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General Jess Larson Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
General Jess Larson

General Counsel to War Assets Administration, 1946-47; Administrator, War Assets Administration, 1947-49; Administrator, General Services Administration, 1949-53.

Washington, D.C.
May 26, 1967 and June 5, 1967
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 


Notice
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 nterviewee 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. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 December, 1988
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 



Oral History Interview with
General Jess Larson

 

Washington, D.C.
May 26, 1967
by Jerry N. Hess

 

[1]

HESS: General Larson, for the record would you give me a little of your personal background? Where were you born, where were you educated, and what positions did you hold prior to your service in the Truman administration?

LARSON: Well, I was born in what is now Oklahoma, but at the time of my birth it was known as Indian Territory. This was in 1904, which was three years before Oklahoma became a state. I grew up in Chickasha, Oklahoma, attended public schools there, and went to the Missouri Military Academy, for my high school work, at Mexico, Missouri. I then attended the University of Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma Law School.

When I was two years out of law school, I ran for mayor of my home city, Chickasha, Oklahoma. This was a

 

[2]

mayor-council form of government and the mayor was the chief executive officer of the city; he presided over the sessions of the City Council, and also acted as the Municipal Court Judge. It was a full-time job which I enjoyed immensely. I was reelected for my second two-year term and then I stepped aside. The following year I was a candidate for Congress in my Congressional district. I ran against the incumbent who had been in Congress for some time; and then I learned the grim lesson that there is no prize for second place in politics.

Because of having come out second and without funds -- this was in 1934, and in the middle of the Depression -- I found myself really somewhat strapped and heavily in debt. My wife and I moved from Chickasha to Oklahoma City where I practiced law. I became interested in the administration of E.W. [Ernest Whitworth] Marland, formerly a prominent oil man in Oklahoma, who had just been elected Governor, succeeding the picturesque "Alfalfa" Bill Murry. Governor Marland had served a term in Congress, was identified with Roosevelt and the New Deal, and was a very forward-looking, social-minded man. He appointed me as secretary of the Oklahoma State

 

[3]

School Land Commission, and I served for four years in that capacity, which gave me an opportunity to participate in State government, as I had participated in local government as Mayor of Chickasha.

During this period I had my initiation in State politics. I managed the Governor's unsuccessful campaign for the United States Senate during the latter part of his four-year term. At the end of his term, I left State government and went into the practice of law in Oklahoma City.

Within a little over a year, I was called to active duty in the Oklahoma National Guard -- this was in September of 1940. I was with the 45th Division, and I remained with that Division until my combat duty was terminated with my having been wounded over in Italy near Cassino and sent back to the United States in the latter part of 1943.

After my convalescense period, I was assigned to the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma as an instructor, and I became head of the Tactics Department there. I was serving in that capacity for about a year when I was transferred to the General Staff of the War

 

[4]

Department in Washington. I arrived in Washington in mid-summer of 1945. I served in the Pentagon on the General Staff for about a year -- the war was over, both in Europe and in Japan. I chose to remain on active duty for a short period of time, because my wife -- who was a victim of Parkinson's disease -- had been admitted to Walter Reed Hospital as a patient. Because of my military status, she was eligible for medical treatment there, and it was excellent. I wanted her to continue the treatment there, so I decided to remain on active military duty. I also wanted to be identified with the legal profession.

I became aware that the War Assets Administration -- the disposal agency for surplus property generated in the course of the prosecution of the war -- was staffing up with military people because of the difficulty in getting experienced civilians. Through some of my military friends who had gone to War Assets, I was invited to come to War Assets, and was fortunate enough to be assigned as an Assistant General Counsel in the office of the General Counsel, War Assets Administration. This was in mid-summer of 1946. I was well satisfied with

 

[5]

my assignment. Lt. General [Edmund B.] Gregory, the Administrator of W.A.A., was succeeded shortly after I came in by Major General [Robert M.] Littlejohn. General Littlejohn had been on General Eisenhower's staff and was somewhat of a stormy figure, although a very fine, dedicated, efficient officer.

General Littlejohn very quickly developed some misunderstandings with the Congress, and with the advent of the 80th Congress, this situation became more and more difficult for him and for the administration of the agency. I found that I was spending most of my time representing the agency before this Congress. As a result I quickly became acquainted with all the problems of the Agency and with all the top administrative people. When things reached an intolerable impasse, along in the fall of 1947 -- that is, an impasse between General Littlejohn and the Congress -- General Littlejohn went to the White House and offered his resignation. Without my knowledge, I later learned he had recommended that I be appointed in his place. Well, when I learned about this, I was quite distressed, because I knew that I would have to get off active duty and then my wife would no longer be eligible to be a patient at Walter Reed. I

 

[6]

was torn between my responsibilities to her and my desire to accept the appointment if it were tendered to me. I had the yen for public administration in my blood.

Within a few days I was offered the job of Administrator by Mr. John Steelman, who was an assistant to the President and a very fine and efficient and able man. We became very close friends and remain so to this day. He arranged an appointment for me to meet with the President.

