Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
See also the John H. Ohly Papers finding aid.
Opened June, 1984
Oral History Interview with
November 30, 1971
by Richard D. McKinzie and Theodore A. Wilson
WILSON: To begin, would you describe for us what kind of range of activities you dealt with during the period you were serving under Secretary of War [Robert P.] Patterson? You said that you didn't consider this to be one of your most important periods of responsibility, but did you deal for example with occupation policy?
OHLY: No, I did not. Occupation matters were handled almost entirely by Howard Petersen, who had succeeded John McCloy as Assistant Secretary of War. Although I sometimes sat in on meetings between Patterson and Petersen on occupation issues, my presence
on these occasions was just coincidental.
WILSON: We ask that, in part, because the records we have, which is pretty full, indicate that there was a continuing debate about turning over responsibilities for the German occupation to the State Department. And with the State Department backing off, it became critical. The reasons given are fairly clear on the State Department's side. They didn't feel they had the personnel, they didn't want to become involved in operations and that kind of program. But the reasons for the apparent eagerness of the Army to get rid of this responsibility are not so clear to us. The Army was dug in in Germany about '46, and it was having things pretty much its own way, and certainly a lot of people liked this, what was going on there. Can you explain that, just as a person who was in the office watching it?
OHLY: I don't think that I was close enough to problems of occupation at that time to justify my expression of any opinion on the matter raised by your question.
Later, when I was associated with Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, I was somewhat more involved with such problems. Initially, Forrestal followed the general practice of letting Kenneth C. Royall, William H. Draper, Jr., and Tracy S. Voohrees, respectively Secretary, Under Secretary, and Assistant Secretary of War, deal with all occupation matters and handle relations with the State Department on such matters, treating the Department of the Army as, in effect, his executive agent for such matters. Usually, at least during the first few months of the new military establishment, the Army continued to carry out activities in this area as it had before, namely through the mechanism of an interdepartmental committee -- the State-Army-Navy-Air Force Coordinating Committee (SANACC). Some six months later, when the Russians blockaded Berlin, creating a grave international crisis and raising the specter of active military hostilities, Forrestal himself did become deeply involved in certain occupation matters. Moreover, under the vastly different, new circumstances created by the institution of the
blockade, and for at least a year thereafter, it was obvious that the Army would have to continue to remain in charge of occupation operations. However, I should perhaps add two other possibly relevant points. First, harking back to your puzzlement over why the Army might have been eager to get out of the occupation business in Germany, I should remind you that with the pressures that the services were under to demobilize -- popular pressures as well as the pressures of severe Truman-imposed budget restraints -- the diversion of manpower and resources required by its occupation duties made it impossible for the Army to perform its primary role, namely, that of maintaining combat forces capable of carrying out its responsibilities for the defense of the nation. Second, although I have stressed the fact, that Forrestal looked to the Army to perform the occupation duties assigned to Defense, Royall and his assistants continually consulted him on basic occupation issues and he himself kept generally
familiar with the main course of developments.
MCKINZIE: I take it then that it was at the urging of Secretary Patterson that you went to the White House on special loan to serve as Executive Secretary of the President's Advisory Commission on Universal Training, the so-called Compton Commission (named after its chairman, Karl T. Compton)?
OHLY: That is correct although the proposal for this loan originated in the White House and not with Patterson who, in the first instance, opposed it. I am under the impression that the White House request for the loan resulted from a suggestion to someone on the White House staff by Judge Samuel I. Rosenman who had been appointed a member of the commission and who earlier, when he had been counsel to President Truman, had asked me to go to the White House as his assistant. While Patterson argued against the loan--presumably because he had no immediate replacement in mind--he nonetheless immediately agreed to release me and urged me to take on this temporary White House assignment.
MCKINZIE: Without going into the details of the universal military training controversy we'd like to talk a little bit about the White House in 1947-1949, and the way things worked. There are Presidential styles, and there are ways that people make decisions. It sometimes comes of someone writing memorandum in full, spelling out the problem in considerable detail, as you've indicated that you did on a couple occasions. [General Dwight D.] Eisenhower, I think, used particular people for particular problems, and Truman never did. Did you feel that the White House had its hands on all of the problems in 1947 when you went over there? In short there was considerable flailing around within the Truman staff when he first took over.
