Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened September 1969
Oral History Interview with
October 15, 1968
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Judge, in the light of the fact that you held the most important position on the White House staff to be carried over from the Roosevelt administration, could you tell me why Mr. Roosevelt chose you for that position in the first place?
ROSENMAN: I had acted as counsel to the Governor in New York State, during both of his periods as Governor. In that position I had the function not only of being a legal counselor, but also doing a great many things that are
peripheral to the counselorship, such as helping in speeches, helping in drafting statements, general policy advice. I also helped during his campaign for Governor. I met him first in 1928 when he was compelled, or rather drafted by Governor [Al] Smith to run for Governor in New York State while Smith was running for the Presidency. I'm sure Smith realized that with the bigotry which opposed him in a great many parts of the nation it was necessary to carry the larger industrial states, I mean the largest industrial states in the North, and the most important was New York State.
Therefore, he was instrumental in getting Roosevelt to run for Governor, much against Roosevelt's will, but Roosevelt did it primarily in order to help Smith. I met him first in that campaign of 1928. He asked two different people to recommend someone who might go with him on the
campaign who was familiar with the legislative and political history of New York. These were people of very different backgrounds. One was a professional politician, and the other was a close policy assistant of Governor Smith. They both recommended me without consultation with each other. I suppose he thought that if these two diverse sources thought that I could help him, I would be all right, so he asked me to come along on this trip in 1928.
I worked with him on speeches then, and came back to New York with him for his campaign here. He was elected by a very small majority of about 25,000 votes, while Governor Smith lost the state by over 100,000. Governor Roosevelt then asked me to become counsel.
The counsel to the Governor was a statutory position in New York made necessary by the fact that under the New York constitution the attorney general, who is the chief law officer of the state,
could very well be of a different party from the Governor, because they both were elective officials. As a matter of fact, in the election of 1928, one Republican on the state ticket was elected; and that was the attorney general. Therefore the statute had provided for a great many years that the Governor should appoint his own counsel. However, over recent years before 1928, the position had become very much a sinecure; and people held it who performed no function except to endorse their paychecks. I told this to the Governor, and said that I felt I would rather stay where I was; that was as the Democratic member of the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission. I said, "All of the real work around Smith was performed by three outside people," and I mentioned their names, "and the counsel does practically nothing."
He said he realized this, but he intended in the future to do away with any so-called
"kitchen cabinet" and to turn all this work over to the counsel.
I still was a little dubious about taking the post -- in fact, quite dubious, because the Governor's term then was only two years. He had been elected by a thumbnail, practically; and I figured that I ought not to give up a lifetime job such as the one I had, which paid a very good salary, and which provided for legitimate outside activities in drafting legislation -- give that up for a two-year term on the Governor's staff. I was deliberating about it, when one day it appeared in the paper that he had appointed me counsel. On inquiry by me as to whether this was a dope story, he said, no, that he had released it and, as he said, "I thought I'd make up my mind for you."
During the following four years I was very active with the Governor. In 1932, he appointed
me to the Supreme Court bench of the State of New York for the vacancy which then existed. This appointment normally lasts until the end of the year when the place is filled by election for a full term of four years. Without exception the Governor's appointee had always been nominated by his own party. He appointed me in April, 1932; but I continued to do work for him in my spare time. For example, I helped him in the Jimmy Walker hearings. I used to get the daily transcripts of the testimony and I used to go up to Albany weekends. I also organized the so-called "brain trust" in 1932 that worked with him on the campaign. I was unable to go on the campaign train with him because the presiding justice of the court objected, but I sat with the brain trust and we got up the campaign speeches. As a result of that, I guess he came to the conclusion that he could work
with me, that I was helpful. I think above all, as he said in several of his letters, he liked the calmness and deliberateness about me. Times can get rather hectic around the chief executive, people begin to shout and lose their tempers, and he said a number of times that I was the only one that kept his head. I think he liked that.
