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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 personnel appointments, would frequently mention existing vacancies in major spots, or ask for suggestions from staff members. Let's just say that we're on the lookout for such and such a post, such a commission; anybody have any suggestions, I'd welcome them, or he'd toss out names and see what the President and staff members thought about some of the impending appointments or vacancies that were under consideration.

The atmosphere was very friendly, very relaxed, and even the junior members of the staff, such as I, felt we had the right, and did have it, to take matters,


in that body, directly to the President in the presence of everybody else. I think the only reason for mentioning this is that it is such a sharp contrast to the situation that prevailed in President Eisenhower's administration, where a rigid pyramid funneling up through Sherman Adams, came into being. I don't mean to say that the Eisenhower-Adams way of doing business was wrong. All I am saying is that President Truman and President Eisenhower organized their staffs and ran them in a very different fashion. And, what little I saw of the Roosevelt staff, of course, was very different, too. But, that was during the wartime and I was not directly reporting to the President, at all, but, I was aware, conscious of the staff patterns, and it was not FDR's practice to have general staff meetings of this sort at all. He just didn't have them.

MORRISSEY: Could you comment, specifically, on the relationship between the White House and both Houses of Congress in regard to legislative matters?

ELSEY: In the Truman administration, there was very little staff concerned with legislative matters. Here again, this is pretty much a post-Truman development of the


White House staff, of having several professional, fairly senior experienced men, who spend all their time on legislative matters.

In the Truman first term, there really was no legislative staff at all. Charles Murphy, who came in January of '47, as an Administrative Assistant to the President, and remained in that spot until about February 1950, when he succeeded Clark Clifford as Special Counsel, Murphy knew a great deal about the Hill, having served in the Legislative Drafting Service of the Senate, and the President relied on him for information. Charlie would occasionally visit with staff members of congressional committees or with individual members of the Senate or House. But this was a very hit or miss affair. It was not his regular assignment. It was not a day in day out occupation at all.

Clifford, as Special Counsel, later Murphy, on matters of extreme importance, would see chairmen of Senate committees or House committees, but this was only in matters that one might say were of the utmost crisis nature.

The President relied, for most of the discussion on legislative matters, with his weekly meetings with the


Vice President, that is when he had a Vice President in his second term, and the congressional leadership. In which, in an informal fashion, they'd run over the list of things that were coming up or that were of prime concern on the Hill.

Matthew Connelly and Don Dawson, because of their special relationship to political matters, partisan matters, had a good deal of voice in legislative relations. But, this tended to be more, as I observed it, to matters of the partisan nature, patronage, appointments, and so on and so forth. The things of that sort that are so necessary to keep an Administration's relations with the Hill smooth and effective.

In about '49, maybe early '50, two new staff positions were created: A representative to the Senate and a representative to the House. I'm ashamed to say that I can't recall the precise titles used for these two men. But, they functioned as assistants to Mr. Connelly, the Appointment Secretary, and they spent most of their time, again in keeping up friendly relations between Connelly's office and members of the Senate and House.

They were not concerned with development of the


legislative program or of the drafting of major messages or legislation. It was more of just the errands and the chores which are absolutely vital and essential to keeping good relations between the Administration and the leadership of one's own party on the Hill.

In short, we simply did not have at that time, the White House staff hadn't evolved, hadn't matured, hadn't developed in the way that it was to in the later administrations.

MORRISSEY: Could you comment on the relationship between the President and the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee?

ELSEY: The relationship varied a good deal, depending on the person occupying the chairmanship. When it was Bill Boyle, who was a longtime personal friend of the President, I'd say the relationship was obviously a good deal warmer. Bill Boyle was in and out of the White House as an old friend in a way that the other chairmen were not.

Here again, this is, I suppose, a matter of part of the general reticence of Americans to recognize some of the facts of life. The White House has always been just a little jittery in recognizing that the President


is a political leader and a politician 365 days of the year. The White House, in the Roosevelt and the Truman and the Eisenhower, the Kennedy administrations, doesn't advertise the fact that it has continuing and close relations with the national party headquarters. Somehow, it's just not thought to be very nice. As I say, this is part of the mythology of American life. We don't want to admit that a President has to be a good politician, if he's going to be halfway effective as a President.

And so, there never were any members of the staff, as such, designated to be liaison with, or work with, the Democratic National Committee during the Truman administration.

Facts being facts, however, it was perfectly obvious that the Appointment Secretary to the President had to have, and did have, a very close relationship with the committee. He needed to know the background of some of the people who wanted to see the President. He had to be responsive when the national committee or the party machinery wanted certain people to get in to see the President. Naturally, they had to go through the Appointment Secretary's office for those appointments and the Appointment Secretary needed to take into account and


effect the wishes of the Democratic Party machinery.

