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.
February 28 | February 29 | and March 1, 1996
by Niel M. Johnson
See Also January 15, 1963 interview.
[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. ) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 May, 1999
Harry S. Truman Library
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed| Additional
Steelman Oral History Transcriptst]
Oral History Interview with
Dr. John R. Steelman
February 28, 1996
by Niel M. Johnson
JOHNSON: It's a real pleasure, of course, to be here to visit with Dr.
Now Dr. Steelman, I'm going to cover just a little bit of your family
background. First of all I want to check the spelling of your father's
name. I have it here on a biographical sheet. How did they spell that?
JOHNSON: Plez. Cydney.
JOHNSON: Unusual names. And Martha Ann Richardson Steelman was your mother.
*Also present for this interview were Dr. Steelman's wife, Ellen, and
his stepson, Robert Hart.
JOHNSON: I believe, looking at your genealogy folder in your papers, that
you had an ancestor who was with the New Sweden Colony in New Jersey and
Delaware. Swedish ancestry. Is that correct?
JOHNSON: Do you happen to know the name of that Swedish ancestor?
STEELMAN: No, I don't recall.
JOHNSON: But it could have been Stohlman for instance. Stohl is Steel
in Swedish, and if they Americanized the word Stohl, that would have been
Steel, so that...
STEELMAN: Maybe that's the way it happened.
JOHNSON: Maybe that's the way Steelman came about, the name.
Do you want to remind us where you were born and when?
STEELMAN: Yes, Thornton, Arkansas, June 23, 1900.
JOHNSON: It says here your father was a farmer, but wasn't he also a
JOHNSON: Did both, farming and logging. How many brothers and sisters
did you have?
STEELMAN: Five or six, I've forgotten exactly.
JOHNSON: Apparently, you were one of five children. How many brothers
and how many sisters?
STEELMAN: I just had one sister.
JOHNSON: One sister and three brothers. Do you want to give me their
STEELMAN: Let's see, Joel, Horace and Frank and P.C. (Ples).
JOHNSON: The sister, what was the sister's name?
JOHNSON: Were you the oldest, middle, or youngest?
JOHNSON: How many of the others got a college education, got a bachelor's
degree for instance?
STEELMAN: I don't think any of them did.
JOHNSON: Did any of them go to college?
STEELMAN: I don't believe so:
JOHNSON: They did not attend college, but you did.
JOHNSON: What motivated you to become so well-educated?
STEELMAN: Well, I don't know, except I remember my father said "If
you'll outwork everybody there, wherever you go, you'll come out on top."
I always remembered that and so it got me right into the White House.
Everywhere I went, I out-worked everybody else who was there, and it took
me into the White House.
JOHNSON: When did you get the idea that you might end up in the White
STEELMAN: I'm not sure when I first got that idea.
JOHNSON: Well, you went to work for Miss [Frances] Perkins but, of course,
that wasn't in the White House, that was in the Labor Department.
STEELMAN: I was offered the job as Secretary of Labor. Some college wanted
her to come and be president and she wanted to go, and the President said
he would let her go if she could find somebody to take her place
that he liked. She said, "Well, how about this Dr. Steelman? Last
week he was a mediator out in the field and last week Steelman settled
a strike every day for seven days in a row, in a different State of the
Union." The only thing is, I didn't get any sleep, you see.
JOHNSON: That was amazing.
STEELMAN: But that was just something that I did by accident in a way,
because it usually takes a week to settle one strike, instead of seven.
STEELMAN: Okay, if we can back up a little bit, I see you identified
yourself as a Methodist, and a 32nd Degree Mason. Of course, Truman was
a Baptist and a Mason, in fact, Grand Master of Missouri in 1940. Truman
said by the age of twelve he had read the family Bible twice through.
He said he was kind of a student of the Bible and he said the Masonic
experience made him even more familiar with the Bible. He seemed to get
inspiration from it. This was an important source for his sense of morality.
Would you identify yourself as being inspired by the Bible like Truman
claimed he was?
STEELMAN: Yes, I think so.
