Oral History Interview with
James W. Riddleberger
Chief, Division of Central European Affairs, U.S. Dept. of State, 1944-47; counsellor of embassy, and chief, political section, American Military Government, Berlin, Germany, 1947-50; acting political adviser to commander-in-chief, U.S. Forces, Germany, 1949-50; political adviser to E.C.A., Paris, 1950-52; appointed a career minister, 1950; director, Bureau of German Affairs, U.S. Dept. of State, 1952-53; and subsequent to his service during the Truman Presidency served as an ambassador to various countries and as director of the Internationa1 Cooperation Administration.
April 6, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Riddleberger Oral History Transcripts]
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.
As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for the online version of the Riddleberger transcript.
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 January, 1975
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
James W. Riddleberger
April 6, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right to begin, Mr. Ambassador, let's advise historians to refer to your biographical data, which we will place in the Appendix, which will inform them about your background, and then move on to our other questions for this morning.
What are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?
RIDDLEGERGER: I never saw Mr. Truman, to the best of my recollection, and certainly did not know him, until after he became President. I was still in Germany until the spring of 1941, and then was assigned to Washington, but went to London in 1942, so therefore, I had read about him as the Chairman of the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense, but I had no...
HESS: No direct knowledge.
RIDDLEBERGER: No direct knowledge, or no personal contact with him.
HESS: Where were you when you heard of the death of President Roosevelt and what were your impressions?
RIDDLEBERGER: I was here in Washington when he died. In fact, I was in the hospital, I was sick. And I think like so many of us, was greatly distressed at the news. But it might be well if I told you frankly that I was not surprised. The last time I had seen the President I thought he looked fatally ill.
HESS: When did you see him last?
RIDDLEBERGER: You know that question is very difficult for me to answer for the simple reason that I would see him occasionally, officially, but I had seen him a great deal in the sense of looking at him. It so happened that in those years, my office in the Old State Department Building, which is right across...
HESS: State, War and Navy.
RIDDLE BERGER: State, War and Navy, the Old State, War and Navy Building was right across from the rear entrance to the White House, and from my office I could see the President coming out to get in his car, or being carried out. Of course, this was not something that could not be seen from the sidewalk below, but from my office I had a view of it. But of course, I was not close enough to have a very precise idea about his physical state, but I saw him I don't know how many times, and I don't know the last time I did. It must have been, of course, in '45.
HESS: What kind of a job did you think Mr. Truman was going to do? On April the 12th of 1945 when he took over, just what were your thoughts about the new man that was coming in? Just what did you know about him?
RIDDLEBERGER: I knew, in effect, nothing about him. I did know that Roosevelt had not kept him informed with the development, shall I say, in international fields. But that was rather common gossip in Washington. I think I knew it primarily from the fact that his name never appeared when it came to, let us say, distribution of very important or very secret documents. Now, of course, my experience in that case was limited to Germany and Austria. But of course, Germany and Austria were...
HESS: Pretty important.
RIDDLEBERGER: ...rather important countries and--at that time. And of course, I came back to Washington in 1944 when I took over the Division of Central European Affairs and therefore, was deeply engaged in all of the planning for the occupation of both Germany and Austria. In fact, that was the reason I was brought back from London, to become chairman of this State, War and Navy interdepartmental committee to which was given the task of--I guess the right word would be "backstopping" the work here for the negotiations in the European Advisory Commission in London, and I was the chairman of that committee, which had a cover name.
HESS: What was the name?
RIDDLEBERGER: It was called the Working Security Committee, which of course, meant nothing. But it had been set up in 1944 simultaneous with the establishment of the European Advisory Commission in London, which was to do the negotiations between the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States on the occupation of Germany and Austria.
HESS: Good, we'll get into that further when we come up to it.
RIDDLEBERGER: We'll get into it further, yes.
HESS: But I want to go back and ask you some questions about what you observed in Europe, as you were in Geneva, Switzerland as Vice Counsul and Counsul from 1930 to '36...
RIDDLEBERGER: That's right.
HESS: ...and then you served as third and second secretary of the American Embassy in Berlin from '36 until '41.
RIDDLEBERGER: To '41.
HESS: And, of course, that time span covers the rise of Hitler. To lead into that subject, when did you first hear of Adolf Hitler? Do you recall?
RIDDLEBERGER: Oh, in the 1920s. But, of course, I don't recall exactly when. I traveled in Germany, I think, even before I entered the foreign service. It was always a country that interested me. And this is back, I would say, in the late 1920s. And of course, he was known then because of the attempted Putsch in Munich, and that on top of that of course, by the late '20s he was beginning to become a political force, not always taken seriously by a lot of people.
I went to Germany, on a number of occasions, after I was assigned to Geneva in 1930, I recall distinctly being there in 1932, I think in 1933. I recall making a rather extensive trip in Germany in 1934, and then of course, we went to Berlin on assignment to the Embassy in 1936. In the meantime Hitler had come to power in 1933. And I was actually in Geneva at the time he announced the German withdrawal from the League of Nations, which of course, created a great sensation in those days. And of course, because of the rise of Hitler and the possible effect upon the League of Nations, his power and his potential as a possible Chancellor of Germany, were under constant discussion in Geneva in the early '30s, That was only natural.
HESS: What were your impressions when you would visit Germany during those times, you mentioned in the '32, '33, and '34, could you see a progressive, totalitarian takeover?
RIDDLEBERGER: Hitler had come to power...
HESS: In '33.
RIDDLEBERGER: ...in January of '33...
HESS: That's right.
RIDDLEBERGER: So, from that point on he was running the Reich himself with his little coterie of intimates.
