General counsel, U.S. Department of Defense, 1947-51.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
See also Felix E. Larkin Papers finding aid
Opened February, 1985
Oral History Interview with
September 18, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Larkin, of primary interest in our interview is your relationship with President Truman and the Truman administration. What was that relationship and when did it begin?
LARKIN: I joined Forrestal's office about September 25th, or four or five days after he became Secretary of Defense. Marx Leva and I and Bill McNeil and John Ohly were the first five people in the office actually. That was in 1947.
Now, I did a job for Forrestal in '46, when he was Secretary of the Navy.
HESS: What job did you do for him?
LARXIN: Well, I did a review of Navy court-martials. What happened was that after World War II finished in 1945, in the next year there was a tremendous hue and cry about the sentences of all the fellows who were convicted while in the service, and were still in prison. The Army appointed Justice Roberts, who had retired from the Supreme Court, as head of an Army review board and that had been going on for a while. Forrestal then decided he better get a Navy review board going, because there were some 5,000 Navy personnel still serving in prison. According to one of the magazines, I think the Saturday Evening Post, in an article, "A Million Years in Prison," the sentences totaled a million years. So Forrestal recruited Arthur John Keefe, a law professor at Cornell, to come down and be the head of a Navy Review Board. They started to have a review in about March or April 1946, and they seemed to be getting nowhere. They had reviewed only 25 or 30 cases, in two or three months.
So, Professor Keefe then got the bright idea that be would ask Judge Jacob Gould Schurman of the Court of General Sessions in New York, if he might
not help him get somebody who knew something about criminal law. He had asked Judge Schurman because his father had been president of Cornell years before. I happened to be working as the law assistant to Judge Wallace, another Judge of the Court of General Sessions, and I knew Judge Schurman well. He told Professor Keefe the one man in New York who could really help you is Felix Larkin. So Keefe and Forrestal invited me to help them with this job.
In June when the court recessed I took a leave of absence from Judge Wallace and went to Washington for three months to try to help them. I joined the Board and proceeded to organize the whole project. Then within seven or eight months we reviewed the sentences of the 5,000 who were still in prison. We recommended to Forrestal the reduction of those sentences, by applying civilian standards to crimes of a civilian nature, such as rape, burglary, larceny, so forth, but not to military crimes like desertion. We recommended that if, for instance, a man had committed a crime in New York State for which be most likely would have gotten a seven years sentence, based on my experience working in
the civilian courts, we recommended that his sentence be reduced to seven years instead of the 55 year sentence he was serving. Forrestal took the recommendations on all but one or two, of 5,000, So, I got to know Forrestal very well that way.
HESS: Did he follow this as you were working on it, or did he only pay attention to it after you had made your recommendations at the end?
LARKIN: I think it went on continually. We kept turning in recommendations on specific cases maybe ten a week, something like that.
HESS: So, he was working in this matter with you?
LARKIN: That's my recollection. It turned out that the Judge Advocate General and the Bureau of Navy Personnel recommended that he not adopt recommendations in one or two cases, but he adopted virtually all of them. Then we wrote, with his permission, a critique of the Navy court martial systems which we gave to him. I think Forrestal felt that I was a very reasonable, prudent force compared to the
rabble-rousing attitudes of some of the other civilians on the Board and as a result I got to know him reasonably well and I got to know Marx Leva very well,
HESS: Is that when you met Mr. Leva?
LARKIN: That's when I met Marx, because he was then Forrestal's assistant. Forrestal was still Secretary of the Navy. This was in '46. The unification hearings were going on in Congress. The recommendations were finally adopted and passed Into law in August 1947, and Forrestal became the first Secretary in September 17th, 1947. When Forrestal became Secretary, he asked me to come to Washington to be assistant general counsel under Marx, who was the general counsel. I finally decided I'd do it for a year or two; I stayed four years.
HESS: We'll have many questions on both Mr. Leva and Mr. Forrestal later. What's your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?
LARKIN: My earliest recollections of him were reading
in the press about his activities as chairman of the Senate Investigating Committee. It became known as the Truman Committee. That was, of course, during the war. That was probably 1942 or '43.
HESS: That committee was established in 1941 and he headed it until August of 1944.
