Russell L. Riley Oral History Interview

Russell L. Riley

Oral History Interview with
Russell L. Riley

Executive assistant, War Assets Administration, 1946-48; executive officer, Office of Educational Exchange, 1948, asst. chief, Division of Libraries and Institutes, 1949-50, U.S. Dept. of State; director of personnel, Economic Stabilization Agency (also OPS), 1951; deputy director, Office of Educational Exchange, 1951-52, asst. administrator, International Information Administration, 1952-53, director, International Educational Exchange Service, U.S. Dept. of State, 1953-58; and subsequent service as a Foreign Service officer, 1958-68.

Irvine , California
February 22, 1974
by James R. Fuchs

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

These are transcripts of tape-recorded interviews conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of each transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that these are essentially transcripts 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.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 March, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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

Oral History Interview with
Russell L. Riley

Irvine, California
February 22, 1974
by James R. Fuchs

FUCHS: Mr. Riley, I'd like for you to give me a little bit of your background: where you were born, your education, your life up to the time you entered Government service which, I believe, was back around the middle thirties.

RILEY: I was born on a farm near Mendon, Missouri, in Chariton County about 100 miles east of Kansas City on the Santa Fe line on February 11, 1911. My father was a farmer. A year later we moved to Nebraska and my father

became a cowboy on a big ranch in northwestern Nebraska in McPherson County, 75 miles northwest of North Platte. He finally became the foreman of that ranch and lived there until I got big enough to go to school. Then he thought I'd better get into school. I went awhile in 1918, but the flu epidemic knocked that out, and, so, in 1919 we moved back to Missouri so we could be closer to school. I went to country schools and small town schools in Missouri, and finally graduated from high school in Mendon, having gone earlier to Brunswick, Mo. grammar school. That's a small town south of Mendon. I graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration in 1934. I was actually in the class of 1933, but I worked my way through school, so I didn't get my degree until

1934. I worked for Montgomery Ward at the time I finished school. Then I worked for a small Mendon mercantile company up in Mendon, Missouri for a short time. In 1934 I went to work for Swift and Company working out of the St. Joseph, Missouri office as a salesman, and traveled in southern Nebraska, northern Kansas, southwestern Iowa, and northwestern Missouri for a year or so. After which I had a territory in Chillicothe, Missouri. Worked there a couple of years and quit that job around the first of October, 1937 to go to work in Washington.

FUCHS: How did you happen to do that?

RILEY: Well, when I was at the University of Missouri I took a Civil Service exam, a clerk's exam, and I passed it. Didn't pass it very high, I guess. But over a period of

from 1931 to 1937 I received a half dozen or so inquiries from the Civil Service Commission as to whether I wanted a job working in Washington and I always said "no." And finally in 1937 I got an inquiry saying, "This is the last time we're going to ask you if you want to work for the Government, on this examination. If your answer is 'no' we're going to take you off of the list."

FUCHS: Were these other inquiries for specific bureaus?

RILEY: I don't remember. I honestly don't remember what any of them were. But I went to work for the Railroad Retirement Board, at that point, in Washington, October 7, 1937 as a clerk. And I worked there a while and was still a clerk but I finally got into the economic section because of my education and experience.

Then about three and a half months after I went to work there, I got fired on 24-hours notice along with 472 other people because the Railroad Retirement Board made a mistake in its bookkeeping system and ran out of money in the first part of January, 1938. All probationary appointees, all temporary appointees, and some permanent appointees just got laid off on 24-hours notice. And that same day I was interviewed by somebody from the Social Security Board in Baltimore and I never missed a day's pay. Just transferred over there, still as a clerk, and went to work over there in the personnel office.

FUCHS: Were they looking for employees or were they just trying to pick up employees that were being laid off? How did they happen to interview you?

RILEY: They interviewed everybody who was laid off. They were looking for employees in Baltimore, old Candler Building in Baltimore. It was a big operation IBM set up. They were really establishing the Social Security Board.

FUCHS: They were just getting started?

