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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 shot, the lieutenant has got to know enough to take over. He always said, "Frankly, I don't understand half of this business going on." And he said, "I've just got to have you down here."

Well, of course, I was absolutely devoted to him; he was the most wonderful man, and we got along beautifully, and with the President setting, I think, the tone. The President said, "General Marshall, I never want you to have anything whatsoever to do with politics. You leave that to me, I'11 take care of that."

And, of course, this was in a very rough campaign. Everybody was madder than hell at everybody



else, and the President said the same thing, "I want you and Lovett to have no part at all in the political campaign; don't make any speeches, don't do anything." That is the only basis on which the General would take it anyway. Here I am a registered Republican voting independent, which in my case, meant I was voting the Democratic ticket always -- not because I was a Democrat but because I thought they had either better men or a better idea of what was going on.

MCKINZIE: Were you a little bit agonized, troubled I should say, when later on the China business came up and that did become a little partisan I think?

LOVETT: Oh, that was definitely partisan. It was made partisan in part by a Senator from California, [William F.] Knowland, yes, and a Representative from Minnesota, [Walter] Judd, who'd been a Chinese missionary. But that was kept embalmed; we never made any speeches, we never attacked them, we never



attacked the pro-China party. We would not infiltrate -- Government was not infiltrated by the pro-Chinese, in the way the Government has now been infiltrated by the "doves," and the antiwar and the "peace now" people and people who, I think, would walk a very narrow line on treason. I don't know what else you could call it, regardless of what you feel about it now. I think it was one of the stupidest things we ever did to go into Vietnam. We went through Korea, and the understanding was then and proof of this lies with what was called a "never again club," which I think was started by General Walton Walker, II, and General Matt Ridgway. They, and even Max Taylor, always said, "Never again get into combat on the mainland of Asia in an infantry sense, ground troops. Don't use ground troops."

So, that's the reason for my yelling about the infiltrators and the "fifth columnists" operation here. Now you have actually seen, in my opinion, actually seen the peace movement start from a very small group of real peace loving people. You've seen that taken over by a



very well-organized movement which has been able, even though small, to generate a very large following, partly because of the length of time, partly because of disgust, partly because of the stupidity of the whole affair, lack of success in the enterprise; all these things contributed I'm sure. Nevertheless, there was none of that type of thing in our dealings with the China lobby in Washington. As I recall, it may have existed but I never saw it.

WILSON: Let me ask one more question about politics. How much did the concern or feeling that probably President Truman would not win reelection in 1948, how much did this affect the situation that you were going through in 1947, '48? Was that sort of a constant factor or did you just work on the basis of, well, he's President now and we'll...

LOVETT: I never paid any attention to it.

WILSON: Did people around you, did you feel they weren't -- they were not?



LOVETT: No, never. I believe, and I can't be sure about this obviously, but I believe that Jim Forrestal was affected by the doubts as to how you would turn over the helm of Government to a different party with so many critical problems. So that he was for discussing various policies with the potential successor government and I believe that is what caused his breakdown. I think Arthur Krock points that out rather well in his last book; if you're interested in it, you'll find a detailed statement on it.

WILSON: One of the things that's been so intriguing to us is something that you alluded to before we turned on the tape recorder. You were stressing the sense of security that you had and the sense of trust that the President placed in you and that you could count on him. This is a time when there's this man from Missouri, who is not sophisticated in any normal sense, and he has around him a group of very strong people. Very strong -- General Marshall, and Harriman and Dean Acheson and people



who are in a sense very different in background and yet everyone says basically the same thing that you said.

LOVETT: There's no question about it in my mind. I had served of course, initially under [Franklin] Roosevelt, who had quite a different type of approach, and Roosevelt wanted to play every instrument in the band, really, and that's a good way to get a split lip. President Truman was practically ideally equipped for this job. He was blunt in his statements when he had to be; he was courageous, he was thoughtful, he was hard working, he knew the way the Government works as nobody I ever saw before and he had personal qualities which were extremely attractive. He was modest almost to the point of a fault, but there wasn't any question of who was boss. And, of course, he was helped almost immeasurably by his wife, Bess Truman, who is one of the finest women I ever saw in my life. My wife and I absolutely loved her; she was simply superb and there was, we felt, a sense of unity in that family, which God knows was lacking in



many of the previous ones. I think of the comment that was made by Professor Isaiah Berlin, of Oxford or Cambridge, I believe it was, who said, "When the history of this century is written, Truman will be one of the five greatest Presidents."

Not being a historian, I would gladly accept that. If I were a historian, I would probably cut it down in total number a little bit, because Mr. Truman and Mrs. Truman, as presences in the White House, were absolutely superb.

WILSON: Much has been made, I think rightly, of General Marshall's effect upon the Department in regularizing the administration of the Department. I gather, in a sense, that administration from the heads of agencies on up was being regularized at the same time; that is, the relationship between the President and the heads of departments and that probably had some effect too. Were you involved in trying to make some sense of the Department of State?



