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 be became Secretary in the last year or two and, oh, I knew he was a banker from Dillon-Read.
HESS: Did you ever meet him here in town when be worked for Dillon-Read?
LARKIN: No, I never did.
HESS: Some historians have said that his views on unification were negative. If that be the case, why, in your opinion, would Mr. Truman have selected
him to be the first Secretary of Defense?
LARKIN: I don't believe they were negative. I don't know where that comes from. He carried the administration's load, as I understood it, in getting unification through. And he used Forrest Sherman, who was the CNO of the Navy, who was a very brilliant fellow. He used Larry Norstad of the Air Force, who was assistant chief of staff, as I recall it, at the time. I think Al Gruenther; I'm not sure about that. But they all worked together and he kind of worked out the different compromises in that unification act between the Navy and the Army. I think he was convinced that unification was an efficient way to run the military establishment of the United States, based on his experience during the war with the Navy itself. He never said this to me, in words to that effect. We were so busy that we didn't have much time to sit around and philosophize, but clearly my impression was that he spent a great deal of time on this, and without his effort you wouldn't have had unification, in my opinion. Jim Forrestal, though, was a wonderful fellow. I went to the Hill with him many times when I became assistant
general counsel, and I took charge of all the legislation, even when I became general counsel and Marx moved up as Assistant Secretary. Jim Forrestal was a fellow who would level with you. He was very straightforward. He would not try to answer a question if he didn't know the answer. The result was that he had a tremendous amount of currency in Congress. I've gone up with him a number of times and they'd say, "Well, Mr. Secretary, what about this, how are we going to solve this?"
And he'd say, "Well, I don't know, Do you have any ideas? I'm open to ideas." With his forthrightness, his honesty, his directness, he could get virtually anything he recommended in Congress, because they had such a high regard for him. In my opinion, it was that currency that he had in Congress that was largely responsible for unification going through--because Forrestal was for it.
Now, I don't know where this other theory comes from, but once he became Secretary of Defense be certainly proceeded with great vigor
to make it work, and to put it together, and it was awfully difficult in the beginning. I guess it's still not completely jelled to this day.
HESS: Well, you know, the first two years under the National Military Establishment, the Secretary of Defense had less authority than he has now. The Secretary of the Air Force had just been established, the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Army were also considered of Cabinet status at that time.
LARKIN: That's right, I remember very well. I was as responsible as anybody for getting the Secretary of Defense the authority.
HESS: The increase in authority.
LARKIN: Yes, sir.
HESS: Tell me about that, but first, perhaps, what did you see that needed to be changed? Why did you think that he needed more authority, and then how did you set about trying to do that?
LARKIN: Well, let's start at the beginning of this subject. The Unification Act, of course,
set up the Secretary of Defense and gave him certain limited, general authorities. They were spelled out in the act. They provided for the creation of the Air Force, as a separate department. It previously had been the Army Air Corps, as you have indicated. Marx Leva and I, and a lawyer named Ted Tannenwald, a friend of Marx Leva's who is now on the tax court, was brought in. Ted helped transfer all the authorities necessary to make the Air Force an autonomous department, and, as you say, the three Secretaries under the Secretary of Defense were essentially all Cabinet officers in rank. Then we were confronted with the problem that each department tried to get each year, some new, or some additional authority. As an example the Navy in the first year wanted authority to do fourteen more things or fifty-four more things, whatever it happened to be, and the Air Force wanted the same, and the Army wanted the same. It so happened that the Navy had been so much better organized, and had virtually all the authority they needed anyway, or had so many more authorities than the Army had ever had, and certainly more than the Air Force, that they
were always way ahead of the game. But it became chaotic to have each of these three departments under the Secretary of Defense with their own Independent, individual, and different new programs. The Navy was already a jump ahead of the other departments. Then the others were trying to catch up. So it became an administrative monstrosity. We couldn't continue that way.
It was chaotic in this whole legislative area where each of them were proposing to send to Congress requests for new authorities and new departments and new sub-departments. All of it, presumably, clearing through the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who was the head of the whole establishment, or the titular one anyway. There was much overlap, and each one of the Services would come in with about 150 proposed bills. So the legislative program consisted of four to six hundred bills, which were impossible to digest or understand. So, in an organized business fashion, why, I guess I took the lead and created what we called at the time, a legislative council. As a matter of fact when I left the Defense Department I got the civilian medal of appreciation, which
was the highest civilian award, and on the citation it mentioned this legislative council that I had cooked up. I can show you a copy of the citation sometime.
