Oral History Interview with
Director, Harry S. Truman Library, 1995-2000.
August 20, 2014
by Dr. Ray Geselbracht
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript]
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 December 2015
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript]
Oral History Interview with
August 20, 2014
by Dr. Ray Geselbracht
GESELBRACHT: This is Ray Geselbracht, and Im here with Larry Hackman, former director of the Harry S. Truman Library, to begin an oral history interview with him. It is Wednesday, August 20, 2014. Larry, thank you for doing an interview for the Truman Library. I want to get things started and just ask you, where did you grow up? Where did you come from? Where did you go to college?
HACKMAN: I was born and raised in Glasgow, Missouri, a small river town in the middle of the state, a historical town in the sense that it was founded in the 1830s, there was a Civil War battle there, and it was in Howard County, part of the "Little Dixie" region that ran across the state on both sides of the Missouri River. Howard was the Missouri county with the most slaves on the eve of the Civil War. I was born at home in the half of an 1841 house that my parents rented for $20 or $25 a month. Neither of my parents or any of their relatives had much of an education. My father made it to the seventh grade and my mother to the eighth grade. We were from German Catholic families, large families on my mother's side and my father's side.
A small number of the cousins in my generation began to go to college. At the time I needed to decide where to go to college, which I wanted to do, there was no experience in higher education among those close around me and no good high school counseling either. The University of Missouri at Columbia which is 40 miles from Glasgow was the most logical place to go so I did. I had no idea what to major in. I was a pre-business major for awhile, believe it or not. I was an economics major for awhile and was even inducted into an economics honorary society just on the basis of a high general grade point. Finally, when I was a second semester junior I believe, I found my way to American History. I earned my B.A. in American History in 1964 and my M.A. in American history in 1965. I already had a few graduate courses toward the Ph.D. by that time and I already had sent in my PhD dissertation topic to the AHA at that point, the topic being the Harlem Renaissance at a time when it was largely ignored. My major professor was Allen Davis who taught American social and intellectual History. But I also had had two upper class courses and two graduate reading seminars with Richard Kirkendall in recent United States history; he was the professor at that point who was sending the greatest number of graduate students and dissertation writers to do research at the relatively new Harry S. Truman Library in Independence. Kirkendall became a close friend and colleague many years later after I came to the Truman Library in 1995.
In the fall of 1965 I was a graduate teaching assistant in the Honors College section of the American history survey course as I worked toward the Ph.D. That was interrupted when I received my reclassification from my county draft board. I appealed that unsuccessfully and I knew that unless I did something, I would probably be on my way to Vietnam fairly quickly. I considered several alternatives in the military as an officer, but I knew I wasn't really interested, and then I scrambled into an Army Reserve Unit in Kansas City. In this same period, I found that I was not enjoying my first experience as a teaching assistant and I had nearly concluded that I was not going to enjoy being an academic historian in any case because I also did not enjoy primary research. Perhaps I would have learned to enjoy research if I had done more of it, and maybe I would have become a good teacher. In retrospect, I believe both were problematic. So I took a job in Kansas City with the regional
office of the new Office of Economic Opportunity, the War on Poverty program under President Johnson that Sargent Shriver headed. And I worked there for about six months.
One day I was approached by a more senior staff member in the regional OEO office who happened to have worked at GSA in Washington with a fellow named John Stewart who was then at the National Archives and had just been named the new director of the John F. Kennedy Oral History Project. That project was funded in those days by the Carnegie Foundation, but located in the National Archives. Stewart was interested in hiring an interviewer who had a reasonably strong background in recent United States history. So John came out to Kansas City by train because there was an airline strike on and he interviewed me at the Truman Library to become an oral history interviewer for the John F. Kennedy Oral History Project. I accepted the position. The work I was doing at OEO in reviewing applications from school districts in the very early days of Project Head Start was not very interesting to me. At this same time I had passed the Federal Management Intern exam and the interviewing process and was offered a job at the Department of Labor in Washington. Then this Kennedy job offer came along which sounded much more interesting and also raised my Civil Service status from a Grade 7 to an 11, a big jump for me.