Similarly, the Administrative Assistant responsible for personnel matters had to be very sharply attuned to the wishes and the needs of the party. I'm not apologizing for it at all. It has to be that way. And, when the White House and the party machinery fall out of step, if they ever do, the results are bad for the Government, because the President immediately starts tripping and stumbling in his relationships with his party and with the Hill.

The time, when I personally was most involved, most directly related to the committee, was in the preparations for the 1948 campaign. We had a very small White House staff for speech purposes and it was very apparent to me in the fall of '47 that we were going to have to take some very drastic steps, if we were to be at all prepared to serve the President during the '48 campaign. Mr. Clifford and I talked this over at great length and Charlie Murphy, also, I recall, as well as Charlie Ross, then Press Secretary, and concluded that it would be a big mistake to try and build up a "stable," if you will, of speech-writers in the White House or, for that matter, any place on the Government payroll. The latter would not


have been proper at all. The obvious answer was to build up a team in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The committee always gets busy during a presidential year and has a lot of things, but nothing is more important than electing a President or re-electing one, but at the same time, they've got a lot of other things on their mind, such as Senators, Congressmen, state tickets, and so on and so forth. And so, it didn't seem to us, as we looked over the situation, that it would be very satisfactory simply to augment the regular staff of the committee. And so, a separate new division was established called the Research Division of the Democratic National Committee, separately housed in its own building, some distance from the main committee, where it could fulfill its principal function of preparing material for use by the President's associates in drafting speeches and digging up the information he would need during the course of the campaign.

MORRISSEY: I've noticed in the papers of the various White House staff members in the Truman Library that there was great disappointment that this Research Division was allowed to lapse after the 1948 campaign and not maintained on a


continuing basis. Could you comment on this?

ELSEY: Well, I suppose it depends on whose papers you're looking at. There were some of us on the White House staff, who felt that the Research Division had abundantly demonstrated its usefulness. But, I've just mentioned that it functioned pretty independently in a separate building, and the regular staff of the committee, quite frankly, were upset by this and wanted everything to be back in their own shop, reporting through the normal chain of command. This was just a jurisdictional fight as much as anything else.

Those of us who wanted a vigorous, separate Research Division, felt that if it were simply brought back as part of the publicity section or something of that sort of the national committee, that it would cease to be of much help to us.

The budget had something to do with it too, of course. An operation of that sort is darn expensive, salaries of the staff members and their secretaries and all that sort of thing runs into a whale of a lot of money and that was a factor too. The committee felt that it simply couldn't afford to put that much money into that function.


Yes, there were a number of us who were disappointed, but not everybody on the White House staff felt that way.

MORRISSEY: In your remarks to Kenneth Hechler's class at Princeton in 1949, you mentioned that factually, the whistlestop speeches of 1948 were extremely well prepared. Who did the factual preparation for those speeches?

ELSEY: The background material was done by this Research Division. Every place on a presidential itinerary, every community, no matter how small or how large, was looked into by the Research Division. It prepared digests, briefs, having just the sort of the Baedeker kind of historical, geographical background--population, so on and so forth, anything notable in the history of the place. Then it would focus on the issues of 1948, material on the candidates, both for the incumbent Congressman and his opponent, material on state candidates, if that was germane, a suggestion as to what subject or what topic would be of most interest to the voters of that region, and sometimes, if the Research Division had had enough time, they would outline a suitable talk.

Frequently, the time pressures were so great that they were not able to get on to this last job. But, I


would receive on the train anything from four to five typewritten pages about these communities and the background of the issues believed to be of interest there.

My job on the train was to take this material, on each of these places, and prepare an outline that the President could actually use from the rear platform of the train. Sometimes, where possible, I used as a basis the material that the Research Division had sent out. If they had not been able to do it, I'd do my own. Sometimes I would, despite all the work they'd put into it, I would discard that simply because of the currency of the situation. After all, they were writing some hundreds or some thousands of miles away, thirty-six or forty-eight or seventy-two hours earlier, and I would adapt something that was much more current and that was reflecting the situation of the moment, in the last few hours or the preceding days events. Or, sometimes on the basis of my own conversations with local political figures, who were riding the train with us. I would, where possible--where time permitted, would talk with the local chairmen, local Congressmen, the local Senator, and say that this is what the staff was thinking about for


the President that afternoon or the coming morning. How did this strike them? Sometimes they had good ideas; sometimes their ideas didn't seem to be very germane to the President's pattern of campaigning and they'd necessarily be discarded.

All the President's whistlestop speeches were delivered from outlines of salient points, so that the President didn't have to just stand on his hind legs on the rear platform and shoot from the cuff. That would have been an impossibly difficult situation for him and would have put him under impossible pressure.

MORRISSEY: Were efforts made to correlate the President's campaign with the statewide and congressional campaigns being run at the same time?