RILEY: That's right. I've forgotten -- they'd been underway for a year, 18 months, something like that. So, I worked over there from January '38 until February '39. Then I transferred to the Washington office of the Social Security Board and became Chief of Clerical Placement for the entire Social Security Board. Shortly after that I was offered a job to come back to the Railroad Retirement Board at a substantial increase. I was employed to go to Kansas City,

which was near my home, to help set up the regional office of the Railroad Retirement Board. So I went there in June of 1939 and we got that thing pretty well underway. Around the first of October, a fellow came out from Washington and said, "I have kind of a mess that needs cleaning up in Chicago, would I go to Chicago?" Of course, I didn't think that was a very good idea. I was close to home and I'd seen enough of the Government -- been fired once and only been with it two and one-half years -- I'll never leave home again; I might not get money to get back home: But, anyway, they gave me a two grade promotion to go to Chicago. I went to Chicago and .worked there for four to six months, something like that. Then they asked me if I'd transfer back to Washington with the Railroad Retirement Board and I did in

April of 1940. Then I worked there until March of '41, at which time I went on active duty with the military. I was a Reserve officer.

FUCHS: I have read that you were with the Office of Export Control for a while in '41. Were you on active duty then?

RILEY: I was on active duty. As a matter of fact, I was hired and interviewed by the Army Air Corps to go on duty in their personnel office in March of '41 and as they were processing my papers to call me to active duty, a field artillery colonel whom I'd known in reserves, a Regular Army colonel, told me that he was active in setting up the Office of Export Control, and if I was going on active duty why didn't I come to work for him. I told him I'd made a commitment to the Army Air

Corps and he said, "I'll handle that." And he did. He got my orders changed. So I went to work for the Office of Export Control in March and worked with them until they became demilitarized in about September or October of that fall. General Russell Maxwell was the head of this organization, and at that point he went somewhere and they brought in, I believe it was Milo Perkins from Texas, a bag manufacturer, to head up this export control and all of us who were in military decided we'd rather be in military organizations than we would in a civilian organization, so we sort of abandoned ship.

I went back to the Air Corps and said, "Here I am. I didn't go to work for you when you wanted me to, but what about it?"

They said, "Sure, we still got a job for you."

So I went to work for the Army Air Corps, and very shortly thereafter I was made Deputy Director of Civilian Personnel for the entire Army Air Corps. I stayed there until February of 1943 at which time I petitioned out of there and got back to my first love which was the field artillery.

FUCHS: Had you been in the field artillery reserves?

RILEY: I'd been in reserves since 1933. I was commissioned in the field artillery reserves in 1933.

FUCHS: This was out of ROTC?

RILEY: This was out of ROTC at the University of Missouri, that's right. I was always a great admirer of one Colonel Truman, as a matter of fact, also being an artillery man from


FUCHS: Did you go to summer camps?

RILEY: Yes, I went to summer camp in Des Moines in '36, 1934 and '35 I couldn't go, I couldn't afford time off. And '36 I went. In '37 I was new in Washington, I hadn't gotten established there. '38 I went to camp in Fort Hoyle, Maryland, and '39, I was too busy trying to get the Social Security Board and the Railroad Retirement Board going and I couldn't afford to go to camp.

FUCHS: I've forgotten the last year it was that Mr. Truman went. Of course, after he became Senator he didn't go much.

RILEY: We never were in the same organization . I was in some Omaha outfit. He was connected

with the same general area.

FUCHS: He went to Fort Riley and that place in Minnesota.

RILEY: Fort Snelling, yes. I was commissioned at Fort Riley, Kansas, of course, at the east end close to where old Camp Funston was during World War I.

FUCHS: What were your major problems in the Office of Personnel in the early years of the war, starting around 1942?