HESS: I knew that you had received that award.
LARXIN: Yes, I did.
HESS: This is one of the reasons for your receiving the award?
LARKIN: Well, it was cited among a number of other reasons and for just the general service, I suppose, that I performed. So what I did--I was the chairman by Forrestal's appointment of this legislative council--I organized the structure and I required the Army, Navy and Air Force to send me all the bills they proposed to ask permission to submit to Congress. I and my staff would go over the whole lot of them and weed out the overlaps and so forth and then study the substance of the bills and why they needed them. And then I would meet with repre-sentatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force, their legislative people, their judge advocates, their
legal departments, and their policy people, and we would hammer out one single, official legislative program for the whole Department of Defense. We eliminated numerous Air Force, Navy, and Army requests. The Department of Defense, on behalf of the three services, went up to Congress with an official list of requests for authority, having eliminated duplication and overlap. I insisted as a lawyer (as I was at the time) for the sake of good order and for the sake of management, that all authorities be granted to the Secretary of Defense in each case and not to the Secretary of Army, Navy and Air Force. This with the understanding that he, of course, in turn, could delegate this authority of his, to the Navy, the Air Force, and the Army as needed. So we quickly built up (over the first two or three years of that legislative process), a tremendous number of authorities for the Secretary of Defense, specifically in his name, and not in the others; because he had to be the boss, he was the top man, and he in my opinion should have the authority and we got it for him
HESS: Was it difficult to convince the various services, that they should not receive everything that they had been asking for?
LARKIN: Oh, yes it was. This was a real fight. This was one of the first battlegrounds of unification. But we fought it out and then we'd go to Forrestal, and then he'd get an appeal from Secretaries Royall, Symington or Sullivan, and then we'd have a big meeting of the four of us. But Forrestal stuck with us pretty well; and we accomplished what we had to do.
HESS: Did you get involved in the discussion on the budgets?
LARKIN: Much less. No, very much less. Because the budgets were handled by the fiscal people, and they went up and they appeared individually in Congress, before the appropriations committees. And my general counsel's office, my congressional liaison office, didn't handle the appropriations at all, so I didn't touch that; but we usually had about 150 bills in this combined, coordinated, singled legislative program. And it took a tremendous amount
of testimony. I testified on a number of individual bills myself every session. I'd go up with Forrestal. I'd go up with representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force frequently during the session, and support these bills, after we had finally put our imprimatur on as a Department of Defense bill. See? But this was really the genesis of where the Secretary got the basic authority he needed. And it had to be; it was ridiculous. Without it you couldn't manage the Defense Department.
HESS: In 1949, when the Department of Defense was founded, the Secretary of Defense was given much greater powers.
LARKIN: No, it was founded in '47.
HESS: Well that was when the National Military Establishment came in.
HESS: That was not really the Department of Defense,
LARKIN; Yes, it was.
HESS: Was it?
LARKIN: Oh, sure. It was the National Military Establishment and quote, unquote, the Department of Defense, I'm positive of that.
HESS: But there was another change in 1949, when the service Secretaries were no longer regarded as Cabinet level and the Secretary of Defense did receive more authority,
LARKIN: Yes, that's right. That was a specific bill that referred to the whole establishment itself. There was an amendment, I think of the Unification Act, which amended the National Military Establishment Act.
HESS: That was 1946,
LARKIN: There were several amendments as we went along. And I think finally there was quite a substantial amendment, and I guess that the Army, Navy and Air were reduced to a sub Cabinet level. Yes--I can't remember at the moment--there could have been a more global authority given to the Secretary of Defense; but we had been giving him the authority in each of these individual bills, naming him by name, rather
than the Secretary of Navy, or Secretary of Air Force, or Secretary of Defense, with the understanding that he could delegate it. But he had the residual authority, that we were giving to him bill, after bill, after bill.
HESS: Do you recall Secretary Forrestal commenting on the need for the Secretary of Defense to have more authority; for a concentration of authority in the office of the Secretary of Defense, during this two-year period '47 to '48?
