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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, November 6, 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 6, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 6, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[851]

HESS: Mr. Nixon, we concluded yesterday's interview discussing the dismissal of General MacArthur in April of 1951. My next subject deals with Mr. Truman's announcement that he did not intend to run for re-election. That takes us all the way to March of '52. Are there any major points between those two times that we should discuss?

NIXON: Those were just months in which everything was getting worse for the Truman administration. Communist China had come into the war in Korea. The fighting was more desperate and prolonged. The battle lines went back and forth. The Korean war lasted two years more, and technically, it still is going on because there has never been any peace settlement. That conflict

[852]

overshadowed about everything else.

Truman's administration was constantly battered by the Republican leadership in Congress. This was instanced by the McCarthy type hearings and the vile methods that he used. So vile that finally the Congress had to censor him. This was a most unusual proceeding which has happened to very few members of the Senate in our entire history.

The Korean conflict was highly unpopular. The casualty toll was enormous. Wartime controls had been put on again, and these were making business people back here very unhappy. It was becoming more obvious that this constant drumfire of attacks on Truman by the Republican leadership was making Truman and his administration look very bad to the American people. His administration was going downhill. The great probability was that in

[853]

1952 the opposition nominee, even a Tom Dewey, would be elected President because it was getting to the point where people were going to vote against rather than for. They would vote against another Democratic administration, and for a new Republican administration.

HESS: If Mr. Truman had run for office in 1952, do you think he would have been defeated regardless of who was the Republican candidate?

NIXON: I don't think there is any question about it. I'm sure that he realized this. Things were totally different by this time. In 1948 everyone had been saying that Truman couldn't possibly win, but he won with an almost overwhelming plurality. But by this time he had been chopped to pieces.

HESS: When did you first become aware that Mr. Truman did not intend to run for re-election

[854]

in 1952?

NIXON: I can answer that only by telling what went on that I knew about. To be fair about this thing and make no claims of prescience, it wasn't until he made this surprise announcement at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner at the National Guard Auditorium in Washington, March 29 of 1952.

His decision was a carefully cloaked secret. For the reasons that I have just been talking about, it became obvious that events were such that if he did run again, it was very likely that he would be defeated. He could see this. No President likes to run and be defeated. That becomes a blemish on their record and tends to wipe out any record of achievement that they may have made before. Whether justified or not, it is a repudiation of the majority of American voters. No man wants a blemish on his

[855]

record, regardless of what may have been the circumstances that brought it out.

As the months went by in '51 and into the early part of '52, the probability that he would not run, became increasingly obvious, but here again it was one man's decision. He was the only man who would say, "I will," or "I won't." That was the situation. There was page after page of speculation being written, but no one was talking with authority or with factual knowledge.

This atmosphere was surrounded by the fact that, despite his having served virtually eight years in office, he could have run for another terms because he had had only one elective term. The law, by that time, had been amended, and a President was permitted to have just two terms in office. This was a factor that kept the matter open.

At Key West, on November 19, the President

[856]

confided, in the small staff that he had there with him on this naval base, that he did not intend to run again. He swore each staff member to secrecy. He didn't have to tell them, but this was a thoughtful thing on his part in order to give his staff members a chance to look around for their future. When Truman went out of office, they were going out of office too. This was a courtesy (and a very thoughtful one on his part), because the moment a President says positively that he is not going to run, he loses virtually all of the authority and power of the remainder of his term in office. He becomes what is known as a "lame duck." Congress ignores him. The country says, "This man's going out, he's a has-been." He loses the great power and authority that is vested in the Presidency. He continues to have the authority legally, of course, but nobody pays any attention to

[857]

him. So, this was a courtesy on his part to members of his staff who were able people. When he left office, they were going to leave, and they would have to find themselves other jobs.

As I say, they were sworn to secrecy, and this was a very carefully kept secret. But by odd chance, I learned that he was not going to run. I learned it in a manner in which I could not use it with a feeling that my information was completely authentic and positive.

HESS: It wasn't from an unimpeachable source?

NIXON: It was third hand. That was the trouble as I will relate.

At the naval base in Key West they had a PX. These PXs are run as sort of a fringe benefit, at cost, not to make any money. There's no overhead, or relatively none. About the only overhead were the few civilian personnel

[858]

employed as clerks.

Being in the presidential party, I and others, were privileged to go over to the PX while we were there and buy whatever we wanted at these relatively low rates. They sold cosmetics, tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, kitchen utensils--the type of things that you get in almost any supermarket today and at very discount prices. So, I would go over there and make little purchases. I became acquainted with the clerks in the store. I had been there on numerous trips and had always gone over to the PX in leisure moments.