RILEY: Well, from '41 to '43 when I was in the Army Air Corps personnel business, the first major problem was -- I went there in October and as you know Pearl Harbor hit the first of December. I'd been there about six weeks. We had to rev up real fast. We thought we were going pretty fast, but our biggest problem

was getting decentralized. Everything centered in Washington. If you wanted to hire a typist in Eugene, Oregon we had to set up the job in Washington and they had to get permission through my particular unit, that I was in when I first went there, for another $1,200 dollars to hire one more typist. So the major problem was to get things decentralized and get regulations out to the field so the people could hire civilian personnel all over the country. As a matter of fact, I remember one of the major problems they had was in the Philippines air depot. We had a big air depot in the Philippines and the Navy was paying so much better salaries out there for the Filipinos than we, the Army, were. I had all kinds of negotiations with the Navy and everybody and his dog trying to get our wages up a little bit

so that we could compete with the Navy. Seems like the Navy has always traveled a lot better than the artillery, even than the old style Air Corps, even though I think the new Air Force does very well. To make a long story short, the Philippine air depot thing was solved by the Japanese one day, which was very unfortunate. My problem just vanished over night. I hadn't finished it yet.

But in March of 1943, I went back to my first love and was sent to the Field Artillery Replacement Training Center in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, took a refresher course for a few weeks, and immediately after that I was put into the advanced officer's course, because I was already a major -- had been since 1942, February. I took the advanced officer's course and that was a rather rough experience

for me because, really, I was a desk officer and didn't know much about field artillery; and all at once I find myself competing with a bunch of officers who had been with troops and had been with the field artillery and Regular Army and all this type of thing. But I got through all right and I was told I was in the upper 10 percent of my class, because I studied about eight or ten hours every night trying to keep up with the other people while they drank beer.

FUCHS: While they were drinking.

RILEY: That's right. On the weekends I tried to get a drink, but I didn't have time during the week. So from there I was given an assignment down in Carolina and sent down, I think, to the 12th Corps headquarters; and then I was further assigned to a battalion

in Fort Jackson, South Carolina as Executive Officer of the 696th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, self-propelled armored battalion. That was in the fall of '43 and on February 11, 1944, we landed in Scotland with this field artillery unit. We trained in England a while and then in July of '44 we landed at Omaha Beach and we had combat until 1945 in Europe. I volunteered then for the Asiatic theater and came back to Washington and was sent to the Command and General Staff School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Our entire class was in training for going to the Pacific theater and we found ourselves in class when the atomic bomb was dropped over there and the war was over, the entire World War II, in August of 1945.

FUCHS: What divisions were you in, in Europe?

RILEY: We were a separate battalion and we were corps troops. We fought with the Yankee (26th Inf.) Division, with the 2nd Armored Division, the 4th Armored Division, the 6th Armored Division, 3rd Corps, 12th Corps. We were all over the place. We were a separate battalion, the 696th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and they used us as kind of shock troops. Sometimes we were ahead of the armored infantry. It was kind of a rough existence being a separate battalion. We never did belong to any outfit, permanently.

Anyway, the war was over, and I'm still alive, and I came back and finally got out of the service in 1946. I met one of the old timers, actually he was a major when I was a captain, but he worked for me in the Export Control Office. At one point, as a

captain I had a bunch of Navy commanders and Army majors and people like that working for me. We were all in civilian clothes. This one, Major John S. Cooke, who had stayed in the Pentagon, worked himself up to a colonel -- he was a major in World War I -- and as I was getting out of the service in January of '46, I ran into him, and he said he was about to go to War Assets Corporation as vice president and wanted me to go with him and I did. And that's how I happened to get into War Assets.

FUCHS: Who was heading War Assets at that time?

RILEY: I remember Robert M. Littlejohn came in later. He was one of the fellows. Some general headed War Assets. He was replaced by Robert M. Littlejohn. He was the Quartermaster General in Europe. He was head of it

at one time. And then another wild man who had been the 12th Corps artillery officer, I've forgotten his name too, but he was head of it for a while. Anyway, I worked there for two and one-half years, something like that, roughly.

FUCHS: What was your title there?

RILEY: I was Executive Assistant to the man who had consumer goods sales. I think he was vice president for Consumer Goods, something like that. And then he became a different -- War Assets first had a president and vice president, and then they had administrators. I think it became an administration instead of a corporation.

FUCHS: What did your work entail there?

RILEY: Generally, we had all the consumer sales

division under our office and we had to knock heads together and keep everybody happy and try to -- just general management of a bunch of sales divisions. I never was very good at explaining what I did. I seemed to work 12-15 hours a day, but I couldn't tell you during the day what I'd accomplished.

