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Robert A. Lovett Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Robert A. 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]

 


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 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, hard copy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the Lovett transcript.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 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.

 

[2]

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;

 

[3]

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

 

[4]

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?"

 

[5]

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."

 

[6]

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

 

[7]

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

 

[8]

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

 

[9]

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.

 

[10]

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

 

[11]

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

 

[12]

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

 

[13]

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?

 

[14]

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

 

[15]

who are in a sense very different in background and yet everyone says basically the sam