Once, I was a log scaler down in the swamps and one morning I went out
and jumped up on a wagon and I had my scale stick with me. But I'd forgotten
my book, so I said to the driver, "You go ahead and I'll catch the
So he went down across the railroad and lightning struck and killed the
man and the mules. So, then I thought, "Well, the Lord must have
had some reason for making me miss that particular cart." I went
to Henderson Brown College, which was a Methodist school, and that's how
I came to be a Methodist.
JOHNSON: As a youngster, did you attend Sunday School or did the family
have any involvement with the Church at all?
STEELMAN: Not particularly, as I recall at home.
JOHNSON: So, at Henderson Brown College, this was influential.
JOHNSON: Anyone in particular there at Henderson Brown that might have
influenced your thinking or your sense of duty or morality?
STEELMAN: There's this old professor, Dr. Foster, who had a lot of influence
on me. I studied Sociology under him, and he said, "If you want to
understand people, go out and mix with them in order to get firsthand
information." So, that had a lot of influence on me.
JOHNSON: Dr. Foster. Do you remember his first name?
STEELMAN: No, I don't.
JOHNSON: But he was a most influential professor that you had in your
STEELMAN: That's right.
JOHNSON: So you did go out to mix with people.
JOHNSON: Henderson Brown is located in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, I see.
You became a Mason later on, I suppose.
STEELMAN: Yes, I've forgotten just when.
JOHNSON: But at Henderson Brown, that is where you got some of these
ideas about what you should do in the future, what your duties perhaps
should be and that sort of thing?
STEELMAN: And at Vanderbilt University. I went to Vanderbilt on a scholarship,
and at Vanderbilt I had seven paying jobs. I made more money than the
full-time professors. I was in charge of the dormitories, I was in charge
of the university's libraries, and I was in charge of the cafeteria.
I remember the old Chancellor, old Chancellor Kirkland, said, "You're
the first one that ever had the university's cafeteria in the black. How
do you do it?" I said, "Well, I've got a good manager, and we
serve good food. We have good prices." I said, "We not only
serve college students, but we serve half of North Ashford." I said,
"We serve 6,000 meals a day."
JOHNSON: Six thousand meals a day at Vanderbilt?
STEELMAN: Yes. So the old Chancellor. said, "Well, good for you."
I remember at one time there was a boy who kept violating some rule of
the house in one of the dormitories and I said, "What time do you
have?" And he said, "Three o'clock." I said, "Well,
anytime between now and four, you check out of this building or I'll come
up and throw you out the third story window." So he said, "You
don't know who you're talking to." He
said, "My father is on the Board of Trustees of this University and
he's president of American National Bank. I'm going over and see Chancellor
So, he went over and the Chancellor was almost ready to leave, so the
secretary let him in, and he went in and talked to the Chancellor, and
the Chancellor said, "Now, I have nothing to do with the dormitories."
He said, "Mr. Steelman is in charge, and if I went in one of the
dormitories and Steelman told me to get out, I would get, so I guess you
So, this boy came back and told his roommate and the roommate told me.
He thought it was funny.
JOHNSON: Did you take any business courses while either in undergraduate
or graduate school?
STEELMAN: Yes, I'm sure I did; I've forgotten what, but I did.
JOHNSON: So that might have helped a little bit in your business.
JOHNSON: You were kind of an entrepreneur there in graduate school. So
you got your scholarship from Henderson
Brown, and you were one of their outstanding students, I suppose.
STEELMAN: Yes, I had a scholarship to Harvard, and I went to Harvard.
But I just stayed there one year, because they did not give a doctor's
degree in sociology at the time. So, they sent me down to the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
JOHNSON: Oh, you went to Harvard before you got your doctorate from North
STEELMAN: Yes. At Harvard they didn't give a doctorate in sociology at
the time. A year or two later they did get Dr. Sorokian from some university
out west and they started giving it. So, they said, "Go to Chapel
Hill, North Carolina." I said, "Why should I go there, I've
never heard of it." They said, "Well, Dr. [Howard] Odum is there."
They said, "You know, for graduate work the thing that you look at
is not the university as such, but the department."
JOHNSON: Okay, you're mentioning Dr. Odum.
STEELMAN: Yes, he was the head of the Sociology Department at Chapel
Hill, North Carolina.
JOHNSON: He was sort of your mentor then?
