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John D. Hickerson Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
John D. Hickerson


Director for European Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 1947-49; Assistant Secretary of State, 1949-53; member Permanent Joint Board on Defense, U.S. and Canada, 1940-46; and alternate representative, U.S. delegation 4th UN General Assembly, 1949. Later Ambassador to Finland, 1955-60, and to the Philippines, 1960-61.


November 10, 1972, January 26 and June 5, 1973
Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | 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.

As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the Hickerson transcript.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 September, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Notices and Restrictions | Top of the Page | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with

Washington, DC
November 10, 1972
Richard D. McKinzie

MCKINZIE: Ambassador Hickerson, I notice that you began your career in the State Department with posts mostly in Latin America, and that in 1930 you came into the Division of European Affairs. Is that a conscious choice on your part?

HICKERSON: Well, I came in a little earlier than that, the end of 1927 actually. I had served for nearly three years in Ottawa and I was brought into the--I'll call it European Bureau, they had different names then. It's now the European Bureau and it's simpler to call it that. I came in to take the Canadian desk. They try to have in the geographic bureaus of the State Department on the country desks, officers that have had actual experience in that country. They knew their way around, all the leaders and things of that sort.

It was determined for me. The Latin American part was not particularly my idea. My first assignment was Vice-Consul at Tampico, Mexico. If they asked me to pick out a place that I didn't want to go to that would have been high up on my choice. One branch of my family had cattle ranch interests in Mexico, and I thought I knew something about it and I wanted to see something else.

I suppose the fact that I spoke Texas-Mexican Spanish may have had something to do with it. I learned Spanish from Mexican cotton pickers. I, picking cotton along with them on the farm. There were lumps in my grammar but I was fairly fluent.

MCKINZIE: Did you have at that time a particular interest in European affairs? Was that an ultimate career goal for you?

HICKERSON: In those days we were told where to go. They would make the best use of our talents and we'd take it and like it, and as a disciplined service do what we were told. But my real interests were, for some reason, in Europe.

My father raised cotton, had cotton gins, and bought and sold cotton on a small scale. I remember as a youngster having the Liverpool quotations from middling cotton at the breakfast table.

MCKINZIE: Most young men don't have that.

HICKERSON: And my interest was primarily there. I spent a good bit of my last years in the university preparing for the Foreign Service examination. I had majored in history in the university, minored in economics and had pointed toward the examinations. And I was interested in Europe. I hoped sometime to get there, and I got there through Canada.

MCKINZIE: You were the U.S. delegate to the joint U.S.-Canadian Defense Board.

HICKERSON: That was 1940. I still had the Canadian section then. By that time I had the entire British Commonwealth section in the European Bureau. But that board you mentioned was set up because it was one of President Roosevelt's ideas. The Joint Defense Board (U.S.- Canada) was quite effective. It was quite helpful to the administration and to the Canadians. We weren't in the war at that time, and didn't come in for about 15 months after that.

Incidentally, it has always seemed a little bit curious to me that international lawyers and historians haven't picked up the fact that the creation of that board was in itself a very interesting thing. The purpose was to work out defense plans for the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. Canada was at war and had an expeditionary force in England at the time. Under the rules of war, the Germans had the right to retaliate. What we, in effect, said to the Germans was, "Okay, do your retaliating on their forces overseas, but don't you shoot up the North American continent or you're going to have us to reckon with," which I think was very sound policy and I was always in favor of it. But, I say, it was something of a phenomenon in international law.

MCKINZIE: I want to ask about the work of the European Bureau during the war. By the time that President Roosevelt died and President Truman was inaugurated, you surely were pretty deeply involved in a postwar planning and getting ready for the world after the war. I'm wondering what immediate effect President Roosevelt's death and President Truman's assumption of leadership might have had on your work, and your reactions to all that? I'm sure that everybody recalls a little bit about how he felt.

HICKERSON: Yes. Actually it had surprisingly little effect. Now, let me give you an illustration of that. Part of the planning was on the future United Nations Organization. Secretary [Cordell] Hull started that. He started it right after we got into the war. He started talks with congressional leaders and he set up a staff in the State Department working up plans. And he had the rest of the leaders right along with them. Of course, Secretary Hull had favored our joining the League of Nations, as did I as a young man. He wanted to carry the political leaders along with him so that he would get in, so there would be no doubt about it; not only because of the changed circumstances, but because he thought it was a good idea.

Then in 1944 we had the Dumbarton Oaks talks. Two stages: the first stage with the British and Soviets, and then the Soviets wouldn't talk with the Chinese because they didn't like Chiang Kai-shek. So we had a separate session covering the same ground, the British, the Chinese and ourselves. That was in 1944.

In '45, when the President died, we were deep in the preparations for the San Francisco UN Conference. The date had been set. President Truman took office and the first thing he did was send for Secretary [Edward R., Jr.] Stettinius, who was then Secretary of State, and say, "We want to go right ahead with this thing, everything just as planned." And we just went ahead. Now that is one illustration.