Some of the critics now argue that they never did quite get their hands all over it, that his system wasn't very good. Can you just generally comment about the White House and the way he made decisions?
OHLY: Yes, I can, but not on the basis of my experience or observations during the period when I was executive secretary of this commission. The commission was set up as an independent entity to perform a defined task -- to study, and then to make recommendations concerning, the desirability of establishing a universal training program in the United States. The President himself addressed the first meeting of the commission and told its members the task he wanted them to perform, and he assigned Major General Harry H. Vaughan of his staff to make sure that all of our administrative needs were taken care of. That was the last time that we saw the President, General Vaughan, or any other member of the White House staff until the commission presented its report to the President five months later. The original plan had been to establish the offices of the commission in the White House itself but I arranged to set up these offices in a nearby building both to secure more adequate space and to establish the independence of the commission. The
commission had no contact with the White House during the period of its deliberations and no effort was made by anyone on the White House staff to influence the conclusions of the commission. Representatives of the War and Navy Departments did of course, and quite legitimately and openly, endeavor through their testimony and their submissions to convince the commission's members of the desirability of initiating a universal training program.
However, based upon my experiences during later periods -- when I was Deputy Director, and later Acting Director, of the Mutual Defense Assistance Program and, again, when I was Deputy to the Director for Mutual Security for Plans and Programs (a title that changed from time to time), and, at times, Acting Director for Mutual Security, and worked very closely with White House and Budget Bureau personnel, in the drafting of Presidential messages relating to foreign aid, in the preparation of executive orders, in obtaining Presidential findings required under
foreign aid laws, and in presenting, and obtaining final decisions on, foreign aid budgets and legislation -- I do have some impressions on how the Truman White House operated, at least in the defense and foreign policy areas. While I never worked directly with the president himself, I did work extensively with Sidney Souers, Clark Clifford, Dave Bell, other members of the White House staff, and the Director of the Budget Bureau, and I had the impression that they constituted a small, cohesive group of extremely competent people who worked very well with one another as a team and a feeling of extraordinary confidence in their ability and judgment. I had a sense that there was no layering whatsoever and I was able to get quick White House decisions whenever I needed them. If I asked Dave Bell or Clark Clifford for Presidential action on some matter, he would say, "Okay, I'11 talk to Truman about it and get you an answer," and invariably he did, and promptly. Similarly, in the case of major budgetary matters, Harriman or I could
obtain prompt presidential action through the Budget Director. I did not have the impression of a great separate deliberative process taking place within the White House on the substantive issues that we presented, but I had a feeling that the White House personnel were doing a very effective staff job for the President in the areas in which I was concerned and were highly sensitive to, and on top of, the political problems involved in the handling of issues in these areas. This, of course, is the impression of the outsider who was on the receiving end of White House decisions and who never participated directly in deliberations or other activities in the White House itself.
WILSON: I think [Patrick] Anderson in his recent book, The Presidents' Men, claimed that after Clifford left that there was a less strong, less effective White House staff. He said Clifford had made a great difference.
OHLY: Well, all I can say is "no comment." At this
stage -- 20 years later -- I am unable to distinguish between the character of the performance of the White House staff during Clifford's tenure and its performance after he had left. However, I have no impression that its character changed.
WILSON: When you went over to be one of the statutory special assistants for the new creation of the Secretary of Defense, that was a very different kind of operation than we think of when we think of the Department of Defense today. It was designed to be, as you say, a small operation. How much of that was due to Forrestal's own view? Was it entirely his creation, this position that the Secretary of Defense was not to be involved directly in operations of the Navy Department?
