Oral History Interview with
Former consultant of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, 1933-34; former counsel of the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, 1935-41; and unofficial consultant in the White House from time to time during the Administration of President Truman, 1945-52.
New York, New York
September 20, 1967 and November 29, 1967
by Jerry N. Hess
[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 January 1969
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
New York, New York
September 20, 1967
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: I usually start off, Mr. Lowenthal, by asking the people I’m talking to to give me a little biographical information -- where they were born, where they were educated and what positions they held.
LOWENTHAL: I was born in Minneapolis in 1888, February 26th; educated in the Minneapolis public schools; University of Minnesota; Harvard Law School, and by life in public and private affairs, I have worked in all three branches of the government, and my guess would be that in 35 years, from 1912 to 1947, about half the time
was in government service; usually official, sometimes unofficial.
HESS: Thinking back, sir, could you tell me about your first meeting with Mr. Truman?
LOWENTHAL: Well, I can't remember that specifically, it was, I know, or I assume, in 1935. He had been appointed by Senator Wheeler, a member of the subcommittee for the inquiring into railroads and holding companies, under Senate Resolution 71, passed by the Senate in '35.
HESS: That was the one on February 4, 1935. Could you tell me the background to that resolution? What prompted Senator Wheeler to come up with that particular resolution at that time? That was the inquiry into the financial difficulties which were affecting the nation's railroads, correct?
LOWENTHAL: Yes, and he had selected a subcommittee from the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, with himself as chairman. One of the men so selected was Senator Robert Wagner of New York State, who was so pressed by other work that he had to withdraw from that subcommittee. I do not know, of my own knowledge, how it was that Senator Truman became a member of the subcommittee in place of Senator Wagner. Senator Wheeler might remember, all that I can remember is that he told me that Senator Truman had indicated a desire to serve on that subcommittee. And sometime after he was appointed I met Senator Truman, that was the first year as a senator.
HESS: In his Memoirs Mr. Truman mentioned that the subcommittee that was selected was composed of Alben Barkley of Kentucky, Vic Donahey of Ohio, Wallace White of Maine and Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota. He said, "Wheeler was the chairman
of the subcommittee. Max Lowenthal and Sidney J. Kaplan were named as counsel, and assistant counsel to the subcommittee." And this is the way he said he became a member, he said, "I was not a member to begin with, but I asked Wheeler if I could attend the meetings; he said he would be delighted to have me, and when some of the members lost interest he put me on the subcommittee."
LOWENTHAL: So that would bear out what I had heard.
HESS: Is that one of the documents put out by the subcommittee?
LOWENTHAL: Yes, it is one of the printed volumes of the hearings. This is a hearing in May of ‘37. Actually there were a number of assistant counsels. The man at the head of the New York office of that investigation was Telford Taylor. At various hearings various of the assistant
counsels conducted much of the questioning, and their names appeared.
HESS: Who were a few of those?
LOWENTHAL: Telford Taylor, Sidney Kaplan, George Rosier, Lucien Hilmer, John Davis -- and many others.
HESS: During those hearings were any of the senators usually present?
LOWENTHAL: Yes, usually it was Senator Wheeler but sometimes when he was out of Washington, he would ask Senator Truman to preside, I would recommend to you if you can get, or perhaps you have, a set of the hearings, and glance through them and see on which occasions Senator Truman was present. One of the assistant counsels was Lucien Hilmer who is now practicing law in Washington, D.C., Telford Taylor, whom I mentioned a moment ago,
is occasionally practicing law in New York, he is a professor at the Columbia Law School. You might want to interview him sometime.
HESS: Are there any other gentlemen who served on that committee who might be available for interviews, that come to mind -- that served on the staff?
LOWENTHAL: If you will run through the volumes of hearings, you will see, as for example here, the names of the men who were most active in those particular hearings. There were a good many on the staff who were exceptionally brilliant men, such as Mr. Taylor and Mr. Hilmer.
HESS: Who chose those gentlemen to be members of the staff?
LOWENTHAL: They were appointed by the chairman, Senator Wheeler, but to some extent he relied upon me to make recommendations to him. It was not easy to find men who could work for the rather
limited salaries paid the staff.
HESS: What qualifications were you looking for when you were hunting for people like that?
LOWENTHAL: Able men.
The man in charge of the Washington office was Robert K. McConnaughey. Alas, that able and sweet man has since died, just as Mr. Kaplan has since died.
HESS: How did Mr. Truman get along with the members of the staff -- a few of the men we have been talking about -- yourself and Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Hilmer? What was the relationship between Mr. Truman and yourself and the other gentlemen?
LOWENTHAL: I would say excellent. The more we got to know him, the better we liked him.
HESS: Were you surprised when he was put on the subcommittee, or not?
LOWENTHAL: When Mr. Truman came to Washington, the publicity had been, not in connection with this inquiry, but with him as a prospective and then actual senator, that he was a political selection by the Democratic political leader in the Kansas City area whose name was Pendergast. As we worked for Mr. Truman we were very rapidly undeceived. He was not only a very conscientious member of the subcommittee, he never asked anyone on the staff to go easy on any subject. He said to us, for example with respect to persons and companies in his own state, "Deal with them as with all other subjects you take up."