JOHNSON: And he kind of inspired you to do good work?
STEELMAN: He did. And so I wanted to be a teacher, a college professor,
and I did. I took a job at Alabama College, at Montevalla, Alabama. Dr.
Odum said, "I've got a place we want you to go. I want you to teach
at Montevalla, Alabama." And I said, "Never heard of it, why
should I go there." He said, "Because the president is O.C.
Carmichael, and Carmichael is the type of man who's going to go places
and he'll take you with him."
So, sure enough, I hadn't been there long until Carmichael was made president
of Vanderbilt University.
JOHNSON: In the meantime, you'd done your dissertation on mob violence
in the South I see.
JOHNSON: In your research did you go to places where there had been lynching?
STEELMAN: Yes, and interviewed people and so forth.
JOHNSON: Did you interview people who were in the mobs?
STEELMAN: Yes, a lot of times.
JOHNSON: Did they ever express any regret for being part of a mob?
STEELMAN: No, I don't think they did. No, any black man who committed
a crime, they'd like to string him up.
JOHNSON: Yes, before he even had a fair trial.
STEELMAN: Yes, no trial. They'd just hang him.
JOHNSON: At this point you were, of course, planning to be a professor,
planning to teach in college.
JOHNSON: Did you ever have any problem dealing with these people that
you were interviewing for your dissertation? Because you were from Arkansas
and all that, you were not an outsider? Is that the way they felt?
STEELMAN: Yes. That's right, yes.
JOHNSON: You were not a Yankee?
JOHNSON: Well, what would have been their attitude if you'd have been
from the Northeast, for instance, a Yankee?
STEELMAN: I don't know. They wouldn't have liked it: they wouldn't have
cooperated with me.
JOHNSON: Well, what did you learn from that? What did that dissertation
research and study, what did that tell you? What did that teach you?
STEELMAN: I don't know.
JOHNSON: Did it teach you any ways to prevent it? Were you interested
STEELMAN: Yes. Yes, sir.
JOHNSON: I think you have identified yourself as a Republican or Independent,
not as a Democrat.
STEELMAN: That's right.
JOHNSON: In the 1920s, were you voting Republican in...
STEELMAN: Yes, my father came from the mountainous section of North Carolina
and during the Civil War that part of the mountainous section of North
Carolina didn't secede
from the Union, didn't become a part of the South. So, my father was a
Republican and so I called myself a Republican.
JOHNSON: There weren't many of them in Conway, Arkansas, I suppose.
STEELMAN: No, not many.
JOHNSON: Did you advertise the fact that you were Republican, or did
you kind of keep it secret?
STEELMAN: I don't remember saying anything in particular about it.
JOHNSON: Did you do anything politically, other than vote?
JOHNSON: They didn't have any precinct organizations or ward organizations,
or anything like that?
STEELMAN: I was teaching at Alabama College in Montevalla, Alabama. I
was class advisor for four years and my class came up for graduation,
and so that put me more or less in charge of the commencement program.
I thought Secretary Perkins, who was Secretary of Labor, might like to
make a speech in the South, so I got Dr.
Carmichael to invite her to become our speaker, and she accepted.
So she came down and made the address. So, there were some boys -- a
committee of strikers from the steel mills up in Birmingham, a committee
of strikers -- and they wanted to talk to her. She wasn't supposed to
leave until 5 o'clock in the afternoon, so she interviewed these boys,
and then when they left, I asked her, "Did they tell you they have
the national highway blockaded?"
She said, "Oh, no, you couldn't do that."
I said, "Yes, they did." I said, "Did they tell you they
shoot up the mountainside and shoot holes in the water tanks and the gasoline
tanks?" "No," she said, "I can't believe it."
She said, "How do you know these things?" I said, "Well,
I always like to have something interesting to tell my students, so I
wonder around over weekends. I go up to the picket line and I talk to
the strikers and then they let me through and I talk to the manager."
So, Miss Perkins said, "You ought to come up to Washington and help
us settle some of these strikes." I thought she was just talking.
Sure enough I get a wire saying could I come to Washington at Government
expense to discuss work in the U.S. Conciliation Service.
JOHNSON: You had been teaching from 1928, I believe. So it was in 1934
when you met Miss Perkins?
