Oral History Interview with
Executive Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Labor in Charge of International Labor Affairs, 1946-47; Director, Office of International Labor Affairs, Department of Labor, 1947-49; Assistant Secretary of Labor for International Labor Affairs, 1949-53; Special Assistant to Governor W. Averell Harriman, 1955-58; U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Mauritania, 1961-64; Minister, U.S. Embassy in London, 1964-69; U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, 1977-80, and to Austria, 1980-81.
June 8, 1987 and June 11, 1987
by Niel M. Johnson
[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. ) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 April, 1980
Harry S. Truman Library
See also Philip Kaiser Papers
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Oral History Interview with
June 8, 1987
by Niel M. Johnson
KAISER: [Describing his acquaintance with Truman and "branchwater"]" There would be a dinner for members of the "Little Cabinet." I don't know whether you've heard about this.
JOHNSON: The Little Cabinet?
KAISER: In those days we didn't have as many Assistant and Under Secretaries as you have today. You probably have two or three times as many today.
Well, every month one Cabinet member would act as host to a dinner in their department, a dinner for all the Under Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries. The Cabinet member would give a talk about the work and problems in his department. It was very informal, and a very
pleasant get-together. You got to meet your colleagues, and it was a very attractive way of building up a kind of cohesive unit at that important governmental level.
Well, about every second or third month, the President, President Truman, would join the party. And each time he came, I heard about "bourbon and branchwater" -- that was the President's drink. Well, I came from Brooklyn, New York and I had never heard the expression "branchwater" before in my life. I thought it was a special water that you had to fly in from Missouri, in order to mix the proper drink for the President.
Well, I didn't want to show my ignorance. But after a year or so my curiosity got the better of me -- I often sat next to Phil Perlman, the Solicitor General. We were good friends -- I felt I knew him well enough that I wouldn't suffer embarrassment by asking Phil. I said, "Phil, for God's sake, what the hell is branchwater?" Well, he turned and looked at me, and said, "Phil, you're not serious. You mean to tell me you don't know what branchwater is?" I said, "No." I said, "All I know is that it must be something very special." So he laughed and he said, "Do you think that
water that comes out of the tap is something very special?" Well, that's the end of the story. I had never heard of "branchwater" used in that context.
JOHNSON: I come across that every so often in looking at some of these tidbits on Truman, but I'm kind of at a loss, too, when it comes to describing branchwater.
I want to start, Mr. Kaiser, by asking for some personal background, when and where you were born and what your parents' names are.
KAISER: I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I was the ninth of ten children. My parents' names were Morris, Morris Bear, and my mother's name Temma, which is really the biblical name Tamara. That's where the name comes from, Tamara. Her maiden name was Sloven.
JOHNSON: Now your father's father was an immigrant from...
KAISER: No, my father was.
JOHNSON: Your father was an immigrant.
KAISER: Well, let me tell you how the name Kaiser came about. It's interesting because people always think we're German.
The first member of the family to come over was my grand uncle, my father's uncle, who came over -- I always remember -- the year before the great blizzard in New York. He came over in 1886, and the great blizzard was 1887. A wonderful guy, Uncle Jack, a marvelous character. I knew him. He lived to be 94 or 95. The family name was Kazas. I'm not sure how you spell it, but you can see what's happening; it's a Russian name. When he gets to Ellis Island, they say, "What's your name?" "Kazas." Well, the guy can't spell it, and he thought it sounded like Kaiser. That's how the official wrote it and that's how our name came to be Kaiser. He, Uncle Jack, brought my father over here.
JOHNSON: That's the Polish part of Russia?
KAISER: No. It's the Ukraine. White Russia, I think, or the Ukraine. White Russia is in that border area. Actually my folks' first five kids were born in Russia, and the last five in the family were born in America. I was the ninth of ten. My father died at the age of 83 or 84. He had 27 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
JOHNSON: You have a lot of nephews and nieces.
KAISER: And grandnephews and nieces, about 65 or 70. I even have great-grandnephews and nieces, a couple. I can't keep up with them.
JOHNSON: Did your parents live in Brooklyn, New York, throughout their lives?
KAISER: Throughout my life.
JOHNSON: And grew up there and you attended apparently a Hebrew...
KAISER: That's right, I went to a parochial school. I think it was the first of its kind in America. There are now a great many of them around. It was a wonderful training. I think of how kids are pampered these days. I had eight hours of school a day. I used to do four hours of Hebrew studies in the morning. It was a modern curriculum, not particularly religious, although there was a religious element. It was basically the Bible, history and language -- the classes were conducted in Hebrew. By the time I was 13 or 14 I was bilingual. The only way I read the Old Testament was in Hebrew. I still read it in Hebrew. I first read Ivanhoe in a Hebrew translation. In the afternoon from 1 to 5 we'd do the regular lay school curriculum. In fact, that part of the school was licensed by the New York State Board of Regents.
JOHNSON: How many years did...
KAISER: Well, I did that from the time I was about seven until I was 13. I had skipped a couple of classes, one year of school, so I attended the Hebrew Institute through junior high school. We used to go to a camp in Vermont during summer in the twenties. My father was pretty well off at that time, before the '29 crash -- earlier in '28.. He was in real estate when the crash in that industry came. The smart people were tipped off by the real estate crash; they got out of Wall Street because it came more than a year before. I never felt that I had been denied anything, or worked too hard as a kid, too many hours of school, and that sort of thing. And camp added a new rich dimension in our lives. Here we met counselors who were college students on their way to becoming doctors, lawyers, judges, writers and teachers. They influenced our cultural and intellectual development. I was a good athlete, as a youngster, and my talents were developed by counselors in camp, who had played varsity ball at Columbia and New York Universities and City College.
