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 a friend and I had great admiration for his record as Governor of Illinois, and I had seen him at his house in Illinois during those years, on one occasion I remember I went out there. He was a friend of mine and a man whom I admired very much.
HESS: Mr. Krock also states in his book that the President sent an emissary to check on Secretary of State Stettinius' performance and report back to him. At the time that you were there, do you recall if you were aware that the President had sent someone to check on Stettinius?
FINLETTER: No, I was not aware of that.
HESS: You, of course, were Special Assistant to the Secretary of State from 1941 until '44, correct? And in his book, Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson has a reference to you, and the reference concerns a memo you worked on that was sent to FDR on July the 10th of '43, on the relationship that should exist between State and other agencies engaged in activities abroad. It dealt with the confusion that then existed in foreign economic policy and the lack of direction that the State Department held. Do you recall anything in particular about that matter?
FINLETTER: Not with any detail at this point, but I do have some general recollections of that situation, and that is that during those years the economic functions of the United States Government in Washington grew very widely, both in depth and in breadth, and the result was that the State Department was to a certain extent swamped by the various individual agencies which had come onto the scene, and since I was in the State Department at the time, I suppose I reflected to a certain extent the State Department view, although
I must say such was not my purpose, my purpose was to represent what was best for the United States Government. And I remember feeling that State should have, and should exercise, a broader control over all the functions of all the various independent agencies and other departments in the economic field or indeed in any field in which State had a legitimate function, for the very simple reason, that was the way things would work better and it was very important that they would work better in the matter of the creation of foreign policy.
HESS: What other duties and responsibilities did you have in the position of Special Assistant to the Secretary of State?
FINLETTER: Well, it's awfully hard for me to describe that to you.
HESS: That's a long period of time too, from '41 to '45.
FINLETTER: And it varied over every sort of subject. When one has to think back as to how matters got onto
the desk of the Special Assistant, one sees that it was entirely the decision of the Secretary of State, Mr. Cordell Hull. If he would say, "Let this that and the other be handled by the Special Assistant, reporting back to me," and so forth and so on, that is how it would be done. It was an ad hoc operation, it wasn't a particular dogma that I could describe, which would allocate certain items to this particular function of the Secretary, and others to other functions of the Secretary.
HESS: What's your general opinion of the handling of the job of Secretary of State by Cordell Hull? How effective was he?
FINLETTER: Well, he was obviously a man of very fine character and I think that fine character is a very important thing for the Secretary of State, and generally speaking I have great admiration for his character. As far as the handling of the foreign affairs of the country, I feel that Mr. Hull was possibly not as self-assertive as other Secretaries have been before and after him, and that possibly it might have been possible for him to have asserted his very important position more definitely.
HESS: Do you think that President Roosevelt wanted someone in that position who was self-assertive?
FINLETTER: Well, I can't answer that. This involves an intimate knowledge of President Roosevelt's thinking at that time, which I did not possess because I wasn't of high enough rank to be in the President's innermost council. But my impression of the situation, based on inadequate evidence, was that he wasn't so enthusiastic for a more vigorous assertion of authority by the State De