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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 9, 1970

Oral History Interview with
Robert G. Nixon

News correspondent with the International News Service, 1930-58; served as editor of the service for a time. He first came to Washington, D.C., in 1938 where he served as their State Department and foreign relations correspondent. He was a war correspondent, attached to the British army in France and Belgium, 1940, during invasion of the low countries; evacuated from Dunkirk but later returned to France; evacuated with remnants of the British army from Brest, June 20, 1940; covered London Blitz, 1940-41; war correspondent, attached to United States forces in European theater of operations, 1942-1943; correspondent in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, and Mediterranean theater, participating in North African invasion and campaign. Covered Casablanca conference, 1943; Quebec conference, 1944; and Potsdam, 1945. Washington correspondent covering the White House beginning in 1944.

Bethesda, Maryland
October 9, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Nixon Oral History Transcripts]


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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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

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Oral History Interview with Robert G. Nixon

Bethesda, Maryland
October 9, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess, Harry S. Truman Library

[1]

HESS: Mr. Nixon, to begin this morning, would you tell me a little about your background; where were you born, where were you educated, and something about your early newspaper career?

NIXON: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia in the year 1905. I was educated at Georgia Tech, with a degree in chemical engineering, and at Emory University, with a bachelor of arts degree. I became interested in writing in my teens. This led to my winning various awards in writing, oddly enough at Georgia Tech.

[2]

HESS: Were they technical writings?

NIXON: No, they were current events subjects, and my English professor, after I had won one of these awards, said, "Bob you don't have to come to class anymore. You've made a passing grade as far as I'm concerned, and not only a passing grade, but a grade of higher merit, and I can't teach you anything else."

He encouraged me to go into writing. I was taking chemical engineering and I thought that I wanted to pursue that. Well, this was in the mid-twenties when chemical engineers were a dime a dozen. We had not advanced in the scientific area like we have in more recent years. I had a friend who was also my father's friend, and who was managing editor of one of the Atlanta papers. During the summers, when I was in college, I worked as a cub reporter on this paper, the old Atlanta Georgian, a Hearst

[3]

paper. Some years later it went out of existence.

When I finished school I just could not put myself in the position of spending the rest of my life doing chemical analyses of cotton oil samples. I didn't have the vision to see into the future of what chemistry would come to. I don't think many people did then. Well, here was a ready made job on this newspaper, and I was interested in writing, so I just took the job and stayed in it.

HESS: What year was that?

NIXON: Well, this would be the latter twenties.

I first became a reporter. Then I was made assistant city editor, later assistant Sunday editor, then makeup editor. This was over a period of time, but not much time either; I advanced very rapidly. Then the International

[4]

News Service, which served this paper, and was one of the three large wire services, was having trouble with this paper. There was carping all the time about this news service which did not produce the material that they wanted. I.N.S. was a worldwide news service and was not providing much local, domestic news. They were criticizing the then Southern news editor for the ineptness of the International News Service.

So, New York said to the managing editor of the Georgian, "O.K., you pick your own man and we'll make him Southern news editor and he can get for you what you want, we hope."

The then managing editor of the Georgian said, "Bob, how would you like to have that job?"

Well, I said, "I sure would." Because that meant advancement from assistant city editor of a paper to Southern editor of what

[5]

appeared to be a worldwide news organization, so I took it.

During that period I covered such things as the Florida hurricanes, which swept over the Keys and drowned all those poor people; the bonus marchers, who had been picked up here in Washington and sent down to these Federal camps; the Scottsboro trials, of those colored men who were supposed to have raped a white woman on the train in Alabama; the assassination of Huey Long and his burial, and the whole aftermath; the execution of Zangara who tried to assassinate Roosevelt; and the great tornados. In other words every major story. One year, for instance, two stories in the South were selected as two of the ten greatest news stories in the nation for that year.

It was a dizzy period.

HESS: What year did you start with I.N.S.?

[6]

NIXON: In 1930, and I came to Washington in early '36.

They first wanted to send me to Rome. Then they decided to bring me to Washington and I came to Washington in February of '36. First I covered the Congress on the House side, and went to the two political conventions that summer. Then I was put in charge of coverage of foreign affairs in the State Department.

In September 1939, at the outbreak of the war, I flew to Lisbon and then went overland through Spain, which was just recovering from a civil war, to France and on to Paris. Later I went from Paris to London, and I was then attached to the British army as a war correspondent and went back to France. I was in France and Belgium when the Germans invaded May 10, 1940, and came out of France in the Dunkirk evacuation. A few days later, I went

[7]

back to France with the first Canadian Division and landed at Cherbourg in Normandy where our own forces went in a number of years later.

HESS: At the time that you were at Dunkirk did you think that you were going to get back to England, or did you think you were going to be captured?

NIXON: Well, those are things that you just don't think much about at the time. You are too busy.

HESS: What size of a boat did you come back on? I understand that they had a fleet of small boats help with the evacuation.

NIXON: Yes. Actually, I did not get off the beach at Dunkirk. I was able to go to Boulogne and came across on a channel steamer, so I wasn't in one of those little boats. You see, this evacuation took place over a number of days,

[8]

quite a number of days, and the little boats didn't come into operation until the remaining British and French forces had been shoved into a very small perimeter at Dunkirk and were fighting on the beaches. It was then that these little boats which had been gathered from all over England--were sent over in flotillas to bring off the remaining people except those that were left behind to hold the perimeter and who then surrendered. But, as I say, you don't think too much about those things at the moment. You do what you can and you do what you're told, and hope for the best. But frankly, things looked pretty black.

