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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 22, 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 22, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 22, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[343]

HESS: Mr. Truman told you, on board the Augusta, some of the impressions that he had of Stalin, Churchill, and Attlee. Could you comment on that?

NIXON: Several years later, when we were on the campaign trail in 1948 in Washington State, we were going down through Washington and Oregon and on into California. At a place called Klamath Falls, right on the state border, Truman made the astonishing statement: "I like old Joe." He sure didn't like him much when we left Potsdam because of the feeling of frustration that he had as a result of Stalin's refusal to go along on anything.

To show you how pushy the Russians were, Truman told me that Stalin had demanded a base on the North African coast. He also wanted the Turks to give him free passage through the Dardanelles. This would have enabled the Russians

[344]

to threaten the British lifeline through the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, and the Red Sea.

This would have also enabled the Russians to become a dominant sea power in the Mediterranean. It would have given them access to the Atlantic through Gibraltar and the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Truman said that he didn't blame Stalin because it didn't do any harm to ask for something if the other fellow was foolish enough to give it to you. But, it showed how pushy they were. Despite the fact that they weren't given any such concessions, they have their warships in the Mediterranean constantly shadowing our Sixth Fleet.

HESS: Do you recall if Mr. Truman said when that request was made?

NIXON: I have no recollection of the time.

HESS: You also mentioned yesterday that there was an episode involving some airplanes and a little

[345]

bit of black marketing?

NIXON: One of the most astonishing things during the Potsdam Conference was the black market operations that were going on. Members of the President's party who had free access to scarce supplies such as food, cigarettes, watches, etc. were lining their pockets in these black market operations.

To supply the President's villa and party, there was an air ferry working from Antwerp. The Augusta and its accompanying destroyer were in Antwerp, and their larders were filled with everything imaginable. Some of the lesser members in the President's party (the cooks and chief bottle washers or some of the clerical staff) were having these planes brought in just loaded down with all sorts of things, but especially cigarettes.

Cigarettes became money. A carton of American cigarettes, ten packs, was a hundred dollars. One or two cigarettes were a lavish

[346]

tip to any German who waited on you. This black market operated mainly in the large square adjacent to the bombed-out Kaiserhoff Hotel and immediately in front of the main entrance to the Reich Chancellery. A pound of coffee brought $1,000. That's the way things were going. The Germans starving to death.

They not only brought in this stuff from the Augusta, but they had some of our other Air Force planes flying into Switzerland and coming back loaded with cheap Swiss watches to sell on the black market. I had a wrist watch of my own, a solid gold Lord Elgin. One of the members of the party tried to buy it from me in order to sell it on the black market. I wouldn't even have thought of selling it to him because this had been a gift from my wife. But that's the way it was going.

Even some of the Secret Service men, who notoriously were poorly paid, were doing it.

[347]

I think this may have been one of the things that contributed to the downfall of George Drescher.

HESS: He's replaced Mike Reilly, is that right?

NIXON: That's right. He had been one of the Secret Service men detailed to watch and protect Truman when Truman was Vice President.

Mike Reilly, who had been the chief of the White House Secret Service detail for many years was well-liked by Roosevelt. Mike was displaced, and in his stead George Drescher was made chief of the White House detail for a few months.

HESS: I heard that Mike Reilly did not get along with the man who was in charge of the Secret Service at that time. Is that correct?

NIXON: Yes, that is.

HESS: Do you recall his name?

[348]

NIXON: He was a short, bald man. I just don't remember his name at the moment. For some reason, he had it in for Mike and had been trying to find an excuse to remove Mike from the detail. As I said, Mike, a fine looking, smiling, Irish-American, was very well-liked by Roosevelt. So, the head of the Secret Service at that time, couldn't get to first base. Almost immediately after Roosevelt died, this man fired Mike. He should have simply transferred Mike to some other post out in the boondocks, but he fired Mike, which was unfair. Mike later got a protection job in Denver with the wartime plants.

I think he knocked from pillar to post. I seem to recall that he also was on the security force of one of the presidential candidates. It must have been for Dewey.

HESS: And Drescher was involved in the black market activities?

[349]

NIXON: I am pretty sure he was, it's unfair to say positively.

HESS: Did you ever hear the Secret Service men discuss the added difficulty they must have had of covering Mr. Truman because he was mobile and Roosevelt had not been?

NIXON: Oh, yes. It made their task a great deal more difficult. Just a few days after Truman became President he, without any notice to anybody, suddenly walked to the front door of the White House (he was a very rapid walker), went bouncing down the stairs, down the driveway and out through the gate. The astonished Secret Service did a double take. They finally got into motion. They couldn't realize that this was happening. He took them completely by surprise.

Finally they went running after him. Here

[350]

was Truman by that time out on Pennsylvania Avenue walking down the street just as briskly as could be towards Fifteenth Street. It turned out that he had decided that he needed a little pocket money, and he was going to his bank to get it. So, it made quite a difference. People were turning around, staring at this man walking briskly down the street. They remarked, "You know, that looks like President Truman." Which it was, but they wouldn't believe their eyes.