ELSEY: Well, if so, it was being done the other way around. The statewide and the local campaigns might have been correlated with the President's. But, at the pace the President was moving--by plane, by train--it was simply not possible to correlate his with what each candidate for a congressional district or for the Senate.

Of course, we tried always to be aware and sensitive to the positions of the party candidates. We


certainly would have avoided, and so far as I know, did avoid, having the President ever take a stand on an issue which was in known and open and direct conflict with the position of, let us say, a Democratic candidate for Senator or for Governor. But, there again, any situation as open as that, the Research Division would have known all about, and would have been very careful to make that point clear. I personally, at the moment, at this late date, can't recall any conflict of that sort.

The Research Division did a magnificent job. They worked like dogs and they ground out an incredible amount of material. They were on the long distance phone all the time, meetings in Washington, Government documents. All kinds of historical, literary, political, economic data flowed from them, and the news clippings, photostats of useful documents, anything that would give spark and vitality and originality and vigor to President Truman's campaign effort. This is what they were after and I think the results obviously speak for themselves.

With respect to the organization on the train, much of the time there were really only two people who


were concerned with speeches per se: Clark Clifford, whose principal concern was with the major addresses, the evening speech in a stadium or in a coliseum, or something of that sort, and I would be with the whistlestop speeches. When Mr. Murphy was with us, which was not on all the trips, he worked with Clifford on the major speeches.

On the whistlestops, I can recall one case, getting as many as sixteen per day and that's an awful lot of stuff to turn out when you're rocketing around in a railroad car.

MORRISSEY: Several people have commented that the President, in l948, was confident throughout the campaign that he was going to win. How about these people that rode the train in the different states? How'd they feel about his chances?

ELSEY: You're referring to local people who came aboard the train?

MORRISSEY: Yes, these people that often gave you good advice on what should go into the whistlestop drafts.

ELSEY: Well, most of the state candidates or local


candidates were concerned, of course, with their own situation. They could size it up pretty well. It was not a case of our asking them what they thought nationally, we were the ones on the receiving end of the questions. They'd want to find out from us, how it was going elsewhere. They could tell us about Keokuk or Kankakee or something of that sort, but as for nationwide, why, we were the ones who were on the receiving end of the questions.

And, whether their opinions were optimistic or pessimistic, depended, of course, on the local situation. Some of them were very optimistic with good reason. Some were optimistic with not very good reason, as it turned out, and the reverse.

With respect to your first point, the President's own optimism, I can testify to this. I never saw President Truman at any point, during the campaign, on the train, or at the White House, or anyplace else, reveal anything other than confidence that he would win, come election day. He was certainly very frank at the early weeks of the campaign that he was behind. He knew he was behind and he said he was behind, but he was catching up and he was confident that by election


day, he would be out in front.

This is easy to say. How do I know that he really felt that way? I can recall one day, we were, I guess, not far from Duluth, Minnesota. We had a ride of about an hour and a half without stops. I had gone back to his car with some additional outlines for some more whistlestop speeches that were coming up. He was alone, everybody else was catching up on much needed sleep or off doing other chores or errands and I handed him my papers and he asked me to sit down and chat a bit. And, it occurred to him at that point that he'd like to check the electoral count. So, acting as stenographer, I wrote out the names of the forty-eight states as he called them off and he told me and he knew the--of course the names of the states--but he also naturally knew the electoral count. Then he told me what column to put the votes in, Republican, Democrat, Dixiecrat, or Progressive.

Well, he didn't hit it exactly on the nose, but, he was in front and his count that afternoon was very close to the final electoral college count. And, this was purely private. He was not putting on a show for anybody. Obviously, he wasn't trying to influence or persuade or sell me. This is what the man, himself,


believed. This is the way he saw the situation turning out. If I'd ever had any doubts about the President's own personal views on the matter, this would have been the clincher, so far as I was concerned.

MORRISSEY: I realize that many people have asked the question many times since l948, that how could observations differ so much; let's say between what the President expected the results of the election to be and what most of the newspapermen riding the train or most pollsters thought it would be?

ELSEY: Well, I think you've got some different . . . you're lumping some different things together there. The newspapermen riding the train, with, I suppose, perhaps a few exceptions, were pretty accurately reporting the growing crowds and the growing enthusiasm and the growing responses that Mr. Truman was getting. Pollsters are something else again. Do you have any evidence that the newspapermen who regularly rode the train thought he was going to be elected?

MORRISSEY: No evidence. That's more of an impression. I should rephrase that to say, "Many newspaper people


writing about the campaign."

ELSEY: Yes, newspaper people writing about the campaign, publishers, wire service people, and so on. I think it was a case fundamentally of, let's just say, bad reporting. People were so convinced, so many months ahead and so many weeks ahead of the election, that Truman didn't have a ghost of a chance. They were convinced after there was a first, a third, and then a fourth party. All evidence, all historical evidence, any kind of evidence anybody could think of, showed that he couldn't possibly win. And, all evid