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George M. Elsey Oral History Interview, April 9, 1970

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.

April 9, 1970
Jerry N. Hess

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

 


Notice
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.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
April 9, 1970
Jerry N. Hess

[250]

ELSEY: Jerry, I believe the papers in box one speak for themselves. They are clearly identified by folder, and unless you have questions on any of them, I don't believe any explanatory statement is necessary. If at a later date, someone at the Truman Library wishes further explanations as to the material, of course, I'll be glad to provide it.

HESS: I have no questions on that. My first question comes up in box number two. So, let's just shift boxes here. And box number two is mostly on Roosevelt.

Just to hit them lightly, I found a couple of things of interest in this large manila envelope in box number two and the folder is entitled, "Conference Agreements." The second question I had dealt with Palestine, "see memo on Jews to Palestine in Palestine folder," and this one mentions that on February 14, 1947 in a conversation with Ibn-Saud, President Roosevelt remarked that he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs, and he would make no move hostile to the Arab

[251]

people. And it speaks that he would not want to move the Jewish people into the Arab lands without the agreement of the Arabs. Was this well known at the time as Mr. Roosevelt's stand?

ELSEY: No, I'm sure none of this was well known at the time. These were all highly classified statements. Incidentally, you mentioned--used the date 1947, I'm sure that was in error, you meant 1945.

HESS: '45, yes.

ELSEY: This memorandum was a summary of papers, highly classified papers, in the White House files and I am sure that everything, at least those items subsequent to April 12, '45 which are referred to here, would all now be in the Truman Library at Independence. Some of them might still be in that highly personal collection of papers of the President.

HESS: Yes, Mr. Truman's private papers.

ELSEY: Yes.

HESS: Did you write this memo?

[252]

ELSEY: Yes, and I gather that at the date, it was completed on April 2, 1945, since that date appears in longhand here. And here is a transmittal note that I sent it to Admiral Leahy on October 2, '45. This would have-apparently was prepared at Admiral Leahy's request.

HESS: Here is a document on FDR and De Gaulle. It is still marked "Top Secret" and it's by you on President Roosevelt's policy towards De Gaulle. And it says that the President stated his views about De Gaulle very clearly. What do you recall about Roosevelt's statements about De Gaulle?

ELSEY: Well, I think it's best to refer to the memorandum because they are all summarized, paraphrased, or excerpted in this memorandum, and rather than my trying to quote from memory, I think I would simply cite the memorandum itself and as the opening sentence, or sentences, the material here does come from exchanges of messages between FDR and Churchill, most of this does. This is one of the many background papers prepared in preparation for the Potsdam Conference. This is one of the many, all done under Admiral Leahy's direction, or at his request, so

[253]

that Admiral Leahy would have reference material at hand, and so that Admiral Leahy could discuss with President Truman prior to, and enroute to Potsdam, these-some of the more significant political issues that would be coming up at that conference.

HESS: What other political issues do you recall . . .

ELSEY: Here you see is an example. This all started the 7th of June with a note from Frank Pinney, Jr. who was Admiral Leahy's aide. "The Admiral would like a resume of our relations with De Gaulle as revealed in presidential messages." So, this was in compliance with that request and that's typical of the kind of requests, the kind of matters that Leahy was having summarized for the new President's use.

HESS: Well, the other thing that I had on my list and I can't find right now, dealt with Mr. Roosevelt's acceptance of the [Henry, Jr.] Morgenthau plan, and was that well known at the time?

ELSEY: Back to (excuse me, but I'll interrupt), back to the Palestine papers that you asked about. You'll see here

[254]

this longhand note that the documents cited were returned to Miss [Rose] Conway on October 13, 1945, so these various secret memoranda, minutes of conversation, and so on, were borrowed from Miss Conway and put together in this brief five-page synopsis used by Leahy in conversations with the President, and then returned by Leahy to me, and the back-up papers I handed to Miss Conway.

HESS: Are these Leahy's initials?

ELSEY: That's WDL, that's Admiral Leahy. Leahy had-this is again Admiral Leahy's initials.

HESS: What do you recall about the President's views on the Morgenthau plan?

ELSEY: Are you citing a particular memorandum in here?

HESS: Well, yes. It's supposed to be in box two, in a large folder and it's supposed to be "Conference Agreements." Do you see anything in here entitled "Conference Agreements?" We do have folder number two?

ELSEY: "Conference Agreements," yes.

[255]

HESS: Yes, Quebec was where this was brought up of course.

There are several things still marked "Top Secret" here.

ELSEY: Here on page 8 of a memorandum which I sent to Admiral Leahy on May 23, 1945, you'll find a synopsis of what is popularly, and publicly called the Morgenthau plan. The President did agree to it, and this is an excerpt from the minutes of the meeting:

  • And the President and the Prime Minister agreed on a policy towards Germany.

and here is really the key sentence of what was popularly called the Morgenthau plan:

  • This program for eliminating the warmaking industries in the Ruhr and the Saar is looking forward to converting Germany into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character. The Prime Minister and the President were in agreement on this program.

HESS: If they were in agreement at that time, why wasn't that carried out, or carried further than it was? Was that sort of impractical in a country that had so much iron and coal and a history of steel making?

