1. Home
  2. Library Collections
  3. Oral History Interviews
  4. Dr. R. Burr Smith Oral History Interview

Dr. R. Burr Smith Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Dr. R. Burr Smith

Served on the Planning Committee, War Production Board, 1942-43; Coordinator of Economic Research and Statistics, Supreme Commander Allied Powers, Tokyo, 1946; economist, U.S. Dept. of State, 1946-49; member of the U.S. delegation, Far Eastern Commission, 1947-49; Chief of the reparations and restitution delegation, Tokyo, 1947; member of U.S. delegation, Austrian Treaty Conference, 1949; commercial attaché, American embassy, Bangkok, 1950-52; and member of U.S. delegation, Economic Commission Asia and Far East, 1950-53.

Winter Park, Florida
April 10, 1974
by James R. Fuchs

[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 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
Dr. R. Burr Smith


Winter Park, Florida
April 10, 1974
by James R. Fuchs


FUCHS: Dr. Smith, I wonder if we might begin with a little background? You might start with when and where you were born and something about your education and experiences up to the time you came into Government service.

SMITH: Well, in brief summary, I was born in Montreal, Canada of American parentage, educated in the United States, A.B. Princeton, masters and doctorate at New York. My field was international finance, but international finance was at a rather low ebb when I got out of


college in 1934, and I joined with two others to do the original work in the founding of Hofstra University on Long Island. In fact, I was its first employee, did the original promotional work there at the college, stayed with them until 1939 when I came to Newark as assistant to the president, and stayed there until I saw clearly the coming of the war. I was one of those who came to Washington in June of 1941, originally with the Housing Authority, but I shifted very quickly to the Planning Committee of the War Production Board.

FUCHS: Do you recall anything of particular interest there?

SMITH: Well, the Planning Committee was, in retrospect, a fantastic operation. It was a small staff, approximately twenty, under Bob Nathan, Tom Blaisdell, and Tom Searls. We had three jobs: to keep a running estimate of the


feasibility of the War Production effort; to attempt to spot bottlenecks ahead of time and to break them; and to act as general troubleshooters for [Donald] Nelson as problems occurred. It was the kind of a job where you knew you were going to be active but that life would be short, because you would certainly make enemies in substantial numbers if you did your job. And it was that kind of operation. The Planning Committee was instrumental in establishing, in the early stages, the levels of feasibility for aircraft production, other munitions production, very much larger than the military themselves estimated industrial capacity to be. So, I think our first job was really to jack the military and the rest of the Government into a proper assessment of the size of production that was possible and to get orders geared to that level. Then, once you got them into the proper area, size, magnitude of estimation, then to get them


to balance their procurement. For example, to balance ammunition production against actual weapons production. Many of the military programs became quite imbalanced and segmented. Then, of course, the major area of the activity was in controlling, reducing, and directing the flow of primary materials in both civilian and military production.

FUCHS: Now, the Supplies and Priority Board, I believe it was called, had that gone out of existence?

SMITH: That went out of existence by the time I entered the War Production Board. Don Nelson had just taken over at the time I went in. This was an extremely active period. I personally was involved primarily in the manpower facilities side of the control activity, though I got into housing very heavily. I was in that lovely little fight about closing the gold


mines in order to get skilled labor into the hard rock mining that we needed. There were all kinds of things that went on in the early days of the CMP [Controlled Materials Plan].

FUCHS: I think it's been said that Nelson didn't really use his -- well, the modern term would be "clout" -- all the authority he had to get things going as he should. What is your view of that?

SMITH: Well, in the early days, when Nelson came in, were marked by a very bitter fight as to whether the War Production Board or the Army-Navy Munitions Board would in fact be the controlling agency and would have that clout. There was very strong fighting between the two to determine whether the economy would be civilian or military controlled. Now, in that fight Nelson had to walk carefully at times. He had powerful people on the military side against


him. He used people like Bob Nathan to the fullest. The press was used. On both sides the designed leakage to the press was an art that was not overlooked. I think it's to the credit of Nelson and the skill of Nelson that he recognized the need for civilian control and did establish his position so that civilian control was maintained. I later was a member of the Army-Navy Munitions Board staff as a naval officer, so I've seen it from both sides and I do think that the need for overall civilian control was apparent. The military didn't have the staff and really didn't have the expertise to have done the job.

The War Production Board itself under Nelson was an amazing structure put together so quickly. Our own staff came from industry, from academic circles, and from Government circles. It included everyone from Simon Kuznets, from John Hopkins, an outstanding academician,


to a vice president of Universal Pictures, who was one of the best hatchet men I've ever known in operations. But this mixed team worked together. And, despite all the opportunities for personal interest, in most cases the patriotism of the group was self-evident in the job. No, I considered it -- given the circumstances and given the opportunities for special interest -- a surprisingly effective group.

FUCHS: How did you happen to go to WPB? Were you sponsored by some particular individual?

SMITH: Yes, Ed Dickinson, who was an executive assistant to Bob Nathan, who was Chairman of the Planning Committee, was an old friend and recruited me. So these were very active days -- and then I volunteered into the Navy.

FUCHS: Oh, you did. What year was that?

SMITH: I was commissioned in June, '43.


