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Robert L. Irvin Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Robert L. Irvin

Investigator on the staff of the Truman Committee (Special Senate Committee to Investigate the Defense Program), and later Executive Assistant to the Chairman (Senator James Mead), who succeeded Senator Truman. Served on the staff from February 9, 1942 to September 15, 1945.

Long Beach, California
March 26, 1970
by J. R. Fuchs

[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. [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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 August, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


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


Oral History Interview with
Robert L. Irvin


Long Beach, California
March 26, 1970
by J. R. Fuchs


FUCHS: Mr. Irvin I wonder if to start, it would be good to have a little background sketch of your career, your education, when and where you were born, and what you did up until the time you first came in touch with the Truman Committee?

IRVIN: I'll start, born in Buffalo, New York, October 1918. Educated in the public schools in New York. Went to the University of Michigan, pre-law, and law. Finished law in 1941, admitted to practice in the Michigan bar. Following law school I took a brief vacation and ended up in Washington, D.C., ostensibly to go to work for the Federal Communications Commission, and found out there wasn't the opportunity I thought there was there. So, I was just looking for employment and ended up in the hands of the Truman Committee


up on Capitol Hill.

FUCHS: I seem to recall that some of the other members had gone through Michigan Law, or were from Michigan. Do you recall who they were?

IRVIN: Well, the only one I knew was -- I guess there were two men, actually: Hugh Fulton, the Chief Counsel at that point in time, was a Michigan Law School graduate; and later on George Meader, who was subsequently a Congressman from Michigan, was a University of Michigan Law School graduate. I don't recall any others.

FUCHS: What had raised your hopes about the Federal Communications Commission, how did you happen to be going to work for them?

IRVIN: While in law school one of the attorneys for the Commission came through Ann Arbor, seeking applicants for the staff of the Federal Communications Commission, and I had had shortwave radio experience, a ham station -- I enjoyed it -- and it seemed like a happy combination of radio knowledge and legal knowledge, and the desire to be in Washington and do something with the Government.


So I just assumed when I hit Washington I had a job waiting for me. And it turned out the man who had interviewed me was no longer there, he had gone to some Federal project up in the State of Washington, and the succeeding Chief Counsel, well, didn't see my talents the way I did, so there wasn't an opening.

FUCHS: How did you get the idea of going to work for the Truman Committee?

IRVIN: Well, actually at that point in time, I had applied at several agencies, including the Department of Justice in Washington, and had been told there was an opportunity on the staff of the Truman Committee, the war investigating committee. Not knowing too much about it, and wanting the experience, I went over and applied and probably no one was more surprised than I was that they hired me.

FUCHS: Had you specialized in any particular phase of law, or did you have anything in mind?

IRVIN: No, my dad's an attorney, and still practices law in Buffalo, New York, has a general practice; I'd


clerked for him in his law offices for two summers and had pretty much made up my mind that the private practice of law wasn't my cup of tea. So, no I didn't have any specialty in law.

FUCHS: What do you recall of your first day at the Truman Committee, or the day you went in to seek a job?

IRVIN: Well, I think the thing that has always stayed with me through all these years: I am a Republican by nature and registration, and although I wasn't registered at that point in time, being sort of transient, I never was asked what my political affiliation was, which was most impressive to me. And at no time in the work of the Committee was I ever asked, "Are you a Republican or a Democrat?" And it was strictly a team effort, and a dedicated effort in the name of the Committee to do the best job possible.

FUCHS: Do you recall anyone being asked, when they came to the Committee, what their political affiliation was?

IRVIN: No, I remember we had some men on the staff who were, I am sure, recommended by certain Senators and employed because of their relationship to certain Senators, whether or not it was a political or a


friendship relationship.

FUCHS: Can you and would you care to name them?

IRVIN: Well, one I mentioned, Haven Sawyer was a friend of Owen Brewster, a Senator from Maine. And another chap, I think Bill [William S.] Cole was his name, an attorney from Maine, was a friend of Senator Brewster. But just generally, the staff was hired by the Chief Counsel, Hugh Fulton and his subordinate. Generally speaking, and it was generally understood, that the Chief Counsel had control over the staff, that it was not to be a political staff. There were minor exceptions, but on the whole it was the Chief Counsel's policies that governed the hiring of the staff.

FUCHS: Who did you talk to; who hired you?

IRVIN: Well, actually I started with Hugh Fulton. I had an interview with him, he referred me to Charlie [Charles Patrick] Clark, who was listed as Associate Chief Counsel; Charlie referred me to Matt [Matthew J.] Connelly, who was labeled Chief Investigator; and Matt Connelly referred me back to Charlie Clark; and the next thing I knew I had a call from Clark's office


saying that they wanted to hire me and to come on in and sign up. So, actually the guy who signed me up was Charlie Clark, in terms of the physical signing of the papers and putting me on the payroll, after I had gone through that gamut of guys.

FUCHS: Do you recall anything of Charles Patrick Clark's title? He is listed as...

IRVIN: Yes, at that point in time he had the title of Associate Chief Counsel on the letterhead of the Committee. And one little humorous incident (to me it was humorous anyway), after I was sure I was signed up and on the payroll, I then inquired about specifically what my duties were going to be. And Charlie looked at me and said, "Well, Robert," he said, "you're free to travel aren't you?"

