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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, November 4, 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
November 4, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
November 4, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[701]

HESS: Mr. Nixon, in our last interview, we were discussing Mr. Truman's legislative program. I'd like to mention the names of two gentlemen that were brought in in 1949 and given the title of Legislative Assistant to the President, Mr. Joseph Feeney and Charles Maylon. Were they much in evidence around the White House? What do you recall about those men?

NIXON: Well, I remember one of them very well, Joe Feeney. The other one, Maylon, I have no memory of whatsoever.

Joe Feeney, being Irish-American, was a very friendly sort of person, and he liked to be in evidence. Being in evidence around the White House meant being in and out of the West Wing and knowing the correspondents, like

[702]

myself, who were there every day. He stopped and chatted with us when he came and went.

Both of them had offices across the street in the old State, War and Navy Building. They spent most of their time on Capitol Hill, because that was where their jobs were. They were liaisons with the Senate and House. Each worked one side of the Capitol. The reason I knew Joe Feeney was because he had an outgiving personality. Maylon may have been more reserved. He kept more to himself or more up on the Hill.

HESS: Do you recall anything about their effectiveness as Legislative Assistants in trying to help Mr. Truman's legislative program along?

NIXON: That is a difficult picture to frame. They may have been capable men who were just not able to get Congress to do what the White House wanted; but they may not have been.

[703]

Regardless of their abilities (whatever they may have been), Truman didn't get his legislative program through this Congress any more effectively than he had under the Republican controlled Congress. It had to be a little better, but he just didn't get his program through. There were many, many factors. The Congress was still in an economy minded mood. There were also attacks on the Truman administration, such as has been made by Dick Nixon and his House committee and Senator Joe McCarthy, with his Senate committee. They were based on very vile accusations of communism in Government, and, for that matter, outright treason. So the atmosphere in Washington was just not favorable to the White House.

When Truman did something well, if there was momentary praise, it was quite momentary. The next moment they would be sticking a knife in his back. You have to bear

[704]

all those things in mind when you try to answer whether these two men were effective as liaisons between the President and Congress. I do remember that Joe Feeney was a nice friendly guy with a likeable personality. On that basis, he probably got along very well with members of Congress, even if they wouldn't carry out White House requests.

HESS: To what extent were the members of the White House staff approachable by the members of the press? I'm not discussing matters of leaks, but background information or information from members of the White House staff to explain the President's or the administration's position. Could you go to people such as Clark Clifford, Charles Murphy, or Matthew Connelly and discuss with them things about the President's programs?

NIXON: By and large, no matter how well you might

[705]

know members of the President's immediate staff, they were never very accessible. You would have to mention them one by one to describe their mannerisms and their lack of accessibility. In the first place, the President had a Press Secretary to carry out the relationships between the White House and the Nation's news media.

HESS: Would the Press Secretary take a dim view of the newsmen going to some of the White House members and discussing problems?

NIXON: This again is a matter of personality and who was Press Secretary at the moment. If people started going to the immediate members of the President's staff, other than the Press Secretary, they, in a sense, were undercutting the Press Secretary.

One of the other reasons for lack of accessibility of these people with the press was that they were privy to everything that

[706]

was going on in the President's mind; everything he was proposing, and everything he was doing. They were the ones who attended the staff conference with the President every morning of the world. Their knowledge of what was going on was private and confidential with the President. The contacts with them depended wholly on your own personal contacts with these people. If they didn't know you well, you'd just get a blank stare. You would not even be received in their offices. You couldn't get past their girl Friday. There were some members of his staff that I knew quite well. Some members of the staff went with the President wherever he went, and so did I. There were quite intimate contacts on planes, or trains, and on these trips abroad on warships.

People like Sam Rosenman, for instance.

[707]

I could go in and talk to Sam almost any time I wanted to, providing he wasn't tied up and busy. Clark Clifford made himself quite inaccessible to newsmen. Bill Hassett was an old friend I had known for years under both Roosevelt and Truman. He was very accessible. I had no difficulty seeing John Steelman at all. Matt Connelly was around all the time, but you just didn't go to Matt Connelly for information. His function was a little different. Donald Dawson, the personnel man, was an old friend, I don't know how accessible he was to other newsmen. I can only judge on the basis that I knew him well and whenever I wanted to see him, I could. I knew Charlie Murphy quite well.

HESS: How about General Vaughan?

NIXON: Anytime that you wanted to see Vaughan there

[708]

was no difficulty at all. He was very friendly if you knew him, but no source for any hard information.

HESS: Do you think General Vaughan thought of himself as one of Mr. Truman's close advisers?

NIXON: Oh, unquestionably! But I'm convinced that it stopped at the level of buddy-buddy. It had nothing to do with the formation of policy.

