Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey
February 10, 1964
Charles T. Morrissey
MORRISSEY: Let's start, Mr. Elsey, by hearing how you became a member of Mr. Truman's White House staff.
ELSEY: I was on duty at the White House on April 12, 1945, the day of President Roosevelt's death. I had been at the White House for the preceding three years, from April 1942, as a naval reserve officer. I had been assigned in April 1942, by the Director of Naval Intelligence to the White House Map Room. I don't know to what extent you care to hear about the Map Room but I'll be happy to explain what it was since the Map Room did exist for, not only all of the Roosevelt war years, but through the early months of the Truman administration till the end of the war with Japan.
The White House Map Room was an intelligence and
communications center. It was established in the first few days after Pearl Harbor on the ground floor of the White House proper--the mansion. This was a room where officers of the Army and the Navy maintained up-to-the-minute maps and charts of all of the active theaters of combat. The room was off-limits to all civilian personnel in the White House, except the President himself and Harry Hopkins, his closest friend and advisor. The only other personnel ever admitted to the Map Room were military officers. The Map Room was under the immediate jurisdiction of the Naval Aide to the President, who at the outbreak of the war was Capt. John L. McCrea. He was succeeded in l943 by Rear Admiral Wilson Brown.
The job of those of us--junior officers--Map Room watch officers--was to maintain a twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week active room where telegrams and dispatches were received from the Army and the Navy. We were to transcribe the information onto maps and maintain current files, so that whenever the President or Mr. Hopkins or Admiral William D. Leahy, the President's Chief of Staff, wanted to know what was going on we would have the information instantly available for them. We also were the communications center for classified
communications. There was, of course, the regular White House switchboard for normal public telephone communi-cations, but we had cryptographic systems and coding equipment so that we were able to put into code any messages from the White House to the President when the President was traveling away from Washington. We were also able to receive and decode messages that were addressed to the President from outside Washington. We served as the secretariat for the President's communications with Prime Minister Churchill and Generalissimo Stalin and a few comparable figures such as Chiang Kai-shek and leaders of the other Allied war effort.
When I say secretariat, we were the only place in the White House--the only place in the government, for that matter--which kept complete files, incoming and outgoing, of all communications between the President and these figures: the background data, the correspondence, the memoranda of conversations, the other things which led up to the final drafts of the messages that were sent out.
I've said the President here because, and I'm referring both to President Roosevelt and to President Truman when he became President, because the procedures--
the staff pattern, all this--was exactly the same in both Administrations. There was no change in the situation until V-J Day at which point, of course, the Map Room was rather rapidly dismantled.
And so, that's a rather long and rambling answer to the question of how I got to be on the White House staff when President Truman was there. The fact is I had been there for three years when President Truman came to the White House. I was serving in April 1945, as the senior naval officer in the Map Room, reporting directly to Admiral Brown, the Naval Aide.
MORRISSEY: Could you give me a brief thumbnail description of your life prior to April 1942?
ELSEY: I'd gone on active duty on December 8, 1941, the day of the declaration of war between the United States and Japan. I'd had a naval reserve commission and had been a graduate student at Harvard University, a graduate student in American history, for the two years '39 to '41, having graduated from Princeton in 1939.
MORRISSEY: How did you move from the Map Room staff to Mr. Truman's presidential staff?
ELSEY: This is a combination of an accident and good luck and fortuitous circumstances, I suppose. Mr. Truman came to the White House, as we all know, rather poorly prepared for the Presidency. This is in no sense a criticism of Mr. Truman himself. He has frequently, in his writings and in his speeches, referred to the fact that he came to the White House poorly prepared. He had been Vice President only three months. President Roosevelt was away from Washington most of the time from January 20, 1945, until his death on April 12--first at the Yalta Conference and then at Warm Springs, Georgia--there had been practically no opportunity for Vice President Truman to have any briefings from President Roosevelt or to have much contact with the civilian or military leaders of our Nation.
It was his concern with his own unpreparedness that led Mr. Truman, subsequently, to take very, very vigorous action to make sure that no future Vice President came into office as poorly briefed as he had been.
What I really am saying here is that he came to the White House with no staff familiar with the Presidency and with White House procedures; the vice-presidential staff up to his time had been just two or three aides
concerned mostly with the routine duties of the Senate, and so he found it necessary to continue to assimilate as many of the Roosevelt staff members as possible. Those that were willing to stay on, he asked to remain. He brought a few new staff members, one of them being a young naval reserve officer named Clark M. Clifford, who came to the White House as Assistant Naval Aide to the President.
Mr. Clifford had been in private life an attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. He was known to the President and various other of the President's Missouri associates. Clifford was an extremely capable, energetic, young lawyer and very rapidly, within a matter of weeks, outgrew his post as Assistant Naval Aide. Mr. Truman and other senior members of the staff began relying on him more and more for assistance in the transitional months of '45-'46 from the war to a civilian economy. When Judge [Samuel I.) Rosenman resigned to go back to New York--resigned from his post as Special Counsel of the President--Mr. Truman asked Clifford to become his Special Counsel.
