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
March 9, 1965
Carol Hoffecker and Charles T. Morrissey
MISS HOFFECKER: When you first went into Government work, you were in the Navy, weren't you?
ELSEY: Yes, that's right.
HOFFECKER: In World War II?
HOFFECKER: And that's how you got to know Mr. Clifford?
ELSEY: Correct. I was at the White House at the time of President Roosevelt's death and when Vice President Truman became President. A few weeks after that, when Mr. Truman began assembling his own staff, one of the first men to join him was Clark Clifford, who was then a Naval Reserve officer. Mr. Truman had known him in the prewar days, Mr. Clifford being a prominent attorney in St. Louis. Clifford came to the White House to be Assistant Naval Aide to President Truman and within a year he was serving as Naval Aide and then as Special Counsel to the President. As Special Counsel to the President, from the time he assumed that position until
he left the White House in early 1950, he was the President's principal assistant in the matter of speeches, messages to Congress, and pronouncements of that sort.
HOFFECKER: And you became an assistant to Mr. Clifford?
HOFFECKER: I see. Were Mr. Clifford's assistants divided up into different areas? For example, were you in charge of one particular area and other people in charge of others?
ELSEY: In the first place, the assistants were not plural; they were singular.
HOFFECKER: There was only one?
HOFFECKER: How about Mr. Murphy?
ELSEY: Mr. Murphy came to the White House in '47 as an Administrative Assistant to President Truman, concerned principally with legislative matters, helping the Administration put together its legislative proposals and then push for their enactment. Mr. Murphy came to
the White House from many years of service on the Hill. He'd been in the legislative section of the Senate. While Mr. Murphy worked closely with Clifford, in fact the whole White House staff worked closely together, he was not an assistant to Clifford. He succeeded Clifford as Special Counsel when Clifford resigned in 1950.
HOFFECKER: Did you yourself work on speechwriting tasks? Mr. Clifford's role, from what I've gathered from others, was advising the President particularly on the domestic issues, but in the realm of foreign affairs did he tend to give the President advice on how various foreign policy statements would affect public opinion, as opposed to the State Department's point of view of our foreign policy and how it affects other countries?
ELSEY: Well, let me comment on the beginning of your statement there. Things don't break down into neat little packages, neat little compartments. You don't draw a distinction between domestic and foreign. The White House staff in those days was very much smaller than it is today. At the time, people said it was large because it was larger than Roosevelt's staff. But the point to remember is that as the functions of Government increased, as the place of the United States in world affairs has vastly altered in the
last generation, the White House staff has correspondingly grown. Hoover's was bigger than Coolidge's and FDR's was bigger than Hoover's and Truman's was bigger than Roosevelt's and so on, right up to the present, where Johnson's is bigger than his predecessors. And whoever succeeds Mr. Johnson is going to have a White House staff that causes people of that time to say, "My goodness, how could it have ever grown so much?"
But to get back to the Truman period, it was a small group. We did not have neat little compartments, little boxes, one person being assigned or one group of people being assigned to one area of work and another group to another. You coped with the problems and the chores as they came up and it might one day be concerned with a veto on a major matter of domestic legislation and the next day a speech that the President was going to make to a group of visiting dignitaries from another country. In between times you were working on two messages that were going to the Congress the next week, and there probably would be an acceptance speech of an honorary degree from some college thrown in there too. At that point, Clifford and I, and the people that we would borrow from time to time from the Bureau of the
Budget or other Government agencies, did what had to be done. There wasn't a matter of one group being domestic and another group being foreign and another group being political, another group concerned with Capitol Hill relations. Today, as you know, the White House staff being larger, the problems of the Presidency being much bigger, there is a degree of organization and specialization which simply was nonexistent in the Truman time.
Now, you had another part of your question there. Did Mr. Clifford tend to advise the President on let's say, the domestic implications of a foreign policy matter, whereas the State Department would be concerned with perhaps the international repercussions? Well, that's doing the State Department something of an injustice. I don't think that the Department has ever been oblivious to domestic concerns or domestic reactions. After all, the most articulate expression of domestic opinion is the Congress, and most certainly the State Department is never oblivious to what the Senate and the House think. It can't be; it can't afford to be, and the Secretary of State and the Under Secretary and the various assistants, in many ways, their feet were much closer to a much hotter fire because they
are the ones then and now who testify, who have the cross-examination, who have to go up and defend the administration policies. So to think that the State Department lives in something of an ivory tower and is concerned only about what London or Paris or Moscow think is, as I say, not doing it full justice. It is true that the White House staff in the Truman administration would sometimes feel that the State Department had not fully taken into account some of the domestic considerations, that we might want to alter, or propose to alter, some draft language. In fact, we frequently did. This was because of just a different point of view, a different interpretation possibly of the significance of some domestic concern. It was not that we were suddenly adding an ingredient that the State Department hadn't even thought of at all. I suppose Israel would be a good example, where the White House--probably that's the best example--where the White House was more sensitive to the domestic political implications of U.S.-Middle Eastern relations than the Department, and an area of argument sometimes ensued.
