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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 30, 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 30, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 30, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[635]

NIXON: We had been talking at some considerable length about how political judgments are formed. The most knowledgeable people could be badly wrong.

Sometimes the expectable norms were completely upset. The norm in our history has been that after a war there is a change in administration. This happened at the end of the First World War with Wilson's administration coming to an end. The 1946 bi-election, just a few months after the end of the Second World War, brought in a Republican Congress. The Korean war, a much smaller conflict, was the final blow that turned the Democrats out of office in 1952. The Vietnam war turned Lyndon Johnson out of office.

There had been sixteen years with the

[636]

Democrats in power.

Look what happened to Churchill in the British election after the German surrender in the mid-summer of 1945. Certainly, one of the greatest statesmen in all of Britain's history, was turned out of office. At the end of a war, all of the dissatisfaction comes to the surface.

The labor movement, because of wartime controls, had not been able to get wage increases throughout the war. They wanted a change. The farmer who had price controls on his produce wanted a change. Industry had the prices of its products held down, but more than that, it was not able to turn out any civilian products for the entire period of the war. Industry had been converted to producing weapons to fight a war. So, there was dissatisfactions there. With all of these things, it was expected that the Democrats would

[637]

be turned out of office, and a Republican administration, regardless of who was the candidate, would come in.

All of these things were in my mind in 1948. All these things that I've enumerated certainly gave great weight to the preponderant knowledgeable opinion in the country that it was an open and shut case. Come election day, it didn't seem to matter who the candidates were. The Democrats would go out, and in would come the Republicans.

People said it did not matter what kind of a campaign Dewey conducted because he would win. Dewey conducted a very prissy sort of campaign, because he was sort of a prissy man. His appearance was against him. The very fact that he represented, in the public mind, that implacable financial area, Wall Street, and not the common man.

[638]

Truman made a lot of errors. We've already gone over the fact that his reputation was not very high. His public image was so bad that his own party was trying to turn him out. It was no wonder that there was widespread acceptance that this was going to happen.

When we made that first cross-country whistlestop swing in June, Truman fought and won his party's nomination against great odds. I accepted this as the normal course of events. This continued through the summer. There was nothing to change my mind or anybody else's mind.

The change in my mind was a gradual one. It was based entirely on the reaction to the manner in which Truman conducted his campaign, and the things he told the people where he spoke. As the farmer in Dexter, Iowa, at the National Plowing Contest said to me, "This man makes

[639]

sense." I've already pointed out how that meant to me that Truman was going to get the farm vote.

There are only three or four major groups of votes in this country. One was the farm vote; another was the labor vote. There was the white collar vote of the city and suburbs, and the minority groups. Most of the minority vote was mixed up in these other major groups. Then there were the other unknown factors of the swing vote, which in itself could be decisive. The change in my opinion was a very gradual one. It was based upon the public turnout, which day after day, week after week during the campaign, snowballed. Though the crowds started out small during the June trip, they became enormous as the campaign continued. The beginning was Labor Day at Cadillac Square in Detroit.

[640]

It was not only the size of the crowds, it was their attentiveness. They gave an enthusiastic response, and you could tell it was genuine. If it's a puffed up balloon from an organized turnout that is palpable. There was a vast difference between that sort of reaction, and people who have come out to listen to a man because they are genuinely interested in issues.

HESS: Even though you were on the Truman train all the time, did you hear from people who were on the Dewey train about how the crowds were reacting to Governor Dewey's appearances and speeches?

NIXON: Of course, I heard, but I've never been one to seek second-hand information. It's too loaded with partisanships and lack of objectivity.

[641]

HESS: You don't believe that newsmen should sit around and interview each other?

NIXON: No, I most certainly don't.

HESS: I believe that that was a comment that was made after the '48 campaign. That that's what the newsmen spent too much of their time doing.

NIXON: Yes. Yes, that was I think, certainly true, but I liked to see things firsthand and photograph them in my own mind.

HESS: You mentioned the incident in Dexter, Iowa, where you spoke to the farmer that was there. You said you had it in mind to go out and find someone who you could interview. Were there times at other stops when you purposefully got off the train to interview people to try to find out what the mood was in that particular area?

[642]

NIXON: Oh, yes, that naturally followed. In the cities we would go in, I would talk to taxi cab drivers. I would talk to waitresses in the hotel dining rooms. I talked to politicians. Of course, what I got from politicians had to be weighed very, very carefully. Their point of view carried with it the partisanship of the party. They wanted to see their man win. Unless things were really dreadful for him, it was very unusual for them to come clean and say, "Sorry, you haven't got a chance."

HESS: What kind of an impression did you come away with after speaking with the average citizen?

NIXON: Oh, they were all for Truman, almost uniformly. Their remarks about Dewey were usually critical. They didn't like little things about his personality. They would tell

[643]

me that he represented the wealthy classes.

