Oral History Interview with
Member, United States Civil Service Commission, 1939-48; Assistant to Director of Defense Mobilization, 1951-53.
Arthur S. Flemming
June 19, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 May, 1997
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Arthur S. Flemming
June 19, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
JOHNSON: Dr. Flemming, I'm going to start as I usually do by asking you for your birthplace and your birth date and your parents' names.
FLEMMING: I was born in Kingston, New York on June 12, 1905. My parents were Harry and Harriet Flemming.
JOHNSON: Do you have brothers and sisters?
FLEMMING: I have one sister named Elizabeth.
JOHNSON: What is her married name?
FLEMMING: Her married name is Sherbondy. She lives in Pennsylvania and part of the year down in Florida.
JOHNSON: So you're one of two children. Concerning your education, where was it you went to school?
FLEMMING: Well, my undergraduate college was Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, and I took a master's degree at American University here in Washington. Then my final degree was a law degree which I earned at George Washington University here in Washington, D. C.
JOHNSON: I notice you have the LLD. from several institutions. What was your father's occupation?
FLEMMING: My father was a practicing lawyer in Kingston, New York. He was a very active trial lawyer, and very active in life in the community there, president of the school board, president of the hospital board, and president of the savings bank. He was judge of the circuit court for a period of time, and so on.
JOHNSON: In other words, would he have been the most important influence when you were growing up?
FLEMMING: He was a very, very important influence.
JOHNSON: What was your first position after you received your law degree?
FLEMMING: I came to Washington and accepted a position, a part-time position, really as a debate coach and instructor in government at the American University. It was just two years old at that time. This was the year 1927, and they were just getting underway . I had about three years in that position and then joined the staff as a reporter of the
United States Daily, which was the predecessor publication to U.S. News and World Report. In other words, I was working with David Lawrence, and I was with him approximately five years.
JOHNSON: That brings us up to when?
FLEMMING: That brings us up to around 1934.
JOHNSON: Okay, right in the middle of the Depression.
FLEMMING: Then I accepted an invitation to return to American University to become the first director of a School of Public Affairs at American University. I was there until 1939 when President Roosevelt invited me to become a member of the U. S. Civil Service Commission.
JOHNSON: So you got into the manpower and personnel area of the Federal Government.
FLEMMING: That's right, in 1939, and of course, as you know, that was really the beginning of the defense program. Soon after I became a member of the Civil Service Commission, my two colleagues on the Commission asked me to accept responsibility for the Commission's role in the defense program, later the war program. Not long after that, the President established by Executive Order the War Manpower Commission, which was chaired by Paul McNutt, former Governor of Indiana. The President asked me to serve on that commission, representing Government in its
capacity as an employer. Soon after the commission got under way, Governor McNutt, the chairman, asked me to serve as the government chairman of a labor, management, and agriculture committee. This committee was a working committee. We met virtually every week, and it was our responsibility to work on the issue of moving people from non-defense to defense programs without any loss of seniority and so on. We had to work by getting voluntary agreements between labor and management. There was no law giving us authority to order these movements and there was no executive order giving us authority to do that . So, everything we did had to be done through negotiation and through reaching an agreement.
JOHNSON: So you learned the work of both sides, management and labor.
FLEMMING: That's right. I became very well acquainted with some of the younger leaders at that time in both labor and management, the people who eventually became some of the top leaders on both the labor and management sides. For example, one of the very active members of our committee was Walter Ruether. It was my first opportunity to get to know him.
JOHNSON: Okay. You were a member of the Advisory Council of the Retraining and Reemployment Administration in the Department of Labor from 1944 to '47.
FLEMMING: Yes, that was an organization that was set up to plan for the situation that everybody thought was going to confront the country immediately after the war.
Namely, the feeling was that we would experience high unemployment, and consequently the administration felt that some planning should take place designed to alleviate that situation to the extent that Government could alleviate it.
As I look back on it, I recall with interest the fact that we had a lot of studies put before us, and a lot of facts and figures put in front of us, but no one mentioned the possibility of an electronic industry developing in this country. Yet, the electronic industry was just around the corner, and of course, it had a terrific impact on the employment situation immediately following the war. Actually we did not have a high rate of unemployment immediately following the war. However, the planning process was very worthwhile and it did enable the government to focus on some issues that it should have focused on.
JOHNSON: Did you get any specific instructions from Roosevelt on policy or planning.
FLEMMING: No, not that I recall in that particular area. Of course, at that time the Secretary of Labor was Frances Perkins. She was very active as a member of the War Manpower Commission and she was also very active in the work of this particular advisory council.
JOHNSON: You were well acquainted with her then.
FLEMMING: Very well acquainted with her at that time, and then when President Roosevelt died and was succeeded by President Truman, he brought in his own Secretary of
Labor. But there was a vacancy on the Civil Service Commission and President Truman invited her to fill that vacancy. She accepted the invitation, so for three years I had the privilege of working with her as a colleague.
Of course, I had became acquainted with her work even when I was a reporter because one of the first things that President Roosevelt did was to set up a Cabinet task force to take a look at the question of whether or not this country should start down the road of social insurance in order, as he put it, to deal with the hazards and vicissitudes of life. The chair of that Cabinet task force was Frances Perkins. She was certainly a great lady, and an outstanding public servant.
