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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, November 5, 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 5, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 5, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[770]

HESS: To assist in our discussion today, I have brought in three volumes of the Public Papers. They are volumes 1950, 1951, and 1952-53.

Yesterday we were discussing the trip to Wake Island and the release that was handed to the press after the meeting on October the 15th. We have that release now. While you are looking over that, are there any additional things that come to mind?

The release mentions that the President and General MacArthur spoke first and then their joint staffs met. I had that reversed yesterday.

NIXON: There is one thing that I should correct. I said yesterday that Truman later told me that MacArthur had assured him that the war

[771]

would be over by Christmas and that he would be able to release two divisions from the forces in Korea. These two divisions were not to come back home, as I erroneously said yesterday. They were to be sent to Germany.

The cold war with Russia, centered in occupied Berlin, was going on very furiously at the same time the conflict was in Korea. The threat of a war with Russia was a continuing threat. So, these two divisions were a highly important factor to President Truman and his Chiefs of Staff. These two things bore a very close relationship in what was going on.

Looking over this communiqué, that was put out at Wake Island after the President and General MacArthur conferred, I see again how barren it was of news. It contained no reference of the pressing matters that were discussed. It did not mention the assurances

[772]

that General MacArthur gave the President, flatly, that the Chinese Communists would not enter the war because if they did, they would be annihilated by our air superiority. It did not mention that MacArthur stated that the war would be over by Christmas, and that the two divisions could then be released to be sent to Germany to face Soviet Russia. Instead it was an entirely general statement, primarily devoted to what the President described as the "major problem of peaceful reconstruction of Korea."

There was the reference to Japan. Which I mentioned was really the outstanding news in it because of the bareness of the statement. The President said, in that reference, "As already announced, we are moving forward with preliminary negotiations for a peace treaty to which Japan is entitled. General

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MacArthur and I look forward with confidence to a new Japan which will be both peaceful and prosperous."

The matter of a peace treaty with Japan was news, but the rest of it was more or less just words. I note, interestingly, that the President at the outset of this statement, patted MacArthur on the back and completely ignored MacArthur's repeated refusal to come to Washington for a conference, or to meet him at Pearl Harbor.

He said, "I did not wish to take him away from the scene of action in Korea any longer than necessary and, therefore, I came to meet him at Wake." He went on to say that their conference had been, "highly satisfactory." But, as I said, there was no reference to, or even hint of, the real topics of their discussion.

[774]

HESS: What do you recall about the trip back to the United States and the President's speech at San Francisco?

NIXON: It was rather uneventful. We flew back to Hawaii and stayed overnight at the naval installation there at Pearl Harbor. We left the next morning before daylight to fly to San Francisco, where the President was met by a quite large crowd at the airport. That evening he went to the Opera House and made a speech telling about his trip to Wake Island to meet General MacArthur. The speech was largely about peace. The fact that for the first time in history the United Nations had combined together to fight a war against aggression in Korea. A lot of very kind things were said about MacArthur.

He took MacArthur off the spot by saying that he had gone to Wake Island to see MacArthur:

[775]

"Because I did not want to take him far away from Korea, where he is conducting very important operations with great success." He went on to say, "It is fortunate for the world that we had the right man for this purpose."

He had made earlier reference to the fact that it was a source of pride to our country that it had been asked to furnish the first commander of United Nations troops. Then he went on to say: "It is fortunate for the world that we had the right man for this purpose--a man who is a very great soldier--General Douglas MacArthur."

He also discussed the continuing threat of Soviet Russia. But, again, the real things that went on at Wake Island, in his private discussion with General MacArthur, were never even hinted at. We then flew on back to

[776]

Washington the next day.

Nothing that MacArthur had assured Truman would happen ever did happen. China came into the war in a matter of days. The war, instead of being over by Christmas, lasted two full years more with the loss of many, many thousands of American boys.

HESS: Before we proceed further with the events in Korea, let's mention the assassination attempt on Mr. Truman's life which occurred on November the 1st of 1950. Just where were you when you first heard of the attempt?

NIXON: I was at the White House. The President was living at the Blair House. (The White House was being torn down and rebuilt completely.) We were going out to Arlington Cemetery where the President was to dedicate a statue to Sir John Dill, who during World

[777]

War II had been Britain's chief military representative in Washington.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff had been set up to help coordinate the efforts of the United States and Great Britain to fight the war against Hitler's Germany. Dill had died in Washington and was accorded the honor, by this country of being buried in Arlington.

I was there at the White House waiting for our limousine to arrive so we could go with the President out to Arlington Cemetery. My recollection is that we were to leave around 2:30, but the car had not yet arrived. We were to go across the street in the car and wait until the President came out and got in his car to go out to Arlington.

This was one of those strange things that happen by chance. At the White House, we knew nothing about what had happened at Blair House.

[778]

As it happened, we were inside. This attack on Blair House occurred some distance--it's...

