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Harry Rosenfield Oral History Interview

 

Oral History Interview with 
Harry N. Rosenfield

Principal attorney and assistant to Federal Security Administrator, 1942-48; Member, United States Delegation to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (Geneva, Switzerland), 1948; Commissioner United States Displaced Persons Commission, 1948-52; and Executive Director, President's Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, 1952-53.
 
 

Washington, D.C.
July 23, 1980
by James R. Fuchs

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

 


Notice
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..

The Papers of Harry Rosenfield are in the Library's archival collection.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 August 1982
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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

 



Oral History Interview with
HARRY N. ROSENFIELD

Washington, D.C.
July 23, 1980
by James R. Fuchs

[1]

FUCHS: Mr. Rosenfield, I thought we might start by you just giving a little of your background; when and where you were born, some of your education, and how you came finally to be in the Government service.

ROSENFIELD: I was born in the City of New York in 1911, August 17. My parents were immigrants. Both of them came from Russia or Poland. I had a brother, who has since passed away, and I still have a sister. I went to the College of the City of New York; was graduated with a B.A. from there. Then went to Columbia Law School, developed a LL.B. there; then subsequently won a JSD, a doctorate of law of the science of jurisprudence, at NYU.

[2]

Let's see. The kinds of things I did in New York, workwise?

FUCHS: Any background as to how you came to the Government and your work there, is what we're primarily interested in.

ROSENFIELD: My first significant job was assistant to Fiorello LaGuardia, before he became Mayor. Before he became Mayor and after he lost his seat in the Congress, he was impartial arbitrator for the cloth sponging industry. That's the industry which pre-shrinks cloth, so that when you go out into the rain it won't shrink on you. LaGuardia had an office on middle Broadway, and he was then contemplating running for Mayor. And for awhile I was his sole and only research team, and at that time I was at Columbia Law School. I think I was second year Columbia Law School, and I was working my way through school partially through a job as librarian at The City College of New York, and I had the key to the library. So, when I'd get through with my work I'd appear down at his office and he'd give me

[3]

projects to do, and I'd work on them at night after everybody was gone, 2, 3, 4 o'clock in the morning. Then I would turn up at his office the first thing in the morning, and have his young ladies type this stuff.

I'll come back in a minute because there's an incident there that's colored my whole life that I think I ought to tell you. After that I was special counsel to the U.S. Munitions Committee in 1934. I'd come down to Washington to work on the Nye bill. We had such faith in our capacity to prevent war by ending munitions industry, and that's what I was working on. Regretfully it didn't come to pass.

Later in that same year I was legal assistant to the New York City Charter Revision Commission. From there I went to become secretary to a member of the Board of Education of New York City, a position I held for about eight years. The members of the Board of Education were nonpaid people. The member that I was secretary to was one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever known, a Dr.

[4]

Alberto C. Bonaschi. These people were not then, as I believe they are now, paid officials. They did this out of the goodness of their hearts. So for practical purposes, he made me a deputy commissioner of education of the City of New York and it was wonderful experience.

Then, owing to some illness in my family, I decided to come to Washington. Frankly, because the Army turned me down--this was in 1942 I wanted to get into war, and they turned me down because I had a bum left arm from childhood polio. So I figured I wanted to come down to Washington to do what I could in the way effort and because of the family illness I felt it necessary to change the climate. I became the principal attorney to the then Federal Security Administrator; that's the predecessor of the Secretary of HEW.

FUCHS: How did that come about?

ROSENFIELD: I talked with a dear friend of my father-in-law, Arthur S. Meyer, who talked with Lillian Poses, FSA Regional Attorney. I also talked with

[5]

a former teacher at Columbia, Walter Gelhorn, who had been a regional attorney for the Federal Security Agency, and they know my legal work. They were liars and said I was a good lawyer. So that was the way it opened up. I came down to visit Jack B. Tate, the general counsel, and Jack Tate employed me.

Before leaving New York, I went to see LaGuardia to say good-bye to him and he was furious with me, "You can't leave me."

I said, "Well, here are the circumstances."

He said, "I was just about to appoint you Assistant Director of the Bureau of the Budget and the director is going to retire in a year and you would have been director of the Bureau of the Budget."

I said, "Well, Major,"--those of us who knew him from the old days knew he liked to be called Major because he was a major in the Air Force during the war--I said, "Major, I'm sorry." And for awhile he was really miffed at me, but as you will see later, he forgave me for it.

[6]

So I became principal attorney and I worked for the then Federal Security Administrator, Paul V. McNutt.

FUCHS: This was 1940 what?

ROSENFIELD: 1942. In 1942 I came down as principal attorney. I think it was 1944 or early 1945 that I became assistant to the Federal Security Administrator.

FUCHS: McNutt was already FSA administrator, though, when you came in?

ROSENFIELD: Yes, he was. As principal attorney I was in the division headed by Arthur Delafield Smith, an excellent lawyer. A magnificent, imaginative, creative lawyer. And we were all under Jack Tate, who was really one of the ablest general counsels and nicest persons I have ever known. He later became associate dean of Yale Law School.

When I was in the General Counsel’s office I was assigned to the division that dealt with the then Social Security Board composed of three members of the Board) and the U.S. Office of

[7]

Education. The commissioner at that time was John Studebaker of Iowa. From there, I think they kicked me upstairs--must have wanted to get rid of me--to assistant to the administrator; and there were two of us who were assistants. Mary Switzer, a magnificent, wonderful woman, after whom one of the HEW buildings is named--Mary E. Switzer (she was really a remarkable person)--and I, were the two. She was directly responsible for the health aspect and I was responsible for virtually all of the rest. Which meant education, welfare, and Social Security.

