his speech to the extent that it wouldn't contradict U.S. policy. It was late at night, or late in the evening, and time was

[59]

running out. I believe that when all this hassle started we were almost up to the time when Wallace was going to speak. I forget what time he actually did speak, and indeed what he did say did represent a wide difference between his views and the views of the Administration.

President Truman had the speech in advance. He obviously had scanned it, probably very superficially, and, he told me, perhaps in the presence of others. I've forgotten. But having had the speech in his hand, he was responsible because he did approve it. His reason was that he trusted Henry Wallace. He couldn't imagine anybody would do the thing that Wallace had intended to do. Wallace felt that he had given it to the President, the President had approved it, so he had an open license. But in any event, I'm sure the President didn't read that speech.

HESS: I believe Wallace took that in to the President in person, did he not?

DENNISON: Yes, the President said that he took it in there and handed it to him and left it with him.

Do you want anything else on that particular

[60]

point? I suggest you talk to Henderson on that.

HESS: All right. One other point of interest earlier on, before your White House days, was the nomination of Edwin W. Pauley to be Under Secretary of the Navy, and of course that nomination was withdrawn at Pauley's request in March of 1946. What's the story behind the nomination? Why was he nominated?

DENNISON: He was nominated because President Truman was carrying out the wishes of President Roosevelt. Roosevelt had made some kind of a promise to Pauley, or some kind of commitment, which he wasn't able to carry out because of his death. So President Truman looked on this as sort of a legacy, and he carried it out, or tried to. And then Mrs. Roosevelt had, as I recall in the hearings, said that her husband never would have made such a nomination. Roosevelt had written a memorandum addressed to Forrestal saying that he wanted, or intended, to appoint Pauley as some kind of an assistant to relieve, I believe it was [H.] Struve Hansel, although I'm not sure that was who it was, with the idea of later moving him up to be Under Secretary. And Forrestal had said something to Pauley about this.

[61]

An interesting point here is that at the time of Forrestal's death when I took the papers from the Defense Department that belonged to Forestal (at least they were his papers), Kate Foley and I went down to Forrestal's home in Georgetown. He had a large number of filing cabinets and in these filing cabinets (we could only take a sampling), were nothing but personal letters, people writing to congratulate him on something, and he'd write back and say, "Thanks very much," mostly trivia. But in the night table beside his bed (and this is all that was in the drawer that I can remember), was this memorandum from Franklin Roosevelt about Pauley. It must have weighed on his conscience. But in any event, he had that memorandum. He thought enough of it not to put it in his papers that he had in the Pentagon nor in his personal files. And I believe this was given to Ed Pauley. I think that he has that document.

And Pauley, being the kind of a man he was, was not about to contradict Mrs. Roosevelt or anybody else about whether or not her husband would have nominated him. And I think that Pauley, like many

[62]

of us, wanted some position, not so much for himself as for his family, his children. He certainly behaved like a gentleman in this instance.

HESS: Some historians have said that he was being nominated for Under Secretary to be put in line to take over from Mr. Forrestal as Secretary of the Navy, and that the reason for the apointment was his service with the Democratic National Committee from 1941 to 1945. During that period of time he was Secretary of the Committee, Assistant Treasurer and Treasurer and was well-known for his fundraising activities. Do you think there is anything to that?

DENNISON: Not so far as I know. I mean there could be, but this was not part of President Roosevelt's written intention in any event. And I think President Truman, although he thought very highly of Pauley, never mentioned in my presence anything beyond this nomination to Under Secretary.

He did appoint Pauley to handle the reparations problems in Japan after the war, and in China. And maybe your records show that Artemus Gates and Pauley and I flew to Japan, and later into China, to Chungking, to see Chiang Kai-shek, and left

[63]

Pauley out there to wrestle with these problems of reparations. Well, the President trusted him. I think his trust was well-founded, but I know nothing about this plan to make him Secretary of the Navy.

HESS: What were your impressions of conditions in Japan at that time? This was just after the war.

DENNISON: We were there, I believe, in October.

HESS: The month following the surrender?

DENNISON: Yes.

HESS: What were your impressions at the time, of the country, and of the people?

DENNISON: Well, in the first place, this was a trip that Forrestal was supposed to go on. We were to pick up Pauley in Honolulu, which we did; but at the last minute for some reason Forrestal withdrew and turned the job over to Artemus Gates. And we went to Japan. We went into China. We were in Peking, Chungking, Shanghai, and we talked to a great many people, including the Generalissimo.

