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Wilfred J. McNeil Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview
Wilfred J. McNeil

Fiscal director, U.S. Navy, 1945-47; special assistant to Secretary of Defense, September, 1947; Assistant Secretary of Defense and comptroller, Department of Defense, 1949-59.
September 19, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess

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


These are transcripts of tape-recorded interviews conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of each transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that these are essentially transcripts 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 McNeil 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 December, 1979
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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


Oral History Interview with
Wilfred J. McNeil


New York, New York
September 19, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. McNeil, would you give me a little bit of your personal background? Where were you born, educated, and what are a few of the positions that you have held?

MCNEIL: I was born in Boone, Iowa on February 21, 1901, although the Navy records show 1900.

HESS: Why did the Navy records show 1900?

MCNEIL: Somebody had to be in World War I.

HESS: So you lied about your age to get in.



MCNEIL: No. I just got in the hands of an energetic recruiting officer.

HESS: Where did you go to school, sir?

MCNEIL: High school in Grinnell, Iowa. I joined the Navy from high school.

HESS: When did you get out of the Navy?

MCNEIL: The fall of 1919. And I stayed on with the Navy as a civilian until August 1920.

HESS: Where did you go from there?

MCNEIL: I went to Iowa. My dad had a country bank in Iowa. He wanted to reduce the time he spent in the business, so he wondered if I'd come back and start to take over.

HESS: How long did you stay with the bank?

MCNEIL: Three years, then I bought an interest in a small bank in Colorado. Out in the dry land.

HESS: Where in Colorado?



MCNEIL: Brandon. I was there for four years, then came back to Iowa and went in the automobile business. I was a distributor in northern Iowa.

HESS: What did you sell?

MCNEIL: Nash. Which was an up and coming company.

HESS: That was an up and coming company back then?

MCNEIL: The best engineering in the business at the time. Our competitor of course, was Buick. Then that wasn't very profitable, so I got a contract for distribution of the Des Moines Register and Tribune in northern Iowa about 1928. After the thing started to make some money the Des Moines Register and Tribune decided to take me off of contract and put me on salary and that was where we separated.

HESS: Were you a reporter?

MCNEIL: No. Circulation.



Eugene Meyer at that time bought the Washington Post, and I think Gardner Cole, Sr., sometime or other, mentioned that I might fit into his plans for building in Washington. So I got a call from Eugene Meyer. I came down and had a discussion and started to work for Eugene Meyer.

HESS: About what time was that?

MCNEIL: About the beginning of '34. Just after he bought the Post in a bankruptcy sale. The Post was the smallest paper in town circulation-wise. I remember Eugene's instructions: when I asked him he took me over to a map of the United States and he said, "The damn thing's a desert, make it bloom." Those were my operating instructions. I said, "Do you want to do it by home delivery, news dealer circulation, how do you want it done?"

He said, "That's what we're hiring you for."



That's how I happened to get in the newspaper business. From there I went back into the Navy in 1941.

HESS: Did you pretty well increase the circulation of the Washington Post?

MCNEIL: All you have to do is look at the records. We soon passed the News and the Times and the Herald. And then they combined the Times and the Herald and we started to outdistance them. Yes, that was a twenty-four hour a day job.

HESS: Then you went into the Navy again.

MCNEIL: The reason I did, really, was that along about 1939 Eugene Meyer was convinced that there was going to be a war. At that point in 1939 we ran about two three-inch headlines on masthead for three or four months, "It's later than you think."

The editor of the Washington Post, Felix



Morley, would not believe that there had to be war. He just couldn't believe it. I remember at a Friday luncheon we always had, Eugene announced that Felix Morley and I were going to Europe. This was before the war started and we would see the crown heads of major countries in Europe. And when we came back Mr. Meyer was more convinced than ever that it was headed that direction.

Felix Morley said, "There didn't have to be war." He was a Quaker. And it didn't have to be, but there was.

He was replaced by an editor from the Christian Science Monitor. I forget his name. Morley became Haverford College president, which was a pretty good college. He was the brother of Christopher.

Meantime the last officer I served under in World War I happened to have duty in the Navy Department. And we had dinner once a month for maybe a year or so. So suddenly it



seemed the right thing to do to put in an application for military duty. I had to go before a special board convened for the purpose, which was all right. I was called back to duty by June 1941.

HESS: What was your first duty?

MCNEIL: I had a job I was entirely unqualified for. I was the Deputy Disbursing Officer for the Navy Department.

HESS: How did you get that job if you were not qualified for it?

MCNEIL: The officer that I served under in World War I was the Disbursing Officer of the Navy Department and handled settlement of all the major contracts at that time for the Navy. He was the last officer I served under in World War I, so he asked I be assigned to him.

Pearl Harbor came along shortly, but meantime



we were in an area of terrifically increasing workload because the Navy was starting to expand rapidly. In February 1942 my boss was ordered to take command of the Naval Supply Depot at Bremerton -- Puget Sound. So I got his job as Disbursing Officer. I had to do a little homework to keep up with the staff. They'd explain something to me that I didn't understand and I had to take it home and work it over before I saw them in the morning.

