Oral History Interview with
Oscar R. Ewing
Attorney, Hughes, Hubbard & Ewing, New York, New York, and predecessor firms, 1919-1947; Assistant Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, 1940-42; Vice Chairman, 1942-47; Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, 1942 and again in 1947; Acting Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, 1946; Administrator of the Federal Security Agency, 1947-53; and organizer and member of an unofficial political policy group during the Truman administration, 1947-52.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
May 1, 1969
by J. R. Fuchs
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ewing Oral History Transcripts]
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. ) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 July 1971
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Ewing Oral History Transcripts]
Oral History Interview with
Oscar R. Ewing
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
May 1, 1969
by J. R. Fuchs
FUCHS: Mr. Ewing, I'd like to ask you a little bit more about your policy strategy board or political strategy board. Did you have a common term that you applied to this little group that met on Monday nights in your apartment?
EWING: No. Various terms were used, "advisory group" and "strategy group," I think that's about the only two descriptions that I could recall.
FUCHS: Yes, well...
EWING: But we certainly had no formal name.
FUCHS: Yes. I was wondering if certain other individuals met with you, such as Dave Bell?
FUCHS: George Elsey?
FUCHS: David Lloyd?
FUCHS: No other advisors that you could think of met with this group. What about Oscar Chapman?
FUCHS: He never met with the board?
FUCHS: Who did you consider to be Mr. Truman's chief political advisors before the formation of this strategy group?
EWING: Well, I'm sure Bob Hannegan was as long as he was active. John Snyder, I'm sure that the President relied on him a great deal. Fred Vinson, until he became Chief Justice, I don't know how much the President consulted him after he became Chief Justice.
FUCHS: What about Tom Clark, do you think he had any political influence with Mr. Truman?
EWING: Yes. Yes, I think he did, particularly with reference to Texas and the Southern states.
FUCHS: What about George E. Allen?
EWING: I don't think George had any particular political influence. George was a delightful companion and I think the President enjoyed being with him, but I don't think the President looked to him for political advice.
FUCHS: David Noyes?
EWING: Well, towards the end Dave was in Washington often. I think in the 1948 campaign he was around a good deal and did advise the President on political matters and various other things. David had had very wide experience in public relations and was, I'm sure, quite helpful to the President.
FUCHS: You were associated undoubtedly with Bill Boyle when you were vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Do you think he was a political influence on Mr. Truman?
EWING: Oh yes, in a way. I think--well, I don't know how much weight the President gave to Bill Boyle's advice and I don't say that negatively, I simply don't know. Bill, however, was more of a person to carry out the President's desires than to be offering constructive
advice. But he was very loyal to the President and in every way did the best he could.
FUCHS: Was there anyone that you would have considered to have been rather a poor one to advise Mr. Truman, someone who was perhaps too conservative or too liberal?
EWING: Well, it would be hard for me to say. I think some of his advisers were much more conservative than I was, than our group was. I think, for instance, John Snyder was, probably Charley Sawyer when he was in the Cabinet. That, however, was an honest difference of opinion between our group and the conservative members of the administration. The conservative members of the administration were just as honest in their views as we were in ours.
FUCHS: The conservatives, such as Snyder and later on Sawyer, didn't attend any of your policy meetings I gather.
FUCHS: Did they know of your group?
EWING: Oh, I suppose they did.
FUCHS: You know of no similar group among the conservatives or any attempt to organize such a group?
EWING: No. As far as I know it was individual contacts with the President that they had. Nothing in the way of a group.
FUCHS: Mr. Boyle had been serving in Mr. Truman's office as secretary. Do you know why he went over to the Democratic National Committee with Hannegan?
EWING: No, I do not.
FUCHS: Now, I believe you resigned your position as vice chairman when you were appointed to be administrator of FSA.
EWING: Yes. Well, I think I resigned to become Special Assistant to the Attorney General when I undertook the prosecution of Douglas Chandler for treason. When that was finished I think I was reappointed vice chairman of the committee. But that would be only for a short time.
FUCHS: I see.
EWING: I know I was not vice chairman at any time that I
was Federal Security Administrator.
FUCHS: Yes. What about Leslie Biffle, were you acquainted with him?
EWING: Oh, very well. He was the Secretary of the Senate and was very helpful to the President in any problems that the President had with the Senate. Of course, Senator Barkley, first as the Democratic leader of the Senate and later as Vice President, was very helpful to the President. Mr. Biffle was often the liaison between the President and Senator Barkley and other Democratic senators.
FUCHS: Did you feel that he exerted a strong influence on Mr. Truman?
EWING: I don't think so. The President always made up his own mind. I can't say that anyone really had great influence with the President. If some one had advice that the President thought was good, why, he'd take it. But I don't believe anyone really could influence the President to do anything that he didn't think was right and proper. He was his own man.
FUCHS: Well, I was thinking primarily of political advice. He is generally credited, of course, as being an astute politician. What would your views of that be?
EWING: Well, there's no doubt about that. His political judgment was, in a way, unerring. I think that that was particularly true when he had received, perhaps, a lot of different advice from different sources some of it which was conflicting. He would unquestionably come out with the right decision. Now, perhaps there were a few instances, none of which I recall, where one side or the other had not had a chance to give him their views before he had to act, he might have made an occasional faux pas as any of us might do; but when the President had all the facts he was unerring in his political instincts --judgments.
FUCHS: Of course, you've heard the charges that he had gathered a gang of Missouri cronies around him. How would you view that?
EWING: Well, it is only natural that a President wants men around him who are loyal to him. A President needs those above all things. You've got to remember that President Truman was mighty loyal to his friends, as
he should have been. I think the matters in which some of his friends perhaps took advantage of him were trivial matters that didn't affect the public interest in any way.
