Davidson Sommers Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview
Davidson Sommers

Air Corps officer assigned to office of Assistant Secretary for Air, 1942-44, and to Assistant Secretary of War, 1944-46; Special Assistant to Secretary of War, 1946; Attorney in legal department, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), of the World Bank, 1949-59.
June 22, 1989
Niel M. Johnson

[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.

As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the Davidson Sommers transcript.

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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 November, 1991
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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


Oral History Interview with
Davidson Sommers

Washington, DC
June 22, 1989
Niel M. Johnson


JOHNSON: I'm going to begin, Mr. Sommers, by asking you where you were born, when you were born, and what your parents' names were.

SOMMERS: I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on February 15, 1905. My parents were Charles L. Sommers, a merchant in St. Paul, and my mother's name was Rosa Davidson Sommers. She was from New York.

JOHNSON: Did you have brothers and sisters?

SOMMERS: I had four brothers and sisters, but unfortunately, three of them died in their early twenties. I have only one sister left, who is living in St. Paul. Her name is Mrs. Herman Otto.

JOHNSON: Do you happen to be the youngest?


SOMMERS: No, I happen to be the oldest.

JOHNSON: The oldest. Finally I'm talking to the oldest. I've been talking to the youngest until now. Your education was in St. Paul?

SOMMERS: In St. Paul at a private school called the St. Paul Academy, and then Harvard College, class of 1926. I took a year off, which I spent in Europe, and then I went to Harvard Law School and graduated in 1930. I went out to St. Paul to explore the possibility of jobs, but that was in the depression, and I got no encouragement. So I went to New York, which I was inclined to do anyway because it seemed more adventurous.

JOHNSON: Did you know anyone in New York City?

SOMMERS: I had some relatives there. More importantly, I had one cousin who was a brilliant lawyer. After considering some possibilities at other firms, I wound up in his firm.

JOHNSON: Was he influential in your going to law school, this cousin?


JOHNSON: What was his name?


SOMMERS: His name was Robert Benjamin, and he was an expert on administrative law.

JOHNSON: In your pre-Government career, then, you started as a lawyer in a . . .

SOMMERS: I started as a private lawyer in New York, and frankly I didn't like private practice of the law. In 1937 I joined the LaGuardia administration as an Assistant Corporation Counsel.

JOHNSON: By the way, could I ask you, what was your undergraduate major?

SOMMERS: English.

JOHNSON: Now, you're with the LaGuardia administration in New York City as a General Counsel.

SOMMERS: Assistant Corporation Counsel they called it, and working mostly on acquisition of the subways, the elevateds, and the bus lines.

JOHNSON: Acquisition, you mean city ownership?

SOMMERS: The city bought them out.

JOHNSON: I see. Was Robert Moses in the city government at that time?

SOMMERS: He was in the Government during part of that time,


yes, but he wasn't connected with that. He had no interest in public transportation. He liked parkways.

JOHNSON: So how long were you with the LaGuardia people?

SOMMERS: I was only there for a year and a half, and then was made a partner in my law firm, which was by this time called Parker & Duryee. I stayed there until the spring of '42, and then I enlisted in the Air Corps, and was commissioned. I thought I was going to be in the intelligence field and would be sent to the South Pacific; I was shot full of anti-yellow fever serum and sent to Dayton, Ohio.

Robert Lovett, Assistant Secretary for Air, was very worried about the procurement of aircraft and had brought in a superb lawyer from New York, Donald Swatland, from the Cravath firm. Mr. Lovett had given orders to his executives that if any good lawyer was commissioned in the Air Corps, instead of being sent somewhere else, he should be sent to Wright Field. Since his executive's concept of a good lawyer was somebody who graduated from the Harvard Law School, and perhaps from Yale or Columbia, I was sent there to work on purchases of aircraft.

JOHNSON: So, you became somewhat of a legal expert on procurement, military procurement?


SOMMERS: Yes. Then John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, who was particularly close to Mr. Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, and was a former partner of Swatland's, telephoned Swatland and said, "I need somebody to help me on reviewing Joint Chiefs of Staff documents. Have you got anybody to send?" Swatland sent me.

It may be interesting to know the reason McCloy needed somebody. I understand that General Marshall, who was one of my heroes, went to Mr. Stimson and said, "When I vote in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combined Chiefs of Staff, with the British, I find I'm dealing with questions that are not purely military but have politico-military and foreign policy implications, and I need the advice of the civilians before I vote." Mr. Stimson said he agreed and delegated this to McCloy. McCloy wanted somebody to review the papers and tell him what the issues were. That's what I went to McCloy's office to do.

JOHNSON: That was what year?

SOMMERS: That was December '44. When McCloy left, I became a civilian as Special Assistant to the Secretary of War. I thought I could have more influence in the War Department as a civilian.

JOHNSON: When was it that you became civilian?


SOMMERS: I became civilian about the first of '46, after McCloy left. I retired, I think, in June of '46.


SOMMERS: A few months later, I was offered a job in the World Bank by another former Cravath partner. I welcomed the job in an international institution because we were all rather idealistic in those days and wanted to prevent future conflicts. In the War Department I hadn't had a big role in international matters but I was involved in some of the drafting of directions to MacArthur, which emphasized the international aspect of the U.S. role in Japan.

