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.
November 2, 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. ) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
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Oral History Interview with
Admiral Robert L. Dennison
November 2, 1971
By Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Admiral, let's discuss the Korean conflict. Now that started in June of 1950. Where were you when you first learned of the invasion?
DENNISON: Well, it turned out that that weekend was one in which the President had accepted an engagement to open Friendship Airport, which at that time was quite a few miles from nowhere.
HESS: There are those that say it still is.
DENNISON: I think the problem now is that a lot of nowhere has moved right next door to us, it is harder to get to.
HESS: I guess so.
DENNISON: But we went. As I recall, it was either Friday or Saturday, probably Saturday. At any rate, since we were so near to Annapolis I asked the President if he minded if I spent the next day or two in Annapolis and, as usual, he said, "Why, certainly, anything you want."
So that's where I was. I was in Carvel Hall Hotel when I got the word about Korea and, of course,
I returned to Washington immediately and went to the White House. By that time...
HESS: President Truman had flown on to his home in Independence, Missouri right after the dedication of Friendship Airport.
DENNISON: Oh, he had?
DENNISON: Well, when did he return to Washington, do you remember?
HESS: Sunday evening.
DENNISON: Well, that's when I got there. But things had moved pretty fast, as you know. He had already made up his mind what had to be done, and he did it. I wasn't with him when he made that decision, but I'm sure he followed the same formula that he had told me about, and I've told you, about how he did make a decision.
I've never heard him express an opinion as to whether Dean Acheson's remarks about our defense perimeter (not including Korea), had anything to do with what happened there, nor, of course, could we know or have planned on the fortuitous absence of the Soviets from the Security Council at that time. The President realized that he couldn't delay on this one.
HESS: When did you first see President Truman after he arrived? Did you see him that Sunday evening?
DENNISON: It's been so many years ago. I believe I did, because there wouldn't have been any point in my coming back to Washington to just go on home.
HESS: There was a meeting at the Blair House on Sunday evening which several people attended; Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense Johnson, the service secretaries, Frank Pace, Matthews, Finletter; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, [Omar N.] Bradley, [T. Lawton] Collins, [Hoyt S.] Vandenberg and [Forrest P.] Sherman, and Dean Rusk and John Hickerson, and Ambassador-at-Large Philip Jessup. They met on Sunday evening and they met again on Monday evening. Do you recall if there were there any advisers, that you heard about, who thought it best not to enter into such a conflict?
DENNISON: No, I don't. It's not very likely that anyone would have had any very strong views on our not getting in because this was clearly a danger and a threat, and if it hadn't been met forcefully and promptly it would have gotten completely out of hand. God knows it got far enough out of.hand as it was.
The thing about Korea that is also true about
Vietnam (and it's going to be true in other places as well, I'm afraid), is that this was a limited war, limited in the sense that our objectives were limited, which people seem to have forgotten. That kind of a war isn't settled on the battlefield. It can't be. We're not fighting wars where we demand unconditional surrender, as we mistakenly did in World War II. We didn't even get an unconditional surrender there. It might have been a good policy at the time Roosevelt enunciated it, but only to satisfy our allies that we weren't going to make an independent deal for peace. But even there, in a battlefield war, it didn't work. And it would work even less now because we're not about to devastate countries and put in our own governments and that sort of thing. So it means that we've got to end up at a negotiating table. And, of course, the best way, the best position to have at the negotiating table is a position of strength. And here we are in Korea, no peace, still talking, and there isn't much hope of any successful negotiations in Vietnam, which is somewhat of a parallel I believe.
But to get back to your question. I don't recall, but I would seriously doubt, knowing these
people whom you mentioned, that anybody in that group would voice any objection, or voice anything except approval and support. I have no idea whether any record or any minutes were kept, but some of these people I knew extremely well, Forrest Sherman and Hickerson, for example, and others.
HESS: Our troops actually went into Korea under the U.N. banner. Do you think that if U.N. backing could not have been arranged we would have gone into Korea unilaterally?
DENNISON: Oh, I'm sure we would. It was much better to have the blessing of the United Nations Organization if only to avoid having the organization, or parts of it, aligned against us, not militarily, but in disapproving of our policy, just as in the Cuban missile crisis where the Organization of American States underwrote our actions. Not only that, but several Latin American nations turned over ships to my command, so it made a token military contribution as well. But a deliberate, unilateral action, without an attempt to recognize our responsibilities to these world organizations, I think is unthinkable. It was then and I think it is now.
HESS: Do you recall if you ever heard President Truman make a statement to the effect that if the United Nations had not gone along he would have recommended our going in by ourselves?
DENNISON: Oh, in the first place, the answer to that is no. But in the second place: I can't imagine that they ever would because he was not going to recommend anything. He was Commander in Chief. He could order, it done, and I'm sure--as sure as I can be--that our going in was not contingent upon the United Nations action.
Suppose, for example, if it had not been for this circumstance of the Soviets being absent, we probably would have run into a Security Council veto. But our allies would have known, the world would have known, that we came clean on it. We felt that this was something we had to face. We asked for the United Nations participation and didn't get it because of the intransigence of one of'the permanent members of the Council.