Another illustration. We had started talking to the British about cooperation, reduction of trade barriers etc. after the war; and those talks went right along just as if nothing had happened. The President said, "Full steam ahead on everything you were doing." And it's all the more interesting because of the fact that President Roosevelt had not kept Mr. Truman as well informed about what was going on as he should have. Indeed, that was one of the reasons why the National Security Act of 1947 was passed. You may remember that the Vice President under that is a standing member of the National Security Council.

We went right ahead; really we weren't conscious of any change.

MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, you would not agree with the historians of recent day who have said that Mr. Truman didn't really come to grips with the full responsibilities of his office for a year or so?

HICKERSON: Oh, no. No, that isn't correct.

MCKINZIE: They normally cite cutting off lend-lease as an error in foreign policy . . .

HICKERSON: I think in retrospect it possibly was, but I think it was understandable at the time, because there were clamors about what we had done and all that sort of thing. Of course, there were many things that were done that we shouldn't have done. You can't blame all those on President Truman. We shouldn't have demobilized immediately. The Russians didn't, you know. And that caused part of our difficulty. To say that the President didn't take over fully ignores the fact that in that period he made the decision to test the atomic bomb out in New Mexico. He made the decision to drop the first atomic bomb; he went right ahead with the UN organization and all of those things.

Now, this is one reason why, in retrospect, we should not have stopped lend-lease. I don't think anybody on this side of the ocean realized the condition that Western Europe, including Great Britain, was going to be in after the war. There had been some damage in France; a little bombing damage in England; but all over the area the devastation was really nothing as compared with the disruption of their economic life.

Will Clayton, who was Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs at that time, made several trips to Europe. He made speeches about this, He was just appalled at what had happened there. Partnerships dissolved, one partner dead, the difficulty of getting things going again, the lack of capital, distribution systems completely messed up. Not only that, but the fact that so many people thought, and I did to a certain extent, that Russia had suffered enough that the Russians might, just might, in their own interests behave themselves for awhile. But they didn't. They didn't. I would remind you that in 1945, autumn, we got the first news of the Canadian spy thing. A little file clerk in the Soviet Embassy decided to defect and put his arms around all the files he could carry and went to the Canadians with them. That was September 1945.

Then, Stalin's speech at the conference of Communist parties in February 1946. All of that came along. Nobody could foresee that that was going to happen, that way, because of the commitments that Stalin had made during hostilities. And so the whole situation changed. Then, again, you have to take into account the drought in Europe in 1947, which really fathered the Marshall plan.

I think President Truman, taking everything into account, stepped right into the breech. He astonished a lot of people, including me, at his grasp of things--with so little preparation. By the way, I have heard it said that President Truman, as Vice President, did not know of the Manhattan project until after he became President.

MCKINZIE: I believe that's true.

HICKERSON: It was the best kept secret the U.S. Government ever had. I knew about it, but just in vague, general terms. But I didn't need to know and I wasn't curious.

I remember one time being at a joint State Department-military group talking about economic warfare. This was about '44 I guess, and somebody on our side--a State Department economist--mentioned the word "uranium" and a major general in our Army dropped and broke his coffee cup.

I have heard the story, I don't know whether it is true or not, but as an anecdote, that somebody quoted President Truman as saying, confirming that he didn't know about the Manhattan project, that to him Manhattan meant just two things: an island in the Hudson River that he didn't particularly admire, and a cocktail that he didn't like.

MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, some historians are now writing that during the Johnson years, the United States tended to neglect Europe. Those same people are quite often inclined to say that the U.S. overemphasized Europe in 1945 to 1953. I put this to Dean Acheson in a short discussion two years ago and he said, "Well, yes, . . . that's where the Russians were,"

HICKERSON: Militant Russia. Now, listen, let me digress at this point a moment. I said a little earlier that some of us thought that the Russians had suffered so much. Their casualties, the devastation in their country was terrific. We thought there would be a breathing spell when they'd be trying to rebuild their country. That doesn't mean that I felt or that my colleagues felt that the Russians had been converted to Christianity and that they would permanently behave, but we thought it was so clearly in their interest.

MCKINZIE: In the course of this did you seriously consider the reconstruction loan to the Soviet Union?

HICKERSON: I wasn't in on that; but that was considered.

MCKINZIE: It was not something that went through your office?

HICKERSON: Oh, no. No, that wasn't. That was on a higher level. Averell Harriman wrote something about that. There was even talk of a large interest free loan I think I heard him say in a public speech, or read an article he wrote, that one time Molotov, who really was a so-and-so, he's alive--well, he still is a so-and-so if there ever was one--was in conversation with Harriman and brought this up and said, "Yes, Mr. Ambassador, the Soviet Union will be very glad to cooperate with the United States and help you avoid a depression by taking a large interest free loan from you."

MCKINZIE: There's a new biography out now of Dean Acheson by Gaddis Smith of Yale.

HICKERSON: I haven't seen that, I read a brief review.

MCKINZIE: Well, one of the reviews says that under Mr. Acheson the State Department really functioned more like the British Foreign Office, that the State Department had more power, more prerogatives to resolve the problems and present the solutions then, and the President simply gave a yes or no; at least, more of a yes or no than any President previously or since; that in a sense the President took a les