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James R. Fuchs Oral History Interview, Volume 1

Oral History Interview with
James R. Fuchs

Oral History at the Harry S. Truman Library with James R. Fuchs. What is an Oral History and how are they created and used at the Harry S. Truman Library.

Independence, Missouri
March 18, 1976
by J.T. Curry and P.D. Lagerquist

Volume 1

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Fuchs Oral History Transcripts | 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. [45]) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page [ Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Fuchs Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
James R. Fuchs


Independence, Missouri
March 18, 1976
by J.T. Curry and P.D. Lagerquist

Volume 1


CURRY: To start, what is oral history?

FUCHS: Oral history is subject to many definitions, but simply, you might say it's the systematic collection of an individual's memories of personalities and certain events in which historians are likely to be interested.

It involves not only the systematic collection, but the preservation and making available of these reminiscences to scholars.

CURRY: Most people have never heard of the term "oral history" before about the last ten years; now you hear it all the time. Why is this?


FUCHS: I suppose because of the burgeoning of the discipline, the fact that there are so many projects now in existence, and also because of the preeminence given to some of them because of their relationship to United States Presidents, to wit, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower, and, of course, Harry S. Truman. There are, however, many other well-known projects.

CURRY: Do other projects come to mind?

FUCHS: The first that comes to mind is the initial oral history project, as we know them. It might be called the father project, and that was the project began by Allen Nevins about 1948 at Columbia University, which is now, of course, known as the Columbia University Oral History Research Office. It is still an ongoing project with by far the most hours of taped interviews and pages of transcript in the field in this country--probably in the world.


The Nevins project, as you probably know, began with his taking notes and quickly advanced to the wire recorder and then to the magnetic tape recorder, with which most projects are now equipped. That is, of course, the outstanding and different feature about oral history now as distinguished from earlier interviewing as we know it, the verbatim tape recording, as against the previous method of taking notes which, of course, were filtered through the mind of the interviewer. Now we have total recall by means of the recorded tape.

LAGERQUIST: Didn't the Nixon tapes controversy make many people who probably had never heard of this type of history become aware of oral history?

FUCHS: I think that's a very good point and very true. Within the last five years, let's say, probably many of the people who were not familiar with the


term "oral history" because of books such as Merle Miller's, that have employed the tape recorder in the writing have brought the term to public prominence. There are as you know certain books that have had the word "tapes" in their title and certain books such as Studs Terkel's Working, which resulted from the use of a tape record in interviews.

But, as Mr. Lagerquist says, the "Nixon tapes" is probably the most prominent usage of the term. In addition, the foundation of an Oral History Association about ten years ago, some ten years ago, has fostered oral history and brought into the press some new notice of the discipline.

CURRY: What are oral history antecedents in this country and elsewhere? Before we had "oral history," as such, what did we have?

FUCHS: Well, oral history goes back in a sense to before Christ. Historians, and oral historians


especially are wont to speak of Thucydides when he not only fought in the Peloponnesian Wars but wrote his famous History, but conducted interviews with others who fought in the war, which, as you know, lasted a quarter of a century. That is often cited. It is, of course, as old as oral traditions as to antecedents in this country, we often mention the work of Hubert Howe Bancroft in California in writing his voluminous history of the Western states. He not only collected a fabulous amount of original documents and amassed a huge book collection, but sent interviewers out into the field to take notes of interviews with pioneers and others who had participated in events.

LAGERQUIST: Before there was the written word didn't tribes pass their best traditions and histories down from generation to generation?

FUCHS: That is true, the oral tradition. The stories came down through one generation to another and


you had oral history. When it was finally written down you had, in a sense, a transcript. Yes, there's certainly the oral tradition and folklorists have made great use of tape recorders and the oral history method. There are, as you know, differences of opinion as to just what should be alluded to as oral history, but this can't really be settled. Anything, some say, that is a recording of an interview, or a meeting, or a telephone conversation, or even of a bull session in a college dorm, if it's recorded, is oral history.

CURRY: When did the Truman Library begin its oral history program?

FUCHS: Well, first discussions, as Mr. Lagerquist knows, began back in early 1959 largely between our then Director, Dr. Philip Brooks and the then Archivist of the United States, Dr. Wayne Grover. There was some exploration of the procedure, but nothing definite was done until about early 1961


when, rather in concert, the Director and Dr. Grover decided we ought to get started, and for reasons not clearly known to me, I, a Federal archivist with the Truman Library, was selected to begin the project--to "see how it goes," they said, "until we can hire"--and I believe the term was used, "a real oral historian" Real oral historians were hard to come by because of the newness of the discipline and those who had done some oral history were, in most cases, connected with other projects.

I believe the first interview was done in November, 1961, when I was trying to set up the project and also commence interviewing. I was never a full time interviewer and probably devoted less than 20 percent of my time to the project until recent years, after Mr. Truman's demise. By the late 1962, we hired a Ph.D. candidate, a recent Dartmouth graduate, Charles Morrissey, who, incidentally, has subsequently become


quite well-known in the field. He was for a time Director of the Kennedy Oral History Project, and later president of the Oral History Association, as well as directing other projects.

CURRY: Who was the first interview with?

FUCHS: I think it was with Henry P. Chiles, a boyhood and longtime friend of Mr. Truman, once a deputy clerk and later county treasurer. His interview transcript was not the first accessioned, though.

That was with Nathan T. Veatch, a well-known engineer collaborating at that time with Col. Edward Stayton, conducting a road survey for Mr. Truman who was then the top county administrative officer.

CURRY: Why did the Truman Library begin an oral history program?

FUCHS: The Library officials recognized that there is a fund of information, opinions, and anecdotes in


the memories of those who had been connected either with a particular event or were a witness to that event, and that these most likely would never be committed to paper, because of the fact that most people don't write their memoirs. It was also recognized that progress has resulted in more gaps in the written record. This is because of the telephone, use of the airplane to fly to face-to-face meetings that are often not fully recorded, and the fact that the pace is now so fast that people, in most cases, no longer write long descriptive letters. The keeping of detailed diaries has gone out of usage. Such diaries, as you know, were a source in earlier days of much history.

LAGERQUIST: Wasn't there also the added fact that many periods of Mr. Truman's career, especially his early career, were undocumented to any great extent?

FUCHS: That was another thing we talked about at


length, Mr. Truman's family had moved much and little was preserved of his early years. There is a lack of early written records pertaining to Mr. Truman up until his terms as Senator.

CURRY: Did Truman encourage the oral history program?

FUCHS: Mr. Truman, of course, was advised of our plan and heartily concurred that such a project should be undertaken, and he permitted us to use his name in our approaches to people to participate in the project.

CURRY: What were the next steps in our program?

FUCHS: Initially, of course, we thought it would be best to develop some expertise, if you will, by interviewing at what we termed the "local level,"-friends, former teachers, business associates, people in the immediate community who could be called upon readily to be interviewed, without a great amount of travel, until we felt we had our