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 9, 1970
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin this morning, Mr. Elsey, let me congratulate you on your recent election as president of the American Red Cross.
ELSEY: Thank you very much, Jerry. President Truman took a great interest in the Red Cross while he was President of the United States. Under the congressional charter of the organization, the President of the United States is the honorary president of the Red Cross. President Truman took more than a passing interest in the work of the Red Cross. He appointed General Marshall as president when Basil O'Connor retired, and subsequently appointed Mr. E. Roland Harriman as General Marshall's successor in 1950. Mr. Harriman is still, twenty years later, the principal officer of the Red Cross although the organization's structure, administrative structure, has been changed, and Mr. Harriman's title is now chairman, rather than president.
I can recall traveling with President Truman out to Kansas City at the time of Missouri River floods and
in--my recollection now is the fall of 1950--and while we were out there I can recall the President was keen on getting reports from the Red Cross staff as to the nature of the disaster and the relief work that was going on. But I think that's not what you came to talk to me about this morning.
HESS: That's quite all right. I think historians of the future will be interested to know that one of Mr. Truman's White House staff members has risen to such heights.
Before we begin this morning, our last interview was on foreign affairs, and I found one other thing that I want to call to your attention. It is on page 186 of Mr. Rigdon's book, White House Sailor, and he's talking about the Atlantic Charter, and he mentions in a footnote that you had the, how does he put it, "the communique" that was issued by President Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill, and I believe he said it was signed. He says that that is still in your possession, do you recall that?
ELSEY: That's right, Jerry, it is. And my copy is the only copy of the Atlantic Charter bearing the signatures of
both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. This really doesn't have anything at all to do with the Truman Presidency, but if you wish a digression, I will explain how I happened to have it.
HESS: Let's have a digression. That's marvelous. Actually information pertinent to the Roosevelt administration is not a digression from the Truman administration.
ELSEY: Well, as a one time historian, I am glad to hear you say that the Roosevelt administration is not a digression.
I have always been interested in typography and in printing and the attractive presentation of public documents in broadside form and so on.
In late '42 or early '43 I noted the fact that a broadside had just been published of the Atlantic Charter, that statement of joint aims that had been agreed upon by FDR and Churchill in Argentia, Newfoundland in August of 1941. This particular broadside was designed by Bruce Rogers, who was one of the most famous designers and typographers of his day. It was attractively done, special typeface, handmade paper,
and a very distinguished document in appearance. Because, as I mentioned earlier, I was interested in this type of thing, I ordered a copy of this special printing of the Atlantic Charter from the rare book dealer that my family had known well in New York for many years.
Just a few weeks after I acquired this copy, we learned in the Map Room that Prime Minister Churchill would be coming to visit FDR in May of 1943. Well, bright lights went on in my head and I decided that I would be brazen enough to ask for the Prime Minister's signature on this document. Toward the end of that visit in May of '43, I spoke to Captain Richard Pim who was the head of the Prime Minister's traveling Map Room, that the PM had brought along with him. And in a sense Captain Pim was my, although senior in rank and older than I, was my opposite number in this Map Room exercise. I asked Captain Pim if he thought the Prime Minister would be willing to sign this copy of the Atlantic Charter that I had. Pim said he saw no reason why not, and suggested that I might give it to him because he would be able to catch the Prime Minister more easily than I, at a moment of leisure.
The final morning of the Prime Minister's stay in Washington, just as he was about to take off for England, Pim handed me back the Charter with the signature "Winston S. Churchill" at the bottom. A few moments later the Prime Minister came to the Map Room for a last quick look-see at the situation and to bid us farewell. I thanked him at that occasion for having signed my copy of the Charter. He mumbled something, only semi-intelligible, to the effect that that was the first time he had ever signed it. I didn't really understand what he meant by "first" time he had signed it. And a day or two later as I was walking along the White House corridor from the Map Room back to his office with Harry Hopkins, I mentioned this to Mr. Hopkins and said, "What in the world did the PM mean by saying he had never signed the Charter before?"
Hopkins thought that over for a few paces and said, "Well, he's probably right. I don't think they ever did sign anything up there on that boat."
This got me to thinking even more and so not long thereafter I took my copy of the Charter with the one signature on it over to Miss Grace Tully, who was FDR's personal secretary, and asked if Miss Tully would be kind
enough to have the President to add his signature to the PM's sometime at his convenience.
Miss Tully in her spacious office adjoining the President's oval one, had a large table on which she would pile documents, books, incoming stamps, all sorts of things that FDR might be interested in and that would want to wile away an idle hour or two late in an afternoon or on a weekend. When he was in a relaxed mood, he'd ask Miss Tully to bring in an armload of stuff from her table and she'd take it in. My Charter was added to that collection of stuff on the table.
Weeks went by. I assumed that something had happened, the Charter had been lost, I'd never see it again. But one day, while I was on duty in the Map Room, there was a tap on the door and one of the White House messengers when I answered it, handed me the copy of the Charter simply rolled up with a rubber band around it and said, "Miss Tully said this was yours." I opened it and sure enough there was FDR's name alongside Winston S. Churchill's.
I still didn't really accept as a fact, the statement that neither had ever signed the document before, the full impact of that hadn't yet sunk in on me. I was just pleased to have, what to me was going to be an
interesting souvenir and memento of my fortuitous circumstance with these two men. I put the document away in a safe place for storage.
In the winter of 1944, well over a year later, the allied war effort had moved ahead very considerably, British troops had entered Greece, the Germans were out, there was a good deal of controversy over the political situation in Greece, and the British were alleged to be supporting a reactionary regime in Greece. There was a good deal of hubbub in London, particularly in the Parliament, over the policy of the British government vis-a-vis the various factions in Greece. The Prime Minister was asked one Thursday morning, in the traditional weekly question hour of the House of Commons, whether the policies of the British government in Greece were not in contravention of the principles of the Atlantic Charter. I can't at the moment quote you, but I do have in my files, the exact exchange between the questioner and the Prime Minister, but Mr. Churchill flashed back and somewhat sharply that, to the effect, that the actions of his Majesty's government were not in contravention of the Charter. Furthermore, the Charter had
no binding effect, and indeed he, the Prime Minister, had never signed the Charter. Now, of course, my interest really did begin to perk up and I took pains to attend as I usually did, but not invariably, President Roosevelt's next press conference. Sure enough a question came from the floor from one of the reporters crowded around the President's desk, "Mr. President, the Prime Minister said a few days ago that he had never signed the Charter, how about that?"
And the President, leaning back in his chair, said, "Well, I guess that's right. I've never signed it either."
Well, now I knew that my copy of the Charter indeed was of greater interest to me than I had ever before realized. I kept quiet, of course, and never said anything to anybody that I had something that both men denied ever having signed. But Miss