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Robert L. Dennison Oral History Interview, November 2, 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.
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. [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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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.
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?

HESS: Yes.

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 forc