But I recall very well on earlier trips that I thought the political situation in Germany was potentially very dangerous because of the extraordinarily large number of unemployed, and that the economic situation in general was so distressing, that in my opinion, at least, I thought that something was bound to happen. I was not certain in those years that Hitler would necessarily win, and in effect, he never really got a majority in any free election. Hitler did not come to power as a result of a majority in a free election. Later on he had these so-called elections which were in my opinion completely rigged. But I think that a number of us that lived, let us say, in and around Germany, and who had some knowledge of the country, were very cognizant of the danger of Hitlerian takeover which indeed was what came to pass. Now, of course, part of that may be hindsight.
HESS: You went to Berlin in 1936. What were your first impressions when you got there as to Hitler's power?
RIDDLEBERGER: His power was in my opinion practically complete, but to give you what I think is an apt illustration of the way Germany was going, we had barely settled in an apartment in Dahlem before we got the notice (this was by that time the autumn of 1936), that there would be a blackout exercise within the next month, and that everyone was obliged to purchase and prepare dark curtains to be put before every window and door where from which light might show. And in the middle--I recall this very well--in the middle of trying to get unpacked and into this place, a typical old German house with high windows, we had to run out and buy meters and meters and meters...
HESS: Of black cloth.
RIDDLEBERGER: ...of black cloth, yes. But I always took the German rearmament very seriously, and I'll tell you why. For the simple reason that when you live in a country, as we did, it's quite impossible, in my opinion, to hide extensive military preparation. I think it can't be done, there are too many indicators. To take a very simple example. As we would drive outside of Berlin and in the countryside, you might see an airplane, let us say, coming down into what might look like a forest. There might be a fence around and signs up saying "Streng Verboten," nobody could drive through there, but we all knew that plane didn't come down and land in the trees, there must have been an airfield there, or an airstrip of some sort, and that was a rather frequent experience as time went on and I happened to travel a great deal in Germany.
In addition the economic indicators were so marked in showing that a constantly higher proportion of German production was obviously going to military purposes, to the Army, or the Air Force, or the Navy.
Take a very simple case, Germany even until very late continued to publish the statistical yearbook, and it was remarkably detailed. Furthermore big firms would publish their financial statements in the press, which would show that their consumption of raw materials was constantly increasing as their number of their employees was going up. But yet if it were an automobile factory, you could turn to the statistics on the automobile production and find that practically the same number of cars had gone to the civilian market. So it doesn't take any great mind to figure that one out. The Germans were not so inefficient that it took three times as many people and four times as much raw material and a financial turnover say three or four times as great to produce the same number of cars.
HESS: Now Germany suffered some very severe inflation following World War I, did you see evidence of their fight against inflation when you were there?
RIDDLEBERGER: Well, by the time we went, which don't forget was 1936...
HESS: That's right.
RIDDLEBERGER: ...the great post-World War I inflation of Germany was over, and the currency had been stabilized after the Dawes and Young loans.
HESS: That's right.
RIDDLEBERGER: ...and we went in a very different era. By the time we got there, of course, the Hitler controls under Dr. [Hjalmar] Schacht were already in effect. Now internally the currency was stable, and maintained at a fixed value, even if it may have been somewhat of a fiction. In other words the reichsmark was in those days, officially 24 cents, but tourists could buy it cheaper. Schacht put in effect a long series of currency control measures, but internally the mark was stable, there's no doubt about it.
HESS: The '36 Olympics was held in Berlin. Hitler made quite a show out of that. Were you there at the time?
RIDDLEBERGER: Oh, a tremendous show! No, I came in just after the Olympic games.
HESS: All right. Were there any contingency plans being drawn up by the State Department, with the help of the Embassy in Berlin, about matters that were going on in Germany at that time that you were there? It was in '38 that Hitler met [Neville] Chamberlain at Munich.
HESS: ...and in '39 came the invasion of Poland. Just how involved was our--how close a look, close a view, did our State Department and the Embassy keep on matters that were transpiring in Germany?
RIDDLEBERGER: I think that the reporting on German developments, both from the Embassy and consulates, and we happened to have a number of consulates in Germany, was both accurate and adequate. I don't think it had the effect that many of us hoped it would because of those of us who lived there (and this would apply that to a large majority of us I think), were absolutely persuaded that Hitler was preparing for war, and as I recited earlier, we held this opinion for very good reasons. All of this went forward to Washington, and in addition there was a really tremendous volume of reporting by the press on developments in Germany. And to me it was always a matter of not only concern but of surprise at the reaction to a lot of this was, "Oh, well, he doesn't mean it," or "make this concession and everything will be all right."
HESS: And it was not.
RIDDLEBERGER: And it was not. But of course, I can understand that neither governments nor peoples were inclined to take Germany's re-armament as seriously as those who lived under it were.
HESS: What time of the year in 1941 did you leave? Did you stay until the Embassy was pulled out?
RIDDLEBERGER: No, I was home when Pearl Harbor happened.
HESS: You were?
RIDDLEBERGER: I was not interned. George Kennan and I were both second secretaries and both of us were scheduled for leave in 1941. We hadn't seen our families for a couple of years and he went first. And then that held up my departure because we were two of the Embassy officers that could speak German--don't forget we had no Ambassador since November of '38 after Roosevelt pulled out Hugh Wilson during the Jewish riots in Berlin. George Kennan went and got back, and so I must have gone in the late spring of '41. I went to see my family, whom I had not seen for months. I was told to report to the State Department, at least temporarily, which I did. But by that time it must have been the summer of '41, and I was kept on the German deskprovisionally--although later formalized. You know how those things go sometimes, one thing after another came up, and since I had been in Berlin, they said, "Well, you just stay on for a while," and my famil