Oral History Interview with
Vice consul, Windsor Ontario, 1937, Milan, Italy, 1938-39; third secretary, American Embassy, Berlin, 1940-41; officer, Department of State, 1942-43; third secretary and second secretary, American Legation, Stockholm, 1944; staff, U.S. Political Adviser on German Affairs S.H.A.E.F., 1945; secretary of mission with U.S. Political Adviser for Germany, Berlin, 1945-49; director, Office of German Political Affairs, Department of State, 1949-52; special assistant to director, Bureau of German Affairs, Department of State, 1952.
July 23, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
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 interviewee 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. ) within the transcript indicate
the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 March, 1979
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
July 23, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Mr. Laukhuff, a lot of people are interested in knowing why people went into Government service in the first place. It appears from your credentials that you might have been headed for something academic.
LAUKHUFF: Well yes, it appears that way, but it wasn't necessarily that way. I was interested in the Foreign Service from, well, sometime during my college career and that was especially reinforced when I did my graduate work. I had international law under George Grafton Wilson
at Harvard and he had prepared a lot of people for the Foreign Service and he was always talking about it and telling about it and my interest very definitely began to turn to that direction.
But I got out of -- I never finished my Ph.D. but I got out of my graduate work right at the time of the depression and I had to have a job, and I had originally thought of an academic career as a possibility, so that's where I went. At that moment a post opened up at Sweet Briar College and I went there and took it and was there for six years.
Then in '36 the Foreign Service exams opened up again for the first time after the depression; they didn't take anybody in during the depression, so I seized the opportunity to take the exams and get in.
I had some encouragement at the time from various people. The uncle of one of my students was Judge Walton Moore who was then counselor
to the State Department and took quite an interest in me, and Stanley Hornbeck, who was later an ambassador, but then the expert in Far Eastern affairs, with whom I was acquainted for various reason, and he encouraged me to go ahead. And so I took the exams and got in, and in a way this was a sort of pursuing what had been my original intention anyway.
MCKINZIE: How would you describe yourself in those days? Did you have an outlook on international events, would you describe yourself as a Wilsonian or...
LAUKHUFF: Oh, yes, very much so, which you've perhaps guessed from some of my background. That's exactly what I would have described myself as, and it often amuses me, of course, as I get older (this has happened time and again to people); I started out thinking of myself as a Wilsonian liberal, and I still think of myself that way,
but what was a Wilsonian liberal has become something of a conservative now!
But that was my definite slant, a bit starry-eyed I would say -- you know, my knowledge of foreign affairs was purely academic and hypothetical and I was starry-eyed and idealistic, and hoping that the world was a lot better than a lot of people seemed to think it was.
So, that was the angle from which I approached the thing. I certainly gradually got brought down to earth in the course of my experiences because of an awful lot of hard facts in foreign affairs.
MCKINZIE: Might I get you to talk about your experiences in some more detail beginning with your assignment in Berlin in 1940 and 1941.
LAUKHUFF: Yes, I went up there from Milan. Up to that time my experience had been wholly on the consular side of things, and I was very happy to be there (in Berlin). I had an interest in Germany
which I suppose was both semi-academic and emotional if you like, or sentimental, simply because my -- well, not simply because -- but my grandparents were born in Germany and I found it an interesting country. I had only been there once before I entered the Foreign Service, and so I had expressed an interest -- in fact when we got through with our Foreign Service Institute training we had a chance to express desires as to what kind of post we wanted, and I said Germany or a neighboring country, and of course, what I got was Italy, which was neighboring enough and closely enough tied with Germany and that was very, very interesting from that point of view.
But I was delighted to be able to go to Germany. I looked upon it, my assignment there, with some foreboding because I think it was perfectly clear to most of us where the world
was headed at that time. In fact, most of us were, I think, most of us in the Foreign Service who were concerned at all with political affairs, were just terribly impatient with the slow progress of public opinion in this country toward what eventually became our involvement in a war, because we saw the thing with great clarity and thought it was inevitable that we had to play our part.
Well, anyway, I went there and welcomed the chance to be there. My first work there was (although to be sure it had nothing to do with Germany exactly) it was in the foreign representation section of the Embassy that handled the affairs of the British, the French, and the other allied countries whose representatives had been driven out of Germany, and it involved tremendous correspondence. We were in charge of administering funds for the relief of the nationals of those countries. We were responsible for inspecting
the civilian internment camps. I had to go every three months to a civilian internment camp down in Bavaria where there were, well, at the beginning, I suppose, several thousand, I don't remember the exact figure anymore, nationals of all these countries, including Poles and Norwegians and all sorts of people, and inspect the camp and this was a terribly depressing experience to me. I'd never been involved in anything like this before and to see the conditions under which they were held, not that there was any outright cruelty, the camp was run by the army theoretically, actually the Gestapo exercised a good deal of control over it. Then I'd go back to Berlin and fight with the Foreign Office for the next three months to try to improve certain conditions there, and we did gradually succeed in...
MCKINZIE: Were there Jews there, as you recall...
LAUKHUFF: There may well have been; I have no memory of that particular aspect of the problem. There must have been some, it seems to me, but I have no recollection of any particular problem in that area in that camp. The Jewish policy of Germany was terribly starkly etched on our minds, because we saw it on every hand.
