George M. Elsey Oral History Interview, February 17, 1964

Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey

Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve, and duty officer, White House Map Room, 1941-46; Assistant to the Special Counsel to the President, 1947-49; Administrative Assistant to the President, 1949-51; Assistant to the Director, Mutual Security Agency, 1951-53.

February 17, 1964
Charles T. Morrissey

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Elsey Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed]


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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 1974
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Elsey Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
George M. Elsey

Washington, DC
February 17, 1964
Charles T. Morrissey


MORRISSEY: Towards the end of our last interview, Mr. Elsey, we were talking about the planning for the Truman Library. Could you tell me how you were involved in this planning?

ELSEY: Fairly early in his administration, President Truman began to comment from time to time to members of his staff about his desire to have a suitable place for his papers. He was, of course, extremely conscious, by virtue of the wide reading that he had done and was continuing to do, of the fate of most presidential papers, the fact that they're widely scattered, subject to accident and destruction and family whims.

He liked to recount some of the more horrendous episodes, which are pretty well-known, about papers that members of the families had burned up, simply because they thought they shouldn't be seen by historians and so on.

It was natural, I guess, that I should be brought into this picture, because of my association with the National Archives and the Roosevelt Library at Hyde


Park. Some of the Roosevelt papers remained at the White House well into the Truman administration, because they were consulted, fairly often, by the White House and by officials of the Department of State. The security nature of them made President Truman think they were better off there at the White House than if they were sent off to Hyde Park. And, because I did know the members of the Archives staff who were concerned with the Roosevelt Library, as I say, I just naturally drifted into the situation of being involved in discussions on a proposed Truman Library.

Mr. Truman had mixed motives with respect to a library out in Missouri. He was interested not just in a safe place for his own papers, but increasingly his thoughts turned toward a center of research and scholarship in the whole governmental process that would be available to scholars in his part of the country.

When I would occasionally raise a somewhat quizzical eyebrow about the desirability of having presidential libraries sprout up all over the countryside, the President, in good humor, would dress me down for being too "eastern minded," too "parochial," and he reminded me that there were scholars in the Middle West just as there were in the eastern seaboard.


His early decision to have the library at Grandview on the family farm didn't go unchallenged. I recall that Elmer Ellis and others at the University of Missouri tried quite hard at one period to persuade the President to deposit his papers at the University of Missouri. This, they felt, would meet his desire to build up the historical resources of that part of the country. It would have the additional great advantage of relating these papers to other standard library reference materials.

If the President wanted to have his stuff in Missouri, I personally thought that it made a good deal of sense to use the existing University of Missouri. But, of course, once you got the University of Missouri in the act, why then you had to consider the University of Kansas City and so on and so forth. And, these discussions, while there were a number of them over a period of a year or two, never really got off the ground, the President most of the time, staying pretty firm on his decision to have the Library ultimately built at Grandview.

Grandview fell by the wayside simply because of the problem of proper site location. The President and his


brother didn't always see eye-to-eye on just what kind of land and how much of it should be made available for the Library.

The actual decision to move from Grandview to Independence, however, took place after I had transferred from the President's immediate White House staff and so I'm not familiar with all the details. I do think that Independence is a far preferable location from all points of view to the farm at Grandview. It's more accessible, of course, to Kansas City.

The early plans, the first plans that Edward Neild, a member of the Fine Arts Commission and longtime personal friend of the President, drew up for the farm at Grandview were utterly inadequate. It was a very small building, would have been merely a repository for archives. It had practically no working space, would have been stuck out in the country, miles from every facility for, well just meals, for example.

And, I suppose as much contribution as any that I made was pointing out how a building, if it were to be out there, had to be much more than just a shell to house books and documents; that the building ought to have a place for the President's own office, and


office space for a permanent staff, and working quarters for students and scholars, and it ought to have an adequate museum space because, a President, inevitably, attracts a lot of curios as well as worthwhile historical objects that you will want to have on display. So, the first Neild drawings were shelved and from that point on, expansion was the watchword of the day and the Library moved on to the present concept which is so well exemplified at Independence.

Just as a personal note, which I hope won't offend Mr. Truman or his brother or any other member of the family, it was interesting to see some of the intra-family bickering on the subject of the site. I recall, one day, tramping around the farm at Grandview with Mr. Neild and with Vivian Truman, the President's brother, and Vivian was pointing out where he thought the Library ought to be. It was a depressed area, swampy in one corner, railroad track right behind it, and Neild and I kept pointing to a much more attractive site some distance away, across the road, on a high rise with a good view in all directions, and I asked Mr. Vivian Truman why the Library couldn't be put over there and got the very clear and direct answer, "Ain't no use wastin' good


farmland on any old dang library." Now, the problem of the farmland, of course, was resolved by the move to Independence.

MORRISSEY: After our last interview, you suggested today, that we discuss the relationship between the President and his staff in regard to the decision making process. What was this relationship?