After he was elected and went down to Washington, I was on the bench, and my visits to Washington were purely social. However, when the campaign of 1936 approached, I don't know whether he was dissatisfied with the people he had or not, he asked me to come down with him, and I was there during the convention, helped work on his acceptance speech, and was generally helpful on the platform and on his communications with the Convention. And then during the campaign, he asked me to come
along with him on the train in the summer, which I did, because I was free from court work. I went around most of the country with him helping on speeches and so forth. And as a result of all this, I think he became impressed by the fact that I could be helpful. Starting after that election and continuing down until October 1943, I used to go down to the White House and work on various speeches, messages and reorganizations of departments. However, I never had an official post. It was always unofficial. This became rather hectic, because I had to sit on the bench and dash down there at 4:30, come back on the sleeper train, and then be in court the next morning.
After the war broke out, it got very hectic indeed. I suggested to him that it might be well if I resigned and came down there for the period of the war. He said he didn't want to
do that unless that was absolutely necessary. He knew that I liked a judicial career. And he said, "No." So I continued these double duties until in March 1943, when I found myself in the hospital in Baltimore with the sight of my left eye completely gone -- with optic nerve exhaustion. It was a rather critical period, because the doctor said he didn't know whether the eye would recover, or if it would spread to the other eye, or what would happen. At any rate, I spent six weeks in bed, and fortunately recovered the full sight of my eye. The doctor, however, said that if I continued this kind of work at that pace that it would hit me again, that I had passed a red light, and I shouldn't try it again. He said, "With you permission, I'd like to call the President and tell him," which he did.
Whereupon the President said that in view
of that fact he thought it would be well for me to resign and come down there full-time. He and I had a talk in Washington about what would happen, what particular things I would do, and then it got around to the title, and he suggested, "Why don't we call you 'Counsel to the President,' the same as you were 'Counsel to the Governor?"'
I said, "I think that's fine. Anything you want is all right with me." I should add that there never had been a counsel to the President. This was the creation of a new job.
In three or four days he called me up and said that the Attorney General, Francis Biddle, had had a talk with him and objected to the title. He said, "The Attorney General is really the Counsel to the President." He said, "I pointed out to him that the counsel to the Governor did much more than legal advice, and that there wouldn't be any competition." But Biddle
persisted in objecting.
I said to the President, "Any title is all right with me. What are you going to do about this?"
He said that he was going to wait until next week when Biddle was slated to attend a conference in Mexico, and while he was away he would announce it; only as a sop to Biddle, instead of "Counsel to the President," he would call it "Special Counsel to the President." And that's what I was called.
From that point on, I was in Washington with an office and with official status. During the summer of '43, I was convalescing from this eye condition, and I took a house up near Hyde Park. As you know, he used to try to get up to Hyde Park as often as Johnson tries to get down to Texas, and we were within a couple of miles of each other so that we had an opportunity to talk. I stayed up there all summer. Then
in October I sent in my formal resignation, and was sworn in as Special Counsel to the President.
I should add this: When I finally succeeded in resigning that post with President Truman -- he first asked me to stay on until V-E Day, then until V-J Day, then for another year, so I had my troubles getting out. But when I did get out, he issued a release about it and he said that I had come down here in a war job, and that he was not going to appoint any successor. The statement was a surprise to me, and I pointed out to him before I left, I said, "Mr. President, I'm sure you're going to find that it will be necessary to have someone take my functions over, no matter what you call him."
He said, "Well, I'm going to try without it." And he tried and he found that this was difficult; and he appointed Clifford as my successor, which is another story, which we
can talk about some other time.
I have several letters from President Roosevelt talking about the help I'd been to him in Albany and during the campaign. I could let you see those letters, but I don't think it's important. The important thing is that he appointed me because he had had long experience with me. And as you know, I was the only one that lasted in Washington until he died. Those that came in in '33 gradually disappeared, as well as others that he later called into the position of speechwriter, policy helper -- they all disappeared from view. I was the only one that lasted. I think the reason for that -- this is repetitious -- but I knew the man very well, I knew very well how he thought. He knew that I was not a "yes" man, and above all he knew that in times of stress that I would keep my head about me.
HESS: When did you first meet Mr. Truman?
ROSENMAN: I met Mr. Truman first in a very casual way, when he came over to the White House and had lunch with the President to discuss the campaign. This was a couple of weeks after the Convention. I went over to the lunch and the President introduced me and I didn't see him again, really, until after the campaign, at the inauguration period.
HESS: On the subject of the campaign, what do you recall about the situation that arose in 1944 over the question of choosing a running-mate for Mr. Roosevelt?
