George M. Elsey Oral History Interview, July 17, 1969

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.

July 17, 1969
Jerry N. Hess

[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
July 17, 1969
Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Elsey, to begin this afternoon, would you tell me about the organization of the White House staff and about some of the duties of some of the various people who served on the staff during the Truman administration?

ELSEY: Before we get to specific individuals, Jerry, and specific jobs, I'd like to make some general comments. First, the White House staff in the Truman administration was never a static institution. It never had a table of organization and precise duties. It varied from, not from month to month, that would be an exaggeration, but certainly, from year to year, and what I would tell you about the Truman White House staff in 1945 would be very different from what I would tell you about the Truman staff in 1951 or '52. So, time, the calendar, is a factor here in considering the size of the staff, the individuals on the staff, the nature of their duties. Indeed even President Truman's own concept of what his staff was for and what he wanted it to do. A second point that is very important especially now, when we're


in the late 1960s, looking back over twenty years, we have to be careful not to judge the Truman staff by the kind of a White House staff which more recent Presidents have had. The White House staff now is a big institution. I don't know the current number on President Nixon's staff, but it seems that, in the last week, I've seen announcements of three new people being added to the Nixon White House staff. It was a big place in the Johnson administration; not quite so big in the Kennedy administration, and the Eisenhower staff seemed large to those of us who had been there with Truman. But it seems small when you look back on it from the current time. So, when we discuss the White House, the Truman White House staff, please bear in mind that it was a small group. Don't expect that it was structured, organized, clearly defined, to the way we have, and political scientists, scholars, writers, and others have come to expect White House staffs to be organized.

Well, with those general remarks out of the way, okay, fire away.

HESS: Beginning with the Brownlow Commission, can you tell me about the organization of the White House staff as


far as the Administrative Assistants are concerned?

ELSEY: Well, I don't know that I need to go all the way back to the Brownlow Commission, and the Administrative Assistants as FDR appointed them and initiated the idea. But, by the time that President Truman took office, in April of '45, it was a well-established practice to have three, four, or five men on the staff bearing the title of Administrative Assistant to the President. Their duties varied. Their duties varied with the individual concerned, with the problems of the moment. James Forrestal, for example, had come down from New York to be an Administrative Assistant to FDR prior to going over to the Navy Department. Most of the Administrative Assistants in the war years, and this held true into the Truman administration, were there for fairly brief periods. There might have been a specific ad hoc task the President wanted done and this was a convenient title and a convenient rank, position, to utilize for that purpose. Administrative Assistants were not expected to have line responsibilities of any sort. The only Administrative Assistant of the late Roosevelt and early Truman period who had a pretty sharply defined function, and who stayed for a long period was


David K. Niles. Dave Niles continued to do for Truman, what he had for FDR, be an adviser on civil rights, minority problems, relations with Jewish, Negro, and other racial or religious interests. He's an exception to the practice of Administrative Assistants that I've just mentioned.

I don't believe that at any time Truman ever had on board the full six Administrative Assistants authorized by law. The number went up and down, three, four, five, perhaps he had six for a brief period, but I don't happen to recall when it was. I was named an Administrative Assistant in August of 1949 and remained one for a little over two years. During that period of time, I worked on speeches, legislative matters, relations with State Department, National Security Council in particular, and the many, many questions pertaining to defense matters that arose with the outbreak of the Korean war in January 1950. It was, as a matter of fact, my involvement, my concentration on foreign matters, after the outbreak of the Korean war, that led to my transferring from the immediate White House staff to that of Averell


Harriman in December '51 when Harriman became Director for Mutual Security. But that's another story and not relevant here. I'm sure you have available from congressional directories and the Government Manual, the names and tenure of the individuals who served as Administrative Assistants. Names that come quickly to mind are David Lloyd, David Bell, Dick Neustadt, Charlie Murphy, who came to the White House in the spring of '47 as Administrative Assistant, remained there for three years at which point he became Special Counsel to the President succeeding Clifford. At any given point in time, if you took just a slice of time, and tried to analyze what these men were doing, you'd find quite a different picture from what you would find at, say, six months after that date. The workload ebbed and flowed with the problems of the Administration, with whether or not an election was in the offing, whether the Congress was 80th, Republican dominated, or 81st, Democratic controlled.

HESS: What was the relationship between the Administrative Assistants and the Special Counsel?

ELSEY: Well, this too varied from time to time. Sam Rosenman,


who had been brought down from New York by Roosevelt in the middle of the war to assist on speech matters and congressional relations, had no particular relationship with Administrative Assistants as I recall it. Nor did Clark Clifford who succeeded Rosenman for the first year or so that he was Special Counsel. But as Clifford's experience in the Government grew, as his knowledge and prestige, and general expertise, broadened, President Truman began to assign more and more major substantive problems to Clifford to study and advise on, and Clifford needed help, and needed more assistance, and began scouting around. He turned to Charlie Murphy in the spring of '47, when Murphy came to the White House from the Senate Legislative Drafting Service. Because of Murphy's long association on the Hill and intimate knowledge of congressional procedures, Clifford found Murphy's advice invaluable and the two of them established a very warm cooperative, effective partnership. Officially and theoretically, at any rate, Administrative Assistants reported directly to the President and were not subordinate to the Special Counsel to the President. As a matter of practice, however, it developed that, beginning with Clifford and Murphy's relationship, one or more of the


Administrative Assistants were clustered around the Special Counsel and tended, if not to work directly for him, to take his advice and guidance and follow his leadership as they went about their daily tasks and chores. After Clifford left the White House in February of 1950 to enter the private practice of law and Murphy succeeded him, Murphy followed the same practice that Clifford had of being the primus inter pares amongst some of the White House staff members. And being the practical, if not the officially designated leader of a team of two or three of the Administrative Assistant.

