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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 16, 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 16, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 16, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess

[75]

HESS: All right, Mr. Nixon, let's finish up what we have to say about Mr. Roosevelt, and then go on to Mr. Truman. What do you recall about the inauguration of Mr. Roosevelt on January the 20th, 1945? I believe they held that on the South Portico of the White House?

NIXON: Yes.

HESS: Were you there that day?

NIXON: I was there. It was snowing. It was a rather cold, bitter gray winter day. Mr. Roosevelt stood out on the South Portico and was sworn in. Of course, the public wasn't there.

HESS: What appeared to be his state of health at that time?

[76]

NIXON: He was failing. Perhaps that was the main reason why he didn't go through this agonizing public inaugural on the steps of the Capitol. There were just a few reporters there. I remember I had a direct telephone connection with my office and stood immediately below the portico and dictated a running story into my office. There were a few members of the administration there, the White House police, and that was about all. It was a formality, rather than a public ceremony.

My recollection is that the excuse given by the White House for this inaugural was that the war was on and the President's time was occupied. Nothing was said about health.

HESS: Did you see Mr. Roosevelt again before he came back from Yalta? You mentioned last time that you had gone, but Stalin would not allow the newsmen in.

[77]

NIXON: I got as far as Algiers. On the President's return, I boarded the cruiser Omaha there at Algiers.

HESS: Did Samuel I. Rosenman get on at Algiers too?

NIXON: Yes, he did. I particularly remember Sam being there, because one day while we were waiting to know whether we would be permitted to go to Yalta, Rosenman arranged a tour of the Casbah, the old pirate stronghold which is the ancient section of the city. He invited me to go with him on this conducted tour of the Casbah. So, that's why I remember that he was there. Also, we had a luncheon one day outside of Algiers in one of the beautiful residences being used by the U.S. Navy commander, and I remember Sam was there at the table.

It seems to me that Steve Early was also there. I can't recall whether he went to Yalta

[78]

or not, but my recollection is that he flew in from Washington to Algiers to see the President when the cruiser stopped there. Then he flew up to Paris to Eisenhower's headquarters. He was a close friend of General Eisenhower's and went up there to see him and take him a case of whiskey. So, I know that's the way it was.

You asked me the last time we were together why Roosevelt was put through this grueling campaign trip in New York, and was it because there was fear of Dewey winning. And you asked me if I thought Dewey had really had a chance. And my answer was no. No with the reservation that when there are two candidates for the Presidency, there's always a chance. There are only two of them running. No matter how much of a shutout it looks like it is, there still is always that strange chance.

HESS: Such as Mr. Truman proved in '48.

[79]

NIXON: Yes, and look what happened to Winston Churchill at the very height of his greatness and power. I tried to tell Truman on the way to Potsdam that Churchill wasn't going to make it. But he wouldn't listen to me.

HESS: Why did you think that Churchill was going to be defeated?

NIXON: To me it was very simple. I had lived with the British people under very severe circumstances and conditions for the first two years of the war. I had been closely associated with them. Remember there were few Americans left in England. You could count them on your fingers, literally. I had almost become a Britain myself because of this severity of conditions under that long period of bombing. I simply knew the British mind. I was confident of that, just as I knew the way my own

[80]

people back here thought.

After five years or six years of war, I just felt in my bones that the British people were fed to the teeth. They had undergone such hardships, and like our people when they elected Roosevelt, they wanted a New Deal. It wasn't anything against Churchill. It was only that Churchill epitomized all of the difficulties of the times that they had gone through. So, I just felt that regardless of his tremendous greatness--and he was a very, very great man--the British were going to turn on him and throw him out. The war was over with, and they wanted a chance to better their economy. I felt that they thought the Labor Government could do it, or would do it, rather than the Conservative.

HESS: Did you ever have a conversation with Mr. Churchill?

[81]

NIXON: Oh, yes.

HESS: What was the occasion, or occasions?

NIXON: In the early part of the war. When he came to power in May '40, I was one of the handful of American correspondents in London representing the American press. We all know how Mr. Churchill felt. He made it very clear that England's only salvation was the United States. He also knew the temper of the times back here at home--the America Firsters, the tremendous German propaganda machine that was operating in the country, and the attitude of the thirties with that dreadful neutrality act. He knew also that Roosevelt was having to say to the American people, as he did at Boston, that he would never send American boys into a foreign war. All of this led to Mr. Churchill making use of every possible media

[82]

and means that he could, to present the plight of the British people, and the British nation, to this country, to try to bring out a change of viewpoint and opinion. In these severe days, no matter how much American opinion sympathized with the British and the French, the preponderant opinion of this country was, "Don't get involved in that war."

Because of the news service I represented, which had a great deal of influence, I occasionally was invited to little intimate talks and luncheons with Mr. Churchill. When he would walk during the mornings through the bombed areas of London waving his V for victory sign to bolster the moral of the people, I would go along because he was the Prime Minister. I would usually be tipped off ahead of time that he was going to do these things.

