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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 19, 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 19, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 19, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess

[146]

HESS: To begin this morning, Mr. Nixon, tell me about the events that transpired after Roosevelt's funeral, and then your trip back to Washington.

NIXON: If you will recall from our last session, I had briefly described the funeral in the rose garden at the Roosevelt mansion at Hyde Park.

I remember that when the train arrived there, all of the brass and VIPs were taken, in a roundabout fashion in White House limousines, up to the mansion. We others, who were along, had to walk up a sixty degree hill. There was a crude sort of trail that led up from the Hudson to the top of the highland where the Roosevelt home was. I was lugging a twenty or twenty-five pound typewriter (this was a hot, steamy day). And, of course, I arrived

[147]

somewhat breathless.

Those who were aboard the train were set out by the protocol of this event. The Government itself, in the highest echelon, had moved up to Hyde Park for the funeral. The President and Bess got aboard the train with the others, and they returned to Washington.

I remained behind, virtually alone (Mrs. Roosevelt was in mourning in her home), and I remained behind through necessity. I had to "clean up the story." In other words, I had to finish it. I wrote a story about the contrast of what had happened there. The garden, where the burial took place, had been jam packed with all the top dignitaries of the nation, and a firing squad from West Point in their gray uniforms.

Incidentally, to interpose, you don't expect humor at a funeral. I shouldn't say this was

[148]

humorous, but I should tell what happened. This is in connection with the West Point contingent that was there. The commander of the corps itself was a tall, fine looking young man. (They were in ranks off to the left of the side of the garden.) When the young commander was to give the order for the firing of the guns in the latter part of the funeral, he was so emotionally overcome and excited, that when he whipped the sword from his scabbard to give the order, he pulled it so hard that it flew out of his hands over the heads of the crowd and stuck into the sod. He was a highly embarrassed young man, but he recovered the sword and went on.

Now, where was I...

HESS: Talking about the crowds there.

NIXON: The contrast between this huge assemblage

[149]

of dignitaries and later the completely deserted rose garden was incredible. Here was Roosevelt in his grave, completely, and utterly alone. No one at hand--the world had passed on.

I remained there over night and the next morning began the drive back to Washington. This would have been a Monday morning.

Truman had come on back to the White House, but he and Bess went to their home on Connecticut Avenue. They had an apartment on Connecticut Avenue where they had lived for years while he was in the Senate. The next morning, attended by the Secret Service, he motored down to the White House to begin his term in office.

HESS: I have heard that Mr. Vaccaro rode down with him that morning.

NIXON: Yes, Tony had covered Truman when he was Senator (The Senate was his assignment.) He

[150]

had also covered Truman during the rather obscure campaign that Truman conducted in the shadow of the great giant Roosevelt, as nominee for Vice President. So, he continued his coverage. Because of this, his press association assigned him to cover the White House, which he did for nearly the entire time that Truman was in office.

With due consideration, Mr. Truman had asked Mrs. Roosevelt to remain on in the White House residence as long as she wished to. This was to give her ample time to recover from the shock of the death and to realize that she must now move out of a residence in which she had lived since early 1933.

All of the Roosevelt possessions had to be packed. There were crates of official papers, and heaven only knows what else in the way of personal possessions. This was expected, but

[151]

still a gracious thing for the new President to do.

She remained on at the White House for a short while, while the various things were being done that had to be done. My recollection is that she actually moved to New York City. She had an apartment down in the Greenwich Village area. Of course, the Hyde Park home remained, but she liked to be very active, and New York became the center from which she conducted her various activities.

In returning to Washington, I then went to the White House on Tuesday morning, as usual. As I had covered President Roosevelt, I began covering President Truman. This was really the first time that I had had a chance even to see what the man looked like. As I said, once before, several months earlier, I had glimpsed him from across the rose

[152]

garden. But the first time that I could really look Truman over was at his first press conference. He looked like what he was. He was a product of his background. He was a smalltown, Midwestern Missourian of farm origin.

We all knew that Roosevelt had gone to Groton and then Harvard; that he came from a quite old, well-to-do family; that he had moved in what is known as the best circles all of his life.

Truman had grown up on a small farm in Missouri. Aside from a trip to France in the First World War and his move to Washington when he became Senator in the thirties, he literally had almost never been out of Missouri.

Both being products of their environment, there was a tremendous contrast. The contrast was in appearance, voice mannerisms, and even their attire. President Roosevelt, while a casual dresser, was very well tailored. The

[153]

casualness was almost the kind that was deliberately put into the tailoring. Everything that Roosevelt wore was tailored. His shirts were hand made. They were a sort of the Brooks' Brothers button-down variety known as polo shirts. He dressed very conservatively, and I remember on his shirts he had a very small "FDR" in blue thread on his left sleeve.

Truman dressed like he had just come off of Main Street in Independence, Missouri. All of his clothing was what we'd call store bought. He was quite a neat dresser, very neat, but everything was a little too precise. Mind you I'm not saying that Roosevelt did it the way it should be done rather than Truman. I'm simply trying to report what I saw of this, and felt of this tremendous contrast, and I'm not being derogatory to Truman in the slightest. In many senses he was much more grassroots

[154]

American than Roosevelt.

