[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the McNeil oral history interview.
Opened December, 1979
Oral History Interview with
September 19, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess
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