HESS: What effect did he have on the British people

[83]

when he made a walk like that?

NIXON: The British were such staunch people that they didn't need any bolstering of their morale. For instance, after a night of severe bombing, someone would come to his little store the next day to open up and find it just completely gutted. Undismayed, they'd make these big signs: "Blast!" This was their humor. It was their defiance of Hitler.

They never needed bolstering. Sometimes when I would be out of London for a day or two with the British army down on the south coast where the defenses were being put up, I would be driven back into London in an Army car. You could see the people queued up at a bus stop. You could see in their faces, the strain and the effect of the bombing, but that was unusual. Usually they would be chatting

[84]

and joshing one another just as though it was a time of peace.

HESS: I understand that Mr. Churchill had a combination communications center and bomb shelter down under London. Were you ever in his bomb shelter, or was that constructed later?

NIXON: I am trying to remember. I was taken, on one occasion, to one of these huge underground communications centers. Whether it was the one he did use during the bombing, I don't know, because I didn't even know where I was taken. I was taken under blackout conditions. The car I was driven in had the curtains drawn. It was one of these big Bentley's that the British Government used.

HESS: And you ever speak to Churchill after the war--perhaps on his visits to the United States?

[85]

NIXON: Yes, I could only just say, "Hello." I remember, particularly, when he came over here (he was out of office at that time) to go to Fulton, Missouri where he made that famous Iron Curtain speech. He came to the White House, and he and Truman went out to Fulton. We all went out on the train with them to Westminster College to an inside athletic auditorium. It was apparently the only large place they had to put an audience. Truman made a speech, but it was completely overshadowed by Churchill's Iron Curtain speech.

HESS: That's General Vaughan's old school, among others.

NIXON: Yes, as a matter of fact, Vaughan persuaded the President to ask Churchill to come over. But when Churchill spoke, no matter whoever else was present, he always overshadowed them.

[86]

As we all know, he had a masterful gift of speech and use of the English language, more so than perhaps anyone in this century.

Of course, the times make for this greatness. The times made the impact of his very graphic phraseology, such as that very famous wartime talk when he told the British people the only thing he had to offer them was, "Blood, sweat, toil, and tears." And later, the one in which he said that if the Germans did invade England that they would "fight on the beaches, the landing grounds and..."

HESS: If you'll recall at the time of the Fulton speech, there was some discussion as to whether Mr. Truman approved the phrase "the Iron Curtain" or whether the speech was given with Mr. Truman's approval?

NIXON: That angle I have completely forgotten.

[87]

HESS: Were there any other times that you talked with Mr. Churchill? I think he came over a couple of times in 1952.

NIXON: Yes, for instance, at the Quebec Conference. I have a dollar bill, I think I mentioned this to you before, with three signatures on it: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Winston S. Churchill. So if he was nice enough to autograph this thing, he knew me.

But on his trips over here he was completely surrounded. He was with the President all, or most of the time, with Secret Service guards and British security people all around. I would be close to him on occasion after occasion. He would pick me out of a group and he would say hello. But that was the limit. The rest of the time I was always with other people.

HESS: On the trip back from Yalta I believe that

[88]

"Pa" [General Edwin M.] Watson died on that trip. Is that right?

NIXON: Yes, he did. This was quite a blow to Roosevelt. Pa was a very close intimate of the President's. He, of course, officially was his military aide.

"Pa" was a nickname that he probably got at West Point, and everybody who knew him well called him Pa, or more formally, General. But he had been the President's military aide throughout the war.

Pa and Roosevelt's son, James (both were big men, tall, heavyset), were the ones who enabled Roosevelt to stand and to walk on the occasions when he did. Roosevelt had to wear steel braces. It must have been torture to him. The only way he could stand erect was to snap those braces together at the knee. It gave him a straight support for his legs. Pa

[89]

and James, on those occasions would support him on his left arm. He would hold onto them, rather gracefully, too. It was never obtrusive.

I think we were about one or two days out of Gibralter when he had a heart attack and died. His body was brought back on the cruiser, and he was buried in Arlington. The President went to his funeral and burial a day or so after we got back. This seemed to be a really bad jolt for Roosevelt.

HESS: What do you recall about his appearance at the Joint Session of Congress shortly after he got back; his report on the Yalta mission?

NIXON: These appearances before a Joint Session of Congress are uniformly very much alike. The same people are there--all the members of the House and Senate, and the Supreme Court, and the Cabinet. The same people over the years

[90]

preside. The diplomatic galleries are filled and so forth. "Fishbait" Miller, the doorkeeper, appears at noon, or whatever time is set for the president to arrive, and stands at the door of the House chamber, facing the podium, and barks out in a very loud voice, "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States." Then the President comes down the aisle to the rostrum, to make his address.

The thing that made this different was that the President did not walk in, he came in in a wheelchair. He said to the assemblage, "I hope you won't mind, but I would like on this occasion to make my report to you seated