OHLY: It reflected his own view of the role that a Secretary of Defense should play and of the character of the organization that he would require in order to perform this role; it also reflected the views of Navy personnel. At the
time, I didn't personally believe that it would be possible for him to step in and to manage and direct the activities of the military establishment to the extent that I thought would be necessary with the small staff that he contemplated and the relatively limited statutory powers that he was given in the National Security Act of 1947. His experience in the following eighteen months led him to the same conclusion and, in fact, within three or four months after he took office, he was leaning strongly toward such a conclusion. Six months before he left office he had approved the drafting of amendments to the original legislation that would authorize the appointment of a Deputy Secretary of Defense and three Assistant Secretaries of Defense, create the post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and significantly increase the powers of the Secretary of Defense, and these amendments, only slightly modified, were enacted into law by the National Security Act of 1949 some five months after he left office.
WILSON: You came to this conclusion yourself very early?
OHLY: I had come to that conclusion even before the National Security Act of 1947 had been enacted. As the Special Assistant to Secretary of War Patterson, I had been aware of, even though I had never participated in or been directly concerned with, the extensive negotiations between the Navy and War Departments that preceded the submission of unification legislation to Congress in 1947. There had been several years of very controversial discussion between Patterson and General Lauris Norstad on one side and Forrestal and Admiral Forrest Sherman on the other side in an effort to hammer out a compromise, and I was generally familiar with, and on the whole sympathetic toward, the War Department's general position that greater authority should be vested in a strong central organization. However, I was not prepared to say that the compromise arrangement embodied in the new law did not constitute a
good arrangement with which to start, because I felt that Navy sensibilities had to be taken into account and that, in any event, real unification could not be achieved by a series of initial command decisions. But I also was sure that the central organization would shortly have to be developed into a different kind of organization, and it was not long before Forrestal was persuaded that this was the case. On one issue after another he found that he could not get the services to reach an agreement, and he was unable to control the frequent often publicly erupting conflicts among the services, and particularly those between the Navy and the Air Force on the assignment of responsibilities for strategic bombing, a conflict that reflected itself then and later in the dispute over the respective roles of the strategic bomber of the Air Force and of aircraft carriers and in the contest for limited budget resources between the Navy and the Air Force. The Navy, which had resisted unification in the first place and continued to do so, was no more of a problem
than the Air Force under Secretary Stuart Symington. The latter was a continuous thorn in the side of Forrestal, using every means that he could find to advance the interests of the Air Force. At the same time he continually expressed strong support for the creation of a much stronger central organization.
WILSON: We had people tell us, and I think mostly people from the State Department side, that they felt all through this period, all through the Truman administration in fact, that the Secretary of Defense never really was in control.. Not only just because of the problems with Johnson, but that in some ways he created a monster. He was not fully responsible for the creation of the monster, but anyway a monster was created, and no individual under that organization was not given the control. One phrase used was that the Joint Chiefs acted as if they were the Pope making pronouncements, And since it was made it was true, you couldn't argue with the Joint Chiefs once a pronouncement was
made. Is that at all fair?
OHLY: Well, the description and analysis of the situation that others have given you does not adequately bring out the nature of the problem that was presented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the years 1947-1949. The Joint Chiefs, like the other entities established as statutory bodies by the National Security Act of 1947 to serve as instruments in administering a unified military establishment -- the Munitions Board and the Research and Development Board, for example -- were tripartite in character, that is, composed of the representatives of the three services, and their effectiveness in carrying out their responsibilities was very seriously impaired by the fact that the service representatives on these bodies invariably stubbornly adhered to the positions advocated by their respective services on the many critical issues on which the positions of the services were in serious conflict and for this reason could not reach any consensus on how these issues might be resolved.
