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John H. Ohly Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
John H. Ohly

Attorney in the Office of Assistant Secretary of War, 1940-46, later specializing in labor relations, manpower and related matters in the Office of the Under Secretary of War and later in the Army Service Forces; Special Assistant to the Secretary of War, 1946; Executive Secretary to the President's Advisory Commission on Universal Training, 1946-47; Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, 1947-49; Dep. Director, Mutual. Defense Assistance Program, Dept. of State, 1949-50; Acting Director, Mutual Defense Assistance Program, Dept. of State, 1950; Assistant Director, Office of International Security Affairs, Department of State, 1951; Special Assistant for Mutual Security Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of State, 1951-52; and Assistant Director for Program, Office of the Director for Mutual Security, 1952-53.

November 30, 1971
by Richard D. McKinzie and Theodore A. Wilson

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


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.

See also the John H. Ohly Papers finding aid.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 June, 1984
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
John H. Ohly


McLean, Virginia
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, we