ROSENMAN: That's a very complicated situation. I wrote about it in my book, and before I put it in galley, I brought it to President Truman while he was still in the White House. I brought it down to him and said, "Will you read
this and tell me if this conforms with your recollection?"
And he said, "Yes."
You will find all that in Working With Roosevelt, and I don't see how I can embellish it, it would just be repetitious.
HESS: In his book, Yankee From the West, Burton Wheeler had the following statement:
Was Wheeler under consideration for the Vice-Presidential nomination?
ROSENMAN: Definitely the answer is no. For the life of me, since reading this question, when you first sent this to me, I can bring about no
recollection of that visit, except that I made it. Whether it was done at Roosevelt's suggestion in order to get the so-called "liberal westerners" into his camp by letting them be consulted or not, I do not know. I have the suspicion that that was the reason he asked. I know very well, I would not have gone to see Senator Wheeler unless I had been specifically instructed to by the President, because as you know there was a distinct coolness between them ever since the court fight.
HESS: Was there really any question in your mind as to whether or not the President intended to run for a fourth term?
ROSENMAN: No. There was no question. There was a great deal of question in my mind as to whether or not he was going to run for the third term. I can show you correspondence with him about my
buying a piece of property near Hyde Park in order to spend some time up there and help him in writing his memoirs. By that time, the library had been talked about, and, I think, was partially completed. As you know, there's a small room there with a ramp leading up to a path, and the path leading up to his residence. He had that constructed on the theory that after he retired, after two terms, he would spend his time taking care of his papers, writing his memoirs and so forth. And it would have been a delightful atmosphere.
I think that the possibility of his running for a third term never entered into his mind until war broke out in '39. Then I think this was merely a thought. I think that his desire to retire became accentuated during the so-called phony war, he thought that it might lead to some kind of peace. It was not until the Nazis invaded
Denmark and then Norway that he became determined to stay in the White House until the Nazis were defeated. By 1944, however, the summer of 1944, we had already landed on Normandy; we were making our way back over the Pacific, past the various islands; and I don't think there was any doubt in his mind that he ought to stay in until the job was finished, especially since he had already formulated his idea about the United Nations and had actually started discussions about it in Dumbarton Oaks. I think it was quite clear that he expected to stay until he had concluded victory and had arranged for the organization of the United Nations.
HESS: Do you think the President thought he was physically able to go for another four years?
ROSEMAN: I'm sure that he thought so, but more importantly the doctors advised him to that
effect. I never saw any state of health, or absence of health, which frightened me, really, until I went out to meet him on his way back from Yalta to work on his Yalta speech. But judging by the election campaign of 1944 in which I accompanied him, it never occurred to me that he would not be able to finish the fourth term and then go back to Hyde Park.
HESS: Judge James Byrnes, in his book, All in One Lifetime, states that you advocated the nomination of Henry Kaiser as Vice President on the Democratic ticket in 1944. Is that correct?
ROSENMAN: Long before the President made up his mind that the political temper was such that he would be burdened by a Wallace candidacy for Vice President, he began to talk generally about who there was that could do some of these things that he had been doing. I said, "You know, we've
always been considering politicians: Senator this and Governor that. If we could find a good, liberal, businessman in the Democratic Party, maybe such as Willkie was, that it might be a freshening innovation to bring him in as Vice President." We began to talk about possibilities. I had gotten to know Henry Kaiser very well. He was then busy turning out ships at an unprecedented rate, and his labor relations were fine, and I suggested him. The President had met him on several occasions, and of course, had read about him.
He said, "Well, I think that's an interesting idea. Why don't you try to find out something about him."
I did two things: I called up one of his right-hand men and told him, "I don't want you to talk about this, but I want to get a collection of every speech that Henry Kaiser
has made in the last ten years, and let me see them."
He said, "That will take a little time."
I told him why I wanted it and he said, "Well, then, I guess it will take less time."
I also got the FBI to look at him. The FBI turned in a favorable report -- completely all right. I got the speeches. It was rather a large volume of stuff. I started to read them. All of them were fine except one. In that one he came out for a large sales tax to finance the war and what was coming on after the war. The President had always been against sales tax, as I had been. And so far as I was concerned that eliminated him, but I went to the President and told him all these things and said, "He made a speech about two years ago urging sales tax."