This problem was particularly serious in the case of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, partly because, unlike the other statutory and non-statutory inter-service bodies, it had no chairman (let alone an independent civilian chairman with no service connection), and partly because it was charged with the responsibility for deciding, or for making recommendations on, the most critical central issues -- issues upon whose adequate resolution the activities of the three service departments and the other inter-service bodies were often heavily dependent, such issues as those that concerned what roles and missions each of the services should perform (e.g., what service should be responsible for strategic bombing, whether the Army or the Air Force should have responsibility for tactical air operations, and what the role of the Marine Corps should be), and how limited budget resources should be distributed among the three departments. In other words, the issues that the Joint Chiefs were responsible for
effectively handling were both the most important national security issues and, at the same time, the issues on which there was the greatest inter-service conflict. As a consequence, the Chiefs were unable to agree on how to resolve them. Thus, at least during this particular period, the problem with the Joint Chiefs did not result from their making pronouncements that they considered, or others regarded, as having, to use your comparison, the kind of infallibility and finality under canon law of a papal pronouncement, but rather, on the contrary, from their being unable to reach any kind of a decision on a wide range of major questions. I know, since I was very close to this problem because my responsibilities included that of keeping tabs for Forrestal on the status of the JCS agenda and endeavoring to find out why its backlog of critical issues was rapidly increasing. They simply could not resolve the big issues, and when they disagreed there was no mechanism through which Forrestal could resolve the disagreements.
This situation presented Forrestal with perhaps his most difficult problem and a problem whose lack of resolution affected virtually all aspects of the operations of the new military establishment. It was this problem that led him to bring Eisenhower down from Columbia to serve as a kind of unofficial chairman of the Joint Chiefs, hoping that Eisenhower, because of the respect that all the services and their personnel had for him, could somehow get the service chiefs to reach workable compromises on some of the unresolved issues, either by persuasion or by hammering their heads together. It was also this problem or, rather, some of its most important and urgent manifestations, that led Forrestal to hold the conferences which he held at Key West and Newport -- informal meetings lasting several days at which Forrestal could discuss at length with the Chiefs the many issues that they had been unable to resolve by themselves. An agenda of the issues to be considered was prepared and distributed before each meeting so that the meetings, while
informal, would be somewhat structured and would be focused on the essence of the matters that required consideration. In addition to the three service chiefs of staff, others in attendance included the Director of the Joint Staff, one or more of Forrestal's three special assistants, and several other of Forrestal's principal lieutenants. Some issues, including some very important issues, were resolved during, or as a result of procedures set up at these meetings, but, in many cases, the decisions reached represented a patching-over of differences rather than the final fundamental resolution of these differences that was needed.
In addition to, and to some extent as an extension of, these informal Key West and Newport conferences and the regular, more formal meetings of the War Council and Committee of Secretaries, Forrestal held a series of informal evening meetings during the late summer and early fall of 1948 with some of his principal advisers to consider the kinds of issues that had been discussed at those conferences and other major issues
confronting the military establishment, including major questions concerning the reorganization of the establishment in ways that would facilitate the ability of the Secretary of Defense to manage the organization and provide machinery that would be better suited to resolve issues involving service differences than the mechanisms created by the National Security Act of 1947. At Forrestal's request, and with the help of Marx Leva and Wilfred McNeil, Forrestal's two other special assistants, I compiled a list of all of the issues and problems that required consideration, and this list, as amended from time to time, served as the agenda for these evening meetings and, after each meeting, I prepared a record of the discussion that had taken place and of the decisions that had been made -- and arranged for a follow-up on implementation of the latter. The Chiefs did not, as I recall, participate in these meetings, although the Director of the Joint Staff did, and much of the attention was focused on how to go about solving unresolved issues rather than on what the
substantive resolution of outstanding substantive questions should be.
WILSON: You may not have any information about this, but one of the problems that we have and we have to assess is to identify the role of concern about the Russian intentions in the immediate postwar period. It's clear that Forrestal and Harriman were the people warning most strongly about Soviet military intentions and Soviet policy. And, also, [Adm. William D.] Leahy, who was still in the White House for awhile in the postwar period. I forget exactly when he resigned, but he was there in late '46.
MCKINZIE: He became ill at some point and he was in and out for awhile. By '47 he was gone I believe.
OHLY: Is that right?
WILSON: His diary is in the Library of Congress (anybody can use it); and he's apparently done a lot
of things and it's difficult for historians, in fact, to understand what his role was under Truman. Have you any information at all about whether Truman was listening to Leahy?