STEELMAN: That's right.
JOHNSON: In the meantime, of course, we had a stock market crash and
the beginning of a great depression. Did they reduce faculty? Did the
student enrollment down there drop off as a result of the Depression?
STEELMAN: No, I don't think so.
JOHNSON: Did you take a pay cut?
JOHNSON: You didn't feel any of the negative effects of the Depression?
STEELMAN: No, I don't think so.
JOHNSON: At that time, who were you blaming for the Depression? Did you
feel that Hoover had a responsibility for the Depression, or that he could
have done more as President? What was your feeling about Hoover as a President
at that time?
STEELMAN: Oh, I'm not sure. I recall one time Truman had a memorandum
from some faculty members, who had been to a meeting over in Hot Springs,
Virginia, and they said, "After every war there's a Depression, and
this was the greatest war, therefore, look out for the greatest Depression."
Truman showed me that memo, and said, "What do you think?" I
said, "Mr. President, historically they're true: after every war
there's a depression, but it doesn't make any sense." I said, "All
we need to do is get to work."
Well, Truman said, "That sounds good. He said, "you see that
we don't have a depression," and added, "I'm always looking
for something easy to give you to do."
So, I sent for the businessmen, presidents of big corporations, and I
said, "I understand you fellows are expecting a big depression."
They said, "Yes." I said, "You don't want one do you?"
"Oh, God, no." I said, "Well, you may be interested to
know I have instructions to see that you don't have one." So I said,
"What I want you to do is go home and start producing goods so fast
that they'll be running out of our ears." And I said, "I can
take price controls off, with the understanding that you won't be hoggish."
JOHNSON: Now, that's after World War II.
JOHNSON: Can we go back to the beginning of the Depression years. In
1932 when Roosevelt was elected President, do you recall if you voted
for Roosevelt in that election?
STEELMAN: I think I did.
JOHNSON: Were you looking for a change?
JOHNSON: Did you expect the Federal Government to get more involved then
in rescuing the economy?
JOHNSON: Were the banks already closed down in Alabama? Do you remember
banks closing and farmers going bankrupt, or being foreclosed on?
STEELMAN: Yes, that's right. You know the Federal Reserve is not under
the President, it's under the Congress. But I remember going in one morning
and saying to Truman, "Mr. President I just did a terrible thing,
think you may hear about it and I ought to tell you." He said, "What's
that?" I said, "I fired Marriner Eccles, the head of the Federal
He said, "Oh, what did you do a thing like that for?" I said,
"Well, he won't cooperate with me on a job you gave me to do."
And Truman said, "Oh, well, that's okay then. Leave him fired."
So, I fired the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Of course, that's Washington for you. After that Marriner and I socialized
together, played golf together out at Burning Tree Golf Course, and so
forth. So that's Washington for you.
JOHNSON: That's interesting. Okay, you'd agreed to go to Washington.
That was a one-year leave from your teaching job.
STEELMAN: Yes. That's right.
JOHNSON: Into the Labor Department, to help Frances Perkins...
STEELMAN: To help settle some strikes.
JOHNSON: To mediate and conciliate these strikes.
JOHNSON: Now, these strikes that you have mentioned that you told her
about when she came down to Alabama, were those strikes involving unionization?
Were they trying to organize unions there in that area? Is that what brought
on the strike?
STEELMAN: Well, no, they were already organized. They were striking over
wage settlements, over wages.
JOHNSON: So now you're in Washington, as a conciliator with the Conciliation
STEELMAN: That's right. Yes.
JOHNSON: And you were called a commissioner.
STEELMAN: Yes, sir. Commissioner of Conciliation. As I say, I did something
that's never been done before, and never will again. For several nights
in a row I wired Washington that I had settled a strike in a different
state of the Union.
JOHNSON: And, of course, that really impressed them.
STEELMAN: That's right. That's right. Miss Perkins wanted to leave so
Roosevelt said, "You can leave if you get me somebody that I like."
She said, "How about this Dr.
Steelman that we were talking about at Cabinet meetings, and about what
a whiz he was." And Roosevelt said, "That's okay, get him."
So she asked me, would I be Secretary of Labor, and I said, "No."