JOHNSON: That's when you were special assistant to the Secretary of War? You drafted . . .

SOMMERS: No, it was when I was an Air Force officer in McCloy's office. A lot of time had been spent by the services on drafting the original postwar instructions to General MacArthur. McCloy didn't like the text. He thought it needed some re-drafting. He instructed me and Harvard Law Professor Mark Howe to try to improve it. We asked him when he wanted it, and he said, "Tomorrow morning." We didn't try to work together. We told him we'd give him two separate drafts, and we did. He accepted my draft which emphasized the


international character of MacArthur's role.

JOHNSON: But this was a War Department order?

SOMMERS: This was a Joint Chiefs of Staff directive.

JOHNSON: A directive to MacArthur. It must not have been a lengthy one.

SOMMERS: It was lengthy and contained many important provisions, including a statement that U.S. policy opposed demands for reparations. It was later criticized as being too leftist, because one of the changes that I made emphasized that we were accepting the continuation of the Emperor's rule, but we weren't supporting it, and that if there were signs of unrest the military shouldn't intervene to suppress movements for freedom and democracy unless they endangered the safety of the military occupation forces.

JOHNSON: In other words, if the Japanese had demonstrated and protested enough about the Emperor, and had decided that he ought to be abolished, that position . . .

SOMMERS: That was the terms of the draft that was sent to MacArthur for review. Some people thought he was going to be very skeptical about it. On the contrary, he replied in effect, "I don't want to change a word."

JOHNSON: That would have allowed the Japanese, on their


own, to get rid of the Emperor if they had felt that way?

SOMMERS: That's what the policy implied. It didn't say so. I don't have the exact words, but it said we accepted the Emperor's continuation in office, but we didn't support it, and that we didn't want to discourage movements toward more liberalization and freedom.

JOHNSON: I suppose at this point we saw the Emperor as a stabilizing factor.

SOMMERS: This is second or third hand--there was considerable opinion in the Government that we couldn't get peace unless we accepted the Emperor, because he was such an important symbol. In that connection, I remember being in McCloy's office when the Japanese surrender message was first received. It was typical that State and Navy and Army representatives met in McCloy's office. He was a person that brought those parts of the Government together. Important decisions began there. For example, some colonels estimated how far our troops could get in Korea and in Indochina by the surrender date so that the Japanese could surrender to us south of those lines, but to the Russians beyond those lines. Those lines have become permanent international boundaries.


JOHNSON: The 38th parallel, in Korea, was established in McCloy's office?

SOMMERS: Well, it was first proposed in McCloy's office. It was established, as I remember it, by directives to the Japanese, that on this side of that line they should surrender to our troops, and the other side of it, both in Korea and in Indochina, they should surrender to the Russians.

JOHNSON: In Indochina, I think it was probably surrendering to the Chinese.


JOHNSON: So you're in the office when this note is received. Yes, would you describe that? I don't think we have it on the record anywhere.

SOMMERS: Well, it was a pretty hectic moment for McCloy and the others who were assigning people to do all these various jobs. After all other tasks were assigned, McCloy said, "I'm not satisfied with this. The Emperor is so important that I doubt whether the Japanese troops scattered all over Asia and the islands will surrender unless they get a direct order from him to do so." He turned to me and said, "Draft an order from the Emperor to his troops." So I went out and drafted a one-line order saying something like, "I, Hirohito,


Emperor of Japan, hereby order all of my loyal troops not to continue their resistance, but to lay down their arms and surrender."

JOHNSON: A one-liner.

SOMMERS: A one-liner. This was sent to the Japanese for comment, and they accepted it as such, except they asked whether they could change "I" to "We." I thought that change might be for Western benefit. With that change the Emperor signed it. That was about the extent of my participation in the surrender arrangements.

JOHNSON: You mentioned a note.

SOMMERS: I've heard that before the surrender note there had been a good deal of argument as to whether the bomb should be dropped on Japan. Much later, McCloy told me--in fact only a couple of years ago--that he had been at a meeting in President Truman's office in which the final decision to drop the bomb had been taken by the President. McCloy had been there at Mr. Stimson's request, and therefore hadn't said anything when Mr. Stimson recommended dropping the bomb, although he [McCloy] had advised Stimson against doing so at that stage. President Truman asked, "What do you think, Mr. McCloy?" McCloy said, "I don't think anything we do


will work unless we first state that we will allow the Emperor to remain in place." So, he was in favor of postponing use of the bomb until that decision was made and communicated to the Japanese.

I think I should add that when he told me that, McCloy was in his 80s and his memory, I know, in some other respects was not perfect. So his account may not be accurate, but I heard it when in preparing for planned memoirs, he interviewed me and my World Bank colleague Richard Demuth about his days in the World Bank. I am mentioning this to you as something that might be worth exploring, but I don't know whether it's true or not.

In any event I'm sure that there was a good deal of argument as to whether we should insist on the Emperor's retiring or should allow him to stay on. I'm sure that Mr. Stimson was an important factor in the decision made after the bomb had been dropped that he should be allowed to stay on.

JOHNSON: Yes. I think our reply to the surrender note did not focus on the Emperor's position. In other words, we did not tell