Dr. John R. Steelman Oral History Interview, January 15, 1963


Oral History Interview with
Dr. John R. Steelman

Commissioner of conciliation, U.S. Conciliation Service, 1934-36, director, 1937-44; Special Assistant to the President, 1945-46; The Assistant to the President, 1946-53. Also served as Director of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 1946; Chairman of the President's Scientific Research Board, 1946-47; Acting Chairman of the National Security Resources Board, 1948-50; and Acting Director of Defense Mobilization, 1952.

Washington, D.C.
January 15, 1963
by Charles T. Morrissey

See Also February 28, February 29 and March 1, 1996 interviews.

[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 October, 1963
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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

Oral History Interview with
Dr. John R. Steelman

Washington, D.C.
January 15, 1963
by Charles T. Morrissey


MORRISSEY: The first question, Doctor, is why did you move back to Washington to join the Truman Administration after you left in April, 1945, is that correct? Then you came back. I think, later that year?

STEELMAN: No, I left immediately after the election of 1944. As a matter of fact, I had resigned. I'd been in the Government about ten years whereas I came to stay only one. I had resigned in July of 1944, and Secretary Perkins spoke to President Roosevelt about it and he told her to ask me to stay on until after the election, that he was going to run again and he didn't want to be bothered with replacing me at the time. So, I


agreed to stay until after the election and so my resignation, although written in July, was accepted the third or fourth of November, the next day, I believe, after the election.

MORRISSEY: Then you went to New York?

STEELMAN: Then I went to New York and was there until the following October. I had a consulting office in New York at 70 Pine Street.

MORRISSEY: That's October, 1945.

STEELMAN: Yes, in October, 1945, I came back. In the meantime, however, immediately after President Truman succeeded to the office -- pretty soon thereafter, at least -- he appointed Judge Schwellenbach as Secretary of Labor. I had known the Judge when he was a Senator and had worked with him a few times. So he called me up in New York and asked if I could come back to Washington as Under Secretary of Labor and assist him in running the department. He stated that he didn't know much about it, but of course was very loyal to the President and very fond of the President and wanted to do a good job. He asked if I could


come, and I told him "No" I just couldn't. As a matter of fact, on one or two occasions, President Roosevelt had offered me his job, but I had turned it down thinking I could do better while I was in Government where I was, as Director of the U.S Conciliation Service. So when I couldn't come down to join Judge Schwellenbach officially, he asked if I could come down and spend about thirty days helping him to go through and learn all about the various sections of his department, bureaus, etc., and then help him get it organized the way we thought it ought to be. I did that. I came down and spent about a month here with him. Then after I returned to New York, almost daily he and I were in telephone contact. He was the only one who had my telephone number in New York -- my home number. Every night or every few nights at least we would talk on the phone. I assume that he told the President that I was working with him and that he had asked me to come down, and that I said I couldn't. So anyway, sometime in October, the President's secretary called up and asked if I could come down to see the President. I believe he mentioned that Judge Schwellenbach had told him I'd been helping


him. The President said he thought perhaps I could get leave of absence from my clients for a while, if he asked me to come to the White House. In those days, I thought you had to say "yes" when the President asked you something. I found out later you don't necessarily have to. At least, everybody doesn't say "yes" to the President. But I think if I had it to do over, I would anyway. I said, yes, I'd see if I couldn't get leave of absence. He wanted me to come down for six months. He said, in effect, that 'the war's over and everybody's leaving town and I can't get anybody to do anything, and I need your help." I didn't know it, but he said he'd sort of had an eye on me during the war, and he knew the job I'd been doing in the labor relations field. So he wanted me to come down and help him and I told him that I was sure I could arrange it. I went back to New York and talked to my clients and told them that he wanted me for six months. One or two of them asked me, "Are you sure it's just for six months?"

And I said, "Well, that's what the man said."

So, of course, as these things usually work out, it wasn't six months, it was about six months after President Eisenhower was elected. I came down at


the request of the President and I'm not sure I'd say "yes" to just any President, but I certainly would say "yes" again to President Truman.

MORRISSEY: Do you recall meeting President Truman when he was Senator Truman and head of the Truman Committee? Was there any actual meeting between you two, or he just had his eye on you from a distance?

STEELMAN: It was certainly mostly from a distance. I had never, so far as I know, never even seen him except once. One time he was having a hearing on some subject that I was interested in and I went up to the hearing room and I saw him there. I don't believe I actually met him even then. If I did, it's the only time I ever met him. I don't believe I'd ever met him till I came to the White House to see him, but naturally I knew a lot about him and I didn't know he knew about me, but he said he did.

MORRISSEY: This is interesting that you'd come back to Washington because newspaper people at the time were commenting on how many New Dealers, or people


who had worked for the New Deal, were leaving Washington. Actually, very few New Dealers stayed on to become Fair Dealers.

STEELMAN: Well, I think that is right, but as I say, the President had naturally been interested in all phases of war production and labor disputes was a big part of it and he said he'd had an eye on me through the war and he knew I could be helpful to him.

MORRISSEY: Sam Rosenman was one of these old Roosevelt people who stayed on with Mr. Truman. Just what was his relationship with the White House staff?