HESS: There was an investigation that hit pretty close to home -- the Missouri Pacific investigation.
LOWENTHAL: Well, there were people connected with that and other systems who were Missouri people. He never asked for any favor or favorable
treatment or favoritism by any member of the staff with respect to any person or company.
HESS: Do you recall if Mr. Pendergast, or someone in his office, might have attempted to place any pressure on Mr. Truman during this time?
LOWENTHAL: Well, if he did, I don't know that he did, but if he did, it had no effect, as far as the staff was concerned and the work they did, the records that they made, and the inquiries that they continued. Mr. Truman was a wonderful man to have on the subcommittee, and that wasn't the picture we had of him before any of us knew him, before he had gone on the subcommittee, but it was a picture we rapidly developed in our minds as soon as we got to know him. He was modest. He was untouchable.
HESS: How did Mr. Truman get along with some of the other senators that served on that particular
committee? Now Alben Barkley served on the subcommittee too. How did he get along with Mr. Barkley?
LOWENTHAL: He got along very well. He was a very "gettable along" man.
HESS: His name came to mind since they were so closely associated at a later point. I just wondered how they got along in the early days.
LOWENTHAL: Of course, as time went on, when Mr. Wheeler wasn't in Washington, and some of the time he wasn't, during recesses and at other times, Mr. Truman was much more at the hearings than any of the other senators.
HESS: Were his relations fairly good with the other members?
LOWENTHAL: I'm sure they were first-rate.
HESS: One question that scholars can get from the
printed hearings, but I just wanted to mention it, how were those hearings conducted? Were the questions usually put to the people that were being investigated by the staff members or by the senators?
LOWENTHAL: When Senator Wheeler was presiding, some of the questioning was by himself, but he got into the habit of having the staff do the questioning and I think that was generally the practice when Senator Truman presided.
HESS: Now a question back on the staff. When we were naming the men a while ago, did we name most of the professional staff members -- not counting the stenographers?
LOWENTHAL: No. And you can get them from the title page, or next to the title page, of each printed volume, and even more as you glance through the hearings themselves.
HESS: I was just wondering are there any that come to mind, any outstanding staff members whom we have not mentioned?
LOWENTHAL: They were all pretty outstanding men. This was a search for top quality people. We were always on the lookout for more.
HESS: In 1939 Mr. Truman introduced the Wheeler Truman Bill proposing changes in the interstate commerce laws regulating the financing of the railroads, and as he said in his Memoirs, that became the Transportation Act of 1940. Did you help with the drafting of that particular legislation?
LOWENTHAL: Very little if at all. That drafting was to a large extent done by the staff of the Interstate Commerce Commission, Maybe some of the staff of the subcommittee did help in some way or other, but I believe that while Senator Truman tended to give credit to the staff of the
subcommittee, I think his doing so was rather on the kind of generous side.
HESS: Most of the work was actually done in the ICC, is that correct?
LOWENTHAL: I think so.
HESS: Do you recall anything about Mr. Truman's role in the handling or the writing of that legislation?
LOWENTHAL: Well, I think you could depend more on the Congressional Record in that period for that. And the 1940 Act was, as I remember it, to a large extent, a codification of earlier statutes.
And let me say here, this goes back a quarter of a century. Necessarily, my recollections should be checked.
HESS: That's one of the things about oral history, when we come along so many years after the fact.
The historians realize that they have to check what the man is saying here in 1967 against the records and against the documents that were contemporary at that time. This is an understood, realized fact of oral history. Actually we're getting into this at a little later date than perhaps we should have, and to be done right there should have been someone talking to you in about 1942, but since the introduction of the tape recorder care sometime after that, we have to do the best we can.
Do you recall anything specific about Senator Wheeler's relationship with Mr. Truman?
LOWENTHAL: It was a good relationship. It was excellent
HESS: When did they first become friends, do you remember that?
LOWENTHAL: I don't know whether they had met before Senator Truman came to Washington in 1935. I just
don't remember. Perhaps Senator Wheeler or some of his senatorial office staff would recollect.
HESS: In Mr. Truman's Memoirs he states, "The chief domestic issue with which I was occupied during the last few years of my first term was the regulation of the major modes of transportation. The hearings in which I participated and the work which I did in this area resulted in three major pieces of legislation -- the Civil Aeronautics Act, the Transportation Act of 1940, and the Bus and Truck Act." Now we've already mentioned the Transportation Act. Did you have anything to do with the Civil Aeronautics Act or Bus and Truck Act?
LOWENTHAL: I think not.
HESS: Mr. Truman states in his Memoirs that he and Senator Warren Austin of Vermont wrote the bill setting up an administrative director for the
Civil Aeronautics Board who would be under the appointive power of the President. The bill was finally passed that way but only after some maneuvering by Senator McCarran.
LOWENTHAL: I wouldn't know about that.
HESS: In the book Harry Truman: A Political Biography, by William P. Helm, it is stated that you and Senator Truman wrote Mr. Truman's first report to the Senate and it dealt with the corrupt use of power by the large financial interests. I wonder if that was the speech that was delivered on December 20, 1937, in which he said, "No one ever considered Carnegie libraries steeped in the blood of the Homestead steel workers, but they