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
July 10, 1969
Jerry N. Hess
ELSEY: This interview will be based upon a questionnaire submitted to me by Mr. John E. Hopkins of the College of Communications, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio. Jack Hopkins is a candidate for Ph.D. and is working in the field of speech preparation and he has submitted to me a number of questions regarding the preparation of speeches for President Truman. I have requested permission from Mr. Hopkins to make a copy of my responses available to the Truman Library and, hence, this interview will be available both to Mr. Hopkins and to the Truman Library staff. I am requesting the Truman Library staff to keep it closed until December 31, 1970. Following that time, it will be opened to all under the normal rules that prevail at the Truman Library.
The question numbers that I shall refer to are those as listed in Jack Hopkins' questionnaire [see Appendix A], a copy of which is attached to the transcript of this interview.
The first question asks what my undergraduate and graduate school academic majors and minors were. My undergraduate degree was received from Princeton University in 1939. I majored in history. It had been my expectation
that I would teach history at the college level, American history, and so my undergraduate major was in European history. My graduate school work, at Harvard, from 1939 to '41 was in the field of American history.
Jack has asked me to identify two or three academic courses, undergraduate and graduate, that were of particular value to me in preparing presidential addresses for Mr. Truman. I have no special courses that come to mind in response to that question. I feel that the breadth of study that one has in history, world history, European history, American history, is of enormous value because of the scope of one's thinking, the background, the breadth of vision that history, in my prejudiced view, gives one, but I'm not able to put my finger on any particular course that had any more value than any other single one.
As for extra-curricular activities that were of particular value in preparing presidential addresses, I recall none that I would specifically identify. I was involved in some college publications. I was president of a history club and the other normal undergraduate and graduate school activities, but I do not think any of them were particularly helpful.
Question four asks what factors influenced my
personal theory of speechwriting and speechmaking. I think that this is perhaps too philosophical, or too professional a question for me. I don't believe I have any theory of speechwriting or speechmaking. I have some ideas now, based upon my own personal experiences in the last twenty years of fairly extensive public speaking, but I certainly had no theories, as such, in the period that I was working for President Truman. The work that I did on his staff was very practical. My ideas were purely pragmatic, how to get the job done and how to do it most effectively for the "Boss." I believe that I will be elaborating on this further on in the questionnaire.
Question five addresses itself to formal training in the areas of journalism, radio, television, and so on. I had no formal training at any point either prior to or subsequent to my work on the White House staff. In the fields of political science, government, and history, I have already alluded to that in my first and second questions.
Question six, again, is a rather technical one asking for information on my formal training or experience in developing arguments, structuring ideas logically,
adapting to President Truman's language and style. I had no formal training here. The experience was simply on the job experience with respect to meeting the needs of Truman as they arose.
Question seven asks for my business and professional positions held prior to joining the President's staff. I had no professional jobs before joining the President's staff. I went directly from graduate school, in the fall of 1941, into active duty in the Naval Reserve. I was assigned, in early 1942, as a Naval Intelligence officer to the Map Room at the White House and was there for three years, from '42 to '45, and, hence, had been at the White House for three years in a naval capacity, at the time that Truman succeeded to the Presidency in April of 1945. The closest thing I would say to background or training that was of benefit to me in working on presidential messages, documents, speeches, perhaps was the writing of precis, of reports, during those Map Room years. We received, in the Map Room, an enormous volume of intelligence material from the Army and Navy and less voluminous amounts from other Government departments. Those of us who were on duty, all of us young Reserve officers, had to digest these
voluminous reports into very short summaries for the Military and Naval Aides to the President, the chief of staff to the President, who was Fleet Admiral Leahy; Mr. Harry Hopkins, special assistant to the President, and President Roosevelt, and subsequently President Truman. Just the experience of editing, of summarizing, I think--I know, was of value to me in learning to express complex ideas as simply as possible and in handling large amounts of material and distilling the essence, the most important ideas, from this material. During the war years when President Roosevelt, and later Truman, was away from Washington, the Map Room staff would send shore written summaries by coded military channels of communication to the President wherever he was, whether it was Warm Springs, Hyde Park or overseas on one of the military conferences. This, again, was a matter of learning how to make the most of every single word, have it convey the maximum amount of meaning in the most limited space. So, perhaps this background is of, was of some value to me. I happen to think it was. Obviously, this was not direct speech preparation experience, however.
Jack's question eight asks for my business and professional positions since working for the President.
I remained on at the White House through the Truman administration. In 1953 on leaving Government, at the onset of the Eisenhower administration, I joined the headquarters of the American National Red Cross. I was executive assistant to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker when he was president of the Red Cross, subsequently General Alfred N. Gruenther when he succeeded Bunker. In 1958 I became vice president of the Red Cross with responsibility for its international programs and its educational programs. In 1961 I resigned from the Red Cross to enter private industry and from 1961 to the present, I have been associated with Pullman, Inc. I was on leave of absence from Pullman for most of the past year serving with Clark M. Clifford while he was Secretary of Defense.