LARKIN: I had read about him on a number of occasions in that connection. Then of course, I, like any other person following public affairs in a reasonable fashion followed his career as Vice President, read about him and so forth. Then, of course, he came dramatically to everybody's attention when Roosevelt died and he became President.
HESS: What was your view when he was selected by the Democrats in Chicago in 1944 as the vice-presidential running mate?
LARKIN: I thought it was an interesting selection. I thought be had done a very good job as chairman of the committee, so he was, in my view, a man of substance and principle. I recognized that be was relatively unknown and that he had come from
relatively humble beginnings. Although his opponents kidded about the fact that he had been a haberdasher he seemed to me to have demonstrated some stature in that senatorial committee job, and, so, I thought it was an interesting and probably quite a good selection. I didn't know what was behind the selection.
Who were the ones contending against him? Was it Wallace?
HESS; Henry Wallace.
LARKIN: He was dropped, that's right. Part of my feeling about the Truman selection as being pretty sensible was because I happen to be a Democrat. I am perhaps one of the few in the whole corporate hierarchy of the United States. Nevertheless, I always felt that Henry Wallace was well meaning, but too far to the left, for me, Democratic though I was; and Jimmy Byrnes of course, was too far to the right. I've always followed just what I regard as a fairly middle approach on most of those things.
HESS: Middle of the road.
LARKIN: Middle of the road, I suppose. I don't know what liberal means anymore, or conservative. But I'd like to feel I am perhaps somewhat progressive. I don't care what you call it, in party labels.
HESS: Did you attend the convention in Chicago?
LARKIN: No, I did not. I have never attended one in my life. I've never been in politics per se. When I was drafted to this job by Forrestal--the court-martial thing for the Navy--some of the judges in the court where I worked, Judge Wallace and Judge Sherman, had said to me many times, "We'd like to see you on the bench here. Why don't you go around to the Democratic Club every week and get into politics. Then you can manage it; you can become a judge."
And I said, "Thank you, no. I have no interest in that kind of a career. I think the difference between the efforts you put in and the rewards you are likely to get are too sketchy and, so, I'd rather do something else." So I didn't; I've never been in politics as such.
HESS: And then on April 12, 1945, Mr. Roosevelt died.
Where were you when you heard the news and what were your thoughts and impressions?
LARKIN: I'm sure I was here in New York City--I've been here most of my life. I was not tremendously surprised. I had never really been a great admirer personally of Roosevelt. I thought he was quite an overweening kind of a fellow, but I had a tremendous admiration for the things he did. In other words, I was a staunch supporter of things like the SEC, the Federal Deposit Insurance, Social Security; I thought they were all very necessary, and they were well done and a highly enlightened approach. I never knew him of course; it's just what I read in the paper. I was very highly in favor of many of those things he did, but I thought the fourth term was just too much. I understood (how, I don't know, perhaps from reading), that he was in very poor health, so I wasn't tremendously surprised when I read that be had died. I thought to myself, "Boy this is going to be some challenge for Harry Truman." The war was still on, if I remember correctly.
HESS: That's quite right.
LARKIN: I kind of felt sorry; "Oh, boy, I'm glad it's him and not me.''
HESS: We were still fighting on both fronts at that time.
LARKIN: That's right, we were.
HESS: V-E Day was May the 8th, only a month later.
LARKIN: And V-J Day was...
HESS: Well into August.
LARKIN: Yes, late July or August.
HESS: Then you were brought into the Defense Department and we have mentioned that just a little bit. Now, the National Military Establishment was established, as we said, in 1947. What do you recall about Mr. Forrestal's views concerning the unification of the armed services?
LARKIN: You mean prior to me joining Forrestal?
LARKIN: Well, I don't think it impressed me tremendously.
I knew there was a long serious debate going on, in terms of unification. I knew Forrestal was in the forefront of it; he was doing a lot of work on it. He was still Secretary of the Navy and the war was over, but I must say I don't think I was tremendously conscious of the pros and cons of the subject at the time. Mr. Forrestal came to my attention during the war to the extent that I remembered very well when he was Under Secretary of the Navy. I knew be had this tremendous logistic job as Under Secretary, building the entire fleet and the entire air arm of the Navy, under, I guess it was, Knox. Wasn't he the Secretary? Then