ELSEY: I think what I probably was referring to was a discussion I'd had just a few days earlier with a young scholar who is engaged in working up his doctoral dissertation. And, it became apparent to me in the course of that interview that he had, what I thought, was an entirely erroneous concept of the role of the staff of the President.

Over and over again, I kept being questioned: "Who advised the President to do this?" Or, "Who advised him to do that? What did this member or that member of the staff think about this or that subject?" I was trying to educate that young man to my own philosophy, at any rate, it may not be the prevailing one, but it's certainly mine, about the role of the staff of the President.


The staff of the President is not a great body of experts who have decided views and who recommend to the President what he should or shouldn't do on fundamental national policy questions.

The President's principal advisor in foreign policy matters is, of course, the Secretary of State. The President's principal advisors on military matters are his Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Joint Chiefs, themselves. It's not up to individual staff members to intrude themselves between the President and the responsible officials of the executive branch, nor between the President and the responsible leaders of the Congress.

The job of the staff members is to help the President find out what the facts are; to clarify, where clarification is needed, the opinion and advice of the senior officials of the executive branch; when the President has a sharp view of his own, to advise the President as to whether it's feasible or not to carry it out the way he wants to; whether the temper of the times, the attitude on the Hill and all that sort of thing, makes it necessary to change the timing, or change some of the details, or change the method of


executing what he wants to do.

An ideal staff member ought not to be a person who has sharp and decided views of his own that he is determined to see carried out. If a staff member is so prejudiced or so opinionated or so determined on a particular matter of foreign policy or defense, he simply can't be trusted to be an effective staff member of the President.

Special pleaders, special advocates, to my way of thinking, have no place on a presidential staff. To illustrate, by going back to something we were talking about last time, the matter of merger and unification, the staff members working with the President on the whole question of postwar organization of the armed forces were not trying to influence the President's decision, one way or the other. They were trying to help the President carry his objectives as far as he could. They were trying to advise him on what was practical, what was feasible, what you could get out of the Congress at a given time, or what the prevailing sentiment of key figures on the Hill were. Also, so far as the executive branch was concerned, try to convey current and accurate intelligence as to the shifting


positions and points of view of the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of War, and other key figures in the executive branch.

If staff members, if Mr. Clifford, for example, or Charles Murphy, or the military or naval aides, had been serving as special pleaders, trying to get their point of view ground into the drafting process, into the discussions on what shape the military establishments were going to have, they would have been doing the President a disservice.

The staff around the White House--well, I think I have perhaps beaten this point to death, but if you have any questions, please ask them.

MORRISSEY: Well, you emphasized Cabinet members as prime advisors of the President. Was this true generally, or were there other advisors outside the Cabinet who were close to the President?

ELSEY: Oh, there are always advisors outside the Cabinet and there are many cases, where, of course, there are heads of agencies that aren't traditionally regarded as having Cabinet status, that, at given times and given circumstances, have much more influence and importance


than a Cabinet member himself. Obviously, in today's world, the director of Central Intelligence, on many, many matters, has far more influence and far more to say and far more reason to have something to say than some Cabinet members. So, I don't mean to confine it just to the nine or ten members of the Cabinet, or however many Cabinet members there happen to be at the moment.

Rather than Cabinet members, perhaps, I should say the official who is responsible for executing, carrying out, administrating the agency in question or the policy in question. Staff is staff and staff should never construe itself as line, to revert to old military terminology. When a staff member starts thinking of himself as being in the line, and being a person whose views have to be considered and who has a position to advocate and defend, then he has ceased to be effective and of real use to the President as a staff member.

MORRISSEY: Could you tell me about the mechanics of the President's daily staff meeting? Who would attend, and what would be discussed?

ELSEY: These were highly informal. It was the practice


to convene at 9 o'clock in the President's office. The time would vary a bit, as the longer he stayed in office, the later the meetings tended to be. I think toward the end, they were generally at 10 o'clock rather than nine.

The Appointment Secretary, the Press Secretary, the Special Counsel to the President, The Assistant to the President, John Steelman, usually the Administrative Assistants to the President, and the three military aides; it was a large group that would seat themselves informally in a large semicircle around the President's desk. The President usually started by asking the Appointment Secretary to run over the appointments for the day and Matt Connelly would comment, if comment were necessary, about the background of some of the appointments and other staff members were free to chime in if they had anything that they thought would be helpful or useful to the President in connection with that meeting.

The President would always ask the Press Secretary if there were anything special, any particular problem that the Press Secretary saw coming up during the course of the day, or comment on anything that appeared in the


morning papers that should attract presidential notice or comment. After that, it was a general discussion. The President would usually just move around the semicircle, asking each person in turn if he had anything on his mind or anything that should be taken up by the group as a whole.

Fairly often, a staff member would say, "Well, I have something, but, no need to bother the whole group. May I stay behind?"

To which the answer, of course, was always, "Yes."

Mr. Donald Dawson, who, most of the Administration, was concerned with personn