Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 21, 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 21, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Nixon Oral History Transcripts]

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.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 21, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Nixon, let's continue on with the Potsdam Conference.

NIXON: I think I had mentioned what a pleasant voyage this turned out to be.

HESS: There is one point. We have [William M.] Rigdon's log, and we have a list of the President's party. Should we mention some of the men who were on the trip?

NIXON: Well, perhaps briefly.

We've covered Jimmy Byrnes. Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy was along. He had been Roosevelt's Chief of Staff. A remarkable and very able man. During the war, he perhaps was Roosevelt's closest adviser. He then became Chief of Staff to Truman, and continued in that role for a number of years.

I had occasion to phone him one day after


he retired. It turned out to be very sad. I don't recall why I needed to talk with him, but his aide answered the phone. He said that Leahy was ailing, but Leahy picked up the phone, and we talked a little. I remember that it was a very sad occasion, because Leahy said, "Bob, I'd love to see you, but I can't. I'm very ill and I'm dying." He died shortly afterwards.

Well, he was along, and he was the President's chief adviser on military matters.

Rosenman, Special Assistant to the President, was with us. What part he took in the Conference, if any, I frankly don't know. The reason for him being along was to write a speech for the President, which he undertook on our return trip aboard the Augusta. This was a report to the Congress and the American people on the Potsdam Conference. I'm not sure, but I know that was his obvious reason for going along. Others such as Harry Vaughan and Dick Vardaman, the


Military and Naval Aides at the time, were along just because they were part of the President's staff. They were just fulfilling the normal role of the Military and Naval Aides. They really were along just for show.

Freeman Matthews, Chip Bohlen, and Benjamin Cohen were all from the State Department. Their role was as advisers to the President. Chip Bohlen's role was a double one. In addition to being the top Russian expert in the State Department, he was also fluent in the Russian language, and he was the President's interpreter at these sessions.

Stalin, of course, conducted everything in the Russian language. They didn't go back to the Congress of Vienna, or earlier international conferences, where the French language was the language of diplomacy. They used their own languages.

Bohlen was a very valuable man. Afterwards


he was made Ambassador to Russia, which was a continuation of a longtime assignment to Moscow.

Walter Brown was Jimmy Byrnes' errand boy, or aide if you want to call him that. Brown was from Byrnes' home state. Earlier he had been a newspaperman. When Byrnes was made Secretary of State, he hired Brown and put him in the State Department as his assistant. That was his capacity in going to the Potsdam Conference. Also Jimmy Byrnes was going to write a book later, and Brown was along to corral all of the information he possibly could in behalf of Byrnes to be put into this book, which I'm sure Brown had a great deal to do with writing.

The rest of them were just the people you would expect to be along.

For instance, Captain Frank Graham was in the Map Room at the White House from the U.S. Army. He was a Map Room watch officer. He was along in this capacity, but he also worked with


White House communications.

Lt. William "Bill" Rigdon was along in the capacity of a stenographer. I notice on this list that he's down as personal secretary to the President, which is fair enough, but his function was to take down in shorthand the minutes of meetings. That's the function that he had at the White House and also on any and all of these trips that the President took.

Captain Alphonse McMahon, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy, was personal physician to the President at that time. He very shortly afterwards was succeeded by Wally Graham, who then was a colonel and rapidly became a brigadier general because Truman promoted him. Wally then remained the President's personal physician throughout the rest of the time in the White House. He was from Kansas City, and his father had earlier been physician to Truman. There was a very close attachment there. That is really why the President


made him his personal physician.

Charlie Ross was Press Secretary to the President. His role was obvious.

Then there are these others, members of the Secret Service. Leahy's aide, Julius Edelstein, who was a lieutenanant in the Naval Reserve; George Elsey, who was then a lieutenant in the Navy and also a White House Map Room watch officer. He later became more and more important around the White House. He had a role similar to Clark Clifford and Charlie Murphy. He is now head of the American Red Cross.

Well, that about covers it.

HESS: I noticed that there were very few newsmen who went along on this particular trip.

NIXON: Oh, that's right.

HESS: Why was it decided to hold down the number of newsmen who went? How was it decided who would go? How are those decisions made?


NIXON: Well, there are four names here, my own, Merriman Smith of the UP, Anthony Vaccaro of the AP, and Morgan Beatty, the radio announcer with NBC. He was taken along to cover for all the radio networks.

HESS: As a pool man.

NIXON: He was a pool man. This was before the television era came in.

I notice also that Jack Romagna's name is down here as secretary to Mr. Ross. I also see that he remained in England for a visit. That is why Rigdon became the President's stenographer because ordinarily Romagna was the White House stenographer and took all the private minutes of meetings and all the President's top secret papers and dictation and that sort of thing.

The reason that there were only four newsmen aboard was that this was the ordinary order of things. On all the wartime trips that Roosevelt


made, there were only three newspaper correspondents permitted to go along. They were the representatives of the three news services. I was the representative of International News Service, and then there was the UP and AP. We traveled with the President. That was our role to be with him all the time, wherever he went, and on this occasion, the radio networks were permitted to have a man along.

