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
Oral History Interview with
January 19, 1972
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Gilpatric, of primary interest in our interview is your relationship with President Truman and the Truman administration. What was that relationship and when did it begin?
GILPATRIC: My first recollection of meeting Mr. Truman was during the 1935 investigations of railroads by a committee of the Senate, of which Senator Truman was the chairman. The counsel was a famous investigator by the name of Max Lowenthal. I appeared before that committee and saw Mr. Truman in action on behalf of the Milwaukee Railroad, which was one of the railroads under investigation, and I remember particularly how this newly elected Senator from Missouri, who had very little political experience, at least at the national level,
handled himself in dealing with financial magnates, railroad presidents, and a very skilled staff. He showed, even at that stage, some of the qualities that later on during the Truman investigation committee, the Truman Committee, of World War II years, appeared at such advantage.
HESS: That's interesting. That was the Interstate Commerce Commission of which Burton K. Wheeler headed, and who asked Mr. Truman to serve on that particular committee.
GILPATRIC: In connection with the Milwaukee Railroad hearings, because the Milwaukee Railroad was a sensitive subject in Montana where Wheeler came from, so when the hearings got to Milwaukee, Senator Wheeler turned over the gavel to Senator Truman and that's when Truman really ran the committee hearings for the period when they considered the Milwaukee Railroad.
HESS: And his method in working those hearings impressed you, correct?
GILPATRIC: Particularly since he was a freshman Senator and he was dealing in a pretty high powered league as far as both the committee staff was concerned and
witnesses he had before him.
HESS: Mr. Max Lowenthal was the Special Counsel for that committee. When did you first meet Mr. Lowenthal, do you recall?
GILPATRIC: I had started practice of law in this firm several years before that and I had been assigned to work on problems of the Milwaukee Railroad for which this firm was counsel. Mr. Lowenthal had a particular animus against my then senior partner, Mr. [Robert T.] Swaine, so there were lots of fireworks between my side of the table and the side on which the Senator and Lowenthal sat. But even then Mr. Truman showed himself to be such a basically fair person. He was in the role of the inquisitor, and the proceedings were not designed to bring out the best on the part of the bankers and the railroad executives under whose aegis the Milwaukee had gone into reorganization. Yet, I felt that we had, essentially, a very decent, a very reasonable, and a very fair chairman, so I came away from that hearing with a pretty warm feeling for Mr. Truman, in spite of the tribulations we had to endure at Max Lowenthal's hands.
HESS: After the 1940 election when Mr. Truman was re-elected to his second term in the Senate, as you have mentioned, he then headed the Truman Committee, the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. Do you recall anything in particular about Mr. Truman's handling of that committee?
GILPATRIC: I heard a great deal about it, because his counsel was a former roommate of mine in this firm, Hugh Fulton, and through Hugh Fulton I met the Senator on several occasions in his offices in the Senate Office Building; and because I was also representing at various times during World War II companies that were called to appear before that committee, I did have several occasions to see that committee in action. In the light of my subsequent experience in the Korean war and during the Kennedy administration, I have always had the feeling that that committee had a very positive, substantive contribution to the whole area of procurement and production and logistics problems of supporting a major military effort by this country.
HESS: Did Mr. Fulton ever tell you how he came to be
selected as Special Counsel for the Truman Committee?
GILPATRIC: I don't recall it if he did. He's now dead, you know. I don't remember. When Fulton left this office he went up to the U.S. Attorney's office. He was Assistant U.S. Attorney here in New York. What brought him first into contact with Mr. Truman I don't recall.
HESS: At the time Mr. Truman became President, there was some speculation that Mr. Fulton would move into the White House staff, and he did not. Did you ever hear him say anything about that? Would he have liked to have moved?
GILPATRIC: I, again, don't have any real recollection of that. I know that Hugh Fulton had a great admiration for Mr. Truman, and he always regarded that period of his professional career as sort of the highlight. I don't think he ever had as much fun afterwards when he practiced law in the Fulton-Halley firm, as he did when he was counsel for the Committee.
HESS: What evaluation would you place on Mr. Truman's handling of the Truman Committee to his receiving the
nomination in the vice presidential spot in 1944? How important was that to his career?
GILPATRIC: Well, it certainly made, to quote another Vice President, his name a "household term." He became nationally known as a result of that, and I always felt that both the notoriety that he received and the positive effects of that committee's work had a good deal to do with his selection as a vice presidential candidate. But I was not active politically at that time so that I don't have any, you know, inside information about it.
HESS: His name was fairly well-known in government circles and in the Senate, but just in general, over the Nation, he probably was not that well-known. Were you surprised when the Democratic Party selected him for the vice presidential nomination that year?
GILPATRIC: Yes, I was, because he was a dark horse in the sense that his name had not been bruited about, and with the other
HESS: Justice [William O.] Douglas, for instance; Jimmy [James F.] Byrnes, and then the man who was Vice
President at the time, Henry Wallace.
GILPATRIC: .all those names, you know, were the ones that accorded with general expectations. So I shared in the general surprise when Mr. Truman was selected by Roosevelt.
HESS: In 1948 when Mr. Truman was re-elected, that also surprised a good many people. Do you think Mr. Truman had a good chance for re-election or not?
