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Frederick Osborn Oral History Interview



Oral History Interview with
Frederick Osborn

Promoted Major General (temp.), 1943; Director of Information and Education Division, AUS; resigned from Army 1945; appointed Deputy Representative of U.S. on the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission, 1947-50.

Garrison, New York
July 10, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie

[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, hard copy 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 July 1977
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


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


Oral History Interview with
Frederick Osborn


Garrison, New York
July 10, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: Mr. Osborn, perhaps a good place to start would be to ask how you happened to become involved with the Government. Your background is that of a businessman and an academician?

OSBORN: Well, I had the previous ten years been making studies and taking part in administrative activities in genetics, psychology and sociology with an office in the Museum of Natural History where I had been working. In August of 1940, I was on vacation in Maine and had a call on the telephone from my friend Stuart Rice, whom I had met at meetings of the Sociological Society, and who was


then one of the assistants in the office of the Director of the Budget. Stuart Rice asked me if I would come to Washington to fill one of the positions under him which had just been allowed by Congress for a dollar-a-year man. I would be engaged in trying to systematize the research between the different departments of the Government for the Bureau of the Budget. I thought that the opportunity to be in Washington at that time when a war seemed very imminent was a wonderful opportunity, and I said at once I would come down, and I was down there, I think, the next day. I got a room at the Hay-Adams, and I didn't know that I was setting myself up in Washington for the next four years.

I went to Stuart Rice's office the next day, and he took me down to the Director of the Budget, Harold Smith, who questioned me about


my background and what I was doing; then got into a discussion with me of the Selective Service, which I did know something about. Before I left him he asked if he might send my name in to President Roosevelt, as one of a group who were being considered as members of a committee to organize the Selective Service under the act which was about to be passed by Congress. So, of course, I said yes. And the next day Harold Smith sent for me and he said, "Is your name Fred?"

I said, "Yes."

And he said, "Well, the President said that Fred was to be chairman of this committee and that must be you." So I was chairman of the Committee on Selective Service with Charlie [Charles P.] Taft and Bill [William A.] Draper, who was then in the Army, but later became famous as Commissioner in Germany, and


[James Phinney, III] Baxter, the president of a big university, and various other people. We worked on the regulations and the setup for Selective Service for some six or seven weeks, and got it all ready in time for the proclamation, which was signed by President Roosevelt here at Hyde Park. While I was with this Selective Service operation, I saw a good deal of the Army, and I saw something of General [George C.] Marshall in a very informal way.

MCKINZIE: In what informal relationship did you see him?

OSBORN: Well, I don't think in the Selective Service that we had any conferences with General Marshall. My recollection is that he and I made a couple of speeches together at meetings which he was to address, and where Selective Service was a


very interesting thing, and I was asked to come along. My recollection is that we met in that way.

MCKINZIE: I see. Could I ask, did you get a chance to talk to President Roosevelt about your work on the Commission?

OSBORN: No. I don't think I ever did. He never asked to see me, and I don't think I ever did. I had not been close to President Roosevelt in politics; though we were friends. He lived at Hyde Park, twenty-five miles from here, and we were friends. Roosevelt's family had been great friends of my family for several generations.


OSBORN: But I had not wanted to work with him in politics, and he knew this. So, while we


remained good friends, he didn't think of me as one of the people that he could call on, you know, ordinarily.

MCKINZIE: Yes. You never did get to that statistical work of coordinating the research?

OSBORN: No. I gave up. I had a desk in the Bureau of the Budget for a month, but I never went there because the Selective Service job was a very continuous one. We were working against a very urgent deadline, and the committee spent all day writing regulations and drawing up orders and things. At 6 o'clock when we disbanded, after a long day, we would turn it all over to the lawyers, who were putting it in legal form for us, and tell them to have it ready for us the next morning at 8 o'clock. So, we were really working around the clock on the thing.


MCKINZIE: Did you have contact during that time with the people who had special arguments to make?

OSBORN: Yes. I had a great deal to do with the psychiatric regulations and the regulations for the objectors.

MCKINZIE: Conscientious objectors?

OSBORN: Conscientious objectors, that's right. We had a committee of people interested in conscientious objectors headed by Mr. [Clarence Evans] Pickett of the Quakers, quite a famous Quaker, very fine man. We met with them a number of times, and I think drew up very sound regulations on conscientious objectors as a result, and they stood up very well right up to World War II.

MCKINZIE: On those conscientious objector regulations,


the only thing that's come up really on that whole issue since then has been objections for reasons of conscience which has nothing to do with religion.

OSBORN: That's right.

MCKINZIE: Did you ever talk about that at the time?

OSBORN: No. That problem didn't arise, because we thought of it only in terms of men who by their past would naturally be conscientious objectors. This was not necessary in that war, because after watching Hitler for a number of years the whole country was almost unanimous in their feeling that we had to stop this, we had to get into the war. So there wasn't the problem which we had in Vietnam, when there was every reason for a young man to say, "Well, why should I go and fight in Vietnam?"

Then the other thing in which we did have a


very active series of conferences on which I was much interested in was the psychiatric problems. The problem of getting psychiatric people screened properly and what kind of psychiatric trouble would require refusal from the draft. On this I worked a great deal with a man named Harry Stack Sullivan, who was -- I found out afterwards -- a very interesting and eminent psychiatrist; and his work has lived after him. He was quite a character. We had a good psychiatric group.

In all these conferences we also had to work very closely with the representatives of the man who was assigned by the Army to watch Selective Service, who was Major [Lewis B.] Hershey -- later Major General Hershey, head of Selective Service. He and I didn't really see eye to eye on either conscientious objectors or excuses for the psychiatric disability.


MCKINZIE: He was inclined to have fewer exceptions than you?

OSBORN: Yes. He was inclined to have fewer exceptions and look at it in a rather tougher way. But he was a competent man, and there was one thing about him which I thought was peculiarly appropriate to the job he later had. He felt very strongly that the individual boards -- Selective Service Boards all over the country -- should be given a lot of latitude. That if they made mistakes, it would be a local mistake, and he didn't want them tied up so stiffly with regulations that if there was any mistake made it would be a mistake in Washington. In this I thought he was very wise, and in the matter of public relationship if nothing else. And we did try and draw the regulations in such a way that they could be interpreted quite broadly by the local boards.


MCKINZIE: As the chairman of this committee which drafted those regulations, did anyone come to you and suggest that you might be the appropriate person to head the Selective Service?

OSBORN: Oh, yes. One morning I read in the newspaper that I was to be appointed Director of Selective Service. This was one of the rumors this was done in Washington, and it's still done a great deal. Before appointments were made, they would put a rumor out, and then see whether there was a protest or whether the rumor was acclaimed. I didn't wait to see whether it was a protest or acclaimed; I telephoned to the White House, and I told them that I read this rumor and that it was untrue because I was not in a position where I could accept it, I had other work to do. In fact, Mr. [Henry L.] Stimson called me up the same


day on the same matter, and said he hoped that I would be chairman of the Army Committee on Welfare of Troops and that he hoped I would not take the Selective Service job; but I'd already made up my mind about that. When I talked to the White House I recommended Major Hershey as a man who I thought would do a great job, and they did appoint him.