After about a year and a half of the War Production Board I got my basic training and was actually rather surprised that in the meantime Tom Blaisdell, who had been a partner of Nathan's in the War Production Board, had become chairman of the Orders and Regulations Board in the War Production Board. The Orders and Regulations Board was composed not only of WPB men but the military and other major agencies concerned with controlling mechanisms in the war production effort. Apparently Tom wanted someone on the military side who understood the WPB side, so he got me appointed into the Army-Navy Munitions Board working directly with the Orders and Regulations Board.

FUCHS: So you were in the Navy, in uniform, serving on the Army-Navy Munitions Board.

SMITH: That's right.

FUCHS: Do you recall anything, in particular, about


your major problems there?

SMITH: Really the major problems that I saw in the War Production effort were largely in that first year and a half and they comprised those questions of who controlled, how large it should be, establishing the Controlled Materials Plan and its structure. In other words, the basic elements of discipline and rationing that were necessary. By late 1943, early 1944, both the structure and the mechanism were largely set. It was largely a problem of running it. There is little new in terms of basic technique that occurred during my Army-Navy Munitions Board period. The creative period was in that early period of the War Production Board.

FUCHS: Is there one particular individual who might be called the father of the CMP?

SMITH: Yes. Oh, names, names, names -- later Under Secretary of Defense or Assistant Secretary


of Defense. Charles Hitch.

The CMP was actually originated within the Planning Committee of the War Production Board to a large degree, with the staff there.

FUCHS: Did you come in touch with the Truman Committee to any degree?

SMITH: No, not to any degree at that time.

FUCHS: I believe Eddie Locke was appointed as liaison to the Truman Committee.

SMITH: Eddie Locke, that's right.

FUCHS: How about John A. Kennedy? He was handling Navy liaison in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

SMITH: No, I didn't have contact with that side of it.

FUCHS: Where did you go from there in Government service?


SMITH: I was demobilized in November, 1945 and immediately approached to go out to Tokyo as Coordinator of Economic Research and Statistics in SCAP.

FUCHS: When did you go to Japan?

SMITH: The end of January, 1946.

FUCHS: Now this was a job apart from your service on the Far Eastern Commission?

SMITH: Yes, my service on the Far Eastern Commission was subsequent to this. At that time the economic control was just being set up in Japan. The job of assembling statistics, analyzing them, preparing the materials for the economic control program was undertaken by a staff that was flung together at that time. It consisted of a few military officers willing to stay on who had some background, a collection of foreign nationals who had been stranded in Japan of


various nationalities; stateless Germans, Anglo-Japanese, a Czech, a Portuguese, and so on and so forth. We had about 20 nationalities. Some Japanese professionals who we could "clear" in a security sense. Now remember that most Japanese professionals had been tarred one way or another, so the Japanese professionals that could be cleared largely were academic people, some of them on the socialistic side, who had not participated in the war effort. We had among our foreign nationals a few stateless Germans who had been interned by the Japanese, released by us. Then the beginning of a small group of professionals sent out from the States.

FUCHS: Who was director of this in the Department?

SMITH: In the Department of Defense? I've forgotten who was doing the recruiting.

FUCHS: How about State, how did they...

SMITH: This was not part of the State Department


at all. The State Department at that time seconded a diplomatic liaison officer to handle the more strictly diplomatic aspects. He operated as a member of MacArthur's staff answerable to MacArthur not the State Department. He was directly under MacArthur at the time. In fact, everyone in Japan was under MacArthur. He was very, very careful of his control of the whole operation; and the communications channel, the control channel, were all centralized completely in his hands.

FUCHS: In other words you had to go through him to get…

SMITH: You had to go through him to get to Washington. Everyone did. So I went out to take control and try to whip this rather disparate group of about 250 people of various nationalities together and begin to get a picture of the operations of the Japanese economy.


FUCHS: Now you were the Coordinator?

SMITH: Coordinator of Research and Statistics.

FUCHS: You were trying to determine what?

SMITH: How much steel was actually producible and being produced and what the food situation was. This was the kind of thing that was needed for the control, particularly in those early days when supply in Japan was pretty desperate.

FUCHS: Did you have any particular problems vis-a-vis MacArthur?

SMITH: I did not get personally to MacArthur in that early job. No one got to MacArthur. The MacArthur pyramid of command was extremely sharp. Immediately under MacArthur were the so-called Bataan group. This was a group of trusted military officers who had served with him a long while. He demanded a high degree of personal loyalty and trust in his immediate


subordinates. The net result was that even high ranking military men, either civilian or non-Bataan group, serving in SCAP were very much shielded from MacArthur by this immediate Bataan group. The most common complaint of competent people in Tokyo was the inability to get through to MacArthur.

FUCHS: This was the period, then, when Eddie Locke came over there and made a remark that you mentioned earlier?

SMITH: Yes, Eddie Locke made a swing through at that time and told MacArthur that he was the worst served commander that he had seen. He was referring specifically to the Bataan group and the fact that they were largely, intellectually second-raters whose primary concern, we thought, was to tell MacArthur what he wanted to hear rather than what he should hear.


FUCHS: Could you enter into the record the names of some of these people?

SMITH: Oh, people like General Biederlinden, who was Deputy Chief of Staff at the time. But it was a motley group; it was not well-regarded intellectually, so that many of the staff became rather frustrated at their inability to break through. The press, particularly -- the press men were of two distinct camps: One highly critic