Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened August, 1972
January 20, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Secretary, to begin and for the record, will you give me a little of your personal background; where were you born, where were you raised, where were you educated, and what are a few of the positions that you have held?
FINLETTER: I was born on November 11th, 1893 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was educated at the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia and at the University of Pennsylvania, also in Philadelphia, where I received an A. B. degree, and later in the law school an LL.B., before I entered the service of the law.
I practiced law in New York for many years until the early fall of 1941, when I went to the Department of State as Special Assistant to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. I stayed there until 1944 (I've
forgotten the exact date), and in 1945 I was assigned the responsibility of going to the San Francisco Conference which set up the United Nations. Then I returned to my practice of the law. In 1948 I was Chairman of the Air Policy Commission which rendered a report as of December 31, 1948, to President Truman on air policy. I was Secretary of the Air Force under President Truman from 1950 to 1953, when his term ended. I then developed a rather keen interest in politics and especially in the career of Adlai Stevenson, who ran for the Presidency on two occasions in the following years. In both cases he was defeated, much to my regret.
After the second defeat of Mr. Stevenson and the election of Mr. Kennedy as President of the United States, President Kennedy named me Ambassador to NATO, where I served until July 14, 1965. I then returned to the practice of the law in my firm, Coudert Brothers, in New York City where I stayed for several years and then retired from that firm.
Since then I have been occupying myself with some writing chores I had undertaken. I forgot to mention in that list that for something between one and two years, I was a representative of the United States for the Marshall Plan with responsibility of heading up the United States mission to the United Kingdom (that is to say Great Britain). I think that is
roughly speaking, my background.
HESS: Mr. Secretary, what are your earliest recollections of President Truman?
FINLETTER: Well, I find it difficult to identify any special date, because I've given you a moment ago my career in Washington, and of course, during that time...
HESS: Do you recall anything about Mr. Truman at the time he was Senator? He came to Washington in 1935 .
FINLETTER: No. I do not recall anything in particular at the moment of Senator Truman.
HESS: He headed the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, as you know, that was known as the Truman Committee. Does anything come to mind about Mr. Truman's association with the Truman Committee during World War II?
FINLETTER: No, nothing.
HESS: All right. Did you attend the Democratic National Convention that was held in Chicago in 1944?
FINLETTER: The date in 1944...
HESS: The summer of 1944, when Mr. Roosevelt received the nomination for the fourth term.
FINLETTER: No, I did not attend that meeting of the national committee.
HESS: Do you recall your reaction when Mr. Truman was selected as the vice-presidential nominee that year?
FINLETTER: No, I did not know Mr. Truman at this time. I knew of his record and I had nothing very special one way or another of a distinct impression.
HESS: Were you somewhat surprised that this person who was not too well-known was selected for the second spot on the ticket that year?
FINLETTER: I don't remember.
HESS: As you know, James Byrnes, Justice William O. Douglas, Henry Wallace, who was Vice President and wanted to remain, but those three men were in strong contention, they were fairly well-known then.
FINLETTER: I have no recollection of that particular
dispute. I did have very definite impressions afterwards as to Mr. Truman's election as Vice President, and later his succession to the Presidency.
HESS: What are those impressions?
FINLETTER: My impression is, and the more I study the period since the end of World War II, the stronger the impression gets, is that Mr. Truman was one of our greatest Presidents and that he ranks very, very high indeed among all the Presidents in history, including those of recent years.
HESS: Why do you hold that view?
FINLETTER: Because of the character and intelligence of the man, the simplicity and courage of his approach to questions, and the very high ideals put into very practical practice, which was his custom. I have the greatest admiration for him as President.
HESS: Do you recall when you became aware that President Roosevelt's health was failing seriously?
FINLETTER: Whether I have any impressions of that?
HESS: That's right.
FINLETTER: No, I did not. Let's see, what years are we talking about now?
HESS: This was in 1945. As you recall, President Roosevelt went to Yalta just after his inauguration for his fourth term, which of course was on January the 20th of '45. That was held at the White House that year as you will recall they did not hold it on the steps of the Capitol because it was wartime and because President Roosevelt was not in too good of health, and shortly after that he went to Yalta, returned in February, and then died on April the 12th of 1945 .
FINLETTER: Well, during that time I was either serving as Special Assistant to Secretary Hull or had very recently retired from that position to private life and I can't remember at this time having any particular concern about the health of President Roosevelt.
HESS: What were your impressions when you heard of his death in April of 1945?
FINLETTER: Well, the obvious one, the obvious one, the fact that one of our great Presidents had
died and that the job that was going to fall to Mr. Truman was going to be an enormous one. You must remember that at this time I had not known Mr. Truman as well as I subsequently did when he was President, so I therefore could not have been as reassured as I would have been had I known him in the previous years.
HESS: In Arthur Krock's memoirs, Sixty Years on the Firing Line, on pages 220 and 221, he makes the statement that he proposed that you and Adlai Stevenson be put in charge of what came to be known as the "leak office" in San Francisco during the organization of the United Nations. Is that correct?
FINLETTER: I do not know if that is correct. There was a so-called "leak office," however, it served a better purpose than that particular designation of it would give the impression of.
The purpose of this so-called "leak office" was to furnish the press, all of the press, with an impression of what we felt the delegation, the American delegation, was sponsoring on matters of policy during the conference of San Francisco. In other words to get
out as much explanation and interpretation of the American point of view as was possible. The feeling being that it needed more than the mere formalities of the proceedings in order to alert the press of the United States and indeed of the world as to what was going on, as to what the attitude of the United States Government was.
HESS: Who was handling press relations in San Francisco before you arrived, do you recall?
FINLETTER : I do not remember.
HESS: Were you there before Mr. Stevenson?
FINLETTER: Yes, my recollection is that -- this is some years back and these details I may be wrong on.
HESS: That's very understandable.
FINLETTER: My recollection is that Mr. Stevenson came in after the so-called "leak office" had been in full sway for quite some time at the San Francisco Conference.
HESS: What did you know about Mr. Stevenson at that time? You became closely associated with him later on, but
was that your first contact with Mr. Stevenson?
FINLETTER: No, I knew him because he was in the Government at the same time that I was. I was in the United States Government from 1941 to - until this time, and thereafter.
HESS: What was your impression of Mr. Stevenson at that time?
FINLETTER: Well, he became a very close friend of mine during all this time. I had known him before we both went into the Government, but he was