HOFFECKER: Why was the White House staff more sensitive to this? Was this because the Zionists were putting greater
pressure on the White House staff? Or because the White House staff was more concerned with Mr. Truman's political future?
ELSEY: Well, the President, of course, is a political leader. He's not President if he isn't a political leader, or he doesn't stay President very long if he's not a political leader, and a President has to be concerned with the domestic political implications of international matters, and there were very, very strong emotions in many areas in the United States, particularly the large cities of the East, on the independence of Israel. This is not solely a partisan matter. Republicans and Democrats alike were concerned. The parties were jockeying for position in this matter, and particularly as the '48 election approached. And if you didn't have your fingertips sand papered to the sensitivities of a matter of this sort, it would be easy for domestic political quarrelling to break out in such a fashion that it could have serious international repercussions. I mean if you get one party out-promising another party, this can cause hell overseas.
HOFFECKER: In other words, if Mr. Truman hadn't taken a strong stand in favor of Israel, Mr. Dewey certainly would
have, as he did, and this would have been disruptive of American political life in general? I see your point there.
How about the Vinson mission. Did that start as an idea in the White House staff?
ELSEY: No, I don't think that did start as an idea in the White House staff. That started principally as an idea from some friends and associates who were not on the White House staff. It was, from my personal point of view, a grandstand public relations gesture that was not very well thought through. It didn't make sense then and it has never made sense since.
HOFFECKER: Do you think the President would agree with you on that statement? I mean, that it was a grandstand political gesture, or public relations gesture? Obviously, he wouldn't agree that it didn't make sense or he wouldn't have done it. Did he see it in terms of public relations or did he see it entirely in terms of easing the tensions between the United States and Russia?
ELSEY: I think he was willing to give these friends who were urging it their day in court. They felt very
keenly and very strongly about it and he thought the idea was at least worth exploring and he was unwilling to reject out of hand an idea which was presented to him with much cogency and much fervor.
HOFFECKER: Was the idea presented in terms of American foreign relations or President Truman's political image?
ELSEY: It was presented in terms of American foreign relations.
HOFFECKER: When you were preparing speeches did you make use of the public opinion mail that the White House received or the public opinion polls, or any other sources of information for reaching public opinion?
HOFFECKER: How did you arrive at a notion of what public opinion was, and how it would react to a statement?
ELSEY: Well, the President's job is to lead public opinion, not to be a blind follower. The President can't sit around when he's faced with a crisis like the -- well, to use an example, the January, February, March '47
period, when the United States Government on very short notice was confronted with the fact that the British were going to pull out of Greece. You can't sit around and wait for public opinion to tell you what to do. In the first place, there isn't any public opinion. The public doesn't know anything about it; they haven't heard about it. You must decide what you're going to do and do it, and attempt to educate the public to the reasons for your action. Of course, you watch with interest to what the public response is after that, but you don't allow yourself to decide what you're going to do on the basis of public opinion polls.
HOFFECKER: The reason I asked was, taking that as an example, the Greek-Turkish Aid bill, in the Joseph Jones book he makes a big point of the fact that in the preparation of the President's speech there was an effort to avoid talking much about Britain, because there was a lot of anti-British feeling in the country, and to avoid talking about Turkey because our aid there was going to be primarily military, and American public opinion probably wouldn't accept military aid at that point, and to make a big point about how the United Nations can't handle the situation because public opinion would
probably favor the United States nations handling it if it were at all possible--these sort of things . . . how did they know about that?
ELSEY: They didn't, and neither did Mr. Jones then and neither does Mr. Jones now. Mr. Jones has written a whole book about something that was done in a matter of a very few days. You don't sit down and take time to think through and debate ad nauseam all these points. You don't have the time. You've got a job. You've got fifteen or twenty minutes to present your case to the Congress or over the radio to the public, as it was primarily then, and soon of course to become TV, and you don't sit around thinking of all the things you can't or shouldn't do. You try to state what has to be done and what you propose to do in simple, cogent terms. And somebody else can later sit around for days and weeks and lie on the psychoanalytic couch and figure out how things might have been done differently. This is all very well and very interesting but quite irrelevant.
HOFFECKER: When you people in the White House staff think about public opinion are you likely to think of it as being synonymous with the opinion of Congress, since
that's the first major barrier from your point of view?
ELSEY: I think it's awfully hard to generalize on something of that sort. It depends on what the subject is, what the timing is, whether you have a legislative problem on your hands in which case you think of Congress. If it is not immediately a legislative problem, of course, your mind is not much on Congre