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W. McNeil Lowry Oral History Interview

 

W. McNeil Lowry

Oral History Interview with
W. McNeil Lowry

Chief of the Washington Bureau of the James M. Cox newspapers, 1947-52.

New York, NY
April 23, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess

[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.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the Lowry oral history interview.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 October, 1969
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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



Oral History Interview with
W. McNeil Lowry

New York, NY
April 23, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess

[1]

HESS:  Mr. Lowry, would you tell me a little bit about your background. Where were you born, where were you educated, and what positions have you held?

LOWRY:  I was born in Columbus, Kansas on the 17th of February, 1913. I went to high school there at the consolidated county high school; went to the University of Illinois, and took a doctor's degree in English literature, and taught in the university for seven years. While on the faculty, as a younger member of the faculty, I joined with others in starting Accent, a quarterly of new literature which ran for twenty years.

When the war came, I made many efforts to get into the armed services, but needed physical waivers, and for one year I was a writer in the domestic

[2]

branch, writer's division, of the Office of War Information in Washington, waiting to go on active duty in the Navy, which happened in November, 1943. I went to Quonset Point to be trained as an air combat intelligence officer. I got out of the Navy on points in April, 1946, having worked in the OWI right along with experienced newspaper and magazine people, though I had never been a journalist. And still being so steamed up about national and international affairs as I was, I decided to get a couple of years newspaper experience, and with the recommendations of some people I knew, I met some publishers, one of whom was James M. Cox who was candidate by the Democratic Party for President in 1920 and defeated by Harding. He was three times Governor of Ohio. He had seven newspapers and several radio and T.V. stations. His home seat was Dayton, Ohio, the Dayton Daily News. I saw Governor Cox and worked for a year as associate editor writing editorials on the Dayton Daily News. And in the course of that year I talked him into the idea of setting up a full Washington bureau

[3]

for all his papers. And I went to Washington in 1947 to be chief of the Washington bureau of the James M. Cox newspapers, which included: Dayton and Springfield, Ohio; Atlanta, Georgia; and, Miami Florida. I wrote on politics for all of those papers. I had men under me who were stringers to write on Ohio news, Florida news, and Georgia news. And I maintained that position until the end of the Truman administration, after which, I became associate director of the International Press Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, and I stayed there with my family for about a year with an overall connection of about a year and a half. At the end of that time, I went into the Ford Foundation in their education division, as director of education, until 1957 when we secured permission from the board for a new program, a program for the humanities and the arts. As the program director and a vice president, I have been in charge of that aspect of the Foundation's work since.

HESS:  What do you recall of the Commodity Credit Corporation question in 1948?

[4]

LOWRY:  This, of course, was a question which was a benchmark, a high water mark, in my five years as a political correspondent, and a significant landmark in the Truman administration. It started with a letter from the farm editor of the Dayton Daily News, Jesse Garrison, who in July wrote to me in Washington and said he did not understand a certain phenomenon, which was that the farmers, particularly the corn farmers in Ohio, were beginning to mutter about two things: One, they were going to have a bumper crop which should have been O.K.; but two, they did not know where they were going to find adequate storage for this. This was already July and long before the corn, as you know, matures. "Something," Mr. Garrison wrote, "has changed about the grain storage program. Will you find out what it is, and if you think it merits a story, write a piece, or give me the facts so I can write it."

I went up to the Hill and began to go through the Congressional Records for debate on the Commodity Credit Corporation, and I couldn't find a

[5]

very meaningful story there, although I could date it. I got the hearings of the House Banking and Currency Committee, which was chaired then by one of the Truman administration's most inveterate enemies, the Honorable Jesse Wolcott of Michigan, and as you know, under a Republican controlled House. And in the course of that hearing, I found that an amendment to the charter of the Commodity Credit Corporation specified that if the farmer could not get his grain of any kind, not just corn, into "approved storage," by legal definition as approved, then he could not qualify for the current level of support prices for that grain as fixed in legislation for the given year. And at the same time there were indications that the temporary storage bins, the great metal bins that were added all across the Middle West, by the CCC, that that program had been cut in its appropriation for building such bins or placing them. And at the very end of the hearings on the last day, there was a question, Mr. Wolcott asking a question, saying, "Mr. Slaughter, have you anything more to contribute?"

[6]

But there was nothing in the printed hearings that Mr. Slaughter had contributed. At this point, after his question, there was the normal statement that Mr. Slaughter's comments were made in executive session.

I could not immediately identify Mr. Slaughter, but I thought I could. You may remember that in 1946, Mr. Truman had helped (they thought and he was accused of helping) to defeat Roger Slaughter, a Kansas City Congressman, Democrat, who was a political opponent of Mr. Truman's, for re-election. The seat was then held by a Republican. Slaughter, I found, had come back to Washington as a lobbyist. And I tried to find out for what, and found that under the Lobby Registration Act of 1946, Roger Slaughter was not registered as a lobbyist. But tracking through my friends in the Agriculture Department, both then and earlier friends in the Agriculture Department, people who were now out, I found that Roger Slaughter was acting in behalf of four principal grain exchanges, the North

[7]

American Export Grain Association in New York, in Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Chicago, Boards of Trade or grain exchanges, they have different titles, and that Slaughter had been invited by Wolcott on the request of these grain exchanges and particularly those three in the Middle West, Kansas City Minneapolis, and Chicago, to appear, as an expert witness for them in the Commodity Credit Corporation hearings. There thus developed two stories. I knew which one was the more important. The more important was, would there be enough grain storage in the fall of 1948, and if there were not, would it redound to the disfavor of the Republican Party, since this was obviously a deal, very tightly controlled by the House Banking and Currency Committee with a very tight rule from the Rules Committee when the charter went on the floor for debate, and there was hardly any debate. This was why I hadn't found much on it.

