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 Robert Landry transcript.
See also Robert B. Landry Oral History by the United States Air Force Oral History Office.
Oral History Interview with
February 28, 1974
James R. Fuchs
FUCHS: General Landry, you might want to begin by telling a little of your military background leading up to when you joined the staff in the White House, and then, as you were this morning, relating some of your anecdotes.
LANDRY: Yes, this is a good way to start the interview. A copy of my biographical sketch covering my military assignments will give a pretty good picture of my military background, (See Bographical Sketch of Military Service) and it is associated with further remarks I will have to make on the subject. I think, too, it is desirable for me to establish a proper setting for answers to questions you wish to ask me, and for other information that may arise out of discussions I'm sure we will have as we go along. For example, why and what had occurred to bring about this
first-time White House position on the President's staff, what were my qualifications for the job, what duties were involved, to whom I would be reporting, etc.
At the time of my appointment I was serving on the Air Force staff as Executive Officer to the Chief, General Tooey [Carl] Spaatz, whom I had known for many years and served under in England when he commanded all strategic and tactical air forces in the war against Germany. As executive officer to General Spaatz, it had been my good fortune to get to know Secretary [Stuart] Symington very well. When military assignments are being made, being in the right place at the right time can be an asset and may have had something to do in my being recommended by the Chief and the Secretary for the White House position; probably a touch of luck, too. I have often asked who was it that took the initiative in setting up the Air Force Aide's job: the Air Force Secretary maybe, or the President.
At the time, however, there had been a rumor floating around the Air Staff regarding who, among several people, might be selected for this assignment, including my name. I never gave it much thought, really, as I had hoped after my job in the Pentagon, I would be able to get back in the field with a flying
unit. I rather think it just developed, as between the President and the Secretary, that since the former Army Air Force had, in September 1947, been elevated by Congressional action to Department status, it seemed logical and fair that the President have an Air Force Officer Aide on his staff, as did the Army and Navy for their respective services.
Be that as it may, on the night of February 5, 1948, my wife and our two children were sitting on the porch of our home on Reno Road in Washington, D.C., watching the sun go down during the twilight period. The phone rang inside the house around 7:30 p.m. My wife answered it and returned to say Mr. Matt Connelly was calling from the White House wishing to speak with me. Neither of us knew Mr. Connelly, nor did we have any contacts in the White House except for the one time I had met General Harry Vaughan, the President's Military Aide, at a social function.
The message was brief. At the direction of the President, he was calling to say that I had been appointed by the President to be his Air Force Aide and I was to report to the White House the following morning for an appointment at 9:30 a.m. to meet the President. As one can imagine, this surprise news resulted in all sorts of speculation and excitement. Eventually, when things calmed down, my family and
friends decided I had better "hit the sack" so as to be fresh and alert for my first meeting, ever, with a President of the United States.
At 9:15 a.m. the next day I was cleared at the White House gate and reported to Matt Connelly whose office was adjacent to the President's office. He said the President was having a meeting with Secretary [James] Forrestal and would see me at about 9:25. There I sat for a few minutes, wondering what the President would have to say to me and how I might respond.
The door into the President's office finally opened and there stood the President. He was just inside his office smiling and ready to greet me. After Matt introduced me, he said, "Come in Colonel, glad to see you," and we shook hands. He said, "You're going to be my new Air Force Aide and I just want you to know you're going to be one of the family on my staff." He went on to say he was going to have a press conference right here in the Oval Office in a few minutes; I was to stand right behind him with Bob Dennison and Harry Vaughan, as he sat at his desk and took questions from the press. I recall him saying, "You will see it is something like a circus."
After the press conference was over, I was introduced to members of the President's staff. All
were most cordial. My first reaction, after all this was over, was how the President had made me feel right at home, like I had known him for some time. As I look back, I can't believe how relaxed I was and relieved, too, of any anxieties about this assignment. I just knew right then and there, it would be fun, exciting and rewarding.
I was then shown around the premises and the location of my office on the second floor in the East Wing of the White House. (John Steelman, Harry Vaughan and Bob Dennison were on the first floor just below me.) It consisted of my office and an adjoining secretary-receptionist office with usual furnishings. It was obvious I would have to go to the Air Force for a secretary and such transportation as might be needed and authorized.
During the tour of the White House that first day, I was shown, among other things, the enclosed White House swimming pool with an adjoining enclosed exercise room like a small gym with the usual exercise equipment. I was told the President loved to swim and have a massage after he left the office around 5:00 to 5:30 each day. The little gym appealed to me because in those days I tried to exercise and work-out as much as possible. I wondered if I would be permitted to use the gym--swimming didn't interest me at all. At the
proper time, later on, I figured I would ask the President if I was permitted to use it.
The rest of the day was spent getting oriented in this high-level environment. Either the President or Matt had told me after the meeting that I was expected to attend their daily 9:30 a.m. meetings with the principal staff members and his three Aides when he was in residence. I also learned that when the President attended local official gatherings, his three military aides were to escort him. Information on such activities--times, places, etc.--would be furnished by Connelly's office.
