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Robert G. Nixon Oral History Interview, October 28, 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 28, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 28, 1970
By Jerry N. Hess

[482]

NIXON: The photographers' mistake was that they failed to clear the matter with Charlie Ross. In failure to do so they violated a cardinal rule of White House press relations. Ross was upset because of that and because this was an intrusion on the President's privacy. They all felt the photographers were spying on the President.

Dennison was upset because this was a Navy submarine base, and they were using a Navy blimp, without it having been cleared with him. Dennison was the President's Naval Aide and an admiral. He had the highest rank around that area at the time.

Dennison never did quite understand press relations. That wasn't in his bailiwick. Charlie Ross was the man who was

[483]

responsible for these things.

I remember when we were aboard the battleship Missouri coming back from the Inter American Conference at Rio de Janeiro. We had flown down to Rio, but we came back on the "Big Mo" on a seventeen day journey to Norfolk. Dennison was captain of the ship.

The Navy was very proud of the equipment on this ship. One day a seaman on one of the accompanying destroyers had been injured. The Big Mo had very fine hospital facilities, whereas a little destroyer didn't. So, with the destroyer coming alongside the battleship they were to transfer the seaman from the destroyer to the battleship so he could get adequate medical attention. This was all to be done on a breeches buoy, and this was a show that Dennison wanted the President to see.

[484]

A cable was catapulted from the battleship over to the destroyer, and this rig was set up. There were pulleys on either end, and the injured seaman was put in a wire basket.

HESS: They call them stoke stretchers.

NIXON: Which means that the injured seaman was lying in the stretcher, rather than having to stand up. He was strapped in and then the transfer was made.

The President and all of the party watched this taking place. Afterwards we went to officer's ward room where we had our typewriters set up, to write a little color story about the President's day.

This is an illustration of Dennison's unawareness of how White House press relations are made.

[485]

He, being captain of the Big Mo, was eager to make a favorable impression in the news media in the States. He certainly didn't want to make a bad impression if he could avoid it.

One of the correspondents going back with us from Rio aboard the Big Mo was the correspondent for Time magazine.

HESS: Do you recall his name?

NIXON: Yes, his name was Win Booth. He was a red headed boy. Booth wrote a story describing this transfer that Dennison didn't like.

Booth agonized in it. He described the President standing on the deck watching this seaman being brought over on the cable, with the ships going ahead full speed. He said that the President's face was grim, and you could tell he was worried about the safety of

[486]

this seaman and could hardly control his emotions.

This wasn't the way it happened at all. If this one correspondent saw an emotionally distraught President, he wasn't looking at the same man that all the rest of us were. Anyway, Dennison didn't like this story.

I, that year, was president of the White House Correspondents Association. Frankly, this title, while you are elected by a very small group that covers the White House, is entirely an honorary thing.

HESS: Very little authority goes along with it.

NIXON: It carried absolutely no authority whatsoever.

HESS: Don't you get to preside at the dinner?

NIXON: That's the principal quid pro quo.

[487]

HESS: That's it, huh?

NIXON: That's it. You get to sit beside the President. The President himself bestows the accolade on you in a little ceremony. You get to make a speech at the same podium that the President makes a speech, and a fine time is had by all, especially the two presidents.

I had finished writing my story and had sent it up to the wireless shack for it to be sent into New York. I was in the ward room, minding my own business, when a very angry, red-faced caption of the Big Mo stormed into the room shouting for me. I had no idea what was the matter with the man.

HESS: But there was obviously something wrong.

NIXON: Something was wrong, and I thought, "Oh,

[488]

lord, what have I done?"

To remind you, a captain of the mightiest battleship that has ever been in our fleet, is a pretty big wheel. While he had no authority over me, whatsoever, he didn't quite figure it that way. He proceeded to chew me out, and he really chewed me out. I finally slowed him up enough to find out that this Time correspondent had written a story that Dennison didn't like. He said it made the President look bad, which it did. This was Time magazine policy at the time, as it was throughout his period in office. I don't know whether their correspondents were under order to do so, or whether they just chose to do so.

HESS: They thought that's what Mr. Luce would like to read.

[489]

NIXON: Yes, indeed. So, this was that type of thing. It made Dennison look bad because he was captain of the battleship, and it made the Navy look bad.

As I've said, "I had no authority whatsoever over any of these characters who were along with us. Each was a representative of different independent news medias. I had no authority of censorship over them. I wrote a story for my people. They wrote their stories for their people, no censorship involved. They were completely independent and free agents, but of course, Dennison was...

HESS: He was used to dealing with a chain of command.

NIXON: That's right, that's just the phrase I was going to use. His life was dealing with the chain of command. I had this title, so I

[490]

was responsible for all of the correspondents aboard.

