Robert A. Lovett Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Robert A. Lovett

  Robert Lovett
Special Assistant to Secretary of War, 1940-41; Assistant Secretary of War for Air, 1941-45; Under Secretary of State, 1947-49; private law practice with Brown Brothers, Harriman and Company, 1949-50; Deputy Secretary of Defense, 1950-51; and Secretary of Defense, 1951-53.
July 7, 1971
by Richard D. McKinzie and Theodore A. Wilson

[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.

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 Lovett transcript.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 September, 1981
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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

Oral History Interview with
Robert A. Lovett

New York, New York
July 7, 1971
by Richard D. McKinzie and Theodore A. Wilson

LOVETT: I went then to the Department of State. I was ripped out of a pleasant day-to-day life to go down as his Under Secretary. The most extraordinary accomplishments were made in a period--during the period in which the Government had a bi-party system in operation with the Republicans in charge of the Congress and the Democrats in charge of the executive offices—administration--and it worked beautifully. We had Greek-Turkish aid, we had the Berlin airlift, we had the Marshall plan, and we had the NATO organization.

MCKINZIE: An exciting period.



LOVETT: It was an exciting period and a fruitful period and a period of extraordinary good will, thanks largely to the President's amazing leadership and very largely to Senator [Arthur] Vandenberg's chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with whom I was always completely frank, under the instructions of the President. I would stop by Senator Vandenberg's apartment on the way home with a sheaf of telegrams in my hand and go over what had happened during the day with him if it was a thing in which he was interested. Some things he'd never talk with me about at all -- China.

"No," he said, "that's not up to you, that's Secretary [George C.] Marshall, the China problem. But everything else," he said, "you're in charge here and I'd just like to know what's going on."

I've forgotten a detail, don't hold me to the statistics, but I thought there were 49 major pieces of legislation produced by that mixed Senate Foreign Relations Committee and everyone of them came out of the Committee unanimously, too. An amazing performance, it's worth looking up;



it's a fantastic thing.

WILSON: With whom did you deal in the House that would have been comparable to Vandenberg?

LOVETT: It was [Charles] Eaton, Congressman Eaton, originally, and John Vorys was number two Republican on the Committee. He was a classmate of mine at Yale, a club mate of mine; we were in the same flying unit abroad, so we were old friends which didn't prevent him from having a field day with me every time I appeared. He would just clobber me, very politely. Invite my wife up, very fond of her; invite her up to watch this murder going on. He wanted me to ask questions -- ask questions, then he'd answer it himself.

WILSON: Do you recall the circumstances of your being asked to come back to Washington in July of 1947? Was it for a specific assignment or did you expect to be there for a long time when you went back into Government service?

LOVETT: No, no, I didn't expect to go. No, he asked



me -- let me see, we lived -- we were living then, in the old superintendent's cottage on my father's place out at Locust Valley waiting to sell his place. And a superintendent's cottage was a garage underneath and it had a couple of bedrooms and bath upstairs and then there was a dining room and a little sitting room and a kitchen downstairs. And I always got up at 6:45 and went downstairs to get breakfast in my bathrobe and then dressed after breakfast. And the telephone was in Mrs. Lovett's room, not in my room upstairs, with an extension downstairs. And the phone rang while I was having breakfast, and I heard it stop ringing because she picked it up and she said, "Bob, Washington is calling."

And I said, "Washington, who is it?"

She said, "I don't know, but you'd better take the call, it's Washington calling."

So I picked up the phone; I was on the extension and this voice that I did not recognize said, "Bob?"



And I said, "Yes."

He said, "This is the President."

And I said, "Now listen, this isn't at all funny. It's 6:45 in the morning. I'm right in the middle of breakfast, I'm trying to get the early commuter train to New York and for God's sake this is no time for jokes!"

He said, "No, this is really the President."

So I said, "Well, I beg your pardon, sir, I didn't realize that."

And then he said in effect, "I've got to get a new Secretary of State and I've signed up General Marshall on the condition which he made that you'd come down and be his Under Secretary." So, he said, "I want you to do that tonight."

And I said, "A11 right, sir. I've got to go and check with my partners; I've got to get permission to get out of the firm and the New York State Bank Department has to approve. But I don't anticipate too much trouble; I'll call you back as soon as I've gotten hold of my partners."



And I came into town. I was reasonably sure that they wouldn't make any trouble about it, but getting out of a general co-partnership of unlimited liability in a bank is a very difficult process. Particularly since I'd gotten out once before and was out for five or five and a half years or six years, I had to then sell anything that had anything to do with the thousands of companies with which the military was dealing with; of course, we were a very large element in the foreign thing and I knew the foreign business like the inside of my hat because I'd been in charge of it for sometime now. So I got hold of [Roland] Harriman and I telephoned Averell; saw the other partners and they said, "Well, you're a darned fool, but if you feel you have to do it go ahead." Then I think I saw Davis and Polk, our lawyers. and he had to draw all these papers and I had to go up and see the superintendent of banks, at the State Banking Department and he had to call a special session and finally got it wound up over a period of time. And I called the President the next day. Miss -- I've forgotten the



name of -- she cooperated on it -- Hackmeister or something like that, called her back and said, "Find out from the President -- from Rose Conway -- what time the President would be available and I'll call him back." She did and I said, "A11 right, I'11 be down as soon as I can, but I've got to get unhooked up here first; because I can't have any interests in anything that has to do with foreign affairs, so I had to get out of the firm completely again, pull everything that had anything to do with it. And that was a very painful process you know.

WILSON: Your response, though, was automatic; that is, you viewed this in a sense as another tour of duty…

LOVETT: I think because of my very deep affection for General Marshall and the President both -- the two of them -- and I said later when they took me down to Washington, a lot of old time newspapermen that I knew well said, "Lovett, you're out of your head



coming down here; they almost killed you the last time."

I said, "The three people in the world I can't say no to -- one of them is my wife, one of them is Henry L. Stimson, and the other is George Marshall. And now we've got to add to that list the President that I think has done an absolutely superb job, and I think we're in one hell of a mess. So if he thinks I can do anything -- I don't think I can -- if he thinks I can do any, why there isn't anything to do but go down there."

WILSON: You came in at probably one of the most difficult and delicate times, perhaps, in the whole period when the United States had just pushed the European nations to get together to negotiate a package...

LOVETT: We hadn't really gotten to that, yet, you see. I mean here was Europe, a potentially very powerful influence in the world. In particular, we were interested in having some reasonable form of government, some stability, and some economic resurgence, but Europe was down on her knees, and



Europe was in a vacuum. Well, not only nature had caused the vacuum, but the Soviets love one. So the best defense it became clear (and we felt that way for some time) was to move in and get those people going on the basis of self-help. That's why the Marshall plan was such a brilliant conception. Incidentally, it's one of the few big programs that this Government ever undertook where the estimates were reasonably accurate and where we got out of it, and wound it up. Of course, the great principle there was self-help. Let the Europeans make the allocation of funds. Don't rush in between the upper and nether millstones and get ground to bits; let them do it, and make sure that you put in controls all the way through. Well, it worked out; I must say it was the most amazing performance I ever saw.

WILSON: When you came down, was it understood that you would be responsible certainly for economic matters? That is, with your background, I assume...

LOVETT: It was General Marshall's instructions to me.



You see the State Department then had, really, two Under Secretaries. There was the Under Secretary, that was me; then there was the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs, that was Will Clayton. Well that was an abortive move, trying to give recognition to some of the serious economic questions around the world; but General Marshall always worked on the theory that to have a good military operation, if the captain is