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, 1970
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right, Mr. Elsey, to begin this morning, let's discuss your duties at the office of the Director of Mutual Security. I believe that you went over there in about November of 1951. Is that correct?
HESS: Why was that transfer made from the regular--as a staff member of the regular White House staff, to Mr. Harriman' s staff?
ELSEY: Mr. Harriman returned to Washington a few days after the outbreak of the Korean war, in the later part of June or the first day or two of July 1950, at the President's personal request, because he thought it would be extremely useful, helpful to him to have Harriman close at hand. With the outbreak of the Korean conflict, there was much uncertainty as to the long-range intentions of the Soviet Union, just what might be brewing in other parts of the Communist world, and Mr. Harriman had more firsthand experience and a better knowledge of the Soviet leadership,
Soviet mentality, the Soviet outlook, than any of the other senior diplomats and the President thought it would be very helpful, highly desirable to have Harriman on hand to help the White House, the State Department, the military, analyze and--in the course of events that would be unfolding.
I had known Mr. Harriman only very casually from fairly frequent meetings during when he would be back in Washington during the war years and the postwar when he was Secretary of Commerce, but I certainly did not know him at all intimately. However, very quickly I began working with him in the--as he assumed his new role as a Special Assistant to the President in the summer, fall of 1950, and increasingly closely with him and the small staff that he assembled.
In the middle of 1951 the foreign aid bill, which was slowly working its way through the Congress, contained a provision establishing an office, a new post, that had not previously existed, Director for Mutual Security, and that director was to be placed in the Executive Office of the President. The role of the man, the role of the office, was to coordinate the old Marshall plan, which had now broadened to a world-wide basis; of point 4, which
was being administered within the State Department as the Technical Cooperation Administration, and the Military Assistance which was over in the Pentagon. So, we had three related, but not too well coordinated foreign aid activities. The military didn't want Military Assistance put in State, nor the Marshall plan. The ECA was much too large to be absorbed within State. It wanted, everybody agreed that it ought to remain independent. So, it seemed that the only way to coordinate all of these activities was from the White House with a legally authorized, constituted person. And the job description--the law I think was actually written with Averell Harriman in mind.
When the Mutual Security Act of '51 did become a law in the final few weeks of '51, Harriman was sworn in as Director for Mutual Security and for quite some time during the autumn of that year he had asked, in fact sort of assumed, that I would join him in that newly established office. And so I did. The transfer was a lateral transfer, if you will, from the immediate White House office to Harriman's. I had been working as I said before, increasingly closely with him and his
staff for well over a year, so this was about almost an official recognition of a status already existing.
HESS: There was some speculation in the press at that time that you were moved there it was a sign of President Truman's support for Averell Harriman in the 1952 election. I found a clipping from the Chicago Sun-Times of November the 25th, 1951 and I don't read it all, but it says in part:
- . . . The speculation has become pretty wild, in fact, W. Averell Harriman, the Truman goldbraid jack-of-all-trades is mentioned as the Man Who.
Basis for this bit of guessing is that Mr. Truman last week agreed to let Harriman have young George Elsey, one of the White House administrative assistants, for his new mutual European defense setup. Elsey wrote a lot of the so successful Truman 'whistlestop' speeches in 1948, and is thus figured to be a builder-upper of presidential candidates . . .
Do you recall any of that speculation at that time?
ELSEY: I had completely forgotten that story. I suppose somebody called it to my attention at the time, but I had forgotten it, Jerry. Well, this is just more of some reporter whiling away the idle hours by putting some speculation down on his typewriter and filling up space.
Certainly I did not go to the Harriman staff with any intention or expectation of working, supporting him, or boosting him for the Democratic nomination in '52; that was just not a part of it in any way, shape, or form.
HESS: What were your duties on that job? Just what did you do?
ELSEY: Well, I was the, I forgot just what I was called, the Assistant to the Director, or the Special Assistant to the Director, I'm not sure just what. Anyway, I was in charge of his immediate office, his staff, and a right-hand man, I suppose you'd say. Keeping track of just everything he was supposed to be attending to.
HESS: How would you assess the efficiency of the agency at the time that Mr. Harriman was running it?
ELSEY: Well, I think the point here is there wasn't an agency that he was running. He was a coordinator of three programs, the Economic Recovery Program, the point 4 or Technical Assistance Program, and the military program, and each of these programs had its own immediate administrator. It was Harriman's job to see that the
three programs, which had developed under different legislation with different emphasis at different times, and for somewhat different purposes, was to see that they were meshed together and that we didn't inadvertently find ourselves working at cross-purposes in a country, or region, or a part of the world just through lack of coordination.
Harriman participated in the National Security Council discussions and worked very closely with the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. He had access to those levels and counsels at the White House more easily than the men who were doing the day by day operation of the programs. He could function at a higher level than the administrator of any--than the administrator to the three separate programs. Had a broader perspective, a broader overview of our total national interest than was available to them.
