Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened April, 1972
Oral History Interview with
February 2, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin this morning Mr. Keenan, would you give me a little of your personal background; where were you born, where were you raised and what positions have you held?
KEENAN: I was born in the city of Chicago, November 5, 1896. I spent all of my adult life in Chicago and I attended grammar school in Chicago. I went to night school for awhile and to Lewis Institute and St. Ignatius College. I had a number of jobs before I started my apprenticeship as an electrician. I was a messenger boy for a ladies hat firm, and I worked in the factory of a ladies hat firm. I was enrolled as an apprentice in IBEW Local 134 in 1914.
I started my apprenticeship with the Chicago Telephone Company and stayed with that company after becoming a journeyman in 1920. I then transferred
to construction work and was in the construction industry working, as an electrician does, for a number of firms. I became an officer in Local 134, as an inspector. Then I became Recording Secretary in 1925 and held that position until 1951.
I was elected secretary of the Chicago Federation of Labor to succeed a great leader out there, Eric Neckols, in 1937. From then on I had various jobs. My entrance in the Government was in 1940 when I was called by Daniel Tracy, our International President, who in turn turned me over to Sidney Hillman, who was one of the seven members of the National Defense Council.
Sidney Hillman represented labor in that council, and I became his assistant, representing the AF of L. John Owens of the miners represented the CIO and a gentleman by the name of Mr. [Timothy] Shea represented the railroads. I served as Hillman's assistant until the Defense Council was reorganized in 1941 as the Office of Production Management, and then that was dissolved and they set up the War Production Board.
I became an assistant to Wendell Lund, who was the director for labor in the original setup. Later it was changed and they made two vice presidents, with fulltime
duties. My title was Vice President in Charge of Labor Production. Clint [Clinton S] Golden was named Vice President in Charge of Manpower. My association there brought me in contact with nearly all of the military and other agencies, as far as construction was concerned, and I developed a friendship, through our working relationships, with General [Lucius] Clay and Admiral [Arthur Granville] Robinson.
When General Clay was made Military Governor of Germany he asked me to go with him as labor advisor. I spent, off and on, about three years in Germany.
HESS: What were your main duties in Germany?
KEENAN: Reorganizing, and trying to relocate the labor leaders that were disposed of in 1933, finding them, bringing them back to their towns in the American zone, and using them as the means of reorganizing the trade unions in the American zone.
HESS: Were they difficult to locate?
KEENAN: Well, they could be...
HESS: Did you locate very many?
KEENAN: Well, yes, we located most of those that were alive. They were under heavy restrictions when they were arrested in 1933 on May 1 or May 2. They were given
certain instructions. Many left the country, and they started to come back.
One of the outstanding men in that group was a fellow by the name of Fritz Turnow. He was a member of the Reichstag and was truly representative of the trade union movement. And he was able to escape. They had arrested him one night and probably there was a slip between the lip and the cup and he was released on his own recognition. Then he was spirited out of the country and he lived most of this time, I think, in Sweden and in England. And he returned and became the first secretary of the DGB when it was reorganized in 1948.
HESS: Did you have any particular difficulties in reestablishing the trade union movement after the war?
KEENAN: Not at all. Clay gave me a free hand. And he allowed me to reorganize the unions along the United States line. I knew nothing about Germany when I went there, nothing at all. But with Father [Edmund] Walsh and Miss [Florence] Thorne of the AFL, she was in research, I had a chance to meet with Stennis, who was there. Ed Stennis I think his name was, he was with the Haverford College. I had a chance to talk
with [Heinrich] Bruening, I think it was, he was at Harvard. And there was another man I think was at Knox College. And when they read about me taking this appointment with Clay they immediately called me and we made arrangements to meet.
They gave me a background. Stennis was the son of one of the great industrialists of that country, prior to Hitler. And so through these people, I got a breakdown on how the unions were operating over there. You had the Christian unions, you had the Democratic unions, you had the Einheit unions, you had these Communist unions. And then they had the Works Council that fitted in and kind of reduced the effectiveness of the trade unions as an organization.
So, anyhow, I got all that advice and went to Clay and told him what I had in mind and he said, "You go ahead." Well, that meant that I had to talk to the Democrats. And I talked to the Christian unions, and to Cardinal Falharper, who was the titular head of the Christian unions in Germany. [Kurt] Schumacher was in the English zone, Cardinal Falharper was in our zone, and I talked to the leaders at that time because we hadn't had them tied together in 1945-1946, but
we made the tie in 1947-1948. And I think it was in 1947 we, the British and the Americans, agreed and they allowed our form of unionism to be used also in the English zone.
HESS: Was there anything of this nature going on in the Russian zone at this time?