I looked back in the record, and I found in the Agricultural Department that an official of the Commodity Credit Corporation had made a mild demurral,

[8]

a short, very effective statement about what the effects of this had been. And that was all, just kind of a protest for the file, but no political reaction, no enlistment of the White House into this situation at all. I could not prove what this meant: Was it to drive down the price of grain, if you took away the support prices so that the grain exchanges could buy huge quantities of grain at a low rate and hold them and hope they would go up, this was obviously a potential; was it to drive down the price of grain in order to export it more cheaply abroad and make a bigger profit for grain export? Why was the North American Export Grain Association a party to this? And here is where I did and had to do some real gumshoeing as a reporter. I found in the files of an official in the Department of Agriculture a copy of a telegram sent by the North American Export Grain Association to Roger Slaughter saying, that for every bushel of grain that the North American Export Grain Association, which was a combination of exporters, could export below the support price, Roger Slaughter would be paid a fee on

[9]

each bushel, a very tiny one, like one tenth of a mill on every bushel, but when you added it all it was a very big one. And this was at least one of the missing links, then, the motivation. The other being, what about the sheer ability to buy grain cheaper in the grain exchanges in the Middle West and storing it. Well, obviously, Mr. Wolcott and the Committee, knowingly or unknowingly, were in the hands of speculators and the farmers were going to pay for it.

Now I knew, without being a lawyer, that the Lobby Registration Act of 1946 was written so loosely that you could drive a truck through it, and that Mr. Slaughter might or might not be brought to justice. That was not the issue. The issue was, what was the 80th Congress thinking about in connection with the farm situation, and the farmer's stake in the society to do this. Well, on the 12th of August, I broke a story in our papers, but primarily, of course, in the Dayton Daily News, an eight column banner headline, CONGRESS ACTS TO FORCE DOWN FARMERS' PRICE AT

[10]

BEHEST OF GRAIN LOBBY. And that blowing up out of the West was an issue in which the 80th Congress was deeply implicated which could change the balance of power in the vote in the 1948 election, in the Middle West, and improve drastically the chances of the President to be re-elected. And so on and so on. Everybody thought , because I quoted the telegram from the North American Export Grain Association to Slaughter verbatim in my text, everybody thought I had that in my possession. I didn't. I stuck my publisher's neck out with that. I knew the telegram existed, and that if anybody ever took any action, that a copy of it could be found, but I really stuck his neck out. He could have been sued. But that was not -- I want to make this plain -- it was often thought of as a story about catching a lobbyist, and it wasn't. It was not the issue. The issue was the difference between the Fair Deal attitude towards the farmer, and the attitude or rather the indifferent and calloused attitude of people like Jesse Wolcott and what this might do on the Middle West. And

[11]

having grown up in the Middle West, lived in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio, I knew, you know, what it could do. When that story was air mailed, special delivery back to me in Washington, I took two copies to Clark Clifford at the White House.

HESS:  What was his reaction?

LOWRY: He started gesturing like this, and he started writing speeches in the air. And he said, "Now, Mac." Clifford and I were friends; I had very good contacts in the White House but Clifford was the best. "Now, Mac, let's think about this."

And I said, O.K., but remember, I have two roles to keep separate. I am a reporter covering a story, and that is what I want to do. I recognize the political interest. I am a political correspondent, and I have no objection to that, but I am not a government agent, or an administration agent, I am a reporter."

So that he understood, O.K.

The first thing that happened was that he sent

[12]

that article to the Justice Department, and within 48 hours the United States Attorney General had locked up and sealed the files of the North American Export Grain Association, Minneapolis Grain Exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Kansas City Board of Trade, and put seals on them saying, you know, you can't open your own files until we have been able to study them and take affidavits and all that. I sweated it out while that was going on, I must say. Nobody knew it. They didn't know it, until one of the men in the Justice Department to whom I talked said, "Oh, by the way, in going over that material today I just read the text of that telegram that the Grain Exchange sent to Roger Slaughter," which made me about five years younger. That was one line of development that started.

The other was that this was the 12th of August and Mr. Clifford and I began to write inserts for the President's speech to be made at Dexter, Iowa on the 18th of September.

[13]

HESS:  The National Plowing Match?

LOWRY:  Right. It was the kick-off.

HESS:  It was his most important farm message.

LOWRY:  In that speech the President said, Clifford and I had worked this out (I mean Clifford worked it out, but in terms of the material) anyhow after consultation it read: "The 80th Congress has stuck a pitchfork in the farmers' back”, and so on. And explained why, briefly -- because Clifford knew and I knew that the buildup on this was going to come in October, because there wouldn't really be a big, visible dramatic issue until you had those trucks and wagons lined up in October just before the election, and you couldn't get into storage. That was going to be it. If it ha