FUCHS: Do you have any reflections about the way our war assets were handled? Do you think it was done properly?

RILEY: Yes, I think our war assets were handled reasonably well. It's a tremendous job and you have millions of pounds and millions of square yards and millions of dollars worth of stuff. Maybe it's worth three cents on the dollar, but it will cost fifty cents on the dollar just to store it. So you're wise to get rid of it; let somebody else take

over the headache of storing it. The Government wasn't prepared, of course, to use it, so you had to get rid of it. I'm sure lots of people made millions of dollars, millions and millions of dollars on it, and yet it would cost the United States Government that much to keep it and it was useless to us. I remember one interesting thing. During the course of that experience we found somewhere around Washington a bunch of World War I horse-drawn ambulances still stored in a field. We got rid of them. It would have been smart if somebody would have been wise and gotten rid of them in 1919 instead of waiting until 1946 to get rid of them. I'm sure they paid rent on that pasture or wherever they were. I didn't see them but I know it to be a fact.

That's about all I can comment on war

assets. I thought it was an interesting experience. We had some good businessmen helping us. Of course, I believe that the average civil servant is a pretty dedicated person, I've always felt that way. Maybe it's a reflection of myself because I always had a great respect for the taxpayer. But I've found that a lot of businessmen who came in were extremely dedicated and almost to the man, of the people I met, they were impressed with the general caliber of the average civil servant. I've had any number of them say to me or in my presence, you know, "When I was in business I used to think that the Government had a bunch of deadwood but I've met as many dedicated people in the United States Government as I've met in my own firm."

And I think this is probably true. I'm dedicated to that fact anyway.

FUCHS: Any major problems that you recall in the Administration?

RILEY: No, I don't recall any. We were always, of course, very alert to prevent any of our Federal employees who were working with it getting entangled in any way. That was a preoccupation in the Administration, being sure that our compliance people would be on top of anybody going crooked. This was kind of an experience, too. You always wondered when some prospective buyer would come in at what point was he going to offer you something under the table. And there you'd be. Maybe it was somebody you knew and had known for sometime, maybe you felt rather friendly toward him. But you had to decide that if that ever happens, I'm going to turn the son of a bitch in. I mean that's all. I never had a proposition made to me. There was one fellow who was very

friendly with me; he was kind of a slimy type of guy and I was always afraid he was going to, but he never did. I told my secretary one day, "Don't ever leave me alone with him if you can possibly keep from it. I want somebody around." But he never made a pass at me on any kind of a deal.

This was one of the preoccupations of the Administration at that time and I think it speaks fairly high for not only the War Assets administration but for civil servants in general.

Notwithstanding, things like this mess going on in Watergate and things like that, I think the average civil servant probably even today is pretty dedicated.

FUCHS: Then you went to the...

RILEY: State Department.

FUCHS: How did that come about? This was '48?

RILEY: Yes, 1948. I, of course, realized that the War Assets was in its waning stages and I was looking around for another Government job. I had pretty much decided by this point that I was going to stay in the Government, although I had never until about this time made up my mind that I was going to make a career of the Government. I don't think I entirely made it up then. But a fellow who worked for me in the Railroad Retirement Board back in 1939 was working in the personnel office of the State Department. A rather menial position. But he called me at my house one day and said, "I understand they're setting up a new office over in our Department" -- the State Department -- "and I understand this is the man you might go to see about it."

Well, to make a long story short, I got a job. I saw a lot of people, and I got a job in helping set up what was called the Office of Educational Exchange. The Smith-Mundt Act had been passed in January of 1948 I believe that was this god-awful 80th Congress, wasn't it?

FUCHS: The 80th Congress was '47 to '48, because Mr. Truman castigated the 80th Congress in his campaign in '48.