Questions nine, ten and eleven ask about association with Mr. Truman prior to his assuming the Presidency. I had no contact with Mr. Truman prior to his becoming Vice President in January l945. I met him a few times in a most informal fashion between the November elections and inauguration in '45, but I recall having seen him only twice during the few weeks that he was Vice President. I did not work in any fashion with him or with members of his staff.
Question twelve asks for my official duties and responsibilities as a staff member during the Truman administration. I can only answer that by running through the chronology here because my duties and responsibilities varied from time to time. As noted above, I was a Naval Reserve officer in April l945 when Truman became President, serving at that time as assistant to Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, the Naval Aide to the President. I accompanied Mr. Truman to the Potsdam Conference. By the time he returned from that, the war with Japan was practically over, and so during the fall of 1945, I was working with the new Naval Aide Commodore James K. Vardaman and his assistant, Lieutenant Commander Clark N. Clifford, on many matters relating to demobilization. During the fall of '45 President Truman was much interested in universal military training and began to concern himself, among, of course, his many other new responsibilities, with the postwar organization of the armed forces. He asked Vardaman, and Vardaman in turn asked Clifford, to begin analyzing the many proposals in these two fields, universal military training and postwar organization of the armed forces, prepare summaries for him, write assessments of the
value of different proposals, and I worked with Mr. Clifford in the fall of '45 on into the spring of '46 on these and related matters. In the spring of 1946 Clifford became Naval Aide to the President, Vardaman having moved over to the Federal Reserve Board. I became Clifford's assistant and served, still in uniform, both for Clifford and other members of the White House staff increasingly on civilian matters, not just naval, as theretofore. Clifford became, in the summer of '46, Special Counsel to the President, and I continued as a Naval Reserve commander, by this time spending about three-quarters of my time with Clifford and one-quarter of my time with the new Naval Aide to the President, James K. Foskett. In the spring of "47 I was demobilized and went to work full-time as a civilian for Mr. Clifford, remaining as his assistant until 1949 when I was named one of the Administrative Assistants to President Truman. I was an Administrative Assistant to Truman until December of 1951. At that time Averell Harriman was named director for Mutual Security, a new post just established by law, and the job was prescribed by law as being in the Executive Office of the President. Harriman had the responsibility of pulling together the various foreign aid programs of the Government, point 4 or
technical assistance, or the Marshall plan, military assistance to foreign nations. These several programs had been administered by State, Defense, and an independent agency. They were going their several ways without much coordination and this was a situation that had to be remedied and Harriman's position, as I said, was established by the Congress so there would be one strong official with full legal authority to pull together these several programs. I had known Harriman since the war years and Harriman asked me to leave the immediate White House staff and join him in the Executive Office of the President as his senior assistant. And I remained with Harriman until January 1953 at the end of the Truman administration.
As to describing my official duties and responsibilities, I think, perhaps, there one can deduce them simply from the outline of jobs I held during that period. Obviously, they varied enormously. When you work for the Special Counsel to the President, or when you are an Administrative Assistant to the President, there is no limit to what you're involved in, speeches, writing of statements of messages to Congress, drafting of legislation, representing the White House staff at
interdepartmental meetings, working with the Bureau of the Budget. Across the board there was literally no field of the President's responsibilities or the White House role that at one time or another, I and others, young staff members such as I was, were not exposed to. I'm sorry I can't be more precise, but it's impossible to be precise without spending the next hour listing a lot of minutiae.
Question thirteen asks my first speech preparation duties while on the Truman presidential staff. I'm not sure I recall what the first speech was that I was concerned with. Actually, I had provided some raw material and had done a bit of editing even in the Roosevelt days on statements and speeches that pertained to the conduct of the war. Now Harry Hopkins asked me to give him some comments on materials that he had from time to time. Judge Rosenman, who was Special Counsel to President Roosevelt during most of World War II and for some months into the Truman administration, similarly would turn to me to provide factual material, obtain factual material for him from the War or Navy Department, or sometimes to put that material into a rough draft, sometimes to comment on that draft of material that he
already had. When Clifford, in the fall of '45, began working on universal military training, he found himself very soon providing material for presidential statements and speeches on UMT, on military matters, and just through natural evolution, I found myself just carrying on what I had been doing in the Roosevelt years. In '46 the Truman White House staff was still not very well organized, the carryovers from the Roosevelt administration were mostly gone, President Truman had not yet assembled a fully developed team of his own and all of us were scrambling around pinch-hitting, catching the balls as they flew past if we could catch them and sometimes we didn't. So, I really can't say what the first speech was. I do not recall which speech I would say was the first of the Truman ones I worked on. I can say that the first major policy speech for which I had an assigned, definite responsibility to develop from scratch, was the Truman State of the Union message for January 1947. And since Jack Hopkins has asked a number of questions about the State of the Union, I'll defer any further comment on that one until we get to that point in the questionnaire.
Question fourteen asks for subsequent changes in
my speech preparation duties while on Truman'