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Dr. Robinson Newcomb Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Dr. Robinson Newcomb

Director of construction research, War Production Board, 1940-45; Director, Office of Economic Research, Federal Works Agency, 1945-47; Economist, President's Council of Economic Advisers, 1947-50; Economist, Office of the Secretary of Commerce, 1950-51; Economist, Office of Defense Management, 1951-53; and Consultant and Technical Adviser on highways, Committee for Economic Development, 1947-55.

Vienna, Virginia
August 6, 1977
By James R. Fuchs

 

[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 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 January 1978
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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

 



Oral History Interview with
Dr. Robinson Newcomb

 

Vienna, Virginia
August 6, 1977
By James R. Fuchs

 

[1]

FUCHS: Would you give a little of your background; when and where you were born, something about your education and some of the positions you had until you came into the Truman administration?

NEWCOMB: Well, I was born in 1901 on a kitchen table in the country in Geauga County, Ohio -- no birth certificate, didn't have any in those days.

I graduated from the 8th grade when I was eleven. Then I went to a technical school in Cleveland. I was very poor at using my hands. I was way ahead, time wise, and so I went to a technical school instead of an academic

 

[2]

school. I think it was a good idea; I had the best teachers I've ever had in my life there, for some reasons or another. Good teacher in science, good teacher in math, excellent teachers in chemistry. We had a marvelous principal.

Then I went to Oberlin College. I graduated from there summa cum laude. I then went down to Ohio State for summer school and a professor there got interested in me and gave me a fellowship to Brookings. I got my Ph.D. at Brookings. There were maybe forty people given Ph.D.'s by Brookings. I was one of the lucky guys.

I had a Rockefeller fellowship for a year down in North Carolina studying Negro business; back in the twenties that wasn't as socially acceptable as it is now. I decided to study Negro business in one city, at Winston-Salem. I went up there and interviewed in every Negro

 

[3]

business establishment. I found what they were selling, how much, and so on. Obviously, to know how successful they could be, I had to know what the income of the Negros was.

The Camel plant there was the main employer and I went to them and asked what they were paying. They refused to tell me. So I got out on the street on payday. The men were paid in cash in envelopes. They tore the envelopes apart, took out the money and threw the envelopes on the street. I got the envelopes for a few weeks and so learned what the wages were. That made the R. J. Reynolds Company mad and they called or wrote the president of the university and he went up and talked to them and I got fired. But Brookings figured it was an okay job. They gave me my degree.

When I graduated I got a job as the first economist, as far as I know, in the

 

[4]

Government, in construction, under Herbert Hoover. Technically I was assigned to the Bureau of Standards. I had an office downtown and an office out at the Bureau of Standards building. I did a study of mortgage financing. I went to Cleveland and I got data on every Torrens title property in Cuyahoga County and found that interest rates were running around 8 percent, 9 percent -- much higher than people thought. They were as high in those days as they are now. But the rate was concealed. You'd get a mortgage and every three years you'd have to pay a big renewal fee on it; things of that sort. So that actual interest rates in those days were higher than they appeared to be, and the argument that mortgage interest rates are high now, in my experience, doesn't stand up well.

Then Roosevelt came in and I got fired.

 

[5]

I suggested to an economist who reported to him, Bill Thorp, that we ought to do sample studies of urban properties and see how serious the situation was around the country.

He got two or three million dollars out of Hopkins and I ran a study in New York with a staff of five thousand engineers and architects. We listed every square foot of land in the five boroughs. We got a very detailed study, inch-by-inch almost, of every property occupied; vacant, residential, industrial property, what the floor load was, etc. It was a complete inventory. It's never been done since in that detail, which is unfortunate. When that was over I was out of a job.

FUCHS: Was this the Willard Thorp who was later the State Department Under Secretary?

NEWCOMB: Yes, Under Secretary for Economics in State. He was an able man.

 

[6]

Just as an aside, when I was in the Office of Defense Mobilization during the Korean war, one of the men asked me about firing Willard Thorp and putting in someone else more dynamic, and I said, "For God's sake no, he knows what's going on. Truman can be dynamic enough; if he needs action he is not getting he'll tell Willard Thorp." Whether that suggestion was serious or not I don't know.

One of Truman's comments about the State Department intrigued me, he said that he wished the State Department were as interested in the United States as in the foreign countries with which it deals. A problem over there is that they can become advocates of countries with which they deal.

I had to stumble around for several years. I found I had made an enemy in high levels and whenever I got a job he got me fired. I didn't know about it for a long

 

[7]

time. When I learned about it, I went to Thorp and other people I knew and they spoke to the necessary people to stop this action.

FUCHS: Who was your enemy, would you care to say?

NEWCOMB: No, I don't think so. He's dead now. So, that stopped. After that was over I have always had a job. But there were four or five years when I had a real problem making ends meet. For a time I couldn't even buy a newspaper.

FUCHS: Was this when you were going to one department and then another?

NEWCOMB: Yes. I'd get a job, for instance, on the Home Loan Bank Board and three months later I was out. I didn't know why. This happened several times. The same with the Resettlement Administration. I set up a bookkeeping system there, and did a few other things.

 

[8]

When the war came I was invited by the head of Statistics and Research in WPB to take a job there. That night when I got home I got a telephone call saying I'd been fired. I asked if it was this guy who’d done it and they said, "yes." So I told them the background.

FUCHS: He must have had a lot of clout in Government.

NEWCOMB: Yes, he did, but I had as much clout when I wanted to use it and knew it was necessary. I got in touch with Willard Thorp and a couple of others and I was back at work the next morning.

FUCHS: What did that work entail?

NEWCOMB: For the first time in history we had a record of how much construction was going on. I started the series that comes out every month now.

 

[9]

FUCHS: Was this civilian construction and not military?

NEWCOMB: Everything. I got records of every job reported as it started, such as contracts, and building permits, and Government authorizations. When the Government authorized a project, I had the record of it, and I had a follow-up, I got a report every month on every job. So, for the first time in history we knew how much work was going ahead.

FUCHS: This was all Government building?

NEWCOMB: All building, private and public. I was supposed to get data on every house, every factory, shipyard, etc. Then we set up a system whereby I knew how much material, how much steel, copper, iron, lumber -- everything going into construction -- would be required, because we were running short of materials. I was able to tell the War

 

[10]

Production Board every month how much material would be needed for construction underway and proposed, and how much I would recommend we allow to proceed.

I had a problem in housing, because everybody wanted to hold housing down. They figured that that was unimportant. I said, "How are you going to get people to build airplanes in Willow Run without some housing up there?" It was a nice problem. They finally allowed the building of some houses, but they wouldn't allow related construction, such as barbershops.

Well, you're familiar, I'm sure, with bureaucracy. Each man has his bailiwick. They don't think things through. At least we tried to have an overall view of all types of materials and how much manpower was needed. I was the only one in the War Production Board that didn't have to go through the Controlled

 

[11]

Materials Plan. I obviously had an easier time than the others, because how could the fellow making steel bars know how much construction there was going to be and, therefore, how many orders for steel bars there were going to