A President doesn't walk around by himself, though he'd like to. Truman had to be given a little talking to by the Secret Service chief to remind him that he had lost some of his freedom of movement. When he went anywhere he no longer could go alone, except to go to the bathroom.

HESS: Did you ever hear Mr. Truman comment on that

[351]

lack of freedom?

NIXON: Oh, yes. He called the White House "that great white jail."

When he finally went home to Missouri in January '53, he came into Kansas City, I went with him up to his office in the Federal Office Building. He was still under Secret Service protection, though it had certainly diminished. My recollection is that only one Secret Service man had come with us on the train out from Washington. We got off the elevator and walked briskly down the hall to the door of his new offices. The Secret Service man started to open the door for the President, and Mr. Truman said, "Wait a minute. Please let me open my own door. It's the first time in eight years that I will have been able to do so without somebody just doing it for me." That illustrates his impatience with all the

[352]

Secret Service protection. It was necessary. It had to be done, but these were impediments to his freedom of movement.

Not long afterwards, he was back in Washington. George Meaney of the AFL-CIO had invited him to come over to a luncheon meeting they were holding at the Washington Hotel. I was with the President that day in his suite in the Mayflower Hotel; and he invited me to go over with him. I drove over with him in a large limousine. As we passed the White House, the President pointed with his hand out the window and said, "I used to live there." He got a. chuckle from everyone who was in the car.

Harry Vaughan was always with us. He always was on hand when the former President came back to town, acting as his aide. They were close friends. There were one or two others, friends of the President that I couldn't

[353]

recall. It doesn't matter.

There was one other thing that I thought I might touch on because it has to do with the Potsdam Conference an a way. You had asked me about these card games. I had rarely played poker. I had played a few games with President Roosevelt in the White House when he was kind enough to invite me in. Every now and then he would get chummy with a few of us. Frankly, I didn't know much about playing poker. It's a game that requires a lot of knowledge. The only thing I had ever played was real poker--five card stud, five card draw, draw limited to four cards. In other words, nothing wild whatsoever. When the President began inviting me to these evening sessions of poker with members of his staff, such as Ross and Harry Vaughan, I found we were playing something that bore no resemblance to poker, as far as I had known the

[354]

game.

The President loved wild games. He knew some of the wildest games that I have ever heard of. I don't think you could find them any wilder. Some I even forgot because they were too complicated. There was one that I'll never forget. It was a seven card game called "seven card, low hole card wild, high low." In seven cards, your first two cards are dealt down. The third card is dealt up. The others are dealt face up, but the last card is your low hole card. All other cards in your hand of seven cards that match this low hole card, are like it, wild. In other words, they are anything. If you have a pair of duces as low hold cards, nothing can undercut you. You are a very lucky man on that hand. If you have a pair of treys or a pair of anything else, and you have matching cards up, you may think that you

[355]

have three or four wild cards, but the last card that's dealt down can turn out to be a duce, undercutting the treys, and you're dead. Your hand is worthless. The same way if you have two tens in the hole or two nines, or two jacks, or anything of that sort.

This pot is split, but you can win both ends of it. You can win the high and the low. The low is a broken straight called a seven, and these are the numbers of the cards: seven, five, four, three, two. A six, five, four, three, two is not a low hand because it's a straight. But the next lowest hand is seven, six, four, three, two.

This is really an incredible game. I really felt sorry for one of the people playing because he was proud of an ace high straight. An ace high straight in that game is no better than a pair. What you have to have to win any

[356]

hand is five aces and a locked low. Many times you have to split the locked low with somebody else. I have lost hands with five kings and a seven, six low. That shows you how hazardous this game is and what you must know about it.

The only limit on these games on that particular trip was that you couldn't go beyond three raises. But by that time if competition was hot and heavy, the money was piled out there on the table in a very high mound. We were playing with the usual red, white, and blue chips: whites, ten dollars; reds, twenty; blues, fifty. So, you can see what kind of game this was. I wound up the trip over six hundred dollars in the hole.

HESS: Pretty bad for a newspaperman.

NIXON: I felt relieved that it wasn't more. This was a lot of money to me. When I got back to

[357]

Washington, I told my bureau chief about it. I said, "What are you going to do about it?"

He said, "Tut, tut, Bob, you should have begged off pleading a headache."

So, that's all I ever got. They wouldn't back me up. Oddly enough, to show you the kind of people I worked for, compared to those that others worked for, sometime later the President invited me down on the Williamsburg one evening for a poker game as usual. Steve Early was there and George E. Allen. Allen was well-known around Washington. He was an acquaintance of Roosevelt's and Truman's and a very close friend of Eisenhower's.

HESS: The gentleman who write a book, Presidents Who Have Known Me.

NIXON: Yes, that's right. A rather astonishing title.

The President, ,Joe Short, Harry Vaughan,

[358]