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Robert R. Nathan Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Robert R. Nathan

Chairman, Planning Commission War Production Board, 1942-1943. Deputy Director, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 1945. UN Korean Reconstruction Agency, 1952-1953.

Washington, D. C.
June 22, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson

[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. [45]) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 August, 2005
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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


Oral History Interview with
Robert R. Nathan

Washington, D. C.
June 22, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson


JOHNSON: Mr. Nathan, I want to start by asking you when you were born, where you were born, and what your parents' names were.

NATHAN: I was born in Dayton, Ohio on Christmas Day of 1908, a twin; I have an identical twin brother. My father's name was Louis Nathan and my mother was Hannah, and her maiden name was Schnee, translated into Snow. Some of the family took the name Snow and some took Schnee.

JOHNSON: Were they immigrants, by the way, your parents?

NATHAN: Oh, yes. My dad came to the United States from what had originally been Austria and then it became Poland when he left. Now it's in Russia since World War II, near what's called Lvov now, used to be Limburg. He


came in 1900 and left my mother and the two oldest siblings there. Then he scratched hard, I'm sure, and saved, .and brought my mother and the two older family members here about 1902, after a couple of years. The four other children, we were all born in the United States.

JOHNSON: So you had how many brothers and sisters?

NATHAN: There were three boys and three girls in the family. We sort of violated the statistical rule, because under present analysis, the longevity of life of women is longer than men, but in this particular case, all three brothers are still alive and all three sisters have passed on.

JOHNSON: That is very unusual. Were you among the youngest or the oldest?

NATHAN: I was the youngest by fifteen minutes. I have an older brother who is 89 at this `time. The oldest one was a sister and she died about two years ago at 89.

JOHNSON: I don't know if it's coincidence, but it seems like I've been talking to the youngest brother on most of these interviews. Did you get your education in Dayton'?

NATHAN: Yes, I went through grade school there and also


through high school in Dayton. We didn't have much money at ail. My dad was a fruit peddler, and he never accumulated any particular amount. My twin brother and I both were admitted to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Although I think: we did apply to Ohio State and were admitted, we went to Penn. You know, I was interested in business, but I can't say I was interested in economic policy at the time. We went to the University of Pennsylvania and worked our way through. We had the benefit of living with a brother which reduced our cost. I entered in '27, which was a marvelous time to study economics, and graduated in '31. I came in at the height of the sort of mad, crazy 1920's speculative boom, and was an undergraduate through the worst part of the downward phase of the Depression. I got my masters in science and economics in '33, so I had that whole sweep. I then came to .Washington to work for the Government.

JOHNSON: And that was at Wharton where you got your masters, too?

NATHAN: Yes, I got my masters also at the Wharton School.

JOHNSON: Who would you say was perhaps the most important influence on you by this time?


NATHAN: Well, from the professional point of view, there is no question that it was Simon Kuznets, who was my professor in graduate school in economics. Kuznets later became a Nobel laureate, probably one of the greatest quantitative economists that ever lived.

JOHNSON: Econometrics, was that what they called it then?

NATHAN: No, this was pre-econometric data, when you could understand economics. Not everything was fouled up in complicated formulae that only the mathematician can understand.

No. Kuznets later did a lot of work in econometrics. But at that time he had only been in the United States, I think, ten years. He came from Russia at the age of 21 or so. He got a masters and Ph.D. very quickly, and was an outstanding scholar and professor. I took. courses under him for two years from '31 to '33, but then I decided that economic theory was not really my forte. I wasn't that much interested in theory.

And secondly, I really thought for a while that law would be my profession, so I came to Washington and went to law school at night. I worked during the day and worked hard, and I finally got a law degree. I'm a member of the bar but I've never practiced.

It was a wonderful coincidence, because I think


Kuznets really had a second impact on me. When I decided to come to Washington I had an offer from a former professor of mine who was in the Department of Commerce as head of the Division of Economic Research. When I reported for work. I walked into the office there at the brand new Department of Commerce, in those days, and there was Kuznets. He said to me, "What are you doing here?" And I said, "Well, what are you doing here?" I had told him I was leaving Wharton and not finishing my graduate work, and he really criticized me bitterly; he wanted me to stay.

Anyhow, when I asked what was his role, he was here because in 1932 Senator Bob LaFollette, the young Bob from Wisconsin, introduced a resolution into the Department of Commerce calling on the Government to develop official national income accounts. Most people are shocked when I tell them that in 1933 there was no such thing as national income measures, officially, such as GNP and all that. There wasn't any such thing. They had been tried abroad, and there were some theoretical treatises. Kuznet had written a fair amount on national accounts and income. Anyhow, he. had been brought in by the Department of Commerce to supervise and direct this first development of national accounts. That afternoon the other professor of mine, Fred


Dewhurst, who was the head of that division, said, "Kuznets asked if you could be assigned to him." He said, "Would you be willing?° I said, "Willing, I'd love it." So I was assigned there, and I worked on the very first estimates this country ever had.

This was a wonderful break for me because after a brief interval I went up to Harrisburg for a few months as Assistant Director of Research of the State Relief Board there. This was after my first year of law and finishing out the estimates on the national income, and preparing the base for the second year study. After a few months I was asked to come back to head up the national income work, which was sort of heady. I was only 25 and I was made chief of a section. Two years later, it was made into a division and I was made chief of the National Income Division, in ’36.