My secretary in the Embassy was a German woman who was a Jewess and whose bitterness and despair day-by-day grew deeper and were terribly, you know, sad. She disappeared during the war (after we left). I'm sure she and her husband were taken off to be liquidated. No one ever knew what happened to them. I think without exception, at the Embassy, we were tremendously anti-Germany and pro-Allied, but of course, we didn't show that in our official dealings so much.
MCKINZIE: Was it difficult to deal with Germans?
LAUKHUFF: Yes, quite. Well, one would have to say yes and no. It was very hard to have any contacts with the ordinary run of people. They were afraid to have any contacts with us, or they were so indoctrinated with Nazi doctrine that they really disliked us, like, for example, my neighbor across the hall in my apartment house who would scarcely greet me. I could hardly force him to greet me except with a little "Heil Hitler," which I of course never responded to in kind. I always said, "Good morning."
But as far as officials went, there were many officials who really, we felt, were very friendly toward us, underneath, but they didn't dare show that too much. And the Foreign Office was not bad to deal with. Still I'm talking about 1940, even well into '41, but they weren't really in control of things, that was the trouble. We would deal with the Foreign Office, and they would go to the Army and the
Army would be helpless because they couldn't get the Gestapo to cooperate with us in regard to the camps.
Now, I'm speaking in a very limited sense, because my contacts were all on this side of things, through my whole, well, yes, through that whole period of my assignment in Berlin I didn't deal with anything but foreign representation matters.
We had allied real estate all over Europe from Norway to Greece, to try to handle by mail and see that there were caretakers and the property was taken care of and the bills were paid and all that sort of thing, and it was a hopeless job; we had a very small staff to deal with this. And we couldn't go to these places and do it ourselves, we had to just do it through the Foreign Office and through correspondence, but this was the very narrow focus of my interest. I was there as an observer, in a sense.
I don't know what, how far you want to go into anecdotes that might shed some light on the feelings and emotions of the people at that time, whether you want to bother with that or not. I mean one amusing, but still sort of revealing incident, was at the end of the war in France. The Germans suddenly began to decorate the Unterden Linden, and the word quickly got around that they were going to have a victory parade after the fall of Paris. This was 1940. And so they put banners up everywhere, they all but put them on our Embassy there at the Brandenburg Gate, and they put loudspeakers up and they erected reviewing stands and so forth. And so the great day came and this victory parade went right past us and the Goebbels gave a speech right out in the platz in front of us and we all were at the windows, and it was a bitter, bitter, bitter day for us, you know, we felt extremely
It's very hard to recapture that now, even for me, the sense of defeat. Never hopelessness, but still it was very hard in those days to have any hope. We weren't in the war, the Allies were obviously reeling and so we were extraordinarily glum that day as we watched this parade and all the saluting and the heils and the flowers tossed to the troops and all this business. Any other time it would have been a very picturesque and memorable event. Well, it was memorable, but it didn't seem very picturesque.
Well, at any rate, when it was over the parade went by and I wanted to get out of there and get home, so I went down and got in my car in the courtyard behind the Embassy and went charging out of the side gate into -- I can't remember the name of the street now at the side of the Embassy -- and here was the parade. It had
gone around the block and was coming back, just to go back to its starting point -- it wasn't supposed to be a parade any longer. And I got out into the street before I realized what was happening and I had half of the army behind me and half of it in front of me, and I was right in it. And then there were, of course, hundreds of thousands of people on the streets and they had started to disperse but suddenly they all flowed back together again to watch them go back, and I was trapped in the parade. And I went down the Charlottenburger Chaussee, let us say to the Victory Column, in this parade, with people yelling on both sides and throwing roses in my car. I never felt more out of place and I thought, "What if an American photographer gets a picture of this?"
Well, at any rate, a policeman ordered me to get out, but there was no way to get out. So I had to go on about a mile before I was
able to extricate myself. This I found amusing, but the day itself left a bitter taste that none of us ever forgot.
I was there in December 1941, and, in fact, I was the duty officer at the Embassy on the night Pearl Harbor was attacked and we got the news. I remember telephoning various people, George Kennan and various people at the Embassy, at their homes, to tell them about it, so we knew that the axe would fall very, very shortly after that, or felt certain that it would, and indeed it did within a few days, on the 11th.. We saw Hitler go over to the Reichstag and that was -- the declaration of war came immediately, and we then were told to be ready to be taken away on a Saturday, I guess it was, Pearl Harbor was on a Sunday and the following Saturday we were able to assemble at the Embassy with our luggage, and nobody knew where we were going to go or what they were going to do with us.
There was a good deal of anxiety, but we all assembled and were taken away, put in a train with our luggage -- we had mountains of luggage which the Germans hadn't somehow quite foreseen and they were terribly annoyed with it, because it was holding up the schedule of the train's departure, but they loaded it all on and off we went into the night not knowing where we were going.
We ended up, of course, at Bad Nauheim, outside Frankfurt, and had to be kept on the train, living on the train for another three or four days, I don't remember exactly, because the hotel was not quite prepared for us. This all happened so suddenly that they weren't ready.
And then we were held at this hotel in Bad Nauheim from December until May, when we were exchanged against the Germans held in this country, and it was a time of -- it was an interesting period. We were about a hundred
people, a litt