HESS: Before we move on may I ask you just a general question about your relationship with your principal competitors--the reporters from the other news agencies. Just what was your relationships with those gentlemen?

NIXON: We got along. It was a marriage of convenience. It must be remembered that perhaps there is no more highly competitive business in the world than the newspaper business. The three news services were intensely competitive. Each tried to beat the other, twenty-four hours a


day. Each worked completely independently. The relationships, under these circumstances, depended upon the individuals. Despite the competitive atmosphere, some were pretty nice guys. Some could be quite the reverse. It was a throat cutting business most of the time. I don't think it would be right for me to mention any personalities. If I mention the good guys in the white hats, I'd have to mention the bad guys in the black hats; so I had better drop it there.

HESS: I think in our chronology of our trip to Potsdam, we are pretty well to Europe. What do you recall about the events after the ship reached Europe?

NIXON: As I said yesterday, this was a most unusual route that we followed across the Atlantic. It was right over the top of the globe, just a straight line out of Norfolk. It was many, many hundreds of miles away from any of the shipping lanes.


Incidentally, there would be no German U-boats there, whatsoever, had any remained. I am sure that is the reason this route was chosen. You see, the U-boats hovered in the shipping lanes.

Anyway, when we came into the English Channel off the south coast of England, around Plymouth, it was a beautiful, crystal clear, bracing morning. We were met there by an escort of destroyers from the English fleet. It was quite impressive. All of the personnel on the destroyers "lined the rail" in their Sunday best, shoulder to shoulder in their colorful uniforms, along the main deck of the destroyers from bow to stern. Salutes were exchanged. The panoply of vessels from two fleets meeting each other were gone through.

We went on up through the Straits of Dover past the White Cliffs of Dover. We went on then into the Scheldt, which is the river approach to Antwerp. We got to Antwerp, and who was on the


dock but Dwight D. Eisenhower. Standing there on the dock alone awaiting for the President to arrive. He came aboard and was greeted by the President, and they went off to the President's cabin for a chat.

Antwerp had been bombed considerably. But the destruction didn't seem to be too heavy in the port we saw. In other words, it was still an operational port and an operational city, though heavily damaged.

We then left by motor car for Brussels. The President traveled in a White House car with the top down. We were met there (in addition to Eisenhower) by a man in mourning coat and striped trousers and top hat. He really looked a little ridiculous. He, of course, was our own Ambassador to Belgium, Charles Sawyer. Truman later made him Secretary of Commerce. After all this, he turned on Truman, as so many others did.

From Antwerp to Brussels, was about thirty-five


or forty miles. The entire route was lined (a few yards apart, on both sides of the road) by American soldiers standing at attention.

We went immediately from Brussels out to the Army airfield. The President got in one Air Force plane, and Byrnes got in another one. This was a separation in case of accident. They took off immediately for Berlin, landing at the Gatow Airfield, which had been a Luftwaffe airfield adjacent to Potsdam. We lost them there. The rest of the party had to wait for a plane to be brought up. There was a lot of air movement, so it took some time for the airways to be cleared for us to take off.

I remember it was a dreadfully hot day. We were cooped up in a DC-3. When we finally took off the pilot of the plane, a young Air Force colonel, invited me to come up and sit in the pilot's cabin with him in the copilot's seat. With the windows open on both sides, I finally


got some fresh air and cooled off. I felt sorry for the other men, who couldn't be up there.

We flew in a very short while across Belgium into Germany. I remember he asked me if I would like to take a little tour. I was not adverse to it at all. So, he then flew us all over the Ruhr, this great industrial valley of Western Germany.

This, without a doubt, was the most appalling sight that had ever met my eyes. Our Flying Fortresses and the British air force Lancasters, had literally pulverized Western Germany, the industrial part. At Cologne, the great cathedral was purposefully spared. The freight yards were almost adjacent to this great and magnificent gothic cathedral and the big station was there, but everything else was a shamble.

The railroad tracks were a great snarl. It looked like somebody had thrown great coils of barbed wire around, but they were torn and


twisted and thrust into the air in great semi-circles of twisted metal two and three stories high. The entire Ruhr (and this is a vast area), was in the same condition. Destruction was everywhere.

We flew up the Rhine from Cologne. It was the same thing. The young pilot was flying at just around a thousand feet, which is almost on the ground, so we got a very detailed and graphic look at this destruction. After this trip, which took hours, we headed across Germany for Berlin. I remember we flew over what had been two cities.

The roofs of the houses and buildings in smaller German towns were tiled. They were molded tiles very similar to the types of tiles the Spaniards use on their houses. Some were golden yellow, others were brick red. One town, had had yellow tile on the roofs and as we flew over there was nothing left, except in one instance a


great splotch of yellow where the bombs had pulverized, not only the buildings, but the tiles.

From the air Berlin reminded me of one of those graphic drawings that illustrates Dante's inferno. Here was one of the largest and oldest citi