JOHNSON: How did you get into the Government in the first place?

NATHAN: Well, I was in touch with a few people I knew in Washington. In Philadelphia, at the end of my junior year, one professor asked me if I would be interested in working on an unemployment survey in Philadelphia. You know, who worried about unemployment? There hadn't been a problem in the '20s. So I said I'd love it, and I


started in the spring working part-time for what they called the industrial Research Department in the Wharton School. It was wonderful. It was headed by the Dean, Joe Willits, and Dewhurst was supposed to handle this unemployment survey. We developed a .sampling technique, very primitive by modern techniques of sampling. But then we picked out blocks in the city of Philadelphia and then houses within them, and we did these surveys. I used to go out with the enumerators. We had these women. I bought an old car, a "Moon," a big sedan for $50 in 1930. I used it to go out and carry my enumerators around. Then we checked them out, and I did that. So I developed unemployment numbers in Philadelphia by composition by age, and by jobs and duration, and so forth, of unemployment. These were really pioneering statistics because that was the subject about which very little was known. I also headed up that same study in '31 and 1932. The surveys were published by the U.S. Department of Labor, as special reports. I knew Dewhurst because I was co-author with him on one of those reports that was published by the Department of Labor. I don't know whether I talked with him or wrote to him, but he said, "Oh, we'd love to have you: we need more economists."

Already by then the New Deal had begun to have some


pickup of excitement, and so they offered me a job. It was good; I was getting $2600 which was a P-2, a Professional 2.

JOHNSON: Now, what month and year was that?

NATHAN: In 1933. I started literally in June of '33. Then I came into the Department; I saw Kuznets there my first day and I was assigned to him. I worked on national income. Then, I had decided pretty much in my first year of law that I didn't want to go on with law. I was frustrated and disappointed. Anyhow, I decided in law school, after briefing cases and cases and cases, that the one who lied the best was the one who won. I had a wonderful ethics professor, a Father Lucia, a bright, personable Jesuit; for whom I had great admiration. We argued and, argued endlessly about the ethics of law, and he was right, you know; everybody had the right for the best professional help, and so forth.

Well, anyhow . . .

JOHNSON: That's at Georgetown Law School?

NATHAN: Yes. I had an opportunity to go to Harrisburg. Here, another associate of mine at Penn had gone to Harrisburg as director of research on the State Emergency Relief Board, and he needed a deputy. So he


offered me $3600, and, you know, $1,000 more was pretty large money in those days. I was not too happy at Commerce then; I liked the person who took: over, but frankly, he didn't quite have it to carry on. And it was a period of developing the concepts as well as really collecting and operating with data that were pretty much inadequate.. You know, it's hard to believe how limited the statistical sources were 56 years ago. But, nonetheless, I didn't feel I wanted to stay, and so I went to Harrisburg. I only was there for three months, when I came back. part-time with the President's Committee on Economic Security to work on unemployment. During my first work: on national income, one of the things I did was to work with employment data, trying to figure the composition of labor. As a result of my estimates of employment in different fields, I was able to estimate unemployment, by the difference between the workers and the labor force. My numbers were published by the ILO, International Labor Office, and I became a source of unemployment figures then. So, that's why I was invited back to the President's Committee on Economic Security.

About two months later, I had a call from [the Department of] Commerce asking if I would come back as Chief of the National Income section. It's funny. They


offered me $3,200. I said, "This is crazy; I'm earning $3,600." Well, they couldn't figure paying a guy twenty-five and a half and then $3,800, that was P-4. They wanted me to come back for a P-3,, and I said, "No." So they finally got me approved at P-4. Then about a year and a half later, they made it into a division, a separate division, and I was chief of that division.

So this is why Simon had such an influence on me. In a sense it was a tremendously good break, because as the national income numbers began to get into the press-it wasn't a household word like GNP almost is today-but as it got into the press, and as the numbers began to be recorded, people began to try to figure what the hell was this. What are they measuring? Are they measuring dollar transaction, are they measuring retail sales, is it a measurement of circulation of money, is it a measurement of wealth, or yield on wealth? So there was a great interest in it, and I began to get involved; I got to know Cabinet officers. I knew Henry Wallace and knew Harry Hopkins well, and Frances Perkins. It was a great opportunity to get involved.

JOHNSON: You were chairman of the Planning Committee of the War Production Board. You were Assistant Director of the Research and Statistics Office of Production Management in the Defense Advisory Commission, Chief of


the National Income Division in the U.S. Department of Commerce, and consultant on unemployment with the President's Committee on Economic Security. In May of '43 you volunteered for service in the Army, and after serving for seven months you were given a medical discharge.


JOHNSON: I've got that on a press release, December 4, 1944.

NATHAN: Well, that's accurate. The first real contact that I ever had with the then-Senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, occurred on the mobilization side. In June of 1940, President Roosevelt established and named the National Defense Advisory Commission to sort of begin to do some planning and programming on the mobilization effort. I was called by Leon Henderson, who was a member of that National Defense Advisory Commission, and was asked if I wouldn't leave Commerce arid come with the mobilization program.

They offered me the job as Associate Director of Research and Statistics, of the Defense Advisory Commission. The Director was Stacy May, whom I had met. I didn't really know him well, but