Oral History Interview with
Special Assistant for Domestic Operations, Office of War Information, 1942-45, and special consultant to the Secretary of War, 1943. Special Assistant to President for minority problems, 1946-52, and an Administrative Assistant to the President, 1952-53. Later served as Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, 1959-61, and as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1961-66.
May 15, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Nash Oral History Transcripts]
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 October, 1973
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
May 15, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Doctor, to wind up our series, let's cover some of the difficulties that you had with Senator Joseph McCarthy, after January 20th, 1953. We've discussed the difficulties that you had while you were in the White House, but what were some of the difficulties that arose after you left?
NASH: When I left Washington, which was about a year after Mr. Truman left office, I went back to Wisconsin to look after my business. In between that time I was invited to come up to the Internal Security Committee of the Senate where I spent a couple of hours and I think we could say that was undoubtedly an offshoot of the McCarthy attack. They asked me a lot of questions in an executive session and there is a transcript of the interview somewhere around. I thought it was rather important to tell the Interior Affairs Committee of the Senate when it had my nomination under consideration to be Indian Commissioner that that transcript was over in the Internal Security Subcommittee, and therefore I reported that to them and I know that they did read that and take it into
account when they were considering my qualifications to be Indian Commissioner because they told me so in the executive sessions that I had with them. Now, other than that there was no aftermath of the McCarthy attack. He shut up about me. I don't think he was really aware of -- deeply aware of my sister's and my own Wisconsin connections and roots which were considerably deeper than his, and he just plain shut up about it and never said anymore. I, of course, went back intending to settle the score and got into politics in Wisconsin primarily with the object of defeating him for re-election in 1958.
I would have liked to have had the opportunity to have run against him myself but it was more important to defeat him than it was to elect a particular person and I rather quickly came to the conclusion that the person who had the best chance to beat him was the present United States Senator, the Senior Senator, William Proxmire, in spite of the fact that Bill and I didn't get along very well personally. So, I didn't let that stand in the way and previous interviews, I'm sure, have told how I worked for him and was pretty effective. In the
1958 campaign for Lieutenant Governor, an executive of the Allen-Bradley Corporation in Milwaukee who has supported many rightwing causes, took out a full-page ad to advertise a right-to-work pamphlet issued by the well-known rightwing pamphleteer and ex-Nazi, Joseph Kant.
Now Joe Kant, among other things, had attacked my old boss at the White House, Dave Niles, in an anti-Semitic pamphlet that I was very familiar with. And in that campaign for '58 I called upon my opposite number in the Republican Party, all Republican candidates, to disavow the pamphlet, any support from Joseph Kant and, of course, met with a good deal of abuse from the ultra-right in Wisconsin. They did not expect me to win and I am sure I would have been attacked more vigorously except that I was slated to lose.
There hadn't been a Democratic Governor, let alone a Lieutenant Governor, in Wisconsin for a long time. Much to everyone's surprise I slipped through. A narrow margin, six thousand votes out of, I've forgotten the exact number but I think it was around a million and a half. And served my term as Lieutenant Governor.
They figured I was then getting ready to run for Governor, knowing that Gaylord Nelson wanted to run for the Senate and would do so at the first opportunity. And it was about that time that the rightwing attack in earnest began on me. And it started with two Young Democrats from the south side. I underline the Young Democrats. They were members of the Young Democratic organization of the . . .
HESS: Who were they?
NASH: Now, let me see, I'll have to stop and think about their names. They were Polish surnames and I may be able to think of them later in the interview, at any rate, they can be provided. And what they did was to organize in the beginning, a Catholic action group that was concerned with local Milwaukee issues and bringing pressure on the clergy in Milwaukee to clean certain books off the shelves and this wasn't quite exciting enough for them and all of a sudden -- and they were disapproved by the hierarchy publicly, disavowed, but this still wasn't enough to get them read out of the Young Democratic organization. Very suddenly they turned on me and began to distribute handbills and
petitions based on the McCarthy allegations which, of course, were in the Congressional Record.
The form of his attack on me in the beginning had been a ten minute speech on the floor of the Senate in which he addressed certain questions. "Mr. President," referring to President Truman, "I'm sure you have not seen the reports on your assistant, Mr. Nash, because otherwise you would be asking the following questions," you know, and so on and so forth. I was never able to prove who was behind the two youngsters. Proof really isn't worthwhile in a situation of this kind. If you are a public official and you are running for office, you are vulnerable and that's just it. I, myself, feel that rightwingers of the, type that have been active in some of the Wisconsin old family corporations such as the Allen-Bradley Company for many years, simply took these two kids and fed them money. I don't think it took very much. It took the form of handbills. At first they were handed out on shopping nights, mostly around the south side of Milwaukee -- the Polish, Catholic side of Milwaukee. Eventually things settled down to a true "pink-sheet campaign" of the classic type that was used
against Helen Gahagan Douglas when she was defeated by Dick [Richard M.] Nixon in California and were, most people feel that the "pink-sheet campaign" was organized by Murray Chotiner. The handbills appeared first in several different forms and then finally they came out in large quantities, and on pink paper.
HESS: Now those are the pink papers that we found in your papers in Wisconsin Rapids last November?
NASH: Those are the pink papers that we found and that I kept several of. Now just so that this . . .
HESS: We have xerox copies of those here that the Library has sent out.