OHLY: No information that would constitute more than hearsay and I can no longer identify the source of such hearsay, which may have been no more than a Drew Pearson column. I saw him only once or twice and do not recall the occasion or occasions for my doing so. It might have been in connection with the Compton Commission. I had no real association with him at all.
WILSON: The relationship of military aid to the Marshall plan is a very complicated business, as you are more aware than we are. There were some early explorations of trying military assistance on a considerable scale through the Marshall plan, indeed somebody on the European side suggested that this might be done. And the information we have is that the State Department said, "No, this is not the proper time to deal with any
large-scale military assistance to Europe," this was in '47, of course. Is that correct, were there discussions about which we have no knowledge?
OHLY: Except in the cases of Greece, Turkey, and China I have no recollection of any proposals for large-scale military assistance to any area as far back as early 1947. However, by the end of 1947, the possibility of providing some military assistance to Western Europe was already under consideration in both the National Military Establishment and the Department of State and, in early 1948, very serious consideration was given to the addition to the then proposed Foreign Assistance Act of 1948 (authorizing economic aid to Europe and other aid programs), of a new separate Title VI that would authorize military assistance on a large scale to any country that the President might find required it, and draft language for such a title was actually prepared. I do not have a very clear recollection of the provisions of this proposed title or of all of the considerations
that entered into the Executive Branch's decision not to seek this additional legislative authority during 1948. While I was an NME representative on the interdepartmental committee that was working on the Marshall plan and its legislative authorization, someone else actually sat for me most of the time since my own background was such that I could contribute little to most of the issues being considered in the committee. However, I do remember that the conclusion was reached that plans for a military assistance program and its conduct had not yet reached the stage at which a presentation thereof to Congress would be advisable, that there was also some feeling in the military establishment that a request for such legislation in 1948 might interfere with its efforts to secure enactment of legislative proposals that were high priorities in its already approved 1948 legislative program, and that personnel in the State Department felt it would be politically unwise, as you suggest, to go forward with proposals for both economic and
military assistance at that particular moment. Thus I have no question about the general correctness of your information about the attitude of the Department of State, although I believe this matter came up in 1948 rather than in 1947. Moreover, I do not believe that there was any serious difference of view on this matter between personnel in the Department of State and the military. I should add, moreover, there was not any significant difference of opinion on the ultimate necessity for the enactment of general military assistance legislation; any differences had to do with the timing of a request to Congress for such legislation. In fact, while planning was going forward within the Executive Branch for a collective security treaty covering the North Atlantic area and, at the international level, negotiations were proceeding for the consummation of such a treaty, planning and preparations for a military assistance program in support of such a treaty were also taking place both within the Department of State and the military department and in the NSC and
other interdepartmental agencies, initially SANACC and later a newly constituted Foreign Assistance Correlation Committee (FACC). In early fall 1948, Major General Lyman Lemnitzer, at the time Deputy Commandant of the National War College, was designated by Forrestal to serve as his delegate in discussions with the Military Committee of the recently established Western Union on the equipment that would be required by the military forces of the Western Union countries (France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg),which had agreed in March 1948 in the so-called Brussels Treaty, to collaborate for purposes of collective self-defense in order, among other things, to defend themselves against Soviet attack. Lemnitzer, supported by a specially assembled group of offices, spent several weeks in London on this mission, and I believe some of the supporting group remained in London on a semi-permanent basis to help the Military Committee in its development of deficiency lists.
WILSON: What about that period? The Vandenberg papers suggest that Senator [Arthur] Vandenberg was very much surprised that NATO became more than a concept, became more than an expression of solidarity. He was indeed taken aback, according to his papers. He was taken back at the kind of specific program brought forward, and this had to be sold to him. How did this come about? Do you know something about Ernest Gross' explorations in the fall of 1948 when he went to London for awhile to talk about possible military aid? In Forrestal's office he carried the brunt of the early NATO exploration.
