Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened August, 1972
Oral History Interview with
March 31, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin, Mr. Riggs, will you give me a little of your personal background?
RIGGS: Well, I'm a native of Missouri. I was born in Joplin, Missouri sixty-nine years ago. My parents and their parents and grandparents on all sides were Kentuckians. I'm a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and of its College of Arts and Science. When I left college I went to work for the Associated Press in Madison, Wisconsin, worked for them two years. I worked for six months for the Milwaukee Journal. I worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal from the fall of 1929 to the end of 1966. I was thirteen years on the paper in Louisville, holding several executive news jobs, the last one being assistant managing editor. They sent me here in 1942 as chief of the Washington Bureau and I've been here ever since, until I retired in '66. And when I retired I worked two years as administrative assistant to Congressman Carl Perkins of Kentucky, and I've
worked a little more than two years as administrative assistant to Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky.
HESS: Fine, what are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?
RIGGS: He was Senator, and at the time he was head of the preparedness subcommittee of the Senate. The first personal dealings I had with him involved Kentucky. In those days there was no Armed Services Committee. There was a Naval Affairs Committee, and the Military Affairs Committee and the Truman Committee was kind of in between. There was some dispute over jurisdiction as to who would investigate a certain thing, whether it would be the Naval Affairs Committee -- I mean the Military Affairs Committee, or the Truman Committee. And the reason I got involved in it, the Kentucky Senator, A. B. Chandler, was wanting to go on this investigation and there was some objection to him.
So I went to see Mr. Truman whom I had never talked to before. And I said, "I'm having a little trouble about one of my Senators, I'm having trouble getting some news."
He said, "We're all having trouble over your Senator. The trouble is that nobody wants to travel with Chandler because he's ----. But if you print that
I'll just deny it." So I never did print it.
HESS: Do you recall what the difficulty was with Senator Chandler?
RIGGS: It was nothing very important. I don't remember what it was, no. It was probably over a question of committee jurisdiction
HESS: In the New Republic magazine of April the 11th of 1955, you have an article, "What Political Reporters Are Told Off the Record." And that article refers to Mr. Truman. Would you tell me about the background of that article and about the reference to Mr. Truman?
RIGGS: Well, there had been quite a bit of controversy over these background dinners and luncheons and meetings between public figures and reporters. And I had written this article for the New Republic to explain the situation. And to illustrate it I mentioned the fact that we had had one of these meetings with Vice President Truman. I said in the article that he sat and talked with us just seven days before he became President and that his whole attitude, his whole bearing, was that he would become President. He never had any doubt that he'd become President. Now he didn't say, "Roosevelt's going to die," he didn't say, "I'm going to succeed him," but he would talk about the many
problems, about how I will handle this and how I will handle that. It was a mood and tone rather than exact words. And as far as I know this is the only publication that has ever carried that. I never wrote it anywhere else, I don't know of anybody else that did.
HESS: Do you recall where that meeting was held?
RIGGS: It was in one of the hotels here, perhaps the Statler.
HESS: Did Mr. Truman attend any other of the meetings that you set up in this connection?
RIGGS: No, sir, not that I know of. He could be involved with other groups. These were Bureau Chiefs of the best-known papers in town, the New York Times, the Cleveland paper, the St. Louis paper, Louisville, and we weren't after news especially, we were trying to find what was on people's minds.
HESS: Did anything else strike you about Mr. Truman's attitude that day? Just what type of a man did you think he was at that time?
RIGGS: He was a very serious, quiet man, and I had never -- as I say, I had never known him very well, and my admiration for him grew greatly that evening. He was no dummy, he had been pictured, you know, as kind of
a hick from Missouri. He was a bright, intelligent man, obviously. It was very helpful to me when Roosevelt did die and Truman did become President to have had advantage of this background session.
HESS: As we mentioned, he was in charge of the Truman Committee, the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, but during the time that you were in Washington, did you ever attend any of their hearings?
RIGGS: Yes, sir, not many, but some.
HESS: Do you recall anything about Mr. Truman's handling of those meetings?
RIGGS: I thought he was very good, very impartial and very firm, very capable. In fact, it is that chairmanship that made him known nationwide and got him the nomination for Vice President.
HESS: Do you recall anything about any members of the staff of that particular committee. Hugh Fulton was the General Counsel.
RIGGS: I remember Hugh Fulton, all I know is he was the Chief Counsel. I think I went to see him once about some subject. We were having some controversy in Kentucky about a war plant or something out there. I've forgotten now even what the details were.
HESS: All right, now, going back just a little bit in
time before then, but do you recall anything in particular about the events of 1944 and Mr. Truman's selection as vice-presidential candidate that year?
RIGGS: Yes, sir, I remember quite a bit about that.
HESS: All right.
RIGGS: Of course, if I hadn't of been so sold on the idea that Senator Barkley might get the nomination, I might have known sooner that Truman was going to get it, because some people who were very close to Bob Hannegan, who was Democratic National Chairman, assured me that it was going to be Truman. I didn't believe it.
RIGGS: Well, one of them was Ed Pritchard from Kentucky; Paul Porter from Kentucky. Paul Porter you may remember. Of course, Hannegan was working hard for Truman. I didn't really think he'd get it.
HESS: Who did you think would get it that year?
RIGGS: Well, I thought Barkley would get it.
HESS: What do you recall about the effort that was made to prevent Wallace from receiving the renomination?
RIGGS: That was a combination of the professional politicians and the southerners -professional northern politicians and the southerners. The pros were convinced,
sincerely, that Roosevelt could not win a fourth term with Wallace on the ticket. I think it didn't make any difference who was on the ticket, he would have won anyway. But they were convinced that Wallace would be too big a drag. And so you remember they persuaded Roosevelt to write a letter to Hannegan in Chicago, at the Chicago convention, saying that he'd accept Bill Douglas, Henry Wallace or Harry Truman. As a matter of fact, Barkley had asked Truman to place his name in nomination and Truman had agreed. And then later he got the word he was getting the nomination, and he went to Barkley and told him he couldn't do it, and the reason why he couldn't do it.
HESS: All right, did you travel on any of the campaign trips that year?
RIGGS: I went on the trip that Truman took to the west coast in June.
HESS: But not in...
RIGGS: About a month before -- oh, you mean '42?
HESS: No, this was in '44.
RIGGS: Oh, yes, I covered every speech Dewey made and all that Roosevelt made. That's a pretty good trick, too.
HESS: That's pretty good.
RIGGS: In that day there was no airplane campaigning.
HESS: Did you travel on both campaigns?
HESS: How would you judge the reaction of the crowds that met Roosevelt's speeches, and that were there when Dewey spoke?
RIGGS: Of course, there was a frenzy about the Roosevelt crowd, people were wild abou