RILEY: Yes, that's right. Anyway, Senator H. Alexander Smith from New Jersey and Karl Mundt, who was a Congressman at that time from South Dakota, sponsored this legislation, and so we had in '48 -- January I think -- President Truman signed the Smith-Mundt Act, which provided for the cultural and informational part of the United States Government. This was the beginning of the Voice of

America, International Press Service, the International Broadcasting Service, which was the Voice of America, the overseas libraries, binational institutes, the educational exchange program -- which I eventually headed -- and the motion picture service. Those were the five media provided for under the Smith-Mundt Act. So I went to work organizing the Office of Educational Exchange, which was made up of the library service and the exchange of persons service. I was the first employee actually on the payroll of the combined Office of Educational Exchange. All the other people were detailed to it from the State Department. Since I came from the outside, we had to set up my job, and I became Executive Officer and helped set that up in '48 and '49. We had three principal parts of it. The exchange of persons program, the libraries, and binational

institutes program, and then an office -- I don't remember the name of it, but it was dedicated to cultural relations mainly in the Latin-American area. After working there as Executive Officer for several months, I was made Assistant Chief for the libraries operation and worked on that for about six or eight months. Then the Korean war hit -- maybe I worked longer than that. I think I did, I worked from the summer of 1949 until December of 1950. When the Korean war came along, they set up the Economic Stabilization Agency, which included the Office of Price Stabilization, and the Office of Wage Stabilization. President Truman had Eric Johnston heading that, I believe, and then he brought Mike DiSalle in to head up the Office of Price Stabilization. A friend of mine became assistant administrator of that and invited me to come over and apply for the job and I became

Director of Personnel for the Office of Price Stabilization.

FUCHS: Who was that you knew in the office?

RILEY: Richard Francis Cook. Dick Cook.

FUCHS: What was his position?

RILEY: He was Assistant Director of Price Stabilization for Management or Administration or whatever the title was. He had personnel and various other types of administrative-managerial kind of control in the outfit. So, I applied for a job and got it, and became Director of Personnel. At this point, this was before Mike DiSalle's time, I guess. I've forgotten the fellow's name. He left about the day he hired me, I think, and Mike DiSalle took over. Mike didn't hire me. I've forgotten that fellow's name. Anyway, before I was made Director

of Personnel, I had to have White House clearance. This was the first time in my career I'd ever had anything approaching political clearance. I was sent over to the White House to be interviewed by Donald Dawson and Don made it abundantly clear from the very beginning that they were hiring a personnel director and they expected me to operate under Civil Service rules and regulations, no hanky-panky, and no ward-heeling type of political appointments, this type of thing. They wanted a clean operation. He also informed me that it was customary at times for different people who worked in and around the White House to call up various agencies and say, "This is 'Joe Bloke' from the White House," and ask people to do things. But he said, in personnel administration in the Government, nobody at the White House spoke for the White House except the President and Don Dawson and Don Dawson's secretary

on his behalf. I understood that and told him I appreciated that. I had a rather interesting experience one day. John Steelman called me up and announced on the telephone who he was and began to ask me to do some things and I didn't know whether it was a trap or not. I had great respect for John Steelman but I felt obligated to inform him that I'd been ordered by Don Dawson not to take any direction from the White House except from those three people that I mentioned. So I informed John Steelman of that and that's the last I ever heard from him. I don't know whether he accomplished his mission or not through some other source.

FUCHS: Did you know him personally?

RILEY: I didn't know John Steelman. I'd seen him,

but I didn't know him.

FUCHS: Subsequently, did you have much contact with Donald Dawson?

RILEY: No, I talked to him on the phone probably three more times in the several months I was there. His secretary called many times and referred people to me, because there were lots of people always being referred, I mean coming to the White House looking for referral; and we were hiring a lot of people. In a period of about six months, we hired 11,000 people all over the United States and staffed some 45 regional and district offices. All these people were hired under Civil Service rules and regulations. Needless to say, we were extremely busy and we were working many 20-hour days in our personnel office, and I think I worked longer

hours than anybody. I've always felt that if you're going to lead a bunch of people you've got to set an example, and I did. But of all the referrals that I had from the White House, I never had but one pressure case. And Don Dawson's secretary -- I've forgotten her name -- called me and said, "Mr. Riley, I hate to put any pressure on you but I have somebody I'd like to recommend here. He's been pestering us to death and so is the Republican National Committee." She said, "If you can do anything for him, I'd really appreciate it."

I said, "Send him over."