HESS: What was the relationship between the Special Counsel and Dr. Steelman, The assistant to the President?

ELSEY: This has always been a tough area to define. John Steelman was the incredibly energetic and capable and busy, all around workhorse of the White House staff. It's very easy to overlook the enormous volume of business that the President of the United States has to do in his capacity as Chief Executive, as chief administrator, as chief bureaucrat, if you want to call him that, of the executive branch of the


Government. The public at large tends to think of the President in his more dramatic, flashy roles, in foreign policy as commander in chief, as a political leader and he is all of those things as we know. But, in addition, he is the head of a department, of a branch of the Government, consisting of many departments, of multiple independent agencies, a couple of million civil servants, and so on and so forth; and the sheer volume of paper work and administrative problems, personnel assignments, so on so forth, all this comes to the White House in a steady stream and an unremitting stream. Well, John Steelman was the man who coped for the President with this area of the President's job. Steelman had a bigger staff than the Special Counsel or anyone else because the sheer volume of work required it. Steelman, if I have to make a generalization, I'm sure I can be challenged on this by others, but as I look back on it, Steelman's job was that of an administrator of the normal, ongoing, every day work of the White House. The Special Counsel in contrast, was more of a trouble-shooter for the President, and speechwriter, drafter of very special bills that had to go to the


Hill. He would move from hot spot to hot spot, from crisis to crisis, with and for and on behalf of the President. Now, this doesn't mean that John Steelman never became involved in crisis situations. Because of his long background in Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service; because of his acknowledged reputation as an expert in labor matters, in all major strike situations or other threatened strike situations where labor management problems came to the foremost, John Steelman was very much on the spot. In fact he was the man to whom the President principally looked at times of that sort. But that's an exception to the generalization I've been making about Steelman's normal role and is due less to the job that he held than to his personal background experience and field of expert knowledge. It became a practice, and unfortunate practice in my eyes, amongst some of the White House correspondents and writers of the time, to tend to elevate the Special Counsel over the Steelman role and to think the Special Counsel, because he was front and center in crisis times, was somehow more important than the Steelman job, which was carried out in Steelman's East Wing group


of offices. That was not the way I saw it then, nor the way I see it now. Each was absolutely essential to the President and Mr. Truman could not have survived in the White House without someone doing what John Steelman did so very well for him. The Steelman role, of course, evolved. Here again, of what I'm speaking about was I suppose, the period '48, '49, '50, '51, in the very early, the first couple of Truman years, the Steelman role was evolving from what had been the job of Jimmy Byrnes during then, was as "Assistant President," as Byrnes loved to be called, moving on into the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion. Looking back on it very quickly, it seemed to me that the sequence went from Byrnes to Fred Vinson, who left when he became Chief Justice, then John Snyder, who held it briefly until he became Secretary of the Treasury, then John Steelman. The first, oh say, eighteen months of the Truman administration that was a war of demobilization, if you will, exercise. The comments I have been making about John Steelman were after the war was well behind us when we were moving into the peacetime period. Now Steelman had, once the Korean War broke out, and by the winter of '50-'51 when wage and prices began to get


out of hand again, Steelman had a major role in all matters relating to economic stabilization and the President relied on him very, very heavily in that area. Steelman as I recall it, again I would have to go back and look at some records myself, at the very end of the Truman administration, he was serving as Chairman of the National Security Resources Board in addition to being The Assistant to the President.

HESS: If an organizational chart had been drawn up of the White House staff, would one or the other of those gentlemen have been rated somewhat higher or were they considered to be equal?

ELSEY: Oh, they were always considered to be equal. They would not have been rated higher and nobody tried to rate them higher. If anyone had, why, President Truman would have seen to that in a hurry. Their salaries were the same, for whatever that is worth. Their salaries were the highest on the White House staff, next ranking after them were the three secretaries to the President; the Appointments Secretary, the Press Secretary, and the Correspondence Secretary. The third rank after that were the Administrative Assistants to the President.


HESS: Do you know how Dr. Steelman obtained the title The Assistant to the President?

ELSEY: No, I don't really recall how that came about. Probably, if I had to make a stab in the dark, it was to differentiate the role from that of--well certainly to differentiate it from the Administrative Assistants to the President, and there had been, from time to time, a few people called Special Assistant to the President and those were special in the sense that ordinarily they were very temporary for specific spot jobs. The antecedent