STEELMAN: Well, Sam was very fond of the President and it was mutual. They got along beautifully. I've forgotten how long he stayed, but he was certainly around for a while after I came in and assisted in speechwriting and staff discussions. He was of general help rather than just a speech writer. The President, I'm sure, depended on him just as much as anybody in those early days.

MORRISSEY: What went on in these morning staff meetings with the President? What was the usual procedure?


STEELMAN: Well, we would gather around the President's desk, and he would call on each one to see if he had any problem that ought to be brought to the President's attention; and at the same time, the President might have something in mind that he thought that a particular staff member could handle. In the early days, I was Special Assistant to the President and was interested only in labor problems, but in later days -- as a matter of fact, when I first came, we weren't having regular staff meetings, as I recall it, but pretty soon, we began to have them. Later on, when I was the Assistant to the President, he always called on me last and he and I would exchange problems and files and so forth. This is a good question because it -- we may get into it later -- it was in great contrast to the way the next administration handled White House problems.

MORRISSEY: Go ahead and make the contrast; I'm interested to hear about it.

STEELMAN: When President Eisenhower was elected and I agreed to stay on with him to help in the transition period -- incidentally, I told the General right after the election,


before he took the oath he called me up from New York and asked me if I had made any plans or could I stay on.

I told him, "Yes," I had made some plans. As a matter of fact, I had gotten a friend of mine to rent me some offices in Washington and I was already paying rent. I said that I couldn't stay very long, but I'd be delighted to stay long enough to help him get started.

To go back a little, I had talked from time to time about leaving and I was on the verge of leaving because I thought I had somebody that could take my place, namely David Stowe. I was on the verge of leaving when the Korean situation came up. One morning I went into the President's office and he asked me did I meet General Bradley out in the lobby?

And I said, "Yes, Mr. President, I did."

He said, "Well, we've been talking about you."

I said, "I hope it was good."

He said, "Well, I don't know whether you'll think it is or not." He said, "We said neither one of us could quit so why should you. Consider yourself in the Army."


So we laughed and that was that. Then I stayed on and time kept passing and finally we came up pretty close to the election. At that time the President gave me what I considered some very good advice. He said, "If I were you, John, I would stay on now until the election is over, and if Mr. Stevenson is elected, everybody would assume you could stay if you wanted to, and you can leave the day I do. But if General Eisenhower is elected, why, if I were you, I'd stay on, at least a while just to show people you can." He said, "You've been rather nonpartisan and I'm sure the General would like to have you around if you would stay and if I were you, I'd just stay a little while longer in case he's elected." And that is the way we worked it out.

Well anyway, when General Eisenhower appointed a man to take my place and I advised him to give this new man the title to start with and I'd just take some other title such as Special Assistant or something, since I wasn't staying, so when he appointed a new person with the title "The Assistant to the President," I said, "If you'll send him on down, I'll start telling him what little I know even before you take the oath."


Well, that didn't work out so well. He did come down for one day and then he went back to New York where appointments were being made and things were happening thick and fast. He never did get back except one time and he was here for just a few hours. So we really didn't get anywhere until after General Eisenhower took the oath as President. I found out almost immediately that they were not going to operate the way President Truman and I had. I explained to them that this title of mine and this position in government was a sort of a division of labor proposition. The time had come when there were so many things the President was responsible for and supposed to do that he couldn't do them all; he could supervise them, but he couldn't personally do all these things; he couldn't even see all the things perhaps, that the law said he should see. So it was a sort of division of labor. Everyday I'd take things to the President and say, in effect, "Mr. President, I think this is too important for me to decide; nobody ever voted for me; I just work around here; I think you ought to decide this."


And he would always say, "That's right, give it to me. Give me the file; let me study it over and we'll talk again." He never dodged a responsibility; He never wanted me to decide anything that I suggested he ought to decide. In the meantime, he'd say, "I've got a couple of little ones here, I'll trade you." So he'd give me something.

So the whole thing was a division of labor between the two of us, and not only that, but he never insisted that everything come over my desk. If he had, I'd be the road-block instead of him. So we would divide things out among the administrative assistants and the other staff people, but primarily he and I always were trading back and forth different problems and different files, et cetera.

Well, when I explained this to President Eisenhower and his new assistant, the President said, "That's not the way I work." He said, "You see, all I know is what I learned in the Army. I've been in it all my life and I only know how to work the way the Army does. That is to depend entirely on staff work. I want everything to come to Mr. Adams and I don't want to even hear about a problem until the staff has


worked out a solution. I want it either presented to me orally, or in a paragraph or two -- a page at most -- the problem and the proposed answer so I can say 'yes' or 'no.'"

I recall I didn't care too much if I irritated the new President, because I wasn't going to work with him anyway. I didn't know at the time how terribly sensitive the man was, but I learned it later. So, I said to him, in effect, "Mr. President, you may run the Army that way; I never thought too much about how the Army was run myself, maybe you can run the Army that way, but I am telling you, you cannot run this desk that way. The way you plan to do it, first of all, Governor Adams' desk will be a road block. He, no more than you, can read and study everything that comes to the White House. He'll be a road block. People may, for a while, blame him instead of you because things aren't being done, but finally they'll find out why and they'll get madder at you for letting him be the road block. Secondly, Governor Adams under this condition would be President, really, not you. He can get any answer from you he wants if all you know is what he tell