HESS: And you heard no shots?

NIXON: Nothing. We were indoors and heard nothing. By a matter of perhaps two or three minutes, I missed being out at the Pennsylvania gate when this shooting took place. I had just come back from lunch. I had walked through Lafayette Park, crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, and came through the gate into the White House.

There were several reporters who covered labor news at the CIO office, which was then in a small building, on Jackson Place. From where they were, they could look out on the rear of Blair House. These labor reporters, together with the press officer of the CIO, heard these shots. They ran out on the street and around the corner. They were the ones first

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to report what was an attempt to assassinate President Truman.

HESS: The CIO labor reporters?

NIXON: That's right. As I say, these things really happen strangely.

My phone rang in the White House. It was the direct line to my office. They told me that it had been reported that there was a shooting in front of Blair House and for me to find out what was going on.

So, I dropped the phone and raced into Charlie Ross' office. Charlie was seated with Jim Rowley, the chief of the White House Secret Service detail, now chief of all the Secret Service. I said to Charlie, very excitedly, "Charlie, somebody's trying to kill Truman. Do you know anything about it?"

He knew nothing about it. No word had

[780]

come over to the White House yet. Jim Rowley jumped up and raced out of the room shouting, "Where is my Tommy gun?" Which later he denied ever having said. He was excited and didn't know what he was saying. He was a little embarrassed, I'm sure, by this. But he insisted to me later that he never...

HESS: That he didn't say it.

NIXON: Never said anything like that.

Ross, knowing nothing about this, obviously, and Rowley knowing nothing about it, I ran out of the White House up West Executive Avenue, across the street to Blair House. The first thing I saw was one of the Secret Service men with a revolver in his hand, standing over a man lying at the base of the steps that lead up to the Blair House. The man was bleeding at the mouth, nose, and ears. He

[781]

looked as dead as a mackeral. He was not; he had been shot through the upper part of his body and a lung had been punctured.

Another Secret Service man, a young fellow, came out of the side entrance to Lee House. These are Georgian type row houses, with steps leading up to center doors of both of them. This other Secret Service man came racing out, he had a Tommy gun in his hand. He bent over this man and started to go through his pockets to try to get some identification. Neither Secret Service man said a word. I said, "Where's the President? Is he all right?" That was the key question, and he nodded.

About that moment, President Truman came to a front window. He had been taking his usual after lunch nap and was awakened by the shots and commotion. He came to the window in his bvds, long handles. He looked out and then

[782]

went on away. So, I knew he was all right.

By this time, there was a lot of excitement in front of the Blair House. Reporters were arriving. Police were arriving. Nobody knew what had gone on, or what had happened. I then heard someone say, "My God, there's another one."

There was a hedge that ran along the edge of the steps going up to Lee House. It went on around in a half square, boxing in this rise in the little lawn. Here, lying under the corner of the hedge, inside, was another body. This man was dead. I found out as things developed that he had walked up to the police guard in the little sentry box that guarded the side entrance to Lee House, and had shot this policeman through the throat. But as the policeman fell, despite his wound, he took dead aim and shot this man squarely through

[783]

the head killing him.

The man who was lying on the pavement in front of Blair House had, at the same time, walked up to the policeman who was in front of Blair House, pulled his gun, and shot him through the leg. Both the policemen later recovered. Ambulances were arriving, and they were swiftly taken away to the hospital.

HESS: One of the White House guards was killed, do you recall that? Private Leslie Coffelt.

NIXON: I had forgotten. Yes, he was.

HESS: Two were wounded; Joseph Downs and Donald Birdzell. Two were wounded, one was killed.

NIXON: Yes.

HESS: Of the attempted assassins, one was killed and one was wounded.

[784]

NIXON: That's right. Coffelt was the policeman shot at close range. The other policeman, who was shot in the leg, had backed out into the street, into Pennsylvania Avenue, to take action against this man who had just killed Coffelt. It never was clear who had shot the attempted assassin, who survived, whether it was one of the policemen (the one that was shot through the leg), or whether it was a Secret Service man, because quite a bit of firing was going on, and it all happened very suddenly.

A block away, a District policeman, directing traffic at Pennsylvania and Seventeenth Street, was struck in the side by one of the bullets, but was not wounded, the bullet simply sliced the side of his coat, just above his belt.

As I say, nobody seemed to know what had gone on. No one knew the identity of these

[785]

people. There was not even a hint that they were Puerto Ricans. There was a natural assumption that these must be agents of a foreign Communist power, but they turned out to be Puerto Ricans. Their idea of trying to kill the President was in the mistaken hope that this would bring autonomy to Puerto Rico.

HESS: I believe the same group a couple of years later threw some hand grenades in the House of Representatives did they not?

NIXON: No, they shot the place up.

HESS: Oh, shot it up.

NIXON: Yes. A woman and two men, also Puerto Ricans, fired some shots in the House gallery w