Harry was a sort of messenger for the President. He fetched and carried for him. He, of course, made contacts with the Pentagon when the President wanted it done. Every morning when Vaughan came to the White House, he would go immediately to the President's office, and they would pass the time of day. Vaughan would, of course, find out if there

[709]

was anything the President wanted him to do that day. That's as far as it went. He was no adviser on either domestic or foreign policy.

HESS: General Vaughan was a Reserve officer and not Regular Army. Do you recall if some of the Regular Army officers resented the President using a Reserve officer as the Military Aide rather than a Regular Army man?

NIXON: This was a natural feeling. If you aren't a West Pointer, you're a civilian as far as they're concerned. This was very natural. A West Point graduate is a professional soldier; that's his entire life. Anybody who comes into the Army from the Reserve is really a civilian. He's a civilian being a soldier for a time. When war comes along,

[710]

the Reserves become part of the Army. They are just as expendable as the West Pointers, and, I might add, in far greater numbers. When the war is over, they go back in civilian life. If they remain in the Reserve, they go to camp for two weeks each summer and play soldier for a while.

I might add, this was carried to the point where there was a totally different description of the Army that's made up of the Reserve, the National Guard, and the West Pointers. One is the U.S. Army, USA, the other is the Army of the United States, AUS. That carries the distinction right down to its basis.

The professional soldiers, having pride in their service, would prefer that a West Pointer, a professional soldier, be the President's Military and/or Naval Aide. However,

[711]

at the same time, they realized that the President had his own prerogatives. These often got to be quite personal things. It was natural for a President who has not been a professional soldier to want to have someone who has been close to him in civilian life, that he knows well, that he can trust, and who is a close friend, to be named his Military or Naval Aide.

Now, this happened in both cases with Truman. There was Harry Vaughan, and then early in the game there was Jake Vardaman, who was made his Naval Aide. Both of these appointments were based upon friendship. Later, the President made Admiral Foskett (well, it was Captain Foskett at the time), who had been captain of the cruiser Augusta, Naval Aide. The President went to the Potsdam Conference on the Augusta. He was impressed

[712]

with Foskett's abilities and liked him, so he made him his Naval Aide. When Foskett's term of duty was up (and he was sent over to Annapolis to be superintendent of the Naval Academy), the President by that time had met Captain Robert Dennison on the voyage back from Rio. Captain Dennison had been in command of the battleship Missouri and the President liked him. So, he made him Naval Aide. In both instances, with Foskett and Dennison, they were professional Navy people.

There is one thing I wanted to add about the Military and Naval Aides. We must not forget that Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy was a professional soldier. He was a professional naval man, dating from his graduation at the Academy. He once told me about rounding Cape Horn in a sailing ship in the early days of his tour in the Navy.

[713]

This was going back to the last century.

I took him aside on the deck of the Augusta coming back from Potsdam. I asked him his opinion of the atomic bomb which had just been dropped on Hiroshima. He sort of pooh-poohed it. He said, "Bob, this is just another weapon, and we've always developed larger, and larger weapons as we've gone along." He mentioned how Nobel had discovered dynamite. He was telling me that this was just another great high explosive paralleling the development of TNT.

HESS: I have heard that Admiral Leahy did not think that the atomic device would explode. Have you heard that?

NIXON: I don't recall, but he probably didn't.

HESS: Just didn't think it would work.

[714]

NIXON: Well, I was surprised at this, if not appalled. Even at that early date when all we knew was that the atomic bomb was the equivalent to twenty thousand tons of TNT (which is an awful lot of TNT), and it had leveled an entire city.

To get back to the subject, Leahy had been Roosevelt's Chief of Staff at the White House. He then became Truman's Chief of Staff. Here was a professional military man, who was perhaps the closest adviser to the President on things that mattered. He was the adviser, not the Military Aide or the Naval Aide.

HESS: Did Admiral Leahy ever express an opinion of how he thought President Truman was doing as President?

NIXON: If he did I've forgotten. If he did, it

[715]

would have been quite favorable, I'm sure, knowing Admiral Leahy. It must be remembered that professional military and naval people of the stature of a fleet admiral (which is the equivalent of the five star general of Eisenhower in the military area) do not express opinions of that type, probably not to anyone.

It's well-known that Leahy was a man of great versatility and profound wisdom. He had been appointed by Roosevelt to be our Ambassador to the Vichy government. Vichy was established after the collapse of France. It was completely dominated by the Hitler government. It was one of the few close sources of information about what was going on in Hitler's fortress Europe. He was appointed by Roosevelt, not only for his abilities and wisdom, but because he was a

[716]

high-ranking naval officer in the American Navy and had a personal acquaintanceship with [Henri Philippe] Petain, the then French leader.

Now to get back to this access business at the White House. Each Press Secretary tends to run his shop in his own manner. When Charlie died of a heart attack at the White House, Joe Short was asked by the President to be his Press Secretary, and things changed markedly. The contrast being from white to black.

One of Joe's very first actions was to issue a flat order to all members of the White House staff that they could not have contacts with or give information to newsmen about anything, even the time of day or the st