OHLY: I am generally familiar with developments in this period on NATO and military assistance since, as I indicated earlier, military assistance and NATO matters both fell within the general areas of my responsibilities. However, most of the extensive discussions on NATO between the military establishment and the Department of State were carried on between, on the military side, Al
[Maj. Gen. Alfred M.] Gruenther, then Director of the Joint Staff, and Najeeb Halaby and Robert Blum, who handled all international security affairs matters in my own office, and, on the State side, George Kennan, then Director of the Policy Planning Staff, John Hickerson, Director of the Office of European Affairs, and Theodore C. Achilles, then in charge of Western European Affairs under Hickerson. At this point I might add a parenthetical note about General Gruenther's role in relation to Forrestal and Forrestal's office in dealing with these and other matters that concerned the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Forrestal often treated Gruenther as a member of his own staff -- as a principal military adviser -- a somewhat risky thing to do since Gruenther's real job was that of a servant of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, since the Chiefs could not agree on many things and there was at that time no Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to whom Forrestal could look, he frequently consulted Gruenther, in whom he had great confidence, on military problems on which he felt the need for
help and used Gruenther for various special assignments. Seldom a day passed when Gruenther was not in Forrestal's office at least once and, at least during the first year of Forrestal's tenure, they played tennis together almost every day. Only a person with the enormous diplomatic skill, the brilliance, the great integrity, and the energy that Gruenther possessed and who enjoyed the kind of virtually universal respect that he enjoyed could have managed this delicate task of combining advice and assistance to Forrestal with the performance of the backbreaking, itself highly delicate job of serving the conflict-torn Joint Chiefs as the Director of the Joint Staff. His contributions were enormous. In any event, it was he, reinforced by working groups in the Joint Staff, together with Halaby and Blum, who handled NATO negotiations preceding the finalization of the Treaty. When it came to military aid, the same people were involved, but, in addition, Lemnitzer, in January 1949, just a short time after his previously mentioned service as Forrestal's
delegate to meet with Western Union Military Committee, was assigned to my office to head up a group in the military establishment that could work with representatives of the Department of State in planning and preparing for a military assistance program. Lemnitzer shortly thereafter also became the military establishment's representative on FACC, which had just been established and whose chairman was then Ernest Gross, an Assistant Secretary of State, who also served as a Special Assistant to the Secretary for all foreign aid matters.
WILSON: Is the establishment of NATO and the setting up of the OEEC, can this in any way be considered an exercise in bureaucratic politics from the ERP side? We have information that the establishment of NATO and the whole question of whether NATO headquarters was to be in London and Paris and the relationship between NATO and the OEEC, the question of a possible shift in emphasis from economic to military assistance in the U.S.
relations with Europe, caused considerable alarm to people in the Economic Cooperation Administration. People like Paul Hoffman, who was adamant, or at the least some of the records we've seen, suggest he was strongly opposed to providing any large-scale military assistance to Europe. Did you get this kind of static?
OHLY: No, I didn't at a11, but you must remember, as I said in answer to an earlier question, my contacts with the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) during this period were very limited. Moreover, questions such as those involving the relations between NATO and the OEEC (e.g.. whether NATO headquarters should be in London or in Paris, where OEEC headquarters was located), and those having to do with what, if any, political impact the introduction of a military assistance might have in Europe at this time were questions that were of primary concern to the Department of State, or the Department of State and ECA, and were not the kind of questions that were of significant concern
to the Office of the Secretary of Defense at this early stage in the development of a European military assistance program and I was then still in that office. However, I think it is important to note that in Forrestal's mind and in the view of most people in the Department of State, the most important immediate short-term reasons for the North Atlantic Treaty and for an early commencement of the military assistance program to Western European countries were political and economic, rather than military, reasons -- their belief that European economic recovery, and the political stability sought through that recovery, could not be achieved in the absence of the kind of sense of security on the part of Western European people that could only be obtained if they had the feeling that they would be secure against Communist takeover. And in 1948 and 1949 there was in fact a widespread pervasive feeling of insecurity in Western Europe that was viewed a