GILPATRIC: I didn't. I think I was probably laboring under the same misapprehension that many people in New York did, where Dewey's base was and where we probably gave Dewey more credence as having the potential for becoming a national figure than he did out in the boondocks. Again I was not active politically in the campaign. I voted for Mr. Truman, because I had always been higher on him than I had been on Dewey, but I didn't expect him to win.
HESS: You became Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Materiel in 1951. Why were you selected for that position?
GILPATRIC: Mr. [Thomas K.] Finletter, who was then the Secretary of the Air Force, had known me through this firm of which he had previously been an associate. He had left this firm before I became an associate. We had met. He called up one of his former colleagues here, a man who had become one of the senior partners, Maurice Moore, and asked if we had in this firm anyone who would be willing to come down for consideration as his assistant in the procurement area.
When I heard about this opportunity I went to Washington, met with Mr. Finletter, and with Mr. [John A.] McCone, and I did not at that time meet Mr. Truman. Mr. Finletter put my name up after he had reached a decision that he wanted me to join him, and I did communicate with two individuals I knew in the Democratic Party: Frances Perkins, who had been my mother's roommate at college, and Jim Farley, whom I had known, along with many thousands of other people, in a casual way; and my impression was, however, that as far as Defense Department positions were concerned, the President wasn't interested, or wasn't primarily concerned with political affiliations. This came up very vividly later on when I became Under Secretary
in October 1951. The question of filling my place came up, and I recommended a man who was a vice president of Westinghouse, had had a great deal of experience in handling large organizations and installations, and I felt in a period when we were building these overseas bases in North Africa and England and in Western Europe, we needed somebody with that kind of organizational ability. The man in question named Huggins, Edwin V. Huggins, was a Republican, and this being only a year before the '52 election, the President went under considerable pressure from people like Mr. [Paul E.] Fitzpatrick, who was the Democratic State Chairman here in New York, to put in a good, staunch Democrat, and hopefully someone with plenty of resources to support the party. The man in particular, I remember, was Mr. [James David] Mooney, who had been vice president for overseas affairs of General Motors, a Democrat, a very wealthy man, a man who was then in his late sixties. He, among others, was sort of proposed by the Democratic Party organization, and they, on the other hand, opposed my suggestion to Mr. Finletter of bringing in Huggins. So, the matter
had to be resolved at the highest level.
I went over with Mr. Finletter to see the President, because Mr. Finletter didn't know Huggins. As I remember there were present: Mr. Fitzpatrick, and I think Charlie Murphy, the President's Counsel, and there may have been some others of the White House staff. But after hearing all the reasons from Mr. Fitzpatrick why it would be good for the party, and if Mr. Mooney was selected, or some other good Democrat, and the President simply turned to Mr. Finletter and he said, "Now, Tom, is this the man you need and want, and is he qualified?"
And when Mr. Finletter said, "Yes," the President said, "That's the end of it."
I always remembered that because it was typical, so far as I know, of all of President Truman's appointments, not only with Mr. Finletter who was not at that time a particularly active Democratic politician, but of course, Mr. Lovett was a Republican, General Marshall bore no political label, and none of my colleagues in the Defense Department, the Under Secretaries, or the Secretaries, Frank Pace, Dan Kimball, the Under
Secretaries [John F.] Floberg and Earl Johnson, none of us were there because we had any political support, and that was my initial and my lasting impression as far as the element of politics entering into the Defense Department.
HESS: He wanted the best man irregardless of politics.
GILPATRIC: Absolutely, and he made that very clear.
HESS: At the time that you were Assistant Secretary, just what were your principal duties? Were they directed towards building up the Air Force for prosecution of the Korean conflict?
GILPATRIC: Yes. The state of all of the military departments, particularly under Louis Johnson, had been cut back, and the Air Force simply didn't have a modern, large fleet of aircraft, and it meant really mobilizing an entire new defense industry, because the structure for the support of the effort in World War II had been pretty much dismantled.
One of the major problems that the Air Force faced was bringing into aircraft production the companies that never had anything to do with either air
frame or aircraft propulsion unit manufacture, such as all the motor car companies. Mr. McCone, who had been given as the Under Secretary of the Air Force, this principal responsibility for this needed a lot of help, because he was also generally acting as deputy to Mr. Finletter. So, my job was to see that a number of the World War II facilities, things such as major Government-owned plants in Oklahoma, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Marietta, Georgia, and in Fort Worth, Texas, and elsewhere, and great stocks of machine tools that had been mothballed at the end of World War II, were brought back and put into use, and there were all kinds of struggles among the services, because each service resisted trying to build up the Air Force, with perhaps larger a mission and being further to go being a newer service, with less resources built up over the years behind it.
The period from April, I think it was, when I started work, and continuing after I became Under Secretary in October, was characterized by a great deal of pulling and hauling among the services with issues being cast up to the Secretary or the Deputy
Secretary, Mr. Lovett, who became Secretary not long thereafter, for decision and with lots of congressional intervention and supervision.
It was during this period that I first became intimately acquainted with Lyndon Johnson, who had taken over the leadership of what had been the old Truman Committee, and was attempting to make it as much of a force as it had been during World War II.
HESS: You mentioned the cutback in the Armed Services during the time that Louis Johnson was Secretary of Defense. If it is your opinion that the services were cut back in such a manner that they were unable to operate effectively when the Korean situation occurred, wher