NASH: Just so your oral interview will refer to the same documents, you start here with a xerox copy, the original I can tell you was on pink paper, and it says, "Notice, Your Present Lieutenant Governor, Philleo Nash, was An Active Communist. Refer to the Congressional Record of . . ." so and so and summarizing the F.B.I. report and so on and then what the F.B.I. found. Of course, that is not true, the F.B.I. never found anything. Because the F.B.I. doesn't find anything. The F.B.I. found some people who said these things, and then so and
so Nash claims clearance and all that. All of which is perfectly true.
HESS: Let's take these allegations one at a time. I notice that there are five.
NASH: No, actually if you refer to the Congressional Record of January 29, 1952 on page 581, you will find a lot more than five because the McCarthy technique is to add some others. Two of those he said, you know, are so serious that I can't even tell you what they are. So nobody ever did find out what those were. They are just two numbers.
Allegation A says: "That Philleo Nash, the President's advisor, had been in close contact with Communist underground in Washington." Well, this, of course, was one of the questions that was asked of me in my loyalty hearing, following the McCarthy allegation and I have a great many friends and apparently some of them had been in contact with the Communist underground so I guess -- I don't know what they meant by close contact. My recollection of the loyalty hearing, which is now quite a few years ago, is this involved a telephone call which was actually to my wife about enrollment of a child in the Georgetown Day School. Apparently, without anybody knowing it, the
person making the telephone call was under surveillance by the F.B.I. and the White House Loyalty Board. In fact, my recollection is that was a specific phone contact which was not initiated by me or by anybody in my family.
Item B: "That he has been a close friend and a close associate of one of the convicted Canadian Communists." Well, this is a matter of record. I was a character witness while I was living in Canada, for a young physicist, who was a friend of mine and who was accused in 1939 of having a couple of Communists living in his house and then of circulating pamphlets that were against the war. This was during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, you see, so that the Canadian Communist Party, I guess in line with the world policy of Russian Communists, was to keep young Canadian men from signing up with the army, or to try to encourage them to mutiny or revolt if they did. Of course, the minute the shoe was on the other foot and the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, then they all became the most ardent war advocates that there were in the country. But this was during the earlier period and I had no
knowledge of the facts and didn't claim to have any, but I did appear as a character witness for him, and my employers in the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto, were kept fully apprised, of course, of what I was doing. So there never was any secret about that. And incidentally he was convicted in spite of my character testimony and it was a rather costly thing for me to do but I didn't think I had a choice, and I don't even now.
C: "That he has financially contributed to the support of the Canadian Tribune, the official organ of the Communist Party in Canada." Well, the Canadian Tribune was a young weekly four-page newspaper in 1939 when I was living in Toronto and I don't think there is any doubt now in my mind that it was a Communist paper, but I wasn't particularly aware of it at the time. I'm not an expert on Communist matters, and I was sort of intrigued by it. And I used to buy it. You could buy it on the streets, it wasn't a secret publication or anything. I used to buy it and, like so many of those radical sheets, they were always out of money and they, on one occasion, they sent me a telegram asking for a
contribution. I didn't reply to the telegram and I didn't make the contribution but I did buy it on the streets. In fact, I might even have had a subscription for a while, I think probably, or they wouldn't have sent me a telegram, unless I had had a subscription; so, that was probably the basis of it and that was the beginning and the end of it.
Item D: "That during the early forties, parts of the Communist Spy Ring in Canada were using his home in Toronto as a point of rendezvous and some of them were living there." I know from my loyalty hearing that there was an allegation that some people who occupied my home during the summer were actually Communists. You see, I was in Canada for three summers and during two of those before Canada got into the war, in other words the summer of '38 and the summer of '39 before the hostility of 1939 began in September, I was in the field starting up the Royal Ontario Museum's research program in archeology and my older daughter was a baby, born in 1938, so in the summer of '38 when she was just a few months old, I didn't want to be separated from from her and from my family during the summer, so they went with me on this archeological trip and we lived
in tents on the lower Ontario Peninsula while we worked on the Pound Village site. It was a very exciting experience taking a three month old baby camping and we had a very fine time. It did mean that our house was going to be empty. So, I invited friends to live there and I know from the questions that were asked to me during the loyalty hearing that they apparently had a guest who was declared by somebody, to be Communist, to have been a Communist. And for all I know he was. I never knew him, so I don't know that he was and I don't know that he wasn't. I know that it was a man, one man, and all I know about it is what I heard when I received my first interrogatory. So, that's one of those things where you loan your house out to your friends, you don't know exactly what is going to happen. You don't know what is going to happen if you lock it up either.
Item E : "That Philleo Nash in the early forties was attending Communist meetings and had officially joined the Communist Party." Well, I don't -- in the early forties, that would be either -- in '42 I went to work for the Federal Government and was, of course, repeatedly
screened with respect to Communist affiliations or Fascist or anything else pursuant to the Hatch Act. So, it would have to be -- since this says the early 1940s -- before May 1942 when I entered Government service and after I came back from Canada. I was living in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, and managing the Biron Cranberry Company at that time, and didn't have any opportunity to attend Communist meetings or join the Communist Party. I wouldn't have done so if I had had. So, I just don't know what this is all about and whether, you know, I assumed that F.B.I. reports, you know, they contain derogatory material, will usually say that so and so, you know, thought that he was at a Communist meeting or thought he joined the Communist Party. Who this was I don't know. So, that's the whole of it. Now, Mr. McCarthy went quite a bit beyond that, called me an atomic spy, and then said that some of the allegations were so serious that he couldn't even mention them out loud on the floor of the United States Senate, so nobody ever did hear about that.