LARKIN: I dare say we talked about it many times, because as I pointed out before, we on the staff, Marx Leva, myself, and several others, were actually putting that authority in these individual bills. We felt the need of it for management purposes. Forrestal himself (and I can't quote a specific one way or the other) had confidence that he could work out unification with the other Secretaries. He was a little diffident about coming out straight-away and trying to get further aggrandizement of his own position, really. We were the fellows doing a lot of the relations work, and
the Services were telling us, "Forget it, we won't do it." We saw the need, ultimately, that the boss had to have the muscle. That's all there is to it in the last analysis.
HESS: Now that we have mentioned Mr. Royall, Mr. Sullivan, and Mr. Symington, could you tell me a little bit about your working with those three men. How difficult they may have been; how helpful they were?
LARKIN: Yes, I'll be glad to tell you what my feelings were about each of them. Maybe we can sanitize this a little bit later.
HESS: We can clean it up a little bit.
LARKIN: Clean it up a little bit. Mr. Royall, I found to be a pretty superior, stiff fellow. He had been, of course, as you know, a very excellent trial lawyer in his younger days. I was quite a young fellow, I guess, in that period of time, so I had to treat him, as all the others, with considerable diffidence. I really didn't have too much to do with him. Where I really came in contact with him, or at least in confrontation with him, was
as a result of the work on the uniform code of military justice. None of the services were keen about this uniform code. They wanted to retain their own military justice systems. They didn't like this standardization, and they didn't like this civilian approach that was being put on it, by me and Professor Morgan and a few others. And so, when we finished the study, the Army objected to 15 or so of the provisions of the new code. Forrestal, In his usual fashion, got Royall in and the other Secretaries in and heard them out. I was present and I argued the other way, and virtually all of them lost. Forrestal bought almost everything we wanted to do or thought should be done. I can't think of a single thing be didn't buy, but I'm sure he didn't buy one or two little things. Royall was very strong supporting the Army and the Army Judge Advocate and the Army brass in that connection, and we were kind of opposed to him to a certain degree. But he was a substantial man of substantial talents, there's no question about it, though I always thought he was quite captive to the Army hierarchy. I shouldn't say captive, I think be
sincerely felt the way they felt.
Gordon Gray I also knew. Gordon Gray, actually, was the man who represented the Army on the uniform code study. He's a fine gentleman and a very able man. He and I differed on a few substantive things. There again, I think he was representing the Army.
Frank Pace I knew well. Frank Pace had been, prior to his service as Secretary of the Army, the director of the Bureau of the Budget, if you remember. So I had occasion to see a good deal of him in that role; and then I had a good occasion to see quite a lot of him in the role of the Assistant Secretary of the Army. We had no real problems one way or the other.
John Sullivan I seemed to have a very good rapport with, and got along fine with him. He was a lawyer, of course, from Washington.
Frank Matthews I knew very well indeed. He came to the Secretaryship of the Navy from Omaha, after John Sullivan. He had never been in a rowboat, let alone anything else nautical and he had never been in Washington. And I just had the opportunity, I guess, to help him prepare for a
couple of legislative appearances, and do a few things that were completely new and strange to him, and, so, he developed a great fondness for me. So, having been fond of me, why I became fond of him, obviously. He was a very fine gentleman, He became Ambassador to Ireland after that, which was one of his real ambitions.
Dan Kimball I knew as the assistant to Sullivan and used to see him from time to time. He had been borrowed from Aerojet, as you remember, and I knew him quite well.
Stuart Symington was an interesting fellow. He was at greater odds, I think, with the office of the Secretary of Defense than anybody else, of the three.
HESS: Could you give me a few examples to point that out?
