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James H. Rowe Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
James H. Rowe

Technical advisor, to International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 1945-46; consultant, on aviation, etc., to the Bureau of the Budget, 1947; member, Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, 1948-49; member, 1948 Foreign Service Selection Board, State Department; member, special commission, U.S. "spy" inquiry, State Department, 1948; chairman, commission to reorganize government of Puerto Rico, 1949; chairman, committee on personnel to Secretary of State, 1950.

Washington, D.C.
September 30, 1969 and January 15, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess

Interview Transcript . . . . . . . . . . . . . Pages 1-98
Appendix A . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . .99-126
Appendix B. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . .127-161

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


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.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 December, 1979
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


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


Oral History Interview with
James H. Rowe


Washington, D.C.
September 30, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Rowe, when did you join President Roosevelt's staff as an Administrative Assistant?

ROWE: I was on the White House staff before I was an Administrative Assistant. I went over early in 1938 as an assistant to Jimmy Roosevelt who was then the President's secretary. I had been a lawyer in various Government agencies and the last one I was in was the SEC and I was writing occasional speeches for Jimmy because he was very busy, but he was still trying to run for Governor of Massachusetts and when he started to write a speech he tied up large segments of the Government for two or three days, so I


started writing them. He then asked me to come over as assistant and I took a title that happened to be vacant over there, the Executive Assistant to the President. I don't know who had been in it before and I don't know what ever happened to it afterwards. Jimmy, several months later, went out West to be operated on for his ulcers and while he was out there he changed wives and never came back and I stayed on. The Administrative Assistants were created in what was the Reorganization Act of '37 or '38.


HESS: '39.

ROWE: '39. There was an act in '37. And I was appointed the first one, the first Administrative Assistant, in July 1939. The President appointed three and I happened to take my oath first so I was number one, in terms of time.

HESS: Who were the other gentlemen at that time?

ROWE: Lauchlin Currie was brought in from the Federal


Reserve Board, more or less as the economist, the economic advisor, and Bill [William H.] McReynolds, who had been a career man of the Civil Service Commission, was brought in really to handle personnel questions other than the political appointments. I handled the political appointments but Bill handled all the kinds of things that Civil Service deals with.


HESS: Just what were your duties?

ROWE: Well, the President once described my duties as that of a bird dog, which was to do, in effect, whatever he told me to do and occasionally I would do things of my own without being told. I did a variety of things. It was a relatively small staff in those days. This was before the war, when there were the three secretaries. I used to kid some of my friends on the Truman staff after the war when I came back and said I found nine men doing what I used to do. But I did what I would call the political personnel


job that John Macy did. I was one of the Hill men, one of the White House lobbyists. I did a large part of the work with the regulatory agencies because I was, at that time, the only lawyer in the place. I also did a great deal of digesting large reports to the President, summarizing them, giving them summaries. I handled the enrolled bills coming back, the vetoed bills. That was in very close connection with the Budget Bureau. I handled, for instance, the Civil Aeronautics Board route cases, the foreign route cases that the President had to pass on, that kind of thing. It was an across-the-board job. I used to get, oh, say two or three memos a day from the President saying find out about this or find out about that. That kind of thing.


HESS: How did you carry out your White House congressional liaison work? After the President had decided what measures he wanted to get through Congress, just what steps did he take to get


those passed?


ROWE: He didn't take them in the involved way we seem to do it now -- the present administration, the Johnson administration, or I suppose the Truman, but I can't remember enough about the Truman administration. In our day, the lead was usually taken by the department concerned, much more than today and much less centralization in the White House. Occasionally he would have someone -- financial legislation was drafted, for instance, by people like Tommy [Thomas] Corcoran, my law partner, and Ben Cohen. I did some work before I went to the White House on these, and they would do the drafting and also carry it through the Hill. So, in effect, you had a functional group in a department or an agency or even some outside who understood the substance very well, drafted it and worked on it, but also did all the political lobbying for it. I would go down on various bills, agriculture occasionally, once in a while, really to


give an extra "White House shove" to the stuff the President wanted but which the department was probably carrying along.


HESS: Did President Roosevelt make calls to the Hill much in the nature of Lyndon Johnson's type of operation?

ROWE: Oh, yes, he did a lot of that. Not, I would assume, as much as Johnson did, but on the important legislation, he would be on the telephone or calling Senators or Congressmen in to see him, that sort of thing. He did that.

HESS: Just how did President Roosevelt conduct his relations with his staff?

ROWE: Very loosely and informally. I'm talking, of course, about the prewar period; I left just before the war broke out. So, I'm not talking about the war period although there was a build-up of staff just the year before that. It was very informal. He did break down the staff duties. He had an appointments secretary, he


had a press secretary, he had, when Marvin McIntyre was there, and I guess later with Bill [William D.] Hassett, a man who handled other things. Jimmy Roosevelt concentrated on the agencies, mostly, and some of the politics. The administrative assistants saw the President on important things. I had to see him, of course, on the appointments all the time.