One day on this November trip, I was over at the PX. One of the women clerks who had been very pleasant and knew me as being a member of the President's party, was waiting on me. We got talking about the President and the future, and she said, "You know he isn't going to run

[859]

again."

I laughed and said, "Well, what makes you think so? Are you just guessing, like I'm having to guess?"

She said, "Because I have been told so."

And I said, "Well, by whom?"

She said, "Well, I won't mention any names, but I think I know what I'm talking about."

I had to let it go at that because she was getting a little snappish at that point.

HESS: Didn't want to reveal her source.

NIXON: Well, no. Obviously she couldn't.

Now what had happened, this PX also was used by the members of the President's staff. They came over there and made their purchases too. They were all well-known to the clerical help as being members of the President's party. If they made a statement of that sort to some clerk in the store, I'm sure that they would

[860]

not have considered that a violation of a secret, because here's just somebody's opinion being thrown out. Opinions can be thrown out on that basis without it meaning that the President had already told them that he was not going to run. That obviously was what had happened. As I say, this clerk that I talked with conversationally, was a quite friendly, out giving person with a pleasant smile and a nice way about her.

HESS: A person whom someone might confide in.

NIXON: Conversationally, without it being put in the light of a matter of confidence.

As it turned out that is what had happened. But there was information coming to me, entirely third hand. It was recognizable as having authenticity only if I decided to give it authenticity myself. There was no direct source attached to the President. It could have been

[861]

somebody's wild guess based on nothing at all but what they had been reading in the newspapers.

I had the story, but I couldn't use it. I had to just let it lay. This was the single, around the corner, leak that I heard coming out of this November session.

HESS: I'd like to read the names of the men who were in that session. William Rigdon in his book White House Sailor on page 267, lists the following people as being present: Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers, the President's adviser on security matters; Admiral Leahy; Admiral Dennison; General Vaughan; General Landry; Bill Hassett; Joe Short; Roger Tubby; Charles Murphy; Donald Dawson; Dave Bell; the Legislative Assistant, Joe Feeney, and Commander Rigdon. Just as an opinion, are there any of the people on that list who might have told the clerk in the store?

[862]

NIXON: Well, here again it's only a guess.

HESS: Personal supposition.

NIXON: To answer it you have to know the personalities of the people involved. There were only two who were really of the outgiving, blabbermouth type of personality. The other were uniformly very careful and tightlipped. The two that I am trying to describe as being sort of outgiving and sometimes having loose tongues were Brigadier General Harry Vaughan, the President's Military Aide, and Joe Feeney, the Legislative Aide. They were frequenters of the PX. Harry Vaughan, particularly, was of the conversational type. He had frequently, over the years of the Truman administration, gotten himself into hot water by blurting out things. You just have to guess on the basis of personalities. I could be entirely wrong.

[863]

HESS: Was this the only semblance of a leak of this particular information that you heard in those early months before the President's announcement at the National Guard Armory?

NIXON: Not only was it the only semblance of a leak, that I heard of, but there were no other leaks that appeared in print.

Because of the speculation that was rampant, I was under the compulsion of writing very carefully worded dispatches in which I departed from the usual reportorial reporting for discursive articles protecting my own opinion as to whether the President would or would not run again. In these instances you were much safer to discuss the pros and cons. You had to do it on the basis of pointing out the circumstances. You had to say that this, after all, was one man's decision. He had to make it, and no one would know precisely what that

[864]

decision was until he made it known.

HESS: Moving on to that announcement on March the 29th, did that seem to come as quite a surprise to the audience?

NIXON: Oh, very much so! We had been given an advance text of the speech that he was to make to the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. (It's one of the largest of the Democratic Party's fundraising dinners.) We were given advance texts in order to write advance stories based on the text, so they could be put on our wires on a release at delivery time basis. The contents of this speech contained a discussion of the coming campaign with things of critical importance as issues to the Democrats and a recitation of the achievements of the Truman administration. It had absolutely nothing in it about the President's future course of action.

[865]

There was no reference, whatsoever, to whether he would, or would not, run again.

The President always had a loose-leaf leather folder, a book type of thing, in which his speeches were clipped, page after page, having been typed with a special typewriter that had quite large type. This made it easier for him to make his speech. He knew the contents because he had gone over it ahead of time, but he needed this to prompt him as he spoke.

In the latter part of this rather lengthy speech, he had been slipped two or three brief sentences which said:

‘Whoever the Democrats nominate for President this year, he will have to have this record to run upon. I shall not be a candidate for re-election. I have served my country long, and I think efficiently and honestly. I shall not accept a renomination I do not feel that it is my duty to spend another four years in the White House.’