LOVETT: Oh, yes, that was a very rough ride. It was a department which, originally, at the time when Colonel Stimson was Secretary of State, together with the War and Navy Departments (War in the Executive Building if I'm not mistaken, on the west side of the White House), had 800 people. Now, I don't know how many thousands there are. This just got to be a monster, and there was no way, apparently, that you could get a straight line decision. In other words, a paper would come in dealing with, say, Aramco and the problem in Saudi Arabia. That called for some knowledge in oil and called for knowledge of the Mid-East. Israel wasn't a problem yet but became a stinker in a short time. But it had to be handled by people who knew the situation out there. You couldn't just say, "Well, let them have this or do that." You had to make sure that somebody brought in all these diverse interests. There were other elements of Government that needed to know about it. But you had to make sure you kept it on the basis of need to know and not just curiosity. The biggest



problem in this Government today is the stature seeking public servant who wants to be in on something because then he can go out to cocktails and say, "Well, you know I was sitting around talking about this, that, or the other thing;" it's just curiosity. So, we put in a rule right away -- this is only to be discussed on a "need to know" basis. Then the fellow who gets that is responsible for taking it right smack up until you get a final okay on it. So, we set up a secretariat and we borrowed five fellows from the Army, from the Defense Department, for that. Carlisle [Hubbard] Humelsine was in charge of that, the fellows that I'd brought in initially to help on the Marshall plan. They were terrific. We had everybody in the Government working on that. We even borrowed the IBM machines from the Prudential up here in Newark. We had to work them at night to make those calculations. You couldn't do it; there wasn't enough manpower in Government. Millions and millions of calculations. Well anyway, this secretariat then was responsible for seeing that everything that came in got acted on and got



out, so you didn't take a month just to say, "Well, we'll consider the suggestion made by the Israelis or whoever it may be." In the present sense, for example, the idea of letting a suggestion lie around from Vietnam that maybe they are prepared to talk in earnest now, you'd think the thing to do would be to move in right away on it. And probably they are, I don't know, but you don't get any sense of that. So it was not reorganization of the Department, it was simply bringing the Department to some orderly procedures.

WILSON: Was there at the same time a change of attitude about, a change in viewpoint about what should be the primary concerns of the United States? I don't want to ask too leading a question...

LOVETT: Well, yes, there were policy papers developed and then I had, out of the previous experience, a black book which is made up. And in the black book there was what do you do -- sit down and think of the worse things that could happen, what you would least like to have happen.



And then you get an answer to everyone of those damn things, so that when it happened you don't say, "Holy Cow! What do we do now?" You just turn it over. An American ship is fired on in the Mediterranean by this, that or the other country. What do you do? Who do you notify? It's the regular contingency type of plan which in the military sense you'd have to make.

WILSON: We have the impression; we may be wrong, but we have the impression that just about the time you came in, about the time the Marshall plan was first enunciated, perhaps there was a shift in control from rather wild internationalists in the Department and in the Treasury and in other agencies in the Government to people who took a rather more practical approach.

LOVETT: Well, it was a very pragmatic approach which we were directed to take as a matter of national policy. We were spread from hell to breakfast. All around the world. We had promissory notes



floating all around the world. And, it was ridiculous; we couldn't possibly -- well, look at us today. But we tried to cut that down obviously, and the thing that made it possible, among other things to cut it down was the Marshall plan. We said, "Look, if we're going to start lending 32 billion dollars, give 32 billion dollars as a matter of fact to these people; we've got to run up a balance sheet and find out where we stand. I mean have we got that much money?

MCKINZIE: Did you feel that a man like -- again this is perhaps a leading question, but the question of the administrator of the Marshall plan agency was a touchy one for a short time. Paul Hoffman who came in seemed to be a good man for the job. Did you have anything to do with..

LOVETT: Oh, yes, I mean we made up a list of names and we submitted them first, of course, to the White House, to the President, and we didn't know the politics of half of them. And then we submitted



them to Vandenberg, our Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That's the important element which has been frequently lacking in recent years from my experience. The executive offices frequently are not close enough to their father and mother committees in Congress to talk to them frankly. There was never a leak of anything that we told them, never. And we would discuss this in advance.

"Well, what do you think of this?" he said. "I think this fellow Hoffman is just the man for you," he said; "if you hadn't suggested him, I would have suggested him." In fact, I'm not at all sure he didn't. But when that came up there wasn't any question about it.

WILSON: There was never any question, I gather, about the necessity for having a separate agency to run the…

LOVETT: Yes, there was a lot of argument about that. Always in Government, the old-line agencies



hate to see the executive agencies an adjunct -- they lost that amount of control. They are going to take something away from the glamour of it. The one rule that was laid down right away was the State Department is not an operating department. It's not supposed to have troops. Witness what happens when you try to get troops; you get the Bay of Pigs, a bunch of amateurs.

MCKINZIE: The idea of Point IV, because that was an operating agency within the State Department, must have occasioned some considerable discussion.

LOVETT: In what case?

MCKINZIE: Well, in initiating the thing, the idea of where this new technical assistance agency should be placed.