But I can't imagine that the President would ever have considered recommending going in there. He didn't operate that way. And this is one of the reasons today,
to get back to what I said about limited wars, that we are in this gray area of fighting without a declaration of war.
HESS: If we were ill-prepared to meet the situation that arose at the time of the Korean invasion, how did that condition come about?
DENNISON: It came about mainly through a belief on the part of some that World War II had pretty well settled everything and that things were going to be stable for a long time. And following World War II, as is true after so many wars, military strength seemed to be expensive and we really didn't need all the force we had. So Johnson really cut the heart out of the services in many ways. It was false economy, of course. Fortunately this happened so closely on the heels of World War II that we did have a lot of military strength that couldn't really be dismantled. But economy was the watchword and Johnson, of course, I think was motivated very largely by political rather than military considerations.
HESS: Did you ever hear any discussion about Secretary Johnson having political ambitions of running on the ticket for the presidential spot?
DENNISON: No, I never did, but if he ever had such an aspiration it would have been absolutely ridiculous.
HESS: Do you think that was a little above him?
DENNISON: Oh, not even within sight, let alone reach.
HESS: At the same time that we sent forces into Korea references were made as to what we should do about Indochina, and just before the time, on May the 1st of 1950, President Truman approved the allocation of ten million dollars for the Defense Department to cover early shipment of military assistance items for the French in Indochina.
Now, according to the Pentagon Papers that came out recently, that was the first crucial decision regarding U.S. military involvement in Indochina, May the 1st of 1950. They may be wrong, but that's what they have said. And then on June the 27th of 1950, shortly after the invasion of Korea, President Truman issued a statement on a situation in which he had the following paragraph:
I have similarly directed an acceleration of the furnishing of military assistance to the forces of France and the Associated States in Indochina and the dispatch of a military mission to provide close working relations with those forces.
What was the view at this time? What was the
President's view? What was the view of the people on the White House staff around him and of his advisers on the advisability of concerning ourselves with matters in Indochina?
DENNISON: Well, I couldn't read the President's mind. I do know the general atmosphere. There was one school of thought that believed very strongly that we should provide active support, militarily, to the French.
HESS: Who were the main backers of that school of thought?
DENNISON: Oh, I think Admiral Bradford was one. I wouldn't go along with the idea that this was a crucial decision leading to our further involvement. I think this was taking out insurance that didn't have to lead to the kind of involvement we later found ourselves in, and that this was in general line with his policies in other places. How about aid to Greece and Turkey? It took us into Greece but not "X" numbers of Army divisions plus military support, economic support. It didn't turn out that way in Vietnam, but this didn't really place any blame on President Truman. He didn't start anything. He was trying to stop something from growing.
HESS: Did you ever hear the President make any observations on whether we should or should not assist the French in regaining Indochina after World War II?
DENNISON: Not specifically, but his whole attitude was that this was a lost cause. I mean this debacle at Dien Bien Phu and all that was stupid military action, and...
HESS: Yes, that battle came during the Eisenhower administration, correct?
HESS: Things weren't going well, even back in those days, however.
DENNISON: No. The French really didn't have anything to contribute in the Far East, just rescuing Indochina or strengthening them so they would be able to hold on. It seemed to a good many of us this would be a dead end. And then...
HESS: Well, one further question on that matter. This was a French colony, this was not France. The indigenous people of that area (whatever they called themselves at that time, the Vietnamese or what), were the natives of the area. Was it discussed that perhaps instead of dealing with a colonial power we
should go in and try to find a citizen, or a group of citizens, indigenous to the country and try to work with them?
DENNISON: I never heard that. Of course, this is exactly what President Truman wanted to do in China. That's why he sent George Marshall there and that's where Marshall was when the President asked him to be Secretary of State. That was the hope there, and if it didn't work there, it couldn't really work anyplace else. In the first place it was too idealistic. We couldn't find a man that was acceptable to the people. We could never have found one in Vietnam and it was hopeless to try. But I never heard any suggestion like that.
HESS: Just a general question about any influence that George Kennan may have had on your thinking, on the thinking of the people around Mr. Truman. His so-called "long telegram" to the State Department when he was stationed in Russia came in February of '46. His "Article by X" appeared in the July 1947 issue of the Foreign Affairs, and, of course, as you know, that was the article on the containment of communism...
DENNISON: That's right.
HESS: I'm not sure that was the first time he used the word containment, but...
DENNISON: I remember it well.
HESS: What do you recall about George Kennan's views and did they have any influence on your thinking, either at this time or later, when you were in the White House?
DENNISON: Well, unfortunately, I never liked Kennan (not that likes or dislikes have much to do with it), but I didn't agree with some of the things that he was putting forward. I don't remember Kennan having any influence in my time in the White House. As a matter of fact, I don't even know where he was most of the time. Kennan was a peculiar individual. I sat with him on one occasion on a panel of the Foreign Policy