I said, "Mr. Roosevelt doesn't want a Secretary of Labor; he's secretary
of everything himself, he dabbles with everything. He just wants somebody
to have that title. So," I said, "I'm a Republican and I don't
want any political appointment under Mr. Roosevelt."
JOHNSON: Did you ever get to talk to President Roosevelt? Did you meet
him and talk to him?
STEELMAN: Oh, yes.
JOHNSON: What were your impressions of President Roosevelt? When you
went to meet him what kind of an impression did you get?
STEELMAN: Well, he impressed me. He was a real personality.
JOHNSON: Did you agree with his New Deal policies that he was promoting,
such as the NRA and the WPA and CCC?
JOHNSON: Did you agree with all of those?
STEELMAN: I did.
JOHNSON: Was that the only way to put people to work? Is that the way
you saw it?
JOHNSON: Well, why weren't the corporations producing as much as they
could in the early 1930s?
STEELMAN: I'll be darned if I know. They didn't produce because they
couldn't sell, I think.
JOHNSON: They couldn't sell.
JOHNSON: When did you become acquainted with Keynesian economics? With
the ideas of Maynard Keynes? Did you study him when you were doing graduate
STEELMAN: I think so.
JOHNSON: Did you agree with Maynard Keynes, with his ideas about compensatory
spending, for instance, in which he said in case private enterprise spending
dropped off, there should be increased government spending? Did you
agree with that?
STEELMAN: I think I did at the time, yes.
JOHNSON: As a kind of a last resort, the government should hire and they
should lend money and that sort of thing as a last resort?
JOHNSON: Did you lose any money in a bank? Did you have any money that
you lost as a result of the bank failures and so on?
STEELMAN: No, I don't think so.
JOHNSON: You didn't lose any bank deposits.
JOHNSON: When you were hired in 1934, what was your beginning salary,
as you recall, as a commissioner of the Conciliation Service?
STEELMAN: I think it was probably about $3,000.
JOHNSON: Three thousand.
STEELMAN: I think so.
JOHNSON: When you went out to mediate these strikes, how did you travel?
Did you go by train or did you have a car? You weren't in Washington all
that much apparently.
JOHNSON: Were you out traveling let's say three out of five days? Or
how much time did you spend out on the road?
STEELMAN: Well, I spent quite a bit I recall.
JOHNSON: How would you get there? Did you have a car? Did you drive to
these places where they were having labor trouble?
STEELMAN: I think I did. I think I had a car.
JOHNSON: Do you remember what kind of a car you had?
STEELMAN: I think it was a Ford.
JOHNSON: So you went out to wherever there was a problem. Did you feel
that you were getting some of the toughest labor troubles to deal with?
STEELMAN: Oh, yes.
JOHNSON: You were getting the tough ones then. You already
had a reputation that you were able to mediate these things and I have
read about some of the tactics you used. Do you want to mention again
what you found to be a successful way of preventing, or let's say, stopping
or shortening these strikes? The friction between management and labor.
What kind of tactic did you find was successful?
STEELMAN: Well, one time I was working as a log scaler down in the logging
camps, and a couple of guys came along from Little Rock and they brought
the first newspaper I ever saw, the Arkansas Gazette. In it,
it had this cartoon of Jeff and somebody -- anyhow, the fellow couldn't
find his horse, and so this guy said, "The way to find your horse
is you imagine that you are a horse, so where would you go? And you go
there and there it is." So, that meant a lot to me. I never forgot
it. So I was always able to put myself into the other fellow's place.
JOHNSON: Where did you learn that?
STEELMAN: I remember a couple of fellows came along and got a job and
they sawed down a big cypress tree and then they quit and went back to
So the boss came along, and he said, "I'll give
you $10 if you can find the saw. I found the sledge hammer and so forth,
but I can't find the saw." So, as I say, I had read this cartoon
"Mutt and Jeff." Jeff couldn't find his horse, and Mutt said,
"Imagine you're a horse, where would you go." So be able to
put yourself in the other fellow's place. And that stuck with me for life;
it made me a good mediator.
JOHNSON: How about some of these commandments like "Love your neighbor
as yourself?" Did that ever enter in, you know, these Biblical commandments?