He said, "I guess that's the end of Henry."
So Byrnes is correct, and I did recommend Henry Kaiser for consideration. The President must have told him about it. I did not know that Byrnes knew. It was one of those top secrets that's top secret for everybody but the President. I never read All in One Lifetime.
HESS: President Truman states in his Memoirs, Vol. I, page 192, that he believed that James Byrnes knew that President Roosevelt had his name under consideration at the time that Mr. Byrnes phoned Mr. Truman in Independence and asked him to place his name in nomination. What's your opinion on that matter?
ROSENMAN: Well, the question is well worded since it refers to opinion, because I have tried to ascertain the facts, without success. I know that among the group that were around the President talking about a substitute for Wallace,
Jimmy Byrnes was frequently mentioned. There were two objections to Byrnes: One was that the Negroes wouldn't vote for him; and the second was that the rank and file of labor wouldn't vote for him. I believe, and it's only a belief, that Byrnes knew about this discussion. He also knew that Harry Truman was being considered, and I believe with President Truman that that's one of the reasons that he called Truman up. I think Truman believes that it was to get him out of the running. I don't think it was that as much as to be able finally to convince the President that he was a good liberal Democrat; otherwise, Senator Truman wouldn't have anything to do with his nomination. I agree with Truman's opinion. I don't think that it will ever be proved or disproved -- except by Byrnes himself. If anybody could get into Frank Walker's skull, I think he probably
did tell Jimmy Byrnes.
HESS: What had been the nature of the relationship between Mr. Byrnes and Mr. Truman up until that point in time?
ROSENMAN: I think up until Mr. Byrnes left the White House and became Secretary of State, the relationship was excellent. It began to deteriorate after he became Secretary of State. He thought that Byrnes was carrying out his own policies rather than Truman's, and I'm sure he thought of him in terms of insubordination and as one who wanted to perpetuate his own policy. Byrnes, I'm sure, thought all the time that he should have been sitting in that chair in which Mr. Truman was sitting. I don't think he disguised that belief very much. Personally, I had become quite cynical about Byrnes, although we started out as friends I thought that Byrnes was quite selfish and interested only in Byrnes
himself. When I heard from President Truman that he expected to appoint Byrnes right after the United Nations was organized and Stettinius expected to resign, I had had some rather bad experiences with Byrnes in the White House under President Roosevelt. Being a kind of a "no" man, I said to President Truman, "I don't think you know Jimmy Byrnes, Mr. President. You think you do. In the bonhomie of the Senate, he's one kind of a fellow; but I think you will regret this, and if I were you, I wouldn't do it." Well, he'd been a longtime friend of Byrnes and he appointed him. Later on, he told me that I was right in warning him but he had nothing to go on. I said, "I've had plenty in the White House with Jimmy Byrnes and so have other people." At any rate everything was fine until he became Secretary of State and then gradually Truman's opinion of Byrnes began to
go down very rapidly.
HESS: What were a few of those unfortunate experiences you had with Byrnes in the White House?
ROSENMAN: Anytime that we had a conference around the President in which everybody would speak frankly around the table, Byrnes would sneak in and in the absence of the rest of us advance arguments which obviously we couldn't hear and refute. Then he was very petty with the President, always threatening to resign if the President didn't do what he wanted him to. I think President Roosevelt was getting fed up with Jimmy too. There was nothing he could do; Jimmy held a very important war job. And then Jimmy became very much like Louis Howe. He became very jealous of people around the President. He thought he ought to be the only one, and he developed great hostility to me because of that.
One day the President said to me, "Would you like to be Solicitor General of the United States?"
I said, "No, Mr. President; I got off the bench, a lifetime job at a salary twice what I'm now getting, in order to help in the war. The Solicitor General occupies a very great post but he has nothing to do with the war."
And the President laughed and said, "Well, it's just an idea of Jimmy Byrnes."
So I said, "His idea was to get rid of me."
And the President laughed in acquiescence. That was the end of the Solicitor Generalship.
HESS: Could you tell me about your role in the writing of the Democratic Party platform in 1944? An article in the New York Times of July the 16th, 1944, stated that you wrote the first draft. Is that correct?