Anyway, we went back to France on June 10. This was a week after Dunkirk and I went up with the British army to below Paris. We went up through Lemans, all through Picardy, below Paris. That's as far as we got. Churchill had

[9]

flown over to Toulon where the French government had retired from Paris to try to persuade [Paul] Reynaud to form a defensive line, the French army with the British. Reynaud said no, the French were through and were going to give up.

Seems to me it was on a Thursday, when Churchill communicated this information to his government. It was obvious then that there had to be another evacuation. So, I was given a choice of going either to one of the ports in Normandy and getting out there or going down to Brest. I was a little fed up at that time at being chased all over France by the Germans so I decided to go to Brest to stay in France as long as I possibly could and to get out at the last moment. I had a job to do. I was a war correspondent and supposed to report what was going on and if I couldn't report, then

[10]

to tell later what had happened.

Anyway, I went down to Brest and at noon on the 20th or 22nd--I believe it was Petain who got on the radio and announced the surrender of France to the Germans.

Well, that was it again. Many of the British troops remaining in France were evacuated from Brest as well as other ports in France.

I got aboard a British vessel in the harbor of Brest in the late afternoon after the French had surrendered. It was packed with blue RAF uniformed personnel. Of course, we expected to be blown out of the water, either by a U boat or German bombers. This was when the Lancastria was blown up at a loss of some 3,500 men. We left there that night and arrived the next day at Falmouth down near Land's Ending, England. There were so many of us aboard this ship that I had to stand elbow to elbow

[11]

with men packed around me some eighteen hours.

HESS: There wasn't any room to sit down?

NIXON: No, no room to sit down.

Well, after that I went to London and then down to Dover expecting the Germans to come over imminently. There was nothing left to stop them. The British troops didn't even have side arms. They were completely unarmed except for their air force, about which we didn't know. We hadn't seen it in France. Every time we saw a plane there, it was a German plane.

We expected the Germans to come over. We didn't realize that they had overreached themselves and had made no preparations for invasion of England. They thought England would give up and collapse just like France had.

I went out with the British army on the south coast where the defenses were being

[12]

planned and was in London throughout the blitz. These were sporadic attacks at first, and then mass fighter attacks by the Germans, which the RAF put down.

There were two in August, mass raids in which on two different days the British shot down two or three hundred German planes. We wondered how it was being done. We didn't know there was such a thing as radar then. Of course, it was radar that made it possible for the English to know where the German planes were coming from and get their fighter force up and knock them down. The blitz, that is the heavy all night bombing of London and other cities, did not begin until it became obvious to the Germans that they could not force Britain to surrender by destroying the RAF. So, they decided to attack the cities. That didn't begin until the first week in September, on a Wednesday night.

[13]

HESS: Where were you when they first started the heavy saturation bombing?

NIXON: I was in London, and I remained in London then throughout the blitz, night after night. It was a mess.

HESS: What was a night like during the blitz?

NIXON: Well, it was a very strange, eerie thing. The days were getting shorter, of course, and the nights were beginning at 5 in the afternoon, and later on at 4:30. A London night is a very black night, especially in the winter months when the weather is bad. The alerts are an eerie sound. The sirens blasted. At other times the first you would know, was when you would hear the bombers overhead, barummmm, barummmm, barummmm, barummmm, and then five minutes later, maybe they would turn on the alert. You didn't have to tell people, they

[13]

knew it.

London was virtually deserted.

Everyone who could get out of London, in a sense, had gotten out. But there were several million still there, especially the poor people, and then of course, all the public officials, the well-to-do and those who had responsibility for government. They are very staunch people. But when I say the city was virtually deserted, I am speaking of it at night. In other words, nearly everybody had gone underground. The poor people were living at night in the London tubes. They would take their little bundles of blankets and their children and all and go to the tubes in the late afternoon. Transportation was virtually at a standstill, although, the busses and trams kept running. And the London cabbies never gave up.

The bombing of London did not really resemble

[15]

what the U.S. Air Force and the British air force did later to Berlin and some of the other German cities. I remember flying over, I think it was Castell, a city in central Germany, on the way to the Potsdam Conference, after the surrender. There was nothing down below except powder. I saw one city, I forget whether it was Castell or the other one, that was just a mass of pinkish red rubble. This, of course, came from the powdering, by bombs, of the roof slates. But we had just obliterated these towns.

London, of course--I forget how many square miles it is--extends over an enormous area, and the Germans never got around to the type of bombing that we used, a mass of forces of heavy bombers. That's the way we smashed things up in those days. The Germans would send a few planes over and then a few planes over, and they would follow all night long, and they

[16]

appeared to be bombing for no purpose except to create terror. In other words, they did not concentrate on a single target. Oh, they tried to smash the Battersea Power Station on the Thames, for instance. There was an obvious reason for that; stop the factories and disrupt use of electricity. They bombed the warehouses and the ships along the Thames. They went after factories. This was all night bombing.

In one night, you could count enormous fires