JOHNSON: She had some influence on your thinking then?
FLEMMING: Oh, very definitely. We became close associates in connection with the work of the Civil Service Commission.
JOHNSON: Had you met Senator Truman?
FLEMMING: No, I had not met him. I was very much aware of his work as chairman of the investigating committee, along with everyone else that was in Government. I met him soon after he took over as President. I met him in this way. I should say this -- at that time, the members of the Civil Service Commission did not have a term of office. They served at the pleasure of the President of the United States. So the question came up as to whether or not we should automatically submit our resignations. What I would
call the Civil Service constituency urged us not to do that. They said, clearly if the President wants to make a change he's got the legal right to do it, but we think that it would contribute to the bipartisan climate that has permeated the work of the Civil Service Commission if you did not just automatically submit your resignation. So we didn't.
About a year prior to that, Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had invited me to accept the presidency of that college. I considered it, and decided that we were in the middle of a war program, that I had a key position in connection with that war program, and that it would not be right to leave the Government. They had not filled the position, so they came back to me when President Roosevelt died and President Truman took office, thinking that there might be a change. They asked me if I would reconsider. I said, "Well, I'll think about it," but I had reached the conclusion that I would make the same decision, because we were still in the middle of the war program. But a friend over at the White House, not in a key position, but yet someone working over there, said to me that he had overheard a conversation that indicated they were unhappy over the fact that we had not submitted our resignations, and some were particularly unhappy that, as the Republican member, I had not submitted my resignation. So I thought that I had better do a little checking under those circumstances, because I might find myself turning down a job and then being out of the job that I was in.
So I went up to see [Democratic] Congressman [Robert] Ramspeck from
Georgia. He was the author of most of the Civil Service legislation at that particular period. He was actually chair of the committee that handled Civil Service legislation, but he was also Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, and he had been chairman of the speakers bureau for Mr. Truman when he ran as the Vice President . So I told him the situation that confronted me, and Mr. Ramspeck said, "I don't think there's any truth to that, but you ought not hear it from me, you ought to hear it from the President." He said, "I'd better get in touch with the White House staff and suggest that the President talk to you."
Well, within a day or two I did get a call from the White House, asking me to come down to see the President. I went in to see him -- went into his office -- and he greeted me by saying, "Bob Ramspeck tells me that some guy around here is trying to tell you that I want your resignation." I said, "Yes, that's what I picked up." He said, "There's not a damn bit of truth to it." He said, "I don't know anything about Civil Service. That hasn't been a part of my background." He kind of said it with a twinkle in his eye, but he said, "I need somebody around here who does know something about it. Bob Ramspeck tells me you do know something about it. I want you to stay." I said, "Thank you Mr. President, I'll be very glad to stay." That conversation didn't take longer than three minutes, but I understood just where I stood with him, as other people did.
JOHNSON: Do you want to name this friend at the White House?
FLEMMING: Actually, the name has faded.
JOHNSON: Before we proceed further with Truman while he was President, you did have some recollections on the '44 Democratic convention, on the selection of a Vice-Presidential candidate for President Roosevelt, and Paul McNutt being one of the leading contenders from your point of view.
FLEMMING: Yes, of course, I was in the Government during that period and I was also over at the War Manpower Commission where Paul McNutt was the chairman. I was following that with some interest. President Roosevelt had kept people in kind of an uncertain state for quite a while as to whether or not he was going to run for a fourth term. He had really invited people to become candidates for the Democratic nomination for President . Paul McNutt was one of those who accepted that invitation and got out there to get delegates. And he was being quite successful.
Then when President Roosevelt announced that he was going to run, he also made it clear that he hadn't made up his mind as to who he wanted as a Vice-Presidential candidate. As we know, he really didn't make up his mind on that until the convention was held. In effect, he kind of invited those who were running for President, who were interested in doing so, to run for Vice President. Paul McNutt certainly did do that. He got a good many delegates pledged to him. In fact, when the convention took place and President Roosevelt announced that he wanted to have Senator Truman as his candidate, the McNutt delegates were stirred up. They were
aroused, and it became necessary for Governor McNutt to appear before the convention and in effect say, "Look, the only person that should select his running mate is the man who is going to run for President." He urged his delegates to support the President's selection, and in effect, released them with the idea that they would do just that. And; of course, that is what happened.
JOHNSON: There was a letter that Roosevelt signed saying that either Douglas -- that is, William Douglas who was on the Supreme Court by this time -- or Truman would be suitable as vice-presidential candidates. Did you know anything about his candidacy or do you have any recollections of William Douglas as a possible Vice-Presidential candidate?
FLEMMNG: No, I was not involved in any discussions relative to that possibility. Of course, I had known him. I was in the Executive Branch of the Government, and I had watched with interest his nomination to the Supreme Court and the work that he had done on the Supreme Court.
JOHNSON: Paul McNutt -- how long did he stay with the Government, and was he involved at all with the Truman administration?
FLENINIING: Yes, he became Ambassador to the Philippines.
JOHNSON: Oh, under Truman.