LOVETT: Yes, there was quite a big argument about that. But obviously, since it was dealing only with foreign governments, all of its policy had to come from State. But the execution of that policy and the administration of the Department was Paul's job. And, of course, it obviously was



the thing to do, draw your policy from the policymaking agencies. Let the execution of it lie in the hands of a first-class salesman. Hoffman was the best damn salesman I ever saw, and he was a very good executive administrative fellow. We gave him other help in that area, too.

WILSON: Was that distinction between policymaking and operations maintained fairly well during the life of

LOVETT: Yes, yes. As far as I know in my time.

WILSON: One of the things that has intrigued us and baffled us a bit is that from the beginning, along with the self-help idea which was, as you said, crucial, there was this notation that there must be a measure or some great measure of integration among the European nations. And we had the impression, maybe mistakenly, that after the Marshall plan got going the people in Europe, the economic aid missions, became rather more enthusiastic about



very large integration than perhaps you people did in the State Department.

LOVETT: Well, I doubt whether our, at least I don't recall, that our planning got to the point of a United States of Europe. You heard it talked about all the time. What we were really aiming at was to get a viable geographic unit big enough and diverse enough to take the monkey off our backs. And now you've got that in the European Common Market or virtually. And of course, you can argue that it doesn't go far enough today or that it goes too far or it gets into the mainline of detail; that wasn't our concern. Our concern was to get these people to work together and get some strength back, get up off their knees and walk. That they've done, and God look at some of them!

WILSON: The most obvious example is Germany. How pivotal was Germany in this equation? You had some difficulty in getting German involvement, direct German involvement.



LOVETT: Germany was important in two senses: One, it had the coal, the iron, and the steel, and two, it had to be in one sense, protected against the real vandalism being exercised by the Russians. You know initially, I assume you remember, that Russia initially held out. We opened this up to Russia. Czechoslovakia came in and then Russia made them back out. Well, you know of course, Czechoslovakia got none of the benefits which they otherwise would have gotten for nothing, no matter what the outcome. In other words, it wasn't an anti-Communist thing at all. France I think had the largest Communist party outside of Russia; Italy's right alongside them. So the planning was not in detail beyond making the economy viable as Western Europe cannot be fragmented. If they stay fragmented there was never a chance to get them back on the road. And the sources had worked out a lot of those deals for themselves.

MCKINZIE: If I might jump a couple of years and talk about your experiences in the Department of Defense. We're particularly concerned about the effects of the Korean war on



American aid programs, because obviously the aid became more in the nature of military assistance than in economic development. Of course, nobody could have forecast the Korean war, but there must have been some discussion in the Department about the effect of the switch from economic development aid to military assistance. Do you recall any of those discussions?

LOVETT: I don't recall them precisely, but, of course, there were discussions; there were very serious discussions, for example, about the extent of our military operation since most persons called it initially a police action. And again he called me up at home and told me to come down. So almost the same circumstances. He got up at the crack of dawn; it must have been around 5 o'clock.

WILSON: He took those walks.

LOVETT: He always nailed me at the most awful times. And when your resistance is low...



I think that looking at it and I don't know how much hindsight creeps into this or not -- but looking at it, this European enterprise, we were already in when I was called back to Defense. I was called back after they'd got rid of Louis Johnson and after they'd persuaded the General to come back, and again, he said, "I'11 come back if Lovett will come in as my deputy."

And, of course, going back was just like going home. It was a perfectly easy transition. We thought -- some of us in State -- prior to the Korean breakout that we had taken on quite an obligation to protect South Korea. And I think there was a good deal of stuff in the press at or about that time about the comment which, I guess it was Dean Acheson had made, that it wasn't a vital part of our defense perimeter. Perfectly true. I think that we felt that there was a natural line that should be used as a separating border between North and South Korea and that we had muffed it. The dividing line should be that narrow waist up north of Seoul, of the present border,



I've forgotten now, the 27th...

MCKINZIE: 38th parallel.

LOVETT: ...38th parallel, and we heard something or other said of that, that we should have been up further. I think there were a lot of learned papers written on it, position papers -- but that really followed a little bit my exit. See, I left in February 19...

WILSON: '49, I think.

LOVETT: Was it ’49?

MCKINZIE: Yes, when you left State?


MCKINZIE: It was February of '49.

LOVETT: And the next thing I knew, I was back in '50. It was about the fall of '50, September I guess it was. So it was that period that a lot of the discussions about Korea came up, I mean pointed discussions.



In my time it was very largely an academic exercise.

WILSON: We have the impression, also from what others have told us, that at the time you came back in 1950, NATO and planning for NATO and the planning for that medium-term defense force was in a sense drifting. There was considerable confusion about the goals of NATO, about what could be done, about how much European nations could contribute...

LOVETT: And the "tripwire theory" and all that sort of thing. Well, that's true. Those things sharpen up only when somebody pushes it.

WILSON: You had -- General Marshall and you, had a rather similar sort of situation when you came back to Defense after Johnson. There must have been rather low morale and a number of things there.

LOVETT: It was a period in which we had to take an economy which had already been blown up extravagantly in size as a result of the cold war recently and the amount of stuff we were doing in aid around the world.



Now we had to superimpose on that