And she sent him over and, notwithstanding the fact that he was a Republican, he was a good man and we hired him. I don't even remember his name now; but we had a spot for him. He was qualified. I thought this sort

of characterized the Truman administration in a sense. Newspapers blasted Truman for this and that, and he was criticized for sticking by his friends and a few things like that, which I think is very commendable. But I think by and large he was an extremely honest man, and I think this permeated the entire administration during his duty. The White House never put any pressure on me, as I say, on this small job that I had in hiring some 11,000 people in six months, except once and it was a bona fide bit of pressure. They just wanted to get somebody off their neck and thought somebody should hire him. They told me he looked like he was well-qualified when they sent him over.

FUCHS: Were you in touch with Mike DiSalle occasionally or frequently?

RILEY: Very frequently. He was a great guy, a great guy. He had the best morale in that Price Stabilization Office of, I think, about anyplace I ever saw. He was a leader. He was friendly. He handled himself extremely well with the Congress and extremely well with the press. I think by and large he was well thought of and this permeated his entire organization. People were happy working for him because they knew they had a person in there who was a good, honest, hard-working leader.

In personnel business you get down in the dumps because you have a lot of pressure put on you from time to time. You know, operating people they all want to get their secretary another $10,000 a year and things like this. When I'd get down in the dumps and really needed to be perked up a little

bit, I'd just go over and have a little chat with Mike DiSalle, say on Saturday afternoon. He worked seven days a week. He really led that outfit. And I would go over and talk with him for a few minutes and he would kind of buttress up my morale and get me feeling better. He was a real great person.

FUCHS: In this State Department position, where you were Assistant Chief of Libraries andÂ…

RILEY: Binational Institutes. Going back to 1938 or '39 there was a law which provided for certain cultural cooperation with the other American Republics, and under that the Government assisted in setting up in Latin America binational institutes generally in binational libraries. They put a bunch of American books down there and they'd have classes in English and classes in American literature,

and things like that. The local people would attend them, and there would be binational employees both North Americans, United States citizens, and South Americans working in them. For example, I understand that they taught English in Mexico City and they had such a big -- I've forgotten, hundreds of people went to study English at this binational institute in Mexico City. This was pretty well throughout Latin America; it was part of our public posture during the war to keep this going. And during the Nelson Rockefeller days of cooperation with the other American republics, we nurtured this type of thing. Finally, when the Smith-Mundt Act was passed, these things came under our general aegis and we had the Division of Libraries and Institutes developed and that's the outfit I was in.

FUCHS: Was this augmented under the Smith-Mundt Act?

RILEY: Under the Smith-Mundt Act we got our first appropriation for exchange of persons and things like that. Previously the Fulbright Act had been passed in 1946 and there was no dollar appropriation for that until the Smith-Mundt Act came along, and that gave some dollar appropriations to help out on the Fulbright exchange program; and that became part of this Office of Educational Exchange, too, the Fulbright Act. As a matter of fact, starting in '48 we began to set up these Fulbright programs around over the world, and this act provided for binational commissions to run them in the foreign countries. So, you'd have the American ambassador usually as the chairman of this commission, and you'd have some of the leading local educators on it, and maybe one or two

other American businessmen or American diplomats. You would have a four to five to seven man binational board, and then we'd sign an agreement with the country to use foreign currencies that we owned in their country, so to speak, because of war surplus or some other thing that they owed us for, lend-lease type of things . So that was the Fulbright Act in a nutshell.

But then we worked it hand in glove with the Smith-Mundt Act. Finally in January of 1952, they reorganized all of this element of the State Department under what was then called the United States International Information Administration, and that was part of the State Department. At that point, we set up these various services on a more clear organizational pattern. The International Broadcasting Service, generally known as the

Voice of America. The International Press and Publications Service, which was dedicated to exchange of publications, nurturing press relations with other countries, and things like this. Putting out American literature. The International Motion Picture Service which did the same thing with movies and audiovisual things. And the Libraries and Institutes Service, called the Information Center Service. That was the one I had been Assistant Chief of before, but by this time I was Deputy Director of the parent office after I'd come out of the Office of Price Stabilization. In August of 1951 I was invited to come back to the State Department as the Deputy Director of this Office of Educational Exchange. And then in January of 1952, when we