I had never met the President, although I had seen him on one occasion some years before that. When I was ushered into President Truman's presence, he had what appeared to be a dossier of my career before him, and referring to that, he greeted me very warmly as a fellow artilleryman. We discussed artillery and some of my experiences as a commander of a direct support field artillery battalion before I was wounded in Italy. We also discussed the Field Artillery School, and I was amazed to find that he was quite alert to everything that was going on, even down to the latest technical details of field artillery. He abruptly changed the conversation and said, "I have a job for you to do and I want you to get on with it. You know the purpose of your being

 

[7]

here is for us to get acquainted and for me to tell you what I want you to do when you become Administrator of the War Assets Administration." At this point I told the President of my dilemma, caused by my desire to continue my wife as a patient at Walter Reed. He listened very attentively and he didn't say a word. He reached over and picked up his telephone and asked the operator to get the Commanding General at Walter Reed Hospital. He turned back to me and started chatting about the problems of War Assets Administration, and within a minute or so the call came through and I'll never forget the President's words. He picked up the telephone and he said, "General, this is Harry Truman. General Larson is here in my office, and I've got a job for him to do. He's going to have to get off active duty in order to accept the job, but I want you to transfer the responsibility of his wife's being a patient out there in your hospital to me. From now on she'll be a Presidential patient in your hospital and you take care of her as long as Colonel Larson is in the Federal service, if that is necessary." And that ended the conversation; the President then turned to me and said, "Now, do you have any other problems? Of course, I was so moved by this experience

 

[8]

that I couldn't answer.

I was returned quickly to reality when the President said, "Now look, I want you to get rid of that surplus property; I want you to do it as quickly as possible and I don't want any scandal. I know it's a tough job, but you're a tough man, and I know you can do it."

With these words I was ushered out of his office into the presence of the press who asked me what the President had said, and I told them that he wanted me to get rid of surplus property without any scandal. They took a pretty cynical view of this, and later I learned that their cynicism was not without foundation because the assignment was full of pitfalls and problems. However, it was interesting and stimulating.

That was how I met President Truman, and that was how I became a member of his official family. My appointment was sent to the Senate and, much to my amazement, was held up at the request of Senator [Millard E.] Tydings of Maryland. This, I learned, was because of an action that I had approved when I was General Counsel of the Agency, involving the disposal of an industrial plant in Salt Lake City. This was later worked out, although not

 

[9]

without much bickering, and I was confirmed by the Senate. This was in 1948 -- early '48. I had been appointed in the fall of 1947. Congress was not in session when I was appointed, but it came into session in early '48 for the second session of the 80th Congress.

HESS: General, a few minutes ago you referred to a time that you had seen President Truman before. Would you tell me about that?

LARSON: Yes, this was an extremely interesting experience. I was a student at the Field Artillery School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was a student in the National Guard and Reserve officers' class in the autumn of 1939. This class was a class of selected National Guard and Reserve Officers that came in in September and stayed through mid-December -- a period of three months -- and was a very excellent technical course, and I devoted three months to it and it equipped me for my responsibilities later on as a battalion commander. At that time I was a Captain in the Oklahoma National Guard and was practicing law in Oklahoma City. We were in class one day around Thanksgiving time and our assignment for that class called for artillery service

 

[10]

practice on the Signal Mountain range at Fort Sill. There were about twenty of us in my section, and we were standing in a row behind the instructor while one student would go forward to the battery commander's telescope and be assigned a target, and then he would be required to compute the data for placing the fire of the batteries (which we had generally located all to our left) upon that target. We were being graded both on our efficiency in accomplishing this and by the length of time required to do it -- the shorter length of time, of course, getting a higher mark.

We'd been there for an hour or more, I guess, and deeply engrossed in the problems that were going on, when suddenly we realized that a group of people were dismounting from command cars to our rear. We looked back and here were a group of civilians accompanied by Colonel McIntyre, a very picturesque and well-known character in the old Army. Colonel McIntyre escorted the group of gentlemen up to a point on our flank and I recognized one of them as the senior senator from Oklahoma, Senator Elmer Thomas. The instructor stopped the proceedings and greeted the gentlemen and introduced our class to them, and it was then that we found that this was a subcommittee

 

[11]

from the Military Affairs Committee of the United States Senate: I didn't recognize any of the other gentlemen. There were four or five of them who were obviously Senators, but about at this point, one of these Senators spoke up (I later learned he was Senator Harley Kilgore of West Virginia); he said something like this, "Harry, you've been bragging about what a great field artilleryman you are, let's see you fire one of these problems." Thereupon the Senator designated as Harry stepped forward, and I recognized him as Senator Truman of Missouri.

Much to our amazement and more, I think, to the amazement of his colleagues, Senator Truman stepped forward, and a target was identified to him. He indicated that he had the target identified, he took an envelope or piece of paper out of his inside coat po