For the first several weeks I mostly watched and listened to what was going on. Several things seemed clear to me; one, there was no job description or precedent concerning what my responsibilities were; two, it became clear that my position on the staff was at the same level as other principal staff members, reporting directly to "the boss," the President. I assumed it was up to me to anticipate how best I could serve the President as the Air Force representative on this special assignment. Duties and responsibilities would develop, I felt sure, and they did, as is indicated later on in this transcript.
What I believe was the first order given to me by the President early on was the scheduling of the
Presidential airplane for use by the family, cabinet officers, other high Government officials approved by the President, and heads of foreign governments invited to visit the United States by the President. All scheduling was to be handled by me, and I was to be present in the aircraft as the President's representative on all such flights.
Soon after the completion of one of the morning meetings I had an opportunity to speak to the President about working out in the gym. "You do just that whenever you like," he said, "and use the pool, too, if you want to. It would be good company for me; nobody on the staff has ever shown much interest in these facilities."
Well, as it turned out the President would have his swim, shower and have a massage which he enjoyed very much as it was very relaxing and helpful in restoring the energy spent during the day in the office. While he relaxed on the table and I was dressing, he often liked to chat about events of the day, occasionally some more pressing matters such as the cold war, the Russian threat, the Korean situation and things like that. It was on one such occasion that I recommended to the President he have an up-to-date briefing on the Air Force on the Strategic Air Command's capabilities and readiness to launch a
devastating airborne attack against vital Soviet targets, if such action should ever to necessary as a result of something like a Soviet miscalculated intercontinental atomic missile first strike against the United States. He thought the idea was a timely suggestion and told me to have it set up. The briefing took place in the Cabinet room in September, 1948, I believe. The subject matter was limited only to strategic air operations. The President; Secretary Symington; Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg; the briefer, Major General Montgomery; and myself attended the briefing. I'm not sure if Vaughan and Dennison attended it.
FUCHS: Did you become involved in the controversy over unification in any way?
LANDRY: No, this was not part of the unification program. I believe I can correctly say the President, and others, too, had become a little tired of the squabbling and infighting among the services over missions and the lion's share of appropriated money. The separation of the Army Air Force from the Army in September, 1947, was a distinct and separate action taken by the Congress and supported by the President. Under the term unification, the President meant, and he expected the several service departments to understand,
that he wanted them to work together as a team in harmony, respect, and mutual understanding in regard to the fulfillment of their respective missions assigned by higher headquarters. Budget matters must be resolved between partners on a fair and equitable basis.
FUCHS: Well, when they set up the National Defense Establishment, first, they created the Air Force. Weren't there some problems involved there?
LANDRY: No, I don't think the Defense Department came into being at the same time as the Air Force.
FUCHS: No, it was later.
LANDRY: It was later.
FUCHS: But I believe they did have a National Military Establishment when they created the Air Force.
LANDRY: Yes, I would go along with this.
FUCHS: Were you happy about this assignment?
LANDRY: Well, I was very happy about it, but not knowing what it was all about, I was a bit bewildered. Knowing that we had a Chief of Staff and a Secretary and, I guess in those days, a Secretary of Defense, too, I did sort of wonder just exactly what my job would be. I
don't mean to be boastful in any way. I felt quite honored, in being the first Air Force Aide.
FUCHS: How had the air travel been handled in the White House prior to their having an Air Force Aide?
LANDRY: Well, air travel for the President and for members of the Cabinet, or for any top official of Government that the President wanted to have travel by air someplace, and himself, of course was handled by a crew provided by MATS at that time, Military Air Transport Service. The Air Force provided an airplane--at that time it was a DC-6--and provided also a topflight crew under the command and control of Colonel Francis Williams.
FUCHS: MATS provided the Sacred Cow for Roosevelt.
LANDRY: The Sacred Cow. Mr. Truman had that for a while. The Sacred Cow was a C-54. Then we got the Douglas DC-6, and that was the one that we used the five years I was there. We got that fairly early in '48 and kept it right on through until '53 when I left. But the air transportation was handled by that crew.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, when I came in I was made responsible for all the air transportation, and I suppose during that period of time I must have, at the direction of the President, gone over and gotten, or
taken to and from the United States to their respective countries, ten, twelve, fifteen heads of state. For example, we flew the Shah of Iran a couple of times, and the President of Venezuela as well as Mr. [Winston] Churchill from England and so on. While I was not actually a part of the flying crew, I was in command of the air plane and of the operation. I took Mr. Acheson many times, as I mentioned to you this morning, to Paris first and then to New York City for meetings of the United Nations, and to various other parts of the world. All scheduling of the President's airplane was done in my office.
FUCHS: Did you know Vaughan and Admiral Dennison before you met them that day at the press conference?
LANDRY: No, I had never met Vaughan or Dennison, and, as I told you this morning, I had never met the President. In fact, I had never even seen a President, so it was a little awesome to be standing behind