Truman always had a pressed crease in the sleeves of his coat, which is not especially good taste, except in the little small Midwestern towns. If Roosevelt had a handkerchief in his outside breast pocket, it would be casually crushed into the pocket. Truman wore a carefully pressed handkerchief that had four or perhaps five carefully placed peaks sticking out of his pocket that reminded me of the insert that you now get from your cleaner when you send suits to be cleaned. As I say, it was all very precise. He was addicted to bow ties and two-colored shoes, some of them with mesh in them. They wouldn't be black and white like the older sport shoes used to be, or golf shoes, but they would be a strange hue two tinted colors of blue, sometimes high yellow. Really this was something.

[155]

For this press conference, he had been obviously quite well-briefed about the things that were occurring in the news--the war having the greater impact. This, of course, was less than a month before the Germans surrendered. Because it was wartime, those things could be answered only in generalities. So, Truman didn't really have to know much about it. He just had to have been briefed by the White House staff and press officer. And there were questions about legislation in Congress, and his own plans, and what did he feel like when he was told that Roosevelt had died and he would be President.

He handled himself very well. Where Roosevelt had had to sit behind the desk in the Oval Room, for the first time here was a President who could stand, and he stood surrounded by two or three of his close friends and associates from Capitol Hill.

[156]

Matthew Connelly was his secretary on the Hill and immediately became his secretary at the White House. When I say secretary, this doesn't mean stenographer. It's a title for the person who met the visitors to the president's office and arranged appointments. The title as I recollect was Appointments Secretary. Harry Vaughan was there, a longtime associate of the president's in National Guard days, who was on his staff at the Capitol. I don't remember any others, but the others behind the desk were members of the Roosevelt White House staff.

HESS: Who do you recall being there from the Roosevelt staff?

NIXON: I'm sure Jonathan Daniels was. He was press Secretary. Steve Early, an Administrative Assistant was there. The White House stenographer, in contrast to the president's personal secretary

[157]

Grace Tully, was Jack Romagna. That's about all that I can recall. Incidentally, it was Steve Early who was the principal immediate adviser to Truman on virtually everything, but especially on the conduct of the Presidency and what to do at a news conference, and what to say, and what not to say.

HESS: Why would he have that role rather than Jonathan Daniels because Jonathan Daniels was the Press Secretary?

NIXON: Well, I don't mean to demean Daniels at all. Perhaps I should have said Steve Early and Daniels acted together. But while Jonathan had been an assistant in the White House for a number of years, his tenure as Press Secretary was relatively brief. Steve was simply the more experienced man and knew everybody in Washington that should be known and he was known

[158]

by everybody in Government. He had been asked, and, as a matter of fact, everybody in Government had been asked by Truman to remain in their posts to help him.

As I say, Truman handled himself quite well at this news conference. I remember later when we were talking about it in the press room, he apparently had done so well that we were calling him a "whirling dervish." But he wasn't subjected to too much of an inquisition at this first news conference. Incidentally, it was held in the Oval Office.

I spoke earlier about the situation that Truman found himself in when Roosevelt died. He had never been briefed by Roosevelt. He had no familiarity with Government except his experience in the Senate, and that's a sort of closed corporation.

It's a wonder we got through the times.

[159]

Roosevelt died on April the 12th. The war in Europe was rapidly drawing to a close, but it was by no means at an end. In retrospect, it was an extremely difficult time, and the collapse of Germany was not yet apparent. Remember that the war with Japan was going on at a furious pace in the Pacific. We were not having it all our way. Even after the German surrender, our top military people predicted it would take another year of fierce fighting to bring about the Japanese surrender.

It was a dreadful time, and here was a man who came into the White House almost as though he had been picked at random from off the street, with absolutely no useable background and no useable information.

In those early days he said: "Bob, I can't even make a speech. The newsreel men

[160]

used to come to me and say, 'Mr. Truman we want you to make a statement about a certain piece of legislation before the newsreel cameras!' And I used to say to them, 'Fellows, please get somebody else to do it. Those cameras frighten me, and I just can't do it. I can't make a speech.' I rarely ever tried to make one in the Senate."

This was when he was being coached, because as a President he did have to make speeches.

HESS: Do you recall who was handling that coaching?

NIXON: Yes, I do. A young fellow named Leonard Reinsch, who must have been doing some radio work on Capitol Hill. Later the President announced who the members of his staff would be: Matthew Connelly, Appointments Secretary; Harry Vaughan, Military Aide; and J. K. Vardaman

[161]

(another of his National Guard people who was in the Navy during the war in some minor capacity--he brought him from civilian life to be his Naval Aide). There was another bird from Omaha, Nebraska, also an associate on Capitol Hill, Ed [Edward D.] McKim. Ed McKim was to reorganize the White House staff and boy what a mess he made of