HESS: Did he have something in the nature of a daily staff meeting?

ROWE: No, he didn't. The only time the staff ever seemed to get together was before press conferences. He had two press conferences a week, as I remember, on Tuesdays and Fridays. Usually the staff would come in ahead of him, just to sit around. Sometimes he would ask them questions about what he ought to say and shouldn't say but it was very informal. Roosevelt was usually available to each member of the staff. The only problem I ever had was occasionally getting in, when his appointments secretary, who had all the


pressures of everybody trying to get in, would decide that what I was doing was not important enough to get in. If that happened too often I would go through the "back room," through Grace Tully and Miss [Marguerite A.] Le Hand. And I got to see him myself. It is the usual problem any appointments secretary has to go through to make these choices, and "Pa" [Major General Edwin M.] Watson did this.


HESS: What was the relationship between Judge Samuel I. Rosenman and the White House staff during your period of service?

ROWE: He was then a judge in New York. He did appear time to time. I remember mostly he appeared when I was there during the 1940 campaign and that was as a speechwriter. The President had great faith in the Judge as a speechwriter. And the Judge would slip in and out. I think it's fair to say, my memory is not too accurate on this, but on a major speech Sam would appear, irrespective of campaigns. The President had


various speechwriting teams. For awhile he had Rosenman, Corcoran, and Cohen; later he had, more or less it seemed to me, Harry Hopkins, not Harry -- well Harry was in on it but also [Robert] Sherwood, and Sam Rosenman. And Sam constantly, I think, until he came down here during the war, so far as I could judge, was a speechwriter. Now, he may have been very active politically, talking to the President but I didn't see that.


HESS: What seemed to be the relationship between Sam Rosenman and President Roosevelt?

ROWE: Oh, I think it was a very good one. Sam had been his counsel up in New York when he was Governor and the President had made him a judge. I think that's what Sam wanted. My feeling was the pressures were always with the President in getting Sam, and Sam would have been perfectly content to stay up there and do his work, but the President kept calling him down. When the war came I think he just said you've got to get


out and forget the judgeship and get down here and get to work.


HESS: I believe that he was made Special Counsel in 1943, which was after the period of time that you left. Correct?

ROWE: I'm not sure if it was '42 or '43. I went from the White House in November, 1941 to the Department of Justice where I became what was called The Assistant to the Attorney General, which is now called the Deputy Attorney General. And I remember we were very unhappy about Sam getting this job because we felt the Attorney General was the President's lawyer, and I think [Francis] Biddle protested about it. I think I may have even written a memo protesting about it to the President but it didn't do a bit of good. The President wanted it and Sam came down. And then Sam, I think, mostly worked in areas of specific problems. We did not have any legal conflicts between the Department of Justice and Sam once he came. Although we expected we would.


HESS: Would you know if there were any differences in the procedures between the way that Sam Rosenman handled the job for Roosevelt and that Clark Clifford and Charles Murphy handled it for President Truman?


ROWE: No. I wouldn't. I was outside looking at all three of them. My own guess is that, and this is purely in terms of personalities, Charlie Murphy was probably more meticulous and more precise than the other two. I think Clark was probably more on policy than maybe Sam was but Sam was a rather precise fellow. In terms of chasing down all the details, and this is not based on anything other than speculation, I would guess Charlie Murphy was the most precise, Sam Rosenman the next, and Clifford third on working out all the details.

HESS: If you were going to rate them in their political astuteness, and political perception, how would you rate them?


ROWE: That would be hard. I don't know. I've always understood that Clark really controlled pretty much the policy on the '48 election and it worked when everybody thought the President was going to be beaten. That's a little difficult. Roosevelt was always pretty much his own politician; now how much Truman was I don't know. I never worked with Truman and so I really can't judge too well.


HESS: What do you recall about the relationships both personal and professional, between Louis Brownlow, Harold Smith, and President Roosevelt?

ROWE: Well, Brownie was chairman, of course, as you know, of the Brownlow Commission that studied the Government and made the report, the Brownlow Commission Report, and then was responsible for moving the Budget Bureau out of Treasury into the White House. It was responsible for establishing the Administrative Assistants, and for creating one or two new agencies there. Brownie was a very persistent


fellow. He was a great talker. I have a feeling the President got a little impatient with him on occasion because he was always on his back wanting him to do this, wanting him to do that, but things didn't get done unless you would do it that way. I think that Brownie recommended Harold Smith, I'm not sure, as Budget Director.


Harold, when he came, was really the creator of the new Budget Bureau, a tremendous man, quiet man. The President had done everything he could to keep Danny [Daniel W.] Bell in there. D