In Japan we flew over and around Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was a startling sight. Each of these cities was devastated. You could see the shadow cast by buildings in this atomic explosion, which was

[64]

rather interesting. It hadn't knocked down some of the more substantial buildings, but the devastation in those two cities was not nearly so terrible as it was in Tokyo because of the fire bombings. There you could look for miles without seeing any chimneys or poles or anything where flimsy dwellings had been.

We landed in some airfield, I've forgotten the name of it, outside of Tokyo. The runways were filled with bomb holes and very few lights. Captain Vosler and I (I don't know what had happened to Gates), were in one car with a driver, a U.S. sailor, who was supposed to drive us to the railway station so we could go into Tokyo. Admiral [J. J.] Ballentine, an old friend of mine, was in Tokyo in charge of some mission or activity. But on the way in from the airfield to the railroad station it became clear that the driver was completely incompetent. He wasn't drunk but he drove as if he were. We went down a little dirt road which was only wide enough for a cart really. He sideswiped some poor Japanese's cart and drove on. On the right was a pretty considerable slope, and he went off the road, the right front wheel first, and then the car started to turn over. I was sitting

[65]

on the right hand of the rear seat, the door opened, the car checked, you see, when it hit the mud, and I was thrown out and down the hill. The others were held in the car. It was just dusk, or almost dark, and I looked up (I was not unconscious but I was stunned), to see this damn car turning over and coming down on me. Fortunately, it didn't hit my face. My chin was out. I was too stunned to raise my hand and arms to try to check the car. So I was pinned under the damn thing, fortunately in soft mud, and then the gasoline cap came off of the tank. And I thought, "What a hell of a way to die," after having gone all through the whole war and to have a damn automobile fall on me outside of Tokyo.

The people inside the car had been knocked out. I yelled and started to wriggle out and I said, "For God's sake, stay where you are, because if this thing rolls another few inches why it's going to crush me." And because the ground was soft I was able to squirm out of it.

Well, there we were. We all had 45's and a little bit of luggage and had to find our way to the railroad station. This was so soon afterthe war we had no

[66]

idea what the temper of the people would be. We got to the railway .station and we expected almost anything. The Japanese train, of course; was completely surrounded by Japs. Everybody recognized the U.S. uniform, obviously. We didn't know what was going to happen.

Well, what happened was that they realized we didn't know where we were and all we wanted to do was to get to Tokyo, and they couldn't have been more courteous or more helpful. They made sure we got on the right train and the right car and tried to explain to us where to get off, and it was almost beyond belief. There wasn't a trace of animosity or resentment. And it was true in our brief stay in Japan that there didn't seem to be any ill feeling at all. It's their idea that whoever wins is automatically great. But this went beyond just the feeling of you're right and I'm wrong. It was acceptance, graceful acceptance, of the fact that we did win the war, whatever winning meant then, and we were there.

In China it seemed almost unreal. When we flew into Chungking--no, first Peking--(I had been

[67]

there a couple of times before the war), the place was a shambles, mainly because the Japanese had let it go to hell, had taken all of the plumbing out of the hotels and things to make shells and weapons. The economy was completely shot. Everything was run down, most of the shops were closed and they were just getting back into business.

I went around to the British tennis club, a very old one that had been very exclusive, typical of British policy (which unfortunately we copied in the Philippines), of not admitting anybody but white people to the club. Japanese, of course, or Chinese, were completely excluded. Well, I thought I'd find this club burned to the ground. Instead of that, nothing had been touched. It was in beautiful condition. You'd think that somebody had used it just the day before. The only thing that was different in that club was in the lobby. There was a plaque that listed through the years the names of the presidents of the club, all, of course, English names. The last name on the plaque was a Japanese name.

HESS: They had moved in.

DENNISON: And hadn't touched a thing.

[68]

HESS: Well, they didn't want to ruin a good thing, I guess.

DENNISON: And I went around to a shop where I had purchased some stuff before the war, just before the war broke out. I hadn't dealt before with this particular Chinese who was called "Old Friend," but a lot of Navy people had. He had the ability that many Chinese did of taking a catalog of pictures, for example, silver, and duplicating whatever you wanted, a pitcher, flatware or platters or whatnot, in sterling. The workmanship was superb.

So I said, "Well, how much is it?" And he told me. It didn't amount to very much money so I said, "Well, I'll pay you half of it and you send this order to Manila and I'll send you a check for the balance," which I think was $80. The exchange at that time was around twenty Chinese dollar