HESS: The Wall Street classes.

NIXON: Yes. That was his image. I had no criticism of Tom Dewey. I knew him well in earlier years when he was Attorney General of New York and later Governor. But I'm trying to report factually, and this was his image.

The farm vote seemed to be going for Truman. There was also the labor vote. Despite the difficulties that Truman had had with labor immediately after the war, particularly with the leaders of the Railroad Brotherhood.

HESS: A. F. Whitney at that time said he would spend every penny in their treasury to defeat Mr. Truman, but, in 1948, he was one of Mr. Truman's main supporters.

NIXON: Yes. Alvanley Johnson.

[644]

HESS: That's right.

NIXON: As you pointed out so concisely, these troubles were behind him. Labor, which had supported the Roosevelt administration, was now solidly behind Truman.

He had the farm vote, and he had the labor vote. Certainly he had the vote of the preponderance of the people who turned out for these whistlestops. It seemed to me that he had the rural vote as such. Now, the city vote and the suburban vote, were a more difficult factor to determine.

HESS: One of the factors there was Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party.

NIXON: Yes, that is true. There was this third candidate.

HESS: Also a fourth candidate, who we need to

[645]

discuss pretty soon, Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats.

NIXON: Yes, that was certainly true. This was a quite mixed up election.

HESS: Wallace pulling the liberal vote away, and Thurmond pulling the southern vote away.

NIXON: Yes. I really should have remembered to mention that as one of the unusual factors that determined this widespread opinion.

HESS: The Democrats usually relied both on the South and on the liberals.

NIXON: Yes. The southern vote, for generations after the Civil War had been Democratic. The colored people had tended to be Republican.

Two weeks before election day, I was on the train. I received a telegram from my New York office asking me to write a story

[646]

predicting the outcome of the election. I wrote the story, but I didn't start off by saying, "Truman will win."

If you are writing for a news service, and not writing a column, you have to use different phraseology. You have to use some hedging phrases. The tenor of this story was that there was a snowballing tide of public opinion for Truman that indicated very strongly that he would be the winner in a great political upset. I went on to tell many of the things that I have been relating here. I even mentioned in the story that my opinion had changed, and that all these things told me a great political upset was in the making. So I wired this story into my New York office.

My job was on the train. I just barreled this stuff in. It went on the wire or didn't go on the wire. I might or might not see a

[647]

newspaper in which it would appear. I just churned this stuff out ream after ream, on virtually a 24-hour basis.

My New York office was part of the Hearst organization, which blatently opposed any and all Democrats. They had hated Roosevelt with a passion, and they despised Truman because they considered him a very inept man. They never used my story. They never put it on the wire. They thought I was crazy. They thought that this one reporter of theirs, who wrote that Truman would win, should be taken off the train and sent to a doctor to have his head examined. Of course, I'm exaggerating a little for effect, but that was the basis of it.

We, like the Chicago Tribune and everybody else, were reporting up to the very early hours of the morning, that Dewey was the certain winner, despite the fact that the

[648]

election figures showed different. I believe it was when Ohio came in Democratic (Republican Ohio, Democratic) that they finally threw in the towel. The way I found out that this story had not been printed was when after all this my New York editors said to me, "Why didn't you tell us that Truman would be the winner?"

I had them. They were looking down my throat, but I had them. I said, "Please refer to news dispatch number so and so, filed at such and such a time, on such and such a date, in which you requested me to predict the outcome of the election, and I did. The dispatch was sent to you, as you well know. It should be in your files, unless you threw it in the wastebasket. So, please don't come to me saying, 'Why didn't I tell you?"'

HESS: Did you get a reply?

[649]

NIXON: They let it drop.

HESS: They found out that they were wrong so they let it drop.

NIXON: They let it drop and started bombarding me with requests to write highly descriptive stories of the "new Truman."

There was a corollary to that. Several days before election day, we were in New York. Truman campaigned in automobiles all over the metropolitan district, including Harlem. The President had been advised by some not to go into this colored area. Others advised him that by all means he should. He made a civil rights speech to an enormous crowd of black people. There hadn't been the Supreme Court decisions, that came later. Civil rights was a highly controversial subject. The President was even having to try to overcome

[650]

the demands of the ADA leaders. One of their two chief spokesmen, Hubert Humphrey, had thrown the Democratic convention into turmoil by his demands.

HESS: You weren't down there at that time though were you?

NIXON: No.

HESS: You were still back here in Washington with the President.

NIXON: That's right. This was a convention fight.

This all indicated that the black people would vote for him. There were other factors too. They were all working people.

At one point during the campaign, we had gone to a suburb of Chicago. This was an industrial area almost entirely populated by persons of Polish extraction. Here, again,

[651]

they were blue collar, working people. He got a very, very fine reception from them. There was no question but that