Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Oral History Interview with
David H. Stowe and William J. Bray
February 12, 1973
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Stowe, in your first interview with Charles Morrissey in 1963 you briefly discussed Dr. John R. Steelman's operation in the White House, but I wonder if we couldn't just go into that subject just a little deeper. In some interviews I've had I've gained the impression that some members who served on the White House staff did not have a clear idea in mind as to just what Dr. Steelman's role was in the White House. I've heard it expressed that the Special Counsel was a policy adviser and that Dr. Steelman handled the day-to-day affairs of the White House, but just how did you see Dr. Steelman's role?
STOWE: Well, it's a little difficult to separate Dr. Steelman's role in the White House in the early days when I first worked with him and his role as the head
of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion.
Briefly, as you probably know, Dr. Steelman had been Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for a number of years when it was in the Department of Labor. In that capacity he became recognized as one of the country's top flight mediators, and I think he would probably rank, in almost anybody's ranking, among the best half dozen we've had in the field of labor relations in many years.
I am not familiar with his role in the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion. I'm not familiar with what precisely that office did, because at that time I was in the Bureau of the Budget; but I do know in the early days in the White House he was an Administrative Assistant to President Truman and Director of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion.
This latter office was being gradually liquidated. The war was over, and the functions were being gradually phased out, so he had a residual staff, a group of people who had come from OWMR into the White House. Consequently, he had a disproportionately large staff in the White House. A good many of the people who worked on his staff, up to the time they left, or at the end of the administration, were people that had
come from the OWMR and were on some of the residual duties which were slipped into the White House, one way or the other.
And I'd like to talk about what he did as The Assistant to the President. Now, my understanding was that he did serve briefly with the title of Administrative Assistant and then became The Assistant. That you would have to check; I'm not sure, because when I knew him he held the title of The Assistant to the President.
HESS: Well, I have the list of the staff here, and he was not really an Administrative Assistant; he was what was called a Special Assistant to the President, for about one year. From December 29, '45 to December 12, '46, he was Special Assistant to the President, and then he was The Assistant to the President. You know, I've heard it both ways. I've heard that the "The" was capitalized (not that it makes much difference), and I've heard that it wasn't capitalized.
STOWE: Well, I always understood it was capitalized.
HESS: Well, I have too, except I believe in that Neustadt report that I mentioned before we started, that Mr. [Richard E.] Neustadt mentioned that one day when he was waiting to talk to Dr. Steelman and he was looking around his office, he noticed the commission on the
wall and noticed that the "The" was lower case, but that's neither here nor there.
STOWE: Well, let's talk about what Dr. Steelman did. I think basically he was involved in the day-by-day operation of the Government, as perhaps the number one staff assistant so engaged in the White House as distinguished from the legal counsel, who worked more in the field of policy and political matters, on relations to Congress, etc.
Dr. Steelman was able to do this because many of the things that come to the White House in terms of government operation also involve some conflict or potential conflict, between various departments and agencies of the Government. As a mediator, Dr. Steelman had the ability of getting into problems of that type, either before they developed or after they developed, and working out arrangements, a "rapprochement," whatever you want to call it, in such a way as to keep these problems away from the President. And I think, unquestionably, President Truman relied very substantially on Dr. Steelman, in this phase of White House operations.
In addition to that, having been the Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and having had to work with labor and management in the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, Dr.
Steelman was probably not only the most knowledgeable man in the field of labor relations in the Government, but he had a whole host of associations with management and with the major trade union presidents and officers. So when disputes or problems became difficult, vis-a-vis either management or labor, or both, he was able-- either working through the duly constituted agencies of the Government concerned with the problem, or actually bringing the problems on occasion right into the White House where he dealt with them as The Assistant to the President--to work out major labor management problems. These were not necessarily confined to disputes, but often they were disputes.
So, this was an area in which he probably did a substantial amount of work, which other members of the White House staff might or might not know about for the simple reason that many times when you're in negotiation you don't negotiate through the newspapers, or through any kind of public relations. You do it very quietly and hope to get the situation, whatever it might be, resolved.
HESS: There are some historians who speculate, or point out, that having a labor man right in the White House, so close to the President, cut out the Department of Labor or at least lessened its importance, and therefore if a dispute arose, the partners in the
dispute would not really bargain in the Department of Labor because they knew that it wasn't going to end there. They knew that this man was sitting in the White House, so why waste time with the Department of Labor when we are going to move right on to the White House? Do you think that caused difficulties for the Department of Labor?
STOWE: Well, I think first of all it depends on perhaps the White House's own philosophy of how to deal with major labor-management disputes. Now, I an talking about disputes and not broad problems. Relations of management and labor such as we had during the time of price-wage controls oftentimes were not disputes; they were matters of relationships. The Government, particularly the White House, worked with these parties.
Returning now to your question of disputes in the Department of Labor, first of all I point out to you that the two major labor dispute-resolving agencies, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the National Mediation Board, are independent agencies. They are not in the Department of Labor. Consequently, and I think over the years I've heard many people from both those agencies regret the fact that there is no one, or has been no one, in succeeding administrations that understands labor, understands the problems of
settling disputes; they abhor the whole thing, wish it would go away. Also, the general policy has been in subsequent administrations to have these independent agencies report through the Secretary of Labor. Now this creates a couple of problems. First of all, independent agencies, whether it's right or wrong, like to maintain their independence.
HESS: Does the National Mediation Board report today through the Secretary of Labor?
STOWE: Yes, we report through the Secretary of Labor.
The second thing is that oftentimes the Secretary of Labor, not having any day-by-day responsibility for the resolution of disputes, is unknowledgeable in the given dispute and the problems and the background as anybody just sitting in the White House. I think it's a long debate. Each President has organized it a little differently. No on