FUCHS: Who do you have in mind?
EWING: Well, perhaps General Vaughan, I think the refrigerator episode was not too smart. It wasn't anything like as important as the Republican press tried to make it. That was simply a situation of where a manufacturer had some refrigerators that were defective in some minor respect and he didn't want to sell them, so he gave them away. I think General Vaughan was the one who the manufacturer had contacted about it or--I don't remember the details but I'm sure it was played out of all proportion by the Republican press.
FUCHS: Yes. Any other instances that you can think of?
EWING: No. Not offhand.
FUCHS: When it became necessary for President Truman to find a replacement for Chief Justice Stone were you consulted on that?
EWING: No. No, I was not consulted. President Truman told me, however, how he came to select Fred Vinson for Chief Justice. The President said he requested former Chief Justice Hughes, whose resignation as Chief Justice had opened the place for Justice Stone, to stop by the White House for a talk. The President asked Mr. Hughes if he had any suggestions as to who would make a good Chief Justice. Mr. Hughes immediately replied, "Why you've got a man here in your own Cabinet who is eminently qualified for the place, and that is Fred Vinson. He's been the Chief Judge of the District Court of Appeals. He is a fine lawyer, and I wouldn't think that you had to go any further." And so Mr. Truman took Judge Hughes' advice. I am sure it was advice that he was happy to receive because the President had a very high opinion of Judge Vinson.
FUCHS: Go back just a little bit. What were your thoughts when Roosevelt died and Mr. Truman became his successor? At the time how did you feel about that?
EWING: Well, I think we all were filled with intense grief over President Roosevelt's death although I knew that he was a very sick man and I was not completely unprepared
for his death. Then when the shock came and Mr. Truman was sworn in as President, I thought his conduct was exemplary. I had great confidence in his latent capacity to measure up to the job. Many people did not. I remember one newspaper correspondent who talked to me about it, and insisted that Mr. Truman was physically a little man and mentally a little man. I tried to argue him out of it but he was very insistent. But time proved that Truman's admirers were right rather than his critics.
FUCHS: Yes. At the time you were nominated for the Federal Security Administration post a newspaper article I saw said that perhaps you were slated for something larger in the long run other than staying in the FSA. Do you recall anything of that and is there anything you know about that that it might have been a truthful report?
EWING: No. I never even heard of it. The Federal Security Agency was a job that I welcomed. I know the President hoped to make it a Cabinet position. He sent two reorganization plans up to Congress that would have made the agency a department. Other than that I'm
quite sure President Truman had nothing in mind for me. I think that had the Agency been made a department during his term he would have nominated me for the secretaryship. In fact, I'm quite sure of that, but as to anything outside of that I never heard of it.
FUCHS: What are the chief reasons that you felt FSA did not achieve Cabinet status, I believe it was to be called the Department of Health, Education, and Security during Mr. Truman's time?
EWING: Oh, it was the opposition of the American Medical Association unquestionably. Both times the reorganization plans were sent up to Congress the AMA. staged campaigns to prevent the agency being made a department. Their main argument was that they did not want me given a higher platform from which to argue for national health insurance.
FUCHS: Did they base their attacks on you solely or largely on principles or personality?
EWING: No. You see, national health insurance had been proposed by President Roosevelt in the very first social security bill introduced in Congress back in 1934.
Later President Roosevelt dropped his support of national health insurance. I think he did this largely because he thought that including national health insurance in the bill might make it more difficult to get the social security program through Congress and that it would be better to take a step at a time, get what he could, and later try to get the more controversial parts of his program, such as national health insurance, adopted.
FUCHS: How did Mrs. Roosevelt, who we know was greatly interested in welfare type projects, feel about this earlier approach to health insurance?
EWING: I can say something about that that I learned from Arthur Altmeyer, who was a member of the first Social Security Board, and later when the Board was abolished, he became Social Security Administrator. I think Arthur knew what he was talking about when he told me this. He said that at the time the social security legislation was first introduced including the provision for national health insurance, some doctor friend of Mrs. Roosevelt had a talk with her and convinced her that it was very unwise to push for national health insurance; and that she convinced the President that it was unwise
and accordingly he withdrew his support for the proposal. Later Mrs. Roosevelt changed her mind, apparently, because she became an active member of the Committee for the Nation's Health which was very strongly in favor of national health insurance. You see, even at that time, the United States was the only civilized nation that didn't have a national health insurance program in operation. National health insurance was started by Bismarck in Germany back in the 1880s and similar programs had been gradually adopted by other countries one after another. There had been ample experience so that we who were pushing it could say that it was a workable program that would fill a very great need.
FUCHS: Do you have any knowledge of how it worked in Germany, and was it continued under the Hitler regime and is it still in?
EWING: Oh, yes. It's worked very well there. And the interesting part of it is that, say from the 1880s on up until the American technology caught up, it was out of Germany that came all of the great medical advances. I wouldn't say that today nor would I say it of the time since World War II, but German medical research
from the 1880s on was outstanding.
FUCHS: Was theirs linked with the social security type system?
EWING: I think it was. It is all part of a social insurance program.
FUCHS: Yes. Do you recall who the doctor was that exerted this influence on Mrs. Roosevelt?
EWING: No, I never knew, and Mr. Altmeyer, I don't think he told me who the doctor was. At least I don't remember.
FUCHS: Was the feeling on Mr. Altmeyer's part that the doctor had done it because of medical interest or that it would be politically unwise?
EWING: Oh, it was medical interest. Completely. Someone suggested that it might have been Doctor Cushing, the great brain surgeon of Boston. Jimmy Roosevelt had married a daughter of Doctor Cushing. I'm quite sure Dr. Cu