Or the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do to
you," and "Love God, and your fellow man as you love yourself?"
Did that ever enter your thinking?
STEELMAN: Yes, it did, because as I say, one morning down in the logging
camps I jumped on one of the wagons to go out into the woods, and I forgot
my book, so I said to the driver, "You go ahead, I'll catch the next
wagon. I've got to go get my book." So he went down across the railroad
and lightning struck and killed him, so that deeply impressed me and I
said, "The Lord must have something in mind for me to do." So,
it influenced my life.
JOHNSON: In other words, something to do besides getting
STEELMAN: That's right. I thought the Lord must want me to do good. So
it had a great influence on my life.
JOHNSON: Is that one of the reasons you went into sociology, to work
with people and perhaps to help people?
STEELMAN: Yes, and another thing. When I was a log scaler down in the
camps, one day I walked up to a pile of logs and a log rolled off and
crushed my left instep. I couldn't play football or basketball on account
of this foot.
JOHNSON: Well, you know, for Harry Truman it was a problem with his eyes,
what he called "flat eyeballs." He had to wear glasses, and
so he couldn't play these roughhouse games. So that encouraged him to
read a lot.
JOHNSON: Did you go to country school?
JOHNSON: One-room country school?
STEELMAN: Well, I started out in one, and when I got through about the
first grade or so, I had to go to town school. That was five miles away.
JOHNSON: Is this Thornton?
STEELMAN: Thornton, Arkansas. I'll never forget; one time we had a terrible
snow, about three feet of snow, and it was over the weekend and I had
gone home. I was five miles away from school, and so I started out at
4 o'clock in the morning on Monday to go through that snow, and some places
were so deep I couldn't walk. I had to crawl, but I got to school on time.
There was a boy there who lived in the house, next to the school grounds.
He was a hundred yards away from the school classroom and I got to school
on time, and he was late on account of the snow. So we kidded him the
rest of our days about that. He couldn't even go a hundred yards.
JOHNSON: You had already had this idea that hard work is important and
gets you places, right?
STEELMAN: Yes. That's right. My father said, "You outwork everybody
there and you'll come out on top." I used that philosophy to get
into the White House.
JOHNSON: It seems to have worked.
In 1937 you were appointed director of the U.S. Conciliation Service.
The Truman Committee, of course, did not start until 1941. Did you ever
have occasion to see or meet Senator Truman before he became Chairman
of the Truman Committee? Was there any...
STEELMAN: No, that's when Truman was in charge of some committee on the
JOHNSON: Yes, to investigate the national defense program.
STEELMAN: Yes. And so that's where he got to know me.
JOHNSON: Did you see him at one of those hearings?
JOHNSON: Did you testify?
STEELMAN: I don't think so.
JOHNSON: They didn't ask you questions?
STEELMAN: One time I remember I was in New York and when Truman became
President his secretary called me up and said, "Are you going to
be in Washington any time soon?" I said, "Yes, as a matter of
fact I've got a
couple of meetings down there next week." So he said, "Well,
I don't know what it's about, but the President wants to see you. Could
you come by?"
So I went in and Truman said, "I want you to come and work with
me." He said, "I had my eye on you while I was in the Senate
and you were head of the Conciliation Service." I said, "Well,
Mr. President, I don't think I can do that." So Truman said, "I
hate to do to you what Roosevelt did to me." I said, "What's
that, Mr. President?" He said, "Roosevelt wanted me to run with
him as Vice President and," he said, "I didn't like the idea.
But Roosevelt said, 'Harry, are you going to do what I'm asking you, or
are you going to let your country down?' Well," Truman said, "that's
what I'm saying to you."
JOHNSON: Okay, going back again to around 1937 or so, I think there's
a report that you were involved in some 80,000 labor disputes during the
'30s and up to '44?
STEELMAN: Probably. Yes.
JOHNSON: Frances Perkins said that after you came they were resolving
about 90 percent of these disputes as compared to maybe less than 60 percent
or so before that time. Did you teach, or were you kind of a mentor
to some of the other Conciliators then? Did you teach them your tricks
so to speak, your style, your methods.? Did they learn from you?
STEELMAN: Yes, to a certain degree, yes.
