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 7, 1970
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right, Mr. Elsey, to begin with this morning let's discuss foreign aid and foreign affairs. And for our first question let's just compare the way that the White House staff is used and is instrumental in the establishment of foreign policy today, and the way that it was in Mr. Truman's administration.
ELSEY: The first point to bear in mind is that the White House staff is very much larger now than it was in the Truman administration, and particularly in this matter of foreign affairs. As every reader of the press, and every observer of the White House scene knows, Dr. [Henry A.] Kissinger has a large staff, thirty to forty professionals, working for him in the field of foreign policy. In the closing days of the Johnson administration, Dr. Walt Rostow had the comparable job, and in the Kennedy administration and early Johnson days, it was McGeorge Bundy. There was no operation, no group, in any way resembling this in the Truman administration.
As I think we've said in earlier interviews, the White House staff was a very small group throughout most of the Truman administration. It did grow slowly through the seven years, but it was a fraction in numbers of what today's White House staff is.
There were no "experts" on foreign affairs in the White House. There were a few of us on the White House staff who dealt on a pretty regular basis with the Department of State and the Department of Defense. I was one of them, but we did not purport to be foreign policy makers or foreign policy experts. The President looked to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the advice, the opinions, the information, and the recommendations that he needed in formulating foreign policy decisions. The National Security Council was organized as a result of passage of the National Security Act of 1947 and the NSC from the time it was created and through the remaining years of the Truman administration, was the focus of the major foreign policy discussions within the administration.
Dean Acheson's book tells, books tell as well as any single source that I can think of, of the relationship
between Mr. Truman and his Secretary of State, and the Department of State in those days. There was no--nothing in any way that compares with the, say, the last ten years in the White House structure, whereby foreign policy matters flowed through a large White House staff, were sifted, pulled apart, examined, put back together again, before being presented to the President. Nothing like that.
I can recall a couple of years ago I was asked by an interviewer, whose full biography at that time I did not know, how I accounted for the golden age of the State Department. And I asked him what he meant by the golden age of the State Department and he said he was referring to that period of '46, '47, '48, when such fundamental matters as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, the Berlin airlift, many very critical, crucial decisions were made. Why couldn't the State Department be as innovative and brave and decisive today as it was then? He asked the question in 1968 and my answer was: "Because in those days there was no Walt Rostow." I was referring to the fact that there was a sizeable staff of people at the White
House who tended then, and I believe the tendency still exists, to smother, to blanket, the State Department. My answer was not very tactful because the man who was asking me the question was an alumnus of the Rostow staff at the White House, and he didn't think there was anything funny about the answer. I didn't intend to be funny, but I do think that when the President is--any President, is surrounded by a large White House staff which figures, which assumes, that it knows more than the responsible department of Government about the area of responsibility of that department, the department is bound to suffer. The President doesn't get the best thinking that the department is capable of, and as a result he may not always come out with the best decisions. But these are generalizations, and perhaps the generalizations will have more meaning if we move on, Jerry, to specific points.
HESS: One point that I would like to cover deals with the fact that you mentioned that the State Department was in charge of foreign policy during that time. Wasn't the State Department against the recognition of the State of Israel? Weren't there elements, major elements,
within the State Department against the recognition of the State of Israel and weren't they overruled by Mr. Truman and his advisers?
ELSEY: Yes, there were foreign service officers who had very serious questions about the recognition of the State of Israel. Not just in the State Department. A number of people in the Department of Defense felt the same way. James Forrestal was particularly concerned about American policy as regards the Palestinian problem because, having been Secretary of the Navy, he was much concerned about the availability of Middle Eastern oil, for not only at our military establishment, but for our industrial economy, and he was pretty jittery about any actions which would so disturb the Middle East that it might cut off access of the United States to oil in the Arab countries.
So, it's not just the Department of State, there were a number of people both in and out of Government who questioned the advisability of the United States' recognition of an independent Israel.
It was a tough question, views were strongly and sharply held in the Congress, in the press, in the
executive branch and throughout the United States. The President took all the factors into account. When he decided to recognize Israel, the critics who had taken the opposite position, of course, cried politics. Regardless of what decision he might have made, those that didn't like the decision would have cried politics, because it was a question in which there never has been a unanimity of opinion in this country.
HESS: On that matter, who do you think were the President's principal advisers? Who were the most important people to advise him to go ahead with the recognition of the State of Israel?
ELSEY: I'm not sure that I can name any two, three, or four individuals, and I'm not sure that it would serve any purpose even if I were to name individuals , because as I said a few moments ago, the question of Israel, whether or not there should be an independent Israel, whether it should be recognized by the United States, those were matters that had been in the forefront of public debate for a number of years. And the President, as a former member of the Senate, as a, briefly, Vice President, and then as President since April of '45, was
fully conscious of the divergent opinions. He had heard from Zionist leaders, he had heard from Arab groups, pro-Arab groups, he just took advice and counsel and listened patiently, and I suppose at times impatiently, to conflicting points of view, and made up his mind on the basis of, I suppose hundreds of conversations over a period of many years. I don't, I really can't put my finger on a name and say, "This is the man who advised Harry Truman and whose advice was accepted."
HESS: Do you recall what recommendation Dave Niles, the man who was in charge of such matters, perhaps in charge of Jewish matters, gave in this matter?
ELSEY: Dave Niles was a most secretive individual who slunk rather furtively around the corridors of the White House and the Executive Office Building and Dave Niles rarely, if ever, confided to his White House colleagues as to what he said to the President or what his recommendations were. Part of the influence that Niles liked to have people feel he had on the President was his, was this secretiveness. I don't believe he saw the President nearly as often as Niles would lead his
friends on the outside to believe that he saw him. Niles had many Zionist friends, but he did try to maintain contacts with, at least for a number of years, with non-Zionists as well. I suppose Dave Niles was a--well, I shouldn't say I suppose, I'm confident that he would have urged the recognition of Israel, but you tend to discount the recommendations of a man whose position is so well-known.
Dave Niles had been regarded for many years in the Roosevelt administration, and on into the Truman administration, as a representative of, or spokesman for, I should say rather than of, spokesman for various minority groups in the United States and as the Zionist clamor grew louder and louder, David Niles, who was Jewish, was just expected to be setting forth their point of view. Well, when you know what position a man is going to present, it doesn't have any particularly outstanding merit or weight. You don't give it any special t