ELSEY: Yes. And I think the basic reason why it was not carried out was the fact that within a matter of, oh,

[256]

months after the second Quebec conference, the United States began to be much more concerned about the political aspirations of the Soviet Union on the continent of Europe, and the recognition that if Germany were completely demilitarized and turned into a pastoral country, the whole of Europe would be wide open to takeover by the Soviet Union. That was the principal reason why the Morgenthau plan was not ever carried into effect by the United States and Britain.

HESS: The remainder of the box consists of six manila envelopes, all with Roosevelt labels. Anything else in this box?

ELSEY: In many of those as you recognize are magazines, newspapers contemporary public statements which I saved for, not knowing what future use might be made of them or might be required of them. There--Admiral [Wilson] Brown who was Roosevelt's Naval Aide most of the war, was very much concerned about having adequate records maintained for President Roosevelt's own use in writing about the war. Of course, this all ended with Roosevelt's death, but I saved all sorts of things for

[257]

that purpose, not having any idea what the ultimate use might be.

We're wasting all of your tape there, Jerry.

HESS: Oh, don't worry about that, tape's cheap.

That's all the specific questions that I have out of box two. Let's get on to box three.

ELSEY: I might make a comment about those memoranda that are in there that were prepared at Leahy's, primarily at Leahy's request, some at Harry Hopkins' request, for President Truman. Many, I'm sure will be found to be incomplete in many respects. Their value lies not so much that they were total and complete stories, but they reveal exactly what information was in the White House at that time. I had total access, unrestricted access, to the files of Admiral Leahy, Harry Hopkins, the Map Room papers of President Roosevelt that were retained in the White House for a very long period after FDR's death, and the papers, the personal papers, of President Truman. So, when I prepared for Leahy, for example some of those files, reports, we were just looking at, briefing papers in preparation for the Potsdam conference, that--

[258]

those do contain accurate, as accurate as I could make them, summaries of everything that was available in the White House. Now, if a scholar finds that they are greatly deficient in key respects, which a scholar may or may not find, I don't know that he will, but if he does, the significance of that would be that that data just simply was not available in the White House to the new administration. That, I think is the principal virtue to having these papers now available. You can check to see whether . . .

HESS: What was missing and what wasn't.

ELSEY: What was missing.

HESS: Decisions had to be made actually….

ELSEY: Decisions had to be made on what was there, present, and that is as accurate as it was possible to make them to reveal what was in the White House at that time.

HESS: Before we go further into that, my eye lands on the file relating to the Yalta Conference and in the latest Saturday Review of Literature, there is an article by a doctor who examined Roosevelt in 1944. Have you seen

[259]

that article yet?

ELSEY: Howard Bruenn. I have not seen the article, I saw news stories about that.

HESS: What is your view of Mr. Roosevelt's health in the last year of his life?

ELSEY: I certainly wouldn't attempt to make any medical evaluation, that's obviously out of the question. I had great respect for Bruenn and I know that everyone else around there held him in extremely high regard. I would simply have to accept anything that Dr. Bruenn says, from the medical point of view, as being accurate. I would also say that I would place a higher degree of reliability on what Bruenn writes than on the "quickie" book published in Admiral Ross McIntire's name, oh, fairly soon after FDR's death. McIntire's book I found then gravely deficient, sloppy and full of errors. It was ghostwritten by someone who didn't know the situation very well and I think Ross McIntire did himself and FDR an injustice by painting much too rosy a picture. If you compare McIntire and Bruenn I'm sure you will find wide discrepancies and my chips are on Bruenn, not on

[260]

Ross McIntire.

HESS: It mentioned in the article that I read this morning that they had sort of left it up to McIntire to tell the President about his enlarged heart and his failing health and they are not so sure if he did tell him. They thought that perhaps since he had been giving glowing reports over the years, he just didn't want to.

ELSEY: Whether McIntire did or not, of course, I have no way of knowing.

HESS: All right, the first one in the next box is on the Berlin Conference. I don't have any particular questions on this. It seems to be photographs and some newspapers . . .

ELSEY: Press clippings . . .

HESS: Press clippings . . .

ELSEY: …copies of releases.

HESS: Press releases and things of that nature. The surrender of Japan. Anything important there?

ELSEY: I don't think anything here that is not self-explanatory.

[261]

HESS: Now, the next two folders deal with Clark Clifford's Russian report, which I noticed Arthur Krock quotes in total, I believe, in the appendix of his new book.

ELSEY: Right.

HESS: Is that right?

ELSEY: That's right.

HESS: Can you tell me about the writing of that report? Did you assist Mr. Clifford in the writing of that report?

ELSEY: I think you'll find the whole story of that in here including every draft all the way through from my longhand and other typings right on through to the tail end.

HESS: Your longhand. Did you write it?

ELSEY: All you have to do is look at the draft to get the answer to that.

HESS: Well, that looks like it's all in your hand doesn't it? I think you wrote it.

ELSEY: And various memoranda on chapters. But Mr. Clifford

[262]

worked on it. You'll find some of the drafts with his handwriting where he edited it.

HESS: Is this his handwriting?

ELSEY: Yes, that is his handwriting.

HESS: Rather small and precise type of handwriting.

ELSEY: Yes. His changes are shown in here.

I also have, in some of the drafts of the various chapt