JOHNSON: Was there any one particular conciliator that stands out in
your memory, after you became director, or before, anyone that stands
out as a very efficient?
STEELMAN: I don't remember now.
JOHNSON: When did you first meet John L. Lewis?
STEELMAN: Well, I guess it was when I was the head of the Conciliation
JOHNSON: When you were Director.
JOHNSON: Was it before the war started, or after the war started? Was
it in 1941 when I think there was a problem with the mine workers wanting
STEELMAN: I think it was probably about '41.
JOHNSON: Roosevelt had the reputation of giving in to the labor unions,
and to John L. Lewis. What was your view
of Roosevelt's approach to the labor-management disputes and to labor
STEELMAN: Well, I guess it was because he was crippled. Anyhow he dabbled
with everything, and so it's like Miss Perkins said; she wanted to leave
and go as president of some college that they offered her, and Roosevelt
said, "I'll let you go if you find me somebody I like." She
said, ".How about this Dr. Steelman we were discussing in Cabinet
meeting the other day, that settled seven strikes in seven different states
in seven days." And Roosevelt said, "Good, get him."
So she asked me and I said, "No, I don't want any political appointment
under Mr. Roosevelt."
JOHNSON: Did you meet President Roosevelt in the Oval Office?
JOHNSON: Did you talk about labor-management problems at all when you
were there, or was it just some pleasantries? Did he ever try to give
you any advice, on how to deal with these labor unions?
STEELMAN: No, I don't think so. I don't think so, we just
had a little visit.
JOHNSON: A little pleasant visit.
JOHNSON: Well, Sidney Hillman was supposed to be an influential labor
boss, influential with Roosevelt.
STEELMAN: Yes. He was the head of the CIO. There were two labor organizations:
American Federation of Labor and the Committee for Industrial Organization.
JOHNSON: Yes. Do you remember John L. Lewis taking his miners out on
strike during the war, in 1943 for instance?
JOHNSON: What role did you play in resolving those disputes during the
war? What role did you play? Did you meet directly with John L. Lewis?
STEELMAN: Oh yes, many times.
JOHNSON: Do you remember about when that first meeting was?
STEELMAN: I'll never forget one time I was in New York and had John Lewis
and Ben Fairless, head of the U.S. Steel Corporation, and the miners had
struck the so-called
captive mines, the mines owned by the steel company. That was in the hotel
in New York and we negotiated week after week.
I'll never forget one time I told the press, "I see a little ray
of light at the end of the tunnel," and the next morning Mayor LaGuardia
came busting into our room where we were meeting and John Lewis said,
"Did you ask him to come here?" I said, "No." He said,
"Mr. Mayor, what are you busting in here for?" He said, "Well,
I got the impression from Dr. Steelman that it might be possible to reach
a settlement today and I thought maybe I could help push it over."
Lewis said, "No, it's never going to be settled; you better get back
down to City Hall."
So, the Mayor went back down and bought a thousand tons of dirty coal,
coal that came out of some unorganized mines. In the organized mines when
they dug coal, they would wash the dust off of it. So, the Mayor bought
this dirty coal, as they called it, and the next day it was settled.
I remember Lewis and Ben Fairless; they would negotiate and when they
would break up, the press would come in and Lewis would lambaste the management.
He would say, "They sit here saying no, no, no." And then
when the press would leave, they'd walk down the hall with their arm around
each other. Lewis and Ben Fairless, they were good friends." So this
was a question of when they were going to settle.
JOHNSON: From my interview with David Stowe, I understand that Lewis
liked Calvin Coolidge for some reason. He was a friend of Calvin Coolidge,
or he liked Coolidge as a President. But I don't know what Coolidge ever
did for him.
STEELMAN: I don't either.
JOHNSON: What was Lewis' attitude toward Roosevelt? Did he like Roosevelt,
or did he like any of the Presidents?
STEELMAN: No, I don't think he cared much about any of them that I recall.
JOHNSON: He just saw them as politicians?
STEELMAN: That's right.
JOHNSON: Did he believe that the Government could do anything to help
the miners, or was it the Union that had to do everything?
STEELMAN: I don't remember exactly.
JOHNSON: He didn't have much use for Government involvement, did he?
STEELMAN: No. No.