KEENAN: Well, we never could find out what was going on in the Russian zone. In the Russian zone, the Russians applied their system, and the only labor law that we got real support on was the Works Council and they pushed the Works Council Law through almost immediately. But they had a reason for that because they knew they had no chance of taking over, but they could be very effective in the Works Council and they did cause a lot of trouble in the coal mining areas. Most of these unions had these old leaders. When we found them they were up in years, sixty, sixty-five, seventy. Well, Turnow was sixty-seven and Hans Bechler was older than that. He became the first George Meany of Germany.
And you take the miners. A fellow by the name of [August] Schmidt, he was well over seventy. And we had a young fellow there by the name of Argott, who was the vice president. He was a fellow of about
twenty, thirty years old. He was an out and out Communist and he really gave us some hell. He had these floating gangs of pickets that went to these mines. And we needed coal -- it was 1945-1946, the winter of 1945-1946 was one of the worst years. And we needed coal to run equipment, run these steam engines, and run the plants. But we needed it, and also the railroads. And they caused a lot of trouble in that.
HESS: What methods could you use at that time to keep the Communists from infiltrating and taking over?
KEENAN: No way. They had the majority. The only thing we could do -- I suppose if it got bad enough -- it never got that serious, but I suppose if it had we would have thrown them in jail, which they didn't mind.
HESS: When you wanted to discuss something, would you take it directly to the General, or were there people on the staff that you used?
KEENAN: Directly to Clay, and then he gave me an entree to all of his administrative people that I needed to carry out the job I was over there to do.
HESS: Moving back just a little bit, but at the time that you were at the War Production Board, two very important men were there at that time: Donald M. Nelson, who was
chairman, and then later, Julius Krug.
KEENAN: I worked very closely with them.
HESS: What do you recall about those two men, and what kind of men were they?
KEENAN: I think Donald Nelson was a great American, one of the finest. He had a lot of courage and we are lucky he did, because I'm afraid if it wasn't for Donald Nelson this whole operation would have been turned over to the military and they'd have had a free hand. But he fought them off and he brought in people to help him. Some of them left him. They just became entranced when these military people would bring them in and show them the tanks, and the guns, and the planes, and the carriers. And it seemed to me, they just lost their balance as far as trying to keep the civilian economy going under trying war times.
Now, Krug was brought in later, when Donald had to resign. He and I worked for two and a half years, because he headed a branch that was very important, the utilities, and the gas, the gas and oil. And being in the electrical business, and with the great construction going on, we met very, very -- well, we used to meet daily. He had an assistant who I worked with very much, Ed
Falk, and between them, prior to becoming chairman, I worked with them very, very closely.
HESS: Did you ever have any occasion to work with him when he was Secretary of the Department of Interior?
KEENAN: Yes, I worked with him quite a bit then.
HESS: Do you recall any instances in which you may have worked with him to help illustrate your relationship?
KEENAN: Well, he used to come to me on all of these labor problems. He'd come talk to me whenever he got into trouble, and I think the closest we ever worked was in the first coal mine strike when he was Secretary of Interior, when President Truman set up that five cents for their pension fund. And I worked with him quite closely day after day, helping where I could at that time.
HESS: Did he take your recommendations, do you recall?
KEENAN: Oh, yes, he and I -- he was a pretty liberal guy in his own right, so he didn't need much prodding. He might riot go as far as I would suggest, but he was out, in many cases, as far as I was, in our interest in getting something done.
HESS: In the first couple of years of the Truman administration, there was quite a bit of labor strife. Mr. Truman
was threatening to take over the railroads and things of that nature. What was your opinion of Mr. Truman's early handling of labor matters, say the first year or so?
KEENAN: Well, the first year or so I think he had bad advice.
HESS: Who was giving him the bad advice?
KEENAN: Well, he had some bad guys around. I can't say, but I think that [Charles] Sawyer and [John] Snyder and a number of others...I don't know whether they fully understood what these questions were. But I'm sure that in his first decision, you know, that he was right. I feel that...
HESS: In his initial reaction?
KEENAN: I think in 1947, the first tax bills. He vetoed the first tax bill and then they watered it down a little and he signed the second. I think he would have been far better off if he had vetoed both of them.
HESS: What are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?
KEENAN: Well, my earlier recollections were with the War Production Board when he was chairman of the Truman Committee. I think it was the greatest contribution to the war that one could imagine. If he had been
a publicity hunter, he could have exposed some things that would have had this whole country on its ear, but he didn't. When he went out and made these investigations, he called the people in that were responsible and forced them to take some action. I think it's a gory story that shouldn't be told. I think the records of the Truman Committee's hearings are documented. It's there for the people to read.
HESS: Did you ever attend any of the hearings of the Truman Committee?
KEENAN: Oh yes.
HESS: Do you