LARKIN: Let me see. You're taking me back a long time. Well, he wanted his own independence and to run the Air Force the way be wanted to do it without any cross-checking or supervision. For instance, a lot of little things: If he had a request from
any Congressman to fly home over the weekend, he'd put them on an Air Force plane to take them home, and so forth. He was building his own credentials in Congress, ex-Mr. Forrestal. He was building some strength of his own. And so he would do all that, and our financial people would catch up with that. We'd go and raise hell and say, listen stop that; and then I would promulgate some policies that that's not permitted, unless the chairman of the committee, Mr. Carl Vinson certified that it was on committee business. But we were in a continual kind of a battle with Symington on many of these administrative things. Symington, as I remember, wanted that prototype plane financed. After the war, of course, with all the reduction in appropriations, Boeing, Lockheed, Douglas and all were on the verge of bankruptcy; there was no business. And they couldn't afford the research money to build new advanced planes. And there was a prototype plane that was talked about, that would be a convertible plane; it would be an airliner on the one hand, convertible to military use. This would be the justification for the Air Force spending
75 million or 100 million or whatever it was, to do the design work on this. Symington became a great sponsor of that idea, and so did Sonny Whitney, who was an Assistant Secretary of the Air Force at that time. Our budget was so tight in the Department of Defense that we didn't feel that it was a sensible thing to do. We didn't think we were going to get our money's worth out of it, and we were against it. So we had a heck of a fight, and it would get into the Congress, you know, with Symington fighting us.
The interesting thing was, for some reason that I can't explain, I always was able to deal on a man-to-man basis with Symington much better than any of our other fellows. As a result, every time we got into a conflict with the Air Force, all of the others would say, ''Hey, you go down, Felix, and talk to Symington because at least you have some currency with him and we don't have any." As far as he was concerned and they were concerned, the animosity showed, As far as I was concerned, I was often completely against what he was talking about, but, and I don't know why, we were always
able to talk about it on a business basis. I liked Stuart; he was difficult, he gave us problems. He said to me on one occasion, "You know I could run the Air Force and I can run any business in the world, if I have a good financial man and a good lawyer, and you're a good lawyer, and I'd take you." That kind of a thing. But he was much more troublesome than the rest of the Secretaries at that stage of the life of the Department of Defense. Some of the people kind of resented him more, on the theory that he really was giving Forrestal more trouble than Forrestal was entitled to have. He wasn't a team member. And as Forrestal's health started to deteriorate, we could see it. Then everybody was saying, "Well, this job is so tough and this guy is making it that much tougher;'' and they disliked him twice as much. That kind of a thing.
HESS: Then he was replaced by Mr. Finletter in 1950.
LARKIN: Yes. I knew Tom Finletter quite well, because one of the first jobs I got when I went to the Department of Defense in September of '47, was that I was assigned to be the liaison man with the President's Air Policy Commission, which had been created just
prior to that, of which Finletter was the chairman, if you'll remember. And on that commission was John McCone, who was the commission's liaison man with the Defense Department. So, John McCone represented the commission and I represented the Department of Defense, and he and I worked out the material that they wanted. I worked up Forrestal's appearance before them and his testimony before them. They were trying to get the status of the whole aviation industry at that time; of the military, and, of course, they wanted to have a great deal of Joint Chiefs of Staff plans and strategies to factor into their deliberations and that obviously represented a very serious security problem. So, John McCone, on behalf of the commission, and I, worked that all out with General Al Gruenther, who was then the chief of the joint staff. The joint staff, was a group of 90 officers who did the homework for the chiefs of staff. I became acquainted with Finletter in that way. On the committee was George Baker of Harvard, remember, the transportation expert man; the man of the Denver Post, Palmer Hoyt; and old
George Whitehead of Dun and Bradstreet. They were the five members of the President's Air Policy Commission at that time. That's when I first met Finletter. So I knew him quite well when he became Secretary of the Air Force and John McCone became Under Secretary at the same time. He brought John along, and I have a high regard for both of those men, very talented and very bright fellows.
HESS: One of the things that Mr. Symington tried to promote was the 70 group Air Force.
LARKIN: That's right. I'd forgotten that.
HESS: Do you recall that?
LARKIN: Yes, I do. And I think that the office of Secretary of Defense was against that for fiscal reasons essentially.
HESS: That's right.
LARKIN: I really didn't get much in that fight, particularly; that was more the fiscal boys. I only got in the legislative fights. I did happen to get into a few like that prototype aircraft proposal and a
few others. Yes, I remember that very well. Of course, Forrestal was in a great dilemma on these issues. Forrestal deplored, as you probably know, the fact that we had demobilized so extensively. And it was natural enough that we should after the war; everybody wanted to go home, But we did demobilize so extensively that we had no m