During the months of '45-'46, I had been working closely with Mr. Clifford. Since I was thoroughly
familiar with the White House procedures, intimately familiar with the White House relations to the Army and Navy Departments and to the State Department, Mr. Clifford found that I was able to be of some considerable assistance to him in this evolving, quickly changing role that I've just mentioned. When Mr. Clifford did become Special Counsel of the President, he asked that I serve as his assistant, which I did. Do you want the rest of the chronology here?
ELSEY: I remained on as a naval reserve officer, however, until April 1947, and in April '47, finally was demobilized and became the civilian assistant to Clifford. In August 1949, President Truman named me as one of his Administrative Assistants and from that point on, I reported directly to the President, although, since all of the White House was very much of a team, I worked closely and received many of my assignments from Mr. Clifford during his remaining period at the White House and subsequently from Charles S. Murphy, who succeeded Clifford as Special Counsel to the President in about February 1950.
Just to wind it all up, you'll recall that the Korean War broke out in June of 1950 and W. Averell Harriman was
summoned home by President Truman from Paris where Harriman had been head of the Marshall plan activities in Europe. Harriman was brought back by the President to be his principal assistant in the extremely difficult problems of coordinating the relations of State and Defense and I found myself working daily with Mr. Truman.
In the fall of '51, Congress passed the Mutual Security Act which established the position of Director for Mutual Security in the Executive Office of the President. For the first time, one official, in a job created by a statute, had the responsibility of coordinating the military, economic, and technical assistance activities for our Allies abroad. The job description was written with Harriman in mind, and as soon as the act was passed President Truman named Harriman as Director for Mutual Security.
Since I had by this time been working closely with Harriman for more than a year from that June 1950 until the fall of '51, Mr. Harriman asked that I join him in this new office of Director for Mutual Security, which I did; and thus I officially resigned from the White House staff as such in December 1951, becoming assistant
to Mr. Harriman at that time. I remained in Mr. Harriman's office through the end of the Truman administration. Actually this was more of a legalistic change than one amounting to much in substance, because both Mr. Harriman and I maintained the exact same offices in the same White House space that we had from the outbreak of the Korean war and continued to work closely with all of the presidential staff just as we had before.
MORRISSEY: The White House staff grew tremendously from the early years of Mr. Truman's administration to the latter years. How did the smaller staff at the earlier time manage to handle the volume of work?
ELSEY: I'm not so sure I would agree with your word "tremendously;" I don't believe that the White House staff actually grew tremendously. It's true that the . . . I suppose it's a matter of semantics. What do you regard as the White House staff?
The Executive Office of the President grew because some new things came into the Executive Office of the President. In 1947 the National Security Council was created; the National Security Resources Board was created; the Council of Economic Advisers, I believe,
had been created in 1946; but, while new elements came along, some old parts of the Executive Office had evaporated--the old Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, for example, had passed out of the scene.
The actual White House staff, in terms of the persons immediately reporting to and responsible to the President, I don't think you'll find in checking the figures, actually grew very much. vJust as a footnote on this, you know you can't rely on the budget figures or any of the official archival records on the size of the White House staff, because many people who worked full-time at the White House were carried on the budgets of various departments and agencies of the Government, so that the White House staff wouldn't look too large. So it doesn't do you much good just to go back and look at the Federal Register or some of the files of the Bureau of the Budget; the printed figures aren't necessarily accurate as to people who really were working at the White House.
What did you mean by growing tremendously? If you can give me some examples, perhaps. . .
MORRISSEY: Well, the point I had in mind, I think, was that
Charles Murphy, as Special Counsel to the President, seemed to have more assistance than Clark Clifford had had when he was holding the same job.
ELSEY: Yes, I guess that's true. Mr. Murphy had David Lloyd and David Bell working with him; Clifford had had only one. Judge Rosenman, who was the first Special Counsel to the President, had no assistants in the White House office. This was partly, I think, the evolution of the job itself, and largely, I would say, was a reflection of the increasing involvement of the United States in world affairs.
During the war years, when Rosenman was Special Counsel to the President, his principal work for FDR had been helping in speeches, major speeches of national significance and importance. Despite the fact that Rosenman had the title "Special Counsel," he really wasn't a lawyer. He was FDR's principal "ghost," but you couldn't call a man that; since he was a judge, since he had been a member of the New York Supreme Court, he had to be given a legal or quasi-legal title, so the phrase Special Counsel was created to suit the personality of Judge Rosenman.
This was somewhat the same with Clifford, who was not the President's principal lawyer or special lawyer
or anything else. His major responsibility was to assist Mr. Truman in speeches. And increasingly, from 1946 on, the speeches, the messages to Congress, the special statements that Clifford had to work on, had a foreign policy emphasis. We all know this. We all know the fact that the United States in 1945 dismantled its military machine as quickly as possible in a somewhat mistaken notion that we could get back to a peacetime situation. This has always been true of the United States. We've done it after every war. This time we found we could no longer disengage ourselves from the world; we had to remain a par