And I said, "Well, hell yes."

And he said, "Well, all right."

And that was his explanation of the job. A traveling job.

Then I was referred back to Matt Connelly and began to get into the Committee structure and Committee work and the first assignment was to study the hearings and


reports up to that point in time. This was in February ' 42 I believe. You had to saturate yourself with the background of the Committee; what it was doing, how it was doing it, how the hearings were conducted, how the reports were written and so on. Then from there you were assigned to actual investigations.

I'll just, as we talk, try to remember some of the major ones that I got into. One was on the shipbuilding program when we were losing so much shipping to Germany (U-boat campaign), and our efforts to produce cargo ships. The efficiency of the various shipyards around the country, and producing them; who were the high cost producers, the low cost producers. Subsequent things happened such as the ship that broke in two up in Portland, I believe, it was one of Henry Kaiser's liberty ships.

FUCHS: Who made the assignments to the various investigations?

IRVIN: Well, I would say on the major -- major investigations, probably most of them came from Hugh Fulton. Minor investigations; Charlie Clark, Matt Connelly. Each of us had certain areas of interest so that as mail was


channeled through the Committee structure, for example on shipbuilding, any letters of complaint or inquiries would come to me. And if I thought something deserved investigating, I could start the machinery in motion. All the inquiries went out signed in the name of the Chief Counsel of the Committee. This in a way slowed things down because the answers were routed back through his office and back through the machinery of the Committee and they were sometimes a little tardy getting to you if you were in a rush on something.

FUCHS: These areas that each investigator more or less served in, were they based on certain experiences that they had in most cases?

IRVIN: No, I don't think necessarily so. At least not in my case. I had no experience in shipbuilding in the beginning.

Another major investigation early, at that point in time, was converting the civilian production machinery into war production. There was a big question could we have guns and butter too; could we maintain civilian production? So, why I was put into that picture, I had no background in it either. You know this was a


young guy out of law school and I just assumed they assigned you where they thought your talents fitted best. So, that was a major investigation, enforcing the conversion of major production facilities around the country into war production to do two things: One, save on materials, as they were becoming scarce, raw materials. And two, to take full advantage of the productive capacity that we had, to convert it to war production.

FUCHS: Did you come in touch with the WPB then?

IRVIN: Oh yes, War Production Board, yes. I'm just trying to think of some of the names of the -- who was the man from Sears Roebuck that -- Don

FUCHS: Nelson.

IRVIN: Nelson.

FUCHS: Donald M. Nelson.

IRVIN: Was head of War Production Board around that time.

FUCHS: And -- well, double-headed, what was it OPA, and what did they call it War Production Authority, when [William S.] Knudsen and [Sidney] Hillman, when they


had that feud, and then they...

IRVIN: I'm trying to think of another chap who was over there, I think his name was Reed. He was a loan executive, I believe from General Electric.

FUCHS: Is this the one that Mr. Truman had a fight about?

IRVIN: We bumped heads with him I think pretty hard, and -- on the speed with which the conversion to war production was taking place, as I recall. Now this is all -- how many years of memories are these?

FUCHS: Brings up the question of the dollar-a-year men.

IRVIN: Right.

FUCHS: Do you recall anything about that?

IRVIN: No. I didn't work particularly on that -- that investigation, although I remember -- I think Robby had quite a bit to do with that at that time as I recall, Harold Robinson.

So, from the beginning I was involved with conversion to war production, shipbuilding, and I'll jump way ahead because a later investigation sprang out of the shipbuilding one when the Kaiser ship broke


in two. He happened to be testifying in Washington before the Committee on another subject, and in the meantime we had been getting a series of complaints from an employee of the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation in Pittsburgh, alleging that faulty steel was being manufactured for the shipbuilding program. And the stories he was telling in writing were so fantastic we couldn't believe them. I mean he had sounded almost like a "crank file." And we always had the policy of never shutting anybody off, so the file accumulated and became sizeable, though we hadn't taken any direct action on it. So, at this particular hearing when Kaiser was testifying, one of the Senators, and I have a hunch it was Owen Brewster, casually asked him what happened to that ship of his that just broke in two and sank at the outfitting dock. And Kaiser said it was the lousy steel that he was getting from Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation. Well then all the bells went off and I was on a plane to Pittsburgh, within hours, to interview this particular chap.

And let's see, Matt Connelly joined us in Pittsburgh as I recall, and I think later Rudy [Rudolph]


Halley came up. We interviewed this guy in his kitchen and he brought out all the records to show that they were dummying up the contents of the slabs of steel that were later rolled into ship plate, and there was a question of tracing all of these things.

To make a long story short, we prepared subpoenas for all of the records of the plant, and we called the head of the company, Lester Perry I believe his name was, and told him we were in Pittsburgh on another investigation, and while we were there we wanted to visit the steel mill (and it was called Irvin Works, incidentally), and see how they were setting all these steel production records for the shipbuilding program.

We got into the plant, under happy auspices, and were being shown around and we came into the area where the central records were kept. We verified the entries in the records as being what this man said they were, the informant to the Committee. And at that point we subpoenaed the records, and our hospitality period came to an end, and everything turned to ice.

The interesting thing about it -- and this does remind me of something about Truman -- it got pretty bitter in Pittsburgh at that point, and they claimed