HESS: What size of a staff did you have in Washington?

MCNEIL: Oh, I guess it ran about 1200.

HESS: Where were your offices at that time? Were they down on the mall?

MCNEIL: First on Constitution Avenue and then we had five wings of one of those temporary buildings back of the pool. That was in the beginning.



HESS: The old Navy buildings that Roosevelt had constructed during World War I.

MCNEIL: That was where we were before, up until just after Pearl Harbor. Then we built the new temporary buildings and we moved back of the pool.

HESS: You were released from active duty with the rank of Rear Admiral in 1945, right?

MCNEIL: Yes, but in the meantime Forrestal asked if I would be Fiscal Director of the Navy. He established a new job.

HESS: Forrestal did?

MCNEIL: Yes, on December 2, 1944. So I left the job of Disbursing Officer of the Navy Department. Incidentally, that job as Disbursing Officer was really part of the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts which supervised all other Disbursing Officers throughout the system. It was kind of a controversial job because in the



military a Disbursing Officer, whether it's a Finance Officer in the Army or Disbursing Officer in the Navy, is quote, "personally responsible," for all payments regardless whether the contract agreement is legal or not. So it's your duty then to question both the legality and propriety of anything you do. So when you get into contracts with escalations and what not, to question them does make sense. Yet you have to do that without interfering with the progress, say, of making engines at Hartford, Connecticut or whatnot. You can't be a stumbling block while you are trying to be careful. What gets you into controversy with senior officers is if you contract with anybody else. If you just refuse to pay, why, that brings it to an issue immediately. And that was the way, really, I met Forrestal.

HESS: When did you first meet him?

MCNEIL: It must have been late '42. I think it was about a controversy as to whether we would



go ahead with building amphibious gliders for the Marine Corps, and I found that the Marine Corps didn't want them. I found that four or five people building them weren't worth a damn. I refused to pay and, of course, that made it a joint issue with the Bureau of Aeronautics, and Forrestal then was Under Secretary in charge of current release contracts. So we had a knockdown-drag-out fight and Mr. Forrestal refereed.

HESS: What was your opinion of Mr. Forrestal at that time?

MCNEIL: He was one of the greats. Extremely confident, understood things quickly. He was very shy, but when faced with a decision he'd make it. You could force him to make it, I'd say. I don't mean it quite that way either. He had no problem making decisions on the facts of the case. The one big problem was that he had an insatiable curiosity for facts and sometimes you get so many facts you continue to have




HESS: You get bound up in the facts pertaining to the matter.

MCNEIL: Too many things. That's a terrible statement, but I think, perhaps, you understand what I mean.

From that time on I used to see Mr. Forrestal quite frequently. Lunch perhaps once a month or more on some subject. The subject could be almost anything, and it was a bit of an education to me. Then starting in December, Forrestal was very unhappy about the whole fiscal setup of both the Government and the Navy in particular. He wanted somebody to pull the picture together so that when he asked a question he got the answers. First, I had invented or drawn up a different system of operating the disbursing office and it attracted a little bit of attention, I guess. He had asked a management engineering firm named Paget-McCormack, something



like that, to do this. Dick Paget, the chief man, was resident manager and an engineer, but he was forced particularly to use outsiders. But after making a study of it he asked if I would take the job of trying to remodel and put the thing together. That job started December 2, 1944. At that time I was really part of Forrestal's office as Fiscal Director of the Navy. And he put the management engineering functions and administrative functions of the Navy under the same job. It was his goal at the time to have a permanent Under Secretary of the Navy and he wanted to know if I would do it. I told him no. I didn't believe in that. I thought a continuing Under Secretary would be all right, if you get the distinction. Continuing gives it some permanence, but permanent is, I think, bad. One just gets the job and lays down on the job.

The Navy used to have that problem with the old Chief Clerk of the Navy back in the



thirties. They couldn't get rid of him and he just didn't work anymore. I think "continuing" means you stay on the job as long as you are performing but you are subject to change at anytime. The main thing is for carryover between administrations. In the military there should be some continuity in the secretariat. Forrestal was a great believer in having internal checks and balance and that's one way to get it.

HESS: I see that you were Fiscal Director as a civilian from '45...

MCNIEL: First in the military. I took the uniform off in the fall of '45 after the war was over and stayed on as civilian Fiscal Director. And then at the time when the Unification Act was passed...

HESS: September of 1947.



MCNEIL: Yes. Forrestal asked if I would go over and help organize the Department of Defense.

HESS: And you were his Special Assistant?

MCNEIL: Yes, I was. And the Unification Act provided for three statutory special assistants. That was one of the interesting ideas in order to see if you couldn't build by evolution, and to eliminate what a lot of people were critical of; that is, you'd have a lot of clerks around the holding company headquarters giving orders to senior people like Secretary of the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, Secretary of the Army, and so forth. And this was intended to emphasize the fact that the three jobs were, quote, "staff" to a Secretary of Defense who had a line of authority to the Secretaries of Army, Navy, and Air. It was done to emphasize that, although when you come to budgeting which has been one of my jobs, when you delete an item or reduce an estimate, you're pretty well



giving directions. Here's an indication of why that's tr