ROSENMAN: Well, I don't think I wrote a complete draft. I worked on this platform as I did on the '40 and '36 platforms, usually in communication with the chairman of the resolutions committee -- the platform committee -- in the Convention. My recollections are rather hazy about it; but I think I spent almost every day for a week before the Convention and during the Convention with the President. You remember the Convention of '44 involved quite a revolt against Roosevelt, and especially over Wallace, and I was with him during that time in the White House and helped on the 1944 acceptance speech, and I imagine the Times reporter seeing me always around wrote that. I don't think I actually did a draft of that platform, but I know I worked on it.
HESS: What were your duties during the 1944 campaign?
ROSENMAN: Well, just the same as they were during the '36 and '40 campaigns. I stayed in the White House helping on campaign speeches, and I went with the President physically on the campaign trip. I had nothing to do with the Democratic headquarters themselves. I don't think I ever went into them and I used to keep to myself very much to avoid any people who might have some axes to grind in the campaign. But it was purely as an assistant to the President.
HESS: You stated in your interview for Columbia University that you met President Truman once during the 1944 campaign, and that was when he came into the White House to talk about the plans for the campaign, which we've also mentioned this afternoon. Was that the only time that you met him in '44?
ROSENMAN: That's right.
HESS: What do you recall about Mr. Truman's efforts during that campaign?
ROSENMAN: I have no recollection at all.
HESS: Was there someone in the White House in charge of coordinating President Roosevelt's and Senator Truman's efforts?
ROSENMAN: I can't remember. I know there was no one in the White House doing it. There may have been someone over to the national committee. Now, Roosevelt paid much more attention to the national committee than President Johnson does, or did. They were in constant communication with him. The chairman was Bob Hannegan, who was a very close friend of Truman's, and he may have done this. But we were so busy with the President's speeches that we never even read Dewey's, much less Truman's. We used to kid each other, [Robert] Sherwood and I, about these
great debates. He was a Lincoln scholar and he always talked about the Lincoln-Douglas debates; but he learned in 1940, the first campaign that he worked on, that presidential debates are very different things today. "This is terrible, we do speeches. We don't know what Willkie said. We don't know what Dewey said."
I said, "You're not supposed to know. The cardinal principle of campaigning" (which Vice President Humphrey is disregarding every day) "is to pay no attention to what your opponent is saying. If he commits any falsehoods, to let other people answer him, and above all not let him pick the battlefield of the campaign." Just as a digression, Vice President Humphrey, who I'm sure knows better, violated that from the very beginning. Mr. Nixon very cleverly picked the battlegrounds:
Vietnam and peace and order in the streets. Those were two subjects that Humphrey should have made two speeches about, one about one, and one about the other, and then refused to discuss them again. They could only be defensive speeches. He should have talked about the great domestic achievements of the Johnson Administration, forget all about Vietnam, and order in the streets. The more he talked about it, the more it emphasized what Nixon and Wallace were saying. It's as bad a tactic as a general who lets the other side get on the hill of the battlefield, with him in the valley. No good general ever does that. That was Humphrey's overriding mistake -- I don't know whether it would have made any difference, but certainly, we never paid any attention to what Dewey was saying, and because we didn't have time we didn't pay any attention to what Mr.
Truman was saying. You know, when you're around the President in a campaign everything else seems very detached and far away, even the war began to feel very detached. And our only interest in it was how to use it in the campaign. The campaign as it goes on becomes your central raison d'etre, and everything else becomes insignificant. It may not be very patriotic, but it's a fact.
HESS: Were you in attendance the night that President Roosevelt addressed the Teamsters Union at the time that he made his Fala speech?
HESS: Judge, in your opinion, did the Republicans commit any political blunders that year that might have helped account for Mr. Roosevelt's victory?
ROSENMAN: I can't think of any particular political
blunder. I know that starting in 1936 and going through 1940, and again in 1944, they committed a number of things which I considered political blunders, but I can't think of anything particular in the 1944 campaign except perhaps seeking to blame the so-called "old men," Marshall, Roosevelt, Leahy, for their conduct of the war. Roosevelt took full advantage of that by pointing out that they were winning the war, the Germans and Japs were both in full retreat, and I think that they may have antagonized a great many Republican voters. But that's the only thing that I can specify now and pinpoint as to these years as a particular blunder.