GESELBRACHT: When was this?
HACKMAN: This was in the summer of 1966. Sandi and I were married in June in Columbia and rented an apartment in Kansas City. By September, we were living in Washington. In November, I was called into active duty at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in the Army Reserves. I had done only one or two oral history interviews before I was called to active duty. I did basic training and then wrote for the base newspaper for another couple of months before returning to the oral history job in April or May 1967. I was substantially involved in the Kennedy Oral History Project work for about four years. This was an intense, eye-opening learning experience in public history. I did research on a wide variety of topics and issues and met and interviewed an incredible array of people at high levels, just listening to and learning not only about the Kennedy period, especially the 1950s and early 1960s, but also about how people at high levels in government and politics and the media went about their work, how they got things done. I interviewed some members of the White House staff and other close personal associates of John and Robert Kennedy, leaders in various Cabinet and executive agencies, ambassadors and high officials in the State Department, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, members of the press, and some governors and other leaders in politics around the country. Many of these people were household names then. Many of the transcripts of those interviews have been used by scholars since that time and almost all are now available on-line.
I can't think of a better, more fortuitous experience for someone with my limited background to have over the first five years of a career than learning about so many policy areas and also learning how to feel comfortable in discussing such a wide range of subject matter with so many different kinds of people involved in these issues. I did a great deal of reading in those days, nonfiction, journals, newspapers, magazines, even many novels about government and politics and recent United States history. I just learned a lot and gained confidence, which you need to do oral history at a high level . So that was a great first work experience. It also introduced me to a limited extent to presidential libraries and to the National Archives and to their cultures and some limited amount about the way they thought about things.
GESELBRACHT: You were based in Washington this whole time?
HACKMAN: Based in Washington in a third or fourth floor office in the National Archives; not back in the stacks. We operated with big Wollensak reel to reel recorders, which seemed very cumbersome, and were certainly compared to todays equipment. We had a staff of part time transcribers, mostly college students, and a couple of editors. After a few years, the Kennedy Library proper began to organize a pre-Kennedy Library operation out of the Federal Records Center in Waltham, Massachusetts. Thats where the Kennedy papers were transferred and where after a few years researchers could come to research papers as we began to open files and oral history interviews under the terms of the relevant deeds of gift. Some of that early research was quite good given the limitations on access.
In 1970, I applied for the Littauer Fellowship to the School of Government at Harvard and I was awarded that Fellowship. Frank Mankiewicz, who had been a Peace Corps official and then Robert Kennedys press secretary wrote my main recommendation. I knew I didnt want to continue to do oral history forever, and I was kind of casting around for something else to do. Im not sure that I learned a great deal from that year at Harvard, which gave me a masters in public administration. I sort of paused, I took a relatively easy course load, they gave an easy one-year masters program. Almost everyone in that program was a mid-career civil servant and I was much the younger of that group. As some aspects of a Kennedy Library began to take shape at that Federal Records Center, I went to work there as an employee of the National Archives proper, no longer on Carnegie funds but on regular appropriated funds. I didnt do much collections management even though my title was senior archivist. I did work a lot with the early researchers who came there because I knew a lot of the history, the content of many oral history interviews, a lot of the people, where some of the papers were, and so on. I negotiated the deposit of some Kennedy-related papers to the Kennedy Library.
GESELBRACHT: So you were still working on the Kennedy Library staff at that point?
HACKMAN: Right. I was working on-
GESELBRACHT: But still in Washington?
HACKMAN: No. This was all in Waltham. After the year in Cambridge.
GESELBRACHT: After Harvard.
HACKMAN: We bought an old 1832 two-family house on the Mystic River in Arlington and started our family. After a couple of years we bought another on Little Pond in Belmont, Massachusetts. For five years, I worked for that operation out of the Federal Records Center. After Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, for a couple of years I and a new staff member stationed in Washington had focused on oral history interviewing with the people around Robert Kenn