Oral History Interview with
Chief Examiner, US Bureau of the Budget, 1943-47; Deputy to the Assistant to the President of the United States, 1947-49; Administrative Assistant to the President of the Untied States, 1949-53; Labor arbitrator since 1953, including Organizational Disputes Arbitrator, Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO, 1955-70, and member, National Mediation Board, from 1970 until retirement in 1980.
David H. Stowe
June 24, 1989
Niel M. Johnson
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed | Additional Stowe Oral History Transcripts]
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 July, 1991
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
David H. Stowe
June 24, 1989
Niel M. Johnson
JOHNSON: We're going to discuss some anecdotes and some items that may not be on the other interviews that have been recorded in the past.
We've been talking, Mr. Stowe, about some security things at the White House, and I thought perhaps I could start by asking you again about security provisions for President Roosevelt during World War II. You mentioned a ramp and a small shelter, I think, under what was it, the west wing?
STOWE: The east wing.
JOHNSON: I don't believe that's on tape anywhere. So, do you want to talk a little more about that again, about Roosevelt and provisions for him?
STOWE: Well, as I understand it, during World War II, there were no arrangements for bomb shelters in the White House itself, but that a tunnel had been constructed from the east wing of the White House over into the Treasury Department where there was a deep vault. Since it was a tunnel and on an incline, no stairs as I understood it, they could wheel the President, in his wheelchair into that in the event of necessity. I never saw it; I never went in it,
but I understand it was still there at the time we renovated the White House.
JOHNSON: And a small shelter under that east wing?
STOWE: Under the east wing, there subsequently was built a relatively small shelter. It was about the equivalent of two rooms. It would have been adequate for a minor type of attack, but would have been useless in the point of view of a ground zero atomic attack.
JOHNSON: That was there until the renovation in 1948?
STOWE: Until the renovation.
JOHNSON: What about the Map Room? It's still not clear to me whether the Map Room was in one of these secure areas, or whether there was any special protection around the Map Room. Do you remember the Map Room at all?
STOWE: No, I don't. George Elsey and Clark Clifford were familiar with that.
JOHNSON: You mentioned that you were the only one at the White House who was designated by President Truman to deal with atomic energy information. Is that right?
STOWE: That's right.
JOHNSON: Sort of like a Q clearance.
STOWE: So I was informed by the Atomic Energy Commission some time later when they wanted me to do something for them, under the impression I had a Q clearance. Then they found out I hadn't, but that I had this special clearance. They did, later, give me a Q clearance, but that was after our administration.
JOHNSON: I think you mentioned that the Atomic Energy Commission security people did put a recording device on your telephone.
JOHNSON: Is that the only one in the White House that you knew about, that tape recording?
STOWE: It was the only one I knew of.
JOHNSON: It's the only recording device that you know of that was in the White House when Truman was there?
STOWE: And after that one caught on fire, I didn't use it either.
JOHNSON: Do you want to just say a little more about that, why and how that was installed in your office?
STOWE: Well, they put it in one of these cabinet-like things that they often have, with silver carafes
standing on them in Government offices. Apparently, they forgot to bore any holes in the back for air circulation, and after I turned it on a couple times, and was running it, it got a little hot in there and caught on fire. Later they came over and bored some holes in the back of that stand, but I didn't use it much after that.
JOHNSON: Well, you were only supposed to use it when you were conversing with someone, and something sensitive came up on the phone?
STOWE: Right. And partly being for my own protection.
JOHNSON: You know, we've been asked if we have any knowledge of the wiretaps that the FBI did apparently on Tommy Corcoran. Do you have any knowledge of that?
STOWE: No. I don't know if anybody in the White House outside of my secretaries know about this machine either, because it was handled by the AEC. I think I told you they came and checked all around once or twice a week, checking for any kind of bugs that might be anywhere around there.
JOHNSON: The AEC security people?
STOWE: Yes. This originally started when I was assigned
the job of working with the Atomic Energy Commission on a report. I can't think of the name of that commission now, but Bill Davis was the chairman of it. It was a Presidential commission on atomic energy, and because of the sensitivity of some things this commission was working on, and because of my assignment by the President to work with them, the AEC decided I had to be cleared. And from then on everything that came to the White House on atomic energy they apparently dealt with me.
JOHNSON: Okay, so you were the contact at the White House on atomic energy.
STOWE: So far as I know, there was no one else. In those days it was so secure, you didn't know who might be dealing with it.
JOHNSON: I don't think there's been anything in particular in these other interviews that deal with renovation of the White House. Did you have anything that you wanted to add about the renovation that we might put on record?
STOWE: One or two anecdotes. The President, after he had built the Court House out in Kansas City I guess fancied himself as quite a construction expert. He very wisely had set up a commission, because, as he
said, if people didn't like what was being done, they'd blame him. This way, Congress appointed a commission and if the people didn't like it, they'd blame the commission. But he used to go over there almost every day after work and look around and check the job out, until General [Major General Glen E.] Edgerton called me once or twice and said, "For goodness sake, can't you keep him away; he thinks he's rebuilding the court house out there."
There's another anecdote. I went over on many of these trips with him because one of the things I wanted to see each time was how they were doing with the shelter. I remember we were up in what later would be his bedroom, and as I recall it, the bathroom was sort of a long room with washbasins and a commode that ran like a little ell. I think I'm correct in that. Anyway, I heard him one day in there just plain explode, "Who the hell thought this up?" I go in there and in the little ell where the commode was, they had placed a safe in the wall, so the only way you could get at the combination would be to sit on the commode and turn the combination.