HESS: Looking back, what do you recall of the events on inauguration day, January 20, 1945?
ROSENMAN: I had been to the inaugurations of 1933, and '37 and '41 and this one was particularly impressive chiefly because of its lack of fanfare, and its homey, but cordial, spirit in wartime. Instead of appearing on the steps of the Capitol before a huge crowd, this inauguration was held on the back porch of the White
House with the audience consisting only of a comparatively few invited guests. One thing I remember particularly is observing Mr. Wallace who was having his political career cut short very abruptly. Outside of that the chief impression was that this was a fine, simple, impressive kind of ceremony, based on the sound idea that, in times of war, the usual show of an inauguration should be avoided.
HESS: We mentioned it previously this afternoon, but you say that when you first became aware of President Roosevelt's physical decline was on the way back from Yalta, is that correct?
ROSENMAN: Yes. Well, I want to say this. I used to go into the President's bedroom every morning with Mr. [Steve] Early, the Press Secretary, and General [Edwin] Watson, the Appointments Secretary, to lay out the events of the day, and we used to always meet Dr. [Ross T.] McIntire and Dr. [Comdr. Howard G.] Bruenn, who was a heart specialist. They would be coming out of the bedroom usually when we'd be going in. They always
insisted to us that the President was feeling all right. One time he got some bronchial difficulty, and they were making him lose weight, I thought, perhaps too fast. I really became frightened for the first time when I saw him on the cruiser coming back from Yalta, which I joined at Algiers in order to help prepare the report to the Congress on the Yalta Conference. That was the first time that President Roosevelt remained seated while he delivered the message to the Congress; he apologized for it in his opening sentences, saying that it was quite a strain for him to drag these various pounds of steel around.
HESS: Could you tell me something about the preparation of that report? Did President Roosevelt assist as much in the preparation of that report as he usually assisted you in the writing of some of the other reports and messages?
ROSENMAN: He did with one exception. I got on at Algiers. At that time I was the head of a mission of seven or eight men, and I had to leave these men abruptly in London when I got word through Mr. [John] Winant, our
ambassador, that the President wanted me to report to the ship coming back. He said he wanted me to get on at Alexandria, but there wasn't sufficient time so in consultation with the commanding admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet, we flew to Algiers and I had two or three days waiting for the ship. During those two or three days I wrote a very general first draft of the report; and I had it ready when I got on the ship. It was my hope that we could get the speech done by the time we got to Gibralter so that I could get off at Gibralter, or maybe the Azores, and fly back to London. I had to leave without telling the members of my mission where I was going. They probably guessed; but they never asked and I never told them. I laid out some lines of inquiry for them to follow. I was anxious to get back. However, the President was so worn out that contrary to his usual custom he just wouldn't go to work
on the speech. I gave him my first draft as soon as I came aboard and he gave me all the official papers signed by Stalin and Churchill at Yalta so that I would have some idea of what actually went on. But I couldn't get him to work on that first draft. He would sit up on the top deck with his daughter Anna most of the day, and in the evening he would go to the stateroom. He loved caviar, and old Stalin had stuffed caviar there as though it were ballast, and he enjoyed the caviar. We sat and watched a movie. I saw my chances of my getting off at Gibralter evaporating very rapidly; and the result was that I landed at Norfolk with him. He only worked on the speech the last day or two and then finished it in the White House. Right after he had made his speech in the Congress, which I went up to listen to, I left and went back to London.
HESS: What were your thoughts on April 12, 1945; when you heard of the death of President Roosevelt?
ROSEMAN: As you know from reading my book, I was there on two missions really: One was to try to get some civilian supplies, clothing, food and so forth, into the western countries which were being liberated from the Nazis. In many places they were starving, particularly in the cities, and even more particularly in the cities of Holland where they were living on a 900 calorie diet. It was my job to try to get immediately into the areas enough food and so forth to prevent disorder. The American Army and the British Army were moving eastward over France and Belgium and Holland, and they were leaving in their rears starving civilians. The Army felt that this was always a hazard in their rear, and they wanted, apart from humanitarian reasons, to get
these people something to eat. All of the food transports had been taken away. You know, food is usually brought into Paris from the country districts