JOHNSON: Did you do any manual labor type work in those days?
KAISER: No, not as a kid. Later on I worked my way through
college, interestingly enough, mainly by tutoring kids in Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin. That was my main source of income. And then when I got to be 16 I went back to camp as a counselor, and earned a few hundred dollars every summer.
JOHNSON: I believe it was Selig Perlman at the University of Wisconsin who steered you into labor economics.
KAISER: He got me into it. As a matter of fact, I'm a kind of strange, crazy mixture. I majored at Wisconsin in philosophy and classics. But I always had a wide range of other interests, including, particularly, politics and history, I always reacted against the notion of doing more and more about less and less.
JOHNSON: Well, I kind of spread out too.
KAISER: To be serious with you, Niel, in contemporary life, that's really basically a mistake. You've got to be a specialist; you've got to be an expert. Well, I took courses with Perlman and I also got to know him through his sons, whom I tutored. One of them, who died of cancer, was a brilliant pharmacologist. He became Dean of the School of Pharmacology at Wisconsin. And the other kid, whom I
still see, is about ten years younger than I. He's a brilliant economist, and was chairman of the Economics Department at Pittsburgh University for years. Selig and I became close personal friends. In his approach to labor, there was a philosophical aspect, not just nuts and bolts. Perlman articulated "a theory of the labor movement;" which was the title of his great book, that fitted in with my general interests -- philosophical broad range, historical and political -- so that there was a warm congeniality between us. Plus the fact that I met my wife in his class; that's where we met.
JOHNSON: Yes, I notice in one of the speeches you gave, you talked about Perlman's theory of the three factors influencing the labor movement. There are the capitalists themselves and how they apparently absorb and react to these forces that are at work, then the role of the intellectuals, and thirdly the trade union leadership. Those three groups were keys.
KAISER: Perlman's Theory was a bold book because it dispelled a lot of wrong notions about the role of the intellectuals, about particularly the Communist theory of trade unions, what they were and what their function in society was. He
really kicked the Communist theory in the teeth. He really did a brilliant job in putting that in its proper perspective. Perlmans is a very interesting personal story. I won't go into all the details. But he was brought over to the U.S. by a moderate Socialist who was very wealthy, an American named William English Walling, who came from Indiana. English and Walling families were both in manufacturing. Walling became very interested in the Russian Socialist Party. He broke with [Eugene] Debs because he [Walling] supported World War I, while Debs opposed the war.
And Perlman got involved with the Walling family through an incredible personal story. Walling married a famous, flamboyant young lady called Bella Stronsky. The Stronsky family was a very interesting family.
JOHNSON: Bella Stronsky.
KAISER: It was an intellectual, literary, American-Jewish family. Perlman's aunt lived in New York and was a seamstress to Mrs. Walling. She had made some dresses for Mrs. Walling Stronsky -- before the latter's departure for Europe. The Wallings were going to spend the whole year in Italy, in a little island off Naples. The aunt
had just learned that her nephew Selig -- this is September 1905 -- had had some chest problems, medically, and the family was sending him to the University of Naples for one year. So the aunt said to Mrs. Walling, "My nephew is going to be in Naples for the year." Mrs. Walling said, "Well, we'll get in touch with him, because we want to learn Russian and maybe he can be our tutor." So she contacted Selig, took a shine to him and he became their tutor in Russian. America is full of stories like this.
JOHNSON: Yes. Tutoring in Hebrew got you acquainted with Perlman.
KAISER: That's right.
So, Perlman then went home -- this was 1906. They [the Wallings] said, "You really should come to America." He replied that he had been admitted to a Russian university. When he got home, however, Perlman found that after the aborted revolution in 1905, the Government had reimposed a numerus clausus on Jewish students and he had lost his place in the University.
Perlman then contacted the Wallings and told them he now wanted to come to the U.S., but his parents were
against his going.
Well, the Wallings were visiting Russia at that time, and Walling, because he was associated with the Russian Social Democrats, was arrested by the Czarist police. He was released when President Theodore Roosevelt intervened personally. This got enormous publicity in the Russian press. Selig said to his parents, "This man you're reading about in the paper is my sponsor." So they reluctantly yielded. The Wallings decided that Wisconsin was the place for him to go to, because that was where John R. Commons, the leading liberal economist, was a professor. Perlman became a great Commons' disciple, and they collaborated in writing the classic History of Labor in the United States. That's putting it all briefly, but it was a remarkable story. The daughter of the Wallings lives here in Washington, a very beautiful lady. She's now in her late seventies, and we see her from time to time.
JOHNSON: So at Wisconsin you more or less shifted over to labor economics and got a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.
KAISER: I got a Rhodes Scholarship as a classics and philosophy student. This was an extra dimension, I think, which made a big difference.
JOHNSON: Now at oxford, did you study any labor economics?
KAISER: Yes, as part of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, one of Oxford's main courses.
JOHNSON: All right, how about Keynesian economics?
KAISER: I studied Keynes. I studied labor movements under G.D.H. Cole, who was the British equivalent to Selig Perlman. He was a leading historian of British labor.
JOHNSON: Was Keynesian economics being pretty much taught there?
KAISER: Oh yes. As a matter of fact, I listened to lectures on Keynes by Roy Harrod, who later was the biographer of Keynes. He was the leading economist in Oxford.
JOHNSON: And that fit in with your predisposition?
KAISER: Yes. I switched away from philosophy and the classics. I think what had happened was I had worked so hard on the languages themselves, on Greek and Latin, none of which I had had in high school, that suddenly I became b