FUCHS: When was the Office of Education reorganized? Was that a little later? Under Ewing, I guess.

ROSENFIELD: That's right. Well, I was at the Federal Security Agency from 1942 to 1948. In 1948 while I was still in the Federal Security Agency the President nominated me to be a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Economic and Social Council for its meeting in Geneva, Switzerland in 1948; and that was a fascinating experience, especially crossing swords with the Russians.

[8]

FUCHS: This was prior to the Displaced Persons appointment?

ROSENFIELD: This was prior. As a matter of fact, he appointed me to the Commission while I was in Geneva and I had to excuse myself from that duty and come back. I was a member of the Commission from 1948 until 1952. When that was over and I thought I was going to get at least an hour's rest, I was called back from vacation and made executive director of the President's Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, which was a short time thing, from I think around August of 1952 to I think the end of January of 1953. Bear in mind that a new President came in after that.

So, that's the story of my Government work experience. Thereafter I went into private practice and I've been in private practice ever since. I have been since about the middle of 1953, the general counsel of the National Safety Council; and in the last eight or ten years, in addition, I've been copyright counsel to the National Education Association,

[9]

and for some years also the Washington counsel to the American Chiropractic Association, which brings me back into the health field, which I enjoyed so much.

That's the story. In addition I have along the way been able to do some writing. I'm the co-author of an eight or nine-volume book with Charles Gordon on immigration law and procedure. I have written a book on liability for school accidents, which the New York Times gave one of its awards for the 60 best books of the year. I've been a contributor to some other books, and then I've written somewhere's in the vicinity of 700 or 800 articles in professional, general, safety, and other areas, including an article for the New York Times Sunday magazine called "People Without Land, Land Without People," which I wrote while I was on the Displaced Persons Commission, covering the whole area of migrations around the world.

Well, I've talked more than I should.

FUCHS: No, that's what we want; we're not here to listen to me.

[10]

ROSENFIELD: You must never ask a lawyer to talk.

FUCHS: When did you have time for fun?

ROSENFIELD: Well, I had a wonderful family. My wife, Leonora Cohen Rosenfield, was a professor at the University of Maryland. I had a lovely daughter Marianne. I must confess that during the period I was in the Displaced Persons Commission they saw very little of me, but they were very gracious about it and very supportive, so it's just been wonderful.

FUCHS: Well, to go back a bit, while you were with LaGuardia, do you recall any other incidents that might be of interest? You know a lot of these anecdotes are good sidelights and footnotes to history.

ROSENFIELD: Yes. Yes, there was one incident that occurred with LaGuardia that's really shaped the rest of my life. He was an extraordinary man, gifted, choleric, but one of the kindest people I've ever worked for. I have two incidents which will be amusing to you, both of them while I was

[11]

working for him as a legal aide.

I had been writing speeches for him for months. One day he called me in and said, "Harry, I want you to write a speech for me. I've got to make a speech tomorrow noon at the Welsh Society of the United States"--I'm not sure that was its title, but it was the Welsh ethnic group.

I said, "What do you want to say?"

He said, "How the hell do I know. That's your job."

So, I went up to the Main Library and I was delighted to find out what an exciting people the Welsh of America were. They were just fascinating people. As was our custom there, I wrote a speech for him. And he had then these 6 x 9 cards with the large type, and I had it typed for him and I brought it in. I apparently got him at a bad time, because he looked at the cards and started shrieking at me like a banshee. He threw the cards down on the floor and jumped on them as if there were an animal there. Now this was in 1933, and I still have a visual picture of his heel mark on the cards.

[12]

You can imagine what an impression it left on me, and on the cards. And he shrieked at me, "Get the hell out of here; who ever asked you to write a speech, and the nerve of you typing it before you showed it to me." And he shrieked, "You're fired. Get your salary, I don't ever want to see you again, get out of here," shrieking at me.

It was the first and only time I've ever been fired. My office was directly below his in City Hall. If he stamped on the floor my lights would have gone out; it was in the basement. I was just absolutely crushed. I was still a law school kid. I started to pull my stuff together, my files and personal things, and memos I wanted to have as keepsakes. The executive secretary of the Mayor, Stanley--I can't for the moment think of his last name--Stanley came downstairs and took me by the arm and said, "The Major wants to see you."

And I said, "Tell him to go to hell, he just fired me."

He said, "Oh, come on, you're the only one in this building that hasn't been fired yet. We don't

[13]

want to discriminate against you." Well, he edged me up the flight of steps and was smart enough to open the door of the Mayor's office, push me in, and stay out.

And there I was, a truculent kid, and the Mayor looked over his glasses at me, that famous look of his over his heavy-rimmed glasses, and he said, "What's the matter, running out on me when I need you?" I figured well, this was some kind of apology. He said, "Come on over here. What does this mean?" I looked at the typed card and there was his heel mark on it. I described what it meant and he said, "Okay," and still no apology. So he said, "Doing anything for lunch?"

And I said, "No, sir, I was going to leave since you fired me."

He said, "Why don't you come up and have lunch with me up there?" He meant at the luncheon he was to address.

And that was the only apology that I ever got from him. And, of course, I was not fired.

[14]

FUCHS: He must have been a case.

ROSENFIELD: Oh, he was marvelous. Well, he married my wife and me.

FUCHS: Is that right?

ROSENFIELD: As Mayor of the city he was chief magistrate, so he married us. About three months after that--he married us after I had been at the Board of Education, and after I got out of law school. I didn't get out of law school until 1934, and another incident happened before. By then I was over at the Board of Education. I was his hatc