Now, I don't know whether he had that taken out or not, but he sure thought that was the dumbest thing he ever saw in his life. It may still be there for all I know.
JOHNSON: Anything else about renovation before we leave that subject?
STOWE: I think he was really very, very much concerned that it be put back exactly as it was. Edgerton, I think, did a magnificent job of marking everything and putting it back. My understanding is that with the exception of one or two minor pieces, and the major change in the grand stairway, which was a great advantage, the house, when it was put back in, was almost exactly as it was before.
JOHNSON: You mentioned that when Mr. Truman was at the Blair House, there was a place where he would read the morning paper before he went out on his stroll. Do you want to describe the situation there and then that attempted assassination which got you into the security picture again?
STOWE: There was a little room on the front of the Blair House, or Blair-Lee, which is on the corner right next to the Court of Claims. There was a desk and a chair, a few things in a small room; he would go in there and read his morning paper before he went on walks with the Secret Service. The Secret Service had become concerned that the Blair House was susceptible [to assault], since there were only about ten feet and nothing but a little picket fence
between the sidewalk and the house. They were concerned that somebody might throw things into the window, a Molotov cocktail or something of that nature. They had been experimenting with how they could protect the first floor particularly, and part of the second floor, because of the angles they had discovered from atop Old State and from an office building back on the back side, which might permit a sharpshooting type of thing. They'd been working on this, and they finally called me up one day, and I guess that was because I had found some money for them one other time because of my former budget connections, or maybe because we had been working together; I don't recall at that time exactly what our relationships were in this area. They said that they had found a screen--they couldn't put bullet-proof glass in because it was too heavy for the house--but they had found a screen that they could put on those front windows that would withstand whatever poundage that they were concerned about somebody throwing things in. So I asked them the name of the company and they said it was called, as I remember, the Psychiatric Screen Company. At that point I said, "No way, we're not going to put up psychiatric screens on the Blair House because the newspaper people would get hold of it and they'll
say, 'Hey, they've got the President behind psychiatric screens.' Forget it, and try to find something else that will serve your purpose."
About two weeks later I was in Jack Hunt's restaurant, which is just a block up on Pennsylvania Avenue, when a waiter came back and said, "Mr. Stowe, there's been a shooting down the street." I said, "Let them shoot." He said, "But Mr. Stowe, it's at the Blair House." With that, I got out of that restaurant in a hurry; Jack swears I turned over two tables going out. I got on down the street and instead of stopping at the Blair House I rushed right up to my office in Old State; I got the president of the company that manufactured the Psychiatric screens and told him I guess he'd heard it on the radio by then, but told him about our problem. He said he'd have a man down the next morning to measure the windows and that he would then stop the factory and make a run, a special run of screens, for the Blair House. Then I could relax, because I had visions of something happening and that order being pigeon-holed on my desk.
JOHNSON: So those were put up then rather promptly?
JOHNSON: Those special screens that fit on the outside of
JOHNSON: I think perhaps it's not on the record about the National Security Resources Board, and your job of realigning personnel, rotating them, and I guess firing people. Would you want to say a little more about that particular job that you had?
STOWE: Well, the National Security Resources Board was transferred from the Department of Defense to the Executive Office of the President and became in effect like the Budget Bureau and the Council of Economic Advisers, a Presidential staff operation. [Arthur M.] Hill, who was president of the Greyhound Bus Company, had been chairman of the committee, but he resigned; so the President had to appoint someone to run the National Security Resources Board. At that time he had appointed, or indicated his intention to appoint, former Senator Mon Wallgren of the State of Washington. While that was going on, John Steelman was named as the titular head, and I was still his deputy at that time and had not been made Administrative Assistant to the President. I went over with him and actually spent most of my time there. One of the things we found was that much of the staff, some two or three hundred people, with the
exception of stenographers, had been people that had been accustomed to dealing one way or the other with the Department of Defense. They were Defense Department-oriented type of people.
JOHNSON: War Department I suppose at that time.
STOWE: The War Department, yes. They were from business, some of them dollar-a-years, some of them on salaries, but they were all caught up in the military type of planning. And the National Security Resources Board was supposed to be separate and apart from that. It was a long-range national planning board; it was not for the purpose of doing it just for the military. It was decided that that type of person would just not fit into the mission, the true mission of the National Security Resources Board. So one of the things that Dr. Steelman and I had to do was to, by one device or another, gradually replace all of those people with people with a broader viewpoint of the security resources problem. Some of them went easily; some of them we sort of had to ask to depart. But, unfortunately, in that process most of which I had to do, not Dr. Steelman, I became known as Truman's "hatchet man." If you'll look in Francis Heller's book, he's got me tagged as "hatchet man."
JOHNSON: Well, every President has to have a hatchet man, I suppose.
STOWE: Well, that was the only area that I did any hatcheting; that was the National Security Resources Board.
JOHNSON: I might mention a couple of other things. In 1950, and this would be right after the Korean war had started, the idea of having a science advisor to the President apparently became very important. Weren't you assigned to contact Golden, William T. Golden?
JOHNSON: I'm going to talk to him this afternoon. He interviewed a lot of the scientists in orde