I finally explained to him when I could get a word in edgewise that I had no authority over these people. If he wanted to deal with the chain of command, he needed to deal with Charlie Ross, the President's Press Secretary, and/or the correspondent, not me.

HESS: Did he understand that?

NIXON: He finally stomped off. He had the ball. From then on he had to carry it to Charlie Ross or Win Booth.

HESS: Did he?

NIXON: I'm sure he saw Charlie Ross. I got him off of my back, that was the important thing to me. The rest of it was out of my periphery. I finally told him, "If you object

[491]

to anybody's story, you're captain of this ship. If you want to exercise censorship on somebody else's story, you certainly have the authority to do so. I don't suggest that you do, but you do have that authority."

This was just an amusing incident illustrating that Dennison was a high ranking Navy man, but he just didn't know anything about press relations. He did learn. He really was a fine member of the President's staff.

Incidentally, the President later made him his Naval Aide in the White House. He was one of the nicest members of the President's staff. A big, large, handsome, fine looking man. Perhaps because I had unknowingly been brought to his attention in this rather amusing mistake, we later became very fast friends for many years.

[492]

HESS: I have heard that during the time that he served as Naval Aide that his advice to the President was not restricted just to matters of the Navy, that he was consulted on many issues. Do you recall anything about that?

NIXON: Not specifically, but I would assume so. As a member of the staff, he was permitted to sit in on all the daily staff conferences. Each staff member in attendance was called upon to give his opinion of whatever matter was in hand and what action should be taken one way or another.

HESS: Were there any times that you asked any of the people who had participated in one of the morning staff conferences, just what had gone on that day to find out what the news might be?

NIXON: You didn't do that. What went on in a

[493]

President's staff conference was confidential. It was what the services called, during the war, "very top secret." This was the personal business of the President, and it wasn't in a goldfish bowl. This would have been on the same level as asking the Chief Justice of the United States what his upcoming decision was going to be. You just didn't do it. Now I can't speak for all of my colleagues, but I'm sure that perhaps at one time or another they may have burnt their fingers. There are such things as leaks, of course.

HESS: Do you recall anything that might illustrate how a leak would work?

NIXON: No.

HESS: Was a leak from a member of the White House staff pretty rare?

[494]

NIXON: They were extremely rare. The reasons are obvious, and the results are obvious. Unless there was a leak which the President wanted made, it was bound to get back to the President who had made it, and this fellow would be in very hot water and might find himself out on the street without a job.

If a President can’t trust the members of his immediate staff, he is really in a pretty bad fix. There are so many other people near him that cannot always be trusted because they have their own axes to grind, and this applies to say the Cabinet. They go sailing off on their own independent ways. They frequently leak information. They frequently launch trial balloons. Many of them get involved in feuds with other members of the Cabinet or administration.

[495]

There was that feud between the Secretary of Defense...

HESS: Louis Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. What do you recall about that particular feud and just how did that get under way, do you recall?

NIXON: This was a feud engendered by Johnson. He just didn't like Dean Acheson. He didn't like him personally, and he didn't like the way he conducted the foreign policy of the United States for Truman. That was about it. Without going into any fine details, he conducted an open feud with Acheson, and this was particularly bad for the President because the climax came during the Korean war.

Acheson had made a speech, with the President's approval, in which he drew a line. This line was in the Far East. It was announced

[496]

as our defense perimeter against Communist China and the further advance of communism in that area. However, this defense perimeter which Acheson described in the nature of a warning to Communist China against further expansions, excluded all of Korea. Korea was divided into parts very similar to the way Vietnam is today. A Communist government in the north, and an ostensibly free world as such. We had a small number of troops, stationed in South Korea as far north as Seoul, which is almost to the border with North Korea.

This, as it turned out, was not a very smart thing for Acheson to have done, or for Truman to have approved because it was in a sense a green light to the North Korean army, trained and equipped by the Chinese Communist military people as well as by Soviet Russia. All of its armored equipment, artillery and what

[497]

not, were of Russian make.

As near as I can recall it was June '50, the latter part of June, early Sunday morning, when the North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea.

HESS: Where were you at that time?

NIXON: We were in Kansas City. The President was in Independence at his home. Charlie Ross and I were in Kansas City, nearby, staying at the Muehlebach Hotel.

When these people stormed into South Korea and attacked our forces there, the result of this was that we were overnight in an undeclared war half way around the world on the very end of any communication line whatsoever. We did have our principal forces in Japan under MacArthur--our occupation forces, our forces were very light

[498]

and under equipped. They weren't in there with battle equipment. They were in there by agreement with the South Korean Government. They were not in battle readiness. They were a token force to hold the bar up against further Communist expansion. Our forces were decimated, and they were almost forced out of Korea. They were forced down into a tiny little perimeter. If we had not been able to get heavy reinforcements in there from Japan in quite short order, they stood the prob