HESS: Were there times when it seemed that the agencies were working at cross-purposes? Were there times when he had to step in and straighten things out?
ELSEY: I don't think there's any point in our trying to dwell in detail on that. Sure, this always happened
in anything as big as a governmental organization. You'll find the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. This has always happened and always will continue to happen and the purpose of a government administrator at that level is to minimize the frequency of those occurrences, avoid as many as you can and rectify the problems when they come to the surface.
HESS: What was the relationship of the agency and its staff members with the White House staff?
ELSEY: I repeat, there was no agency. There was the Office of the Director, but it was not an operating governmental agency. The immediate associates of Harriman in the office of the Director for Mutual Security were physically intermingled with members of the White House staff in the Executive Office Building, and until the establishment of the Office of the Director by the Mutual Security Act, all of us had been on the White House staff, so, the finest of relations. Everybody knew one another. We all had worked together, we all continued to work together.
HESS: Did you have any duties in the 1952 campaign?
ELSEY: None. None whatsoever. I was in the Harriman office and we, by the Hatch Act and everything else, were precluded from participation and did not participate. I had no role of any sort in the '52 campaign.
HESS: Mr. Harriman did go out to Chicago and establish an office in Chicago at that time. In other words he made a definite bid for the candidacy. Do you recall anything about that in particular?
ELSEY: Yes. He threw his hat in the ring some weeks before the Democratic convention. Before, you recall, Governor Stevenson was very coy about his availability, and several men just let it be known that they would be willing to run if nominated, and Harriman indicated his availability and set up a small office here in Washington, completely removed from his governmental office, on private space, the rent privately paid, the staff privately paid, and so on. It had no role, no part whatsoever with his governmental duties, and there was some exploration by that group as to delegate sentiment (delegates that is to the forthcoming Democratic convention), as to delegate sentiment and the attitudes toward Harriman,
but those of us in the office of the Director for Mutual Security were not in any way a part of that activity.
We knew of it of course, obviously, we were aware of it, but as I repeat, that was a totally separate off-limits enterprise so far as those of us in the foreign aid activities were concerned.
HESS: Who served on that staff, do you recall?
ELSEY: I think you had better get these details from Mr. Harriman because any recollections I have are going to be incomplete and inadequate, and further would tend to confuse people into thinking that I knew a lot about it whereas I don't; I didn't then and I don't now.
HESS: What do you recall about the relations between President Truman and Governor Stevenson at that time?
ELSEY: I have no knowledge on that subject at all, other than the published record.
HESS: All right, in your opinion would President Truman have preferred to have seen someone other than Governor Stevenson as the Democratic standard-bearer in 1952?
ELSEY: I have no basis of answering that.
HESS: Okay. Anything else about your duties with Mr. Harriman?
ELSEY: No, I don't think so.
HESS: All right, back to Mr. Truman and just some general questions about Mr. Truman. In your opinion how successful was Mr. Truman in separating his individual views from the views he thought he should take because he was President, or did that, do you think that that came up? What I have in mind here were probably his views and pronouncements on the field of civil rights. Do you think this would come into this category?
ELSEY: I don't know how I can answer the question. You can't separate a man from himself. Harry Truman was one individual, one person, at all times. You don't split him up the middle and say this is Truman and then this is the President. Truman was the President; the President was Truman. That I realize is probably not answering your question.
On the matter of civil rights, I think that President's perspective and outlook evolved over a period of time. His outlook on civil rights, just as on many other questions, was
not fixed and constant and as he grew in responsibilities through his political career in the State of Missouri, and in the decade in the Senate, then the White House years, the country was changing, times were changing, attitudes amongst the American people were changing, he himself was becoming broader in his understanding and concern, responsibilities, and outlook, and so his civil rights stance was a constantly evolving, one; too, I think he probably had a much broader outlook on these matters after he became President than he had before. I certainly think he meant absolutely everything he said in his well-known civil rights message of February 2nd, 1948. I don't think there was anything phoney about that at all. It wasn't a sham, it wasn't a pretense, it wasn't a lot of hot air just for political purposes. I believe that he believed what he was advocating there.
HESS: Regarding the general charges made against individuals at that time, it came to be known as "McCarthyism," was there any response among the White House staff members to protect themselves from that sort of thing that they become secretive or . . .
ELSEY: You mean about the White House staff members concerned
over their own inidividual situation?
HESS: That's right.
ELSEY: I don't think so. I'm not aware that any White House staff member felt that he had anything to hide or that he was personally in any kind of jeopardy at this period. Those of us who were quite young at the time as well as those who were a good deal older, were proud of what we had done in our past, and had absolutely nothing to conceal and no reason to think that McCarthy or anyone else had any basis to accuse us of anything.