John L. Sullivan Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
John L. Sullivan

Assistant to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, September 1939-January 1940; Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, January 1940-November 1944; Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air, July 1945-46; Under Secretary of the Navy, 1946-47; and Secretary of the Navy, 1947-May 24, 1949.

Washington, D. C.
March 27 and April 13, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed | Appendix]


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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 June, 1974
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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


Oral History Interview with
John L. Sullivan


Washington, D. C.
March 27, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Sullivan, to begin, will you give me a little of your personal background? Where were you born, where were you educated, and what positions have you held both before your period of service in the Truman administration, and since that time?

SULLIVAN: I was born on June 16, 1899 in Manchester, New Hampshire. I attended the Webster Street Grammar School and the Manchester High School. I entered Dartmouth in 1917 and left the following year to join the United States Navy. At the conclusion of the war, I returned to Dartmouth where I graduated in 1921. In 1924 I received my law degree from Harvard University.

In 1928 I ran for County Solicitor in Hillsboro County, that being the phrase that is usually known as district attorney. I was elected in 1928 and in 1930. I married Priscilla Manning in December of 1932.


In 1934 I ran for Governor against Styles Bridges and was defeated by about 600 votes. I later ran for Governor in 1938 and was beaten more decisively.

In January of '39 I had two clients who had rather serious tax problems. I tried to refer them to a tax counsel in Boston, but they were curious clients in that they never wanted more than one law firm to know anything about their business. So they told me I had better study up on tax law.

To show you how little I understood how bureaucracy worked in Internal Revenue, I wrote the full details of both cases to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue in January of '39. Not having heard from him by the 15th of March I called him and made an appointment to see him, and I came down and we had quite a conversation.

The following week I had a telephone call from Jim Farley asking me if I didn't want to become Assistant Commissioner of Internal Revenue, and I told him that I had no desire for any position with the Federal Government. He said that I had made an impression on Guy Helvering, the Commissioner, and I said that, well, we had just had a knockdown, dragout fight, and Jim said, "Well, I guess he liked the way you fought because he wants you to put on his colors and fight from his corner."


So I told him I wasn't interested, but I'd drop in and thank Mr. Helvering the next time I was in Washington. And Jim said, "Well, then will you come to call on me afterwards," which I did. And they both very strongly urged me to take the position. I was unable to accept the position at that time because these two tax cases were pending, and it was not until the following September when the cases had been settled that I came to Washington and was sworn in on the 3rd of September, 1939. About twenty minutes later England and France declared war on Germany, so right off the bat I was in the middle of things, handling things, which I probably wouldn't have been allowed to touch until I had had at least five year's experience. The result was I had all of World War II before we got in it, all of the war while we were in it, and all the wrap-up of the war. It was a great experience. I wouldn't give up a month of it for anything, and I wouldn't want to do another day of it for a great deal of money.

HESS: Just what were some of your duties? Now, you were Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during this period of time, is that correct?

SULLIVAN: No, I was Assistant Commissioner of Internal Revenue


from the 3rd of September 1939 until the 17th of January, 1940. I was moved over to take the place vacated by Johnny [John W.] Hanes, who had been Under Secretary.

HESS: In the Treasury, is that right?

SULLIVAN: Yes. With the war coming on it became obvious that one of the great tasks was going to be to finance it. Dan [Daniel W.] Bell took Johnny Hanes' title as Under Secretary, and I took Johnny Hanes' responsibility, handling Internal Revenue, all the tax legislation, and procurement and several other bureaus.

HESS: What do you recall about the relationship between Henry Morgenthau, who was Secretary of the Treasury at this time, and President Roosevelt?

SULLIVAN: They were very, very close. I don't think I ever saw greater loyalty than Morgenthau displayed toward FDR.

HESS: And also, about this period of time, Secretary of War Harry Woodring was having a little difficulty with his assistant, Louis Johnson, is that correct?


HESS: Did you get involved in that matter?


SULLIVAN: Yes, they were both friends of mine, and they hadn't spoken to each other for a matter of months. President Roosevelt asked Secretary Morgenthau to try to get them together, and since Morgenthau knew I was a fiend of both of them, he had me sit in with him in the rather curious role, almost as interpreter, because the two men wouldn't speak to each other, and I'd ask them the questions and they'd answer me.

HESS: What seemed to be the basis of their difficulty at that time, and just what did you know about Harry Woodring and Louis Johnson at that point in time?

SULLIVAN: Well, I knew Woodring when he was Governor of Kansas, and I had known Louis Johnson when he was National Commander of the American Legion the same year I was State Commander in New Hampshire. What their difference was, I can't say. I suspect that when Louie took the job as Assistant Secretary, he may have understood that he was going to move up soon as Secretary. As a matter of fact he never did become Secretary of War.

HESS: No, he was Secretary of Defense during the Truman administration. Do you think that the post of Secretary of War had been promised to him by Roosevelt?


SULLIVAN: I don't know.

HESS: But your job mainly was as interpreter between the two silent partners, who wouldn't speak to each other?

SULLIVAN: Between the Secretary of War and his own Assistant Secretary.

HESS: Do you recall any particular incidents where you worked in this capacity, on any particular project, that might illustrate how that relationship worked or didn't work?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think Johnson had charge of industrial development, and I always suspected that he wanted to go ahead faster with rearmament than Secretary Woodring cared to go.

HESS: All right, now moving along to Mr. Truman, what are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?

SULLIVAN: I was trying to recall that last night. I can't really remember when I first met him. When I was with the Treasury I handled all legislation except for the bond legislation, and I knew every member of the House and every member of the Senate. I never testified before any committee on which Senator Truman sat, but I had a


speaking acquaintance with him.

HESS: As you know, there was the Truman Committee, the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, through which Mr. Truman's name became quite prominent during the Second World War. Do you recall anything about Mr. Truman's handling of that Committee?

SULLIVAN: Yes, it was our feeling that he did a superb job. He wasn't out to crucify anybody; he was out to correct mistakes as they were being made so they would not be repeated.

HESS: In the summer of 1944, Mr. Truman was selected to be the vice-presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. Were you surprised that Mr. Truman was selected at this time? There were several people heavily in the running: Henry Wallace, for one, who was Vice President, and wanted to remain; Jim Byrnes of South Carolina would liked to have had it. Mr. Truman seemed to be sort of a dark horse, an outside man.

SULLIVAN: Well, I think that it was a case of God being good to America. I think Jimmy Byrnes would have made a good President, but I think Harry Truman made a better one.

HESS: What's your view on Henry Wallace? Do you think he


should have been given another chance to serve as Vice President again?

SULLIVAN: I wasn't sorry to see him leave.

HESS: You weren't sorry to see him go. What was the main attitude of most of the men who might be called political forces in their states, about Mr. Wallace?

SULLIVAN: About who?

HESS: About Henry Wallace.

SULLIVAN: I don't believe they felt he really belonged.

HESS: Why?

SULLIVAN: Fuzzy ideas.

HESS: All right. Did you go to the convention? It was held in Chicago that year.

SULLIVAN: That's right, I was there.

HESS: Do you recall anything in particular about Chicago and that convention?

SULLIVAN: I got the word about 11 o'clock in the morning from Bob Hannegan that the President had decided upon Senator Truman. Believe it or not, in those days, I


knew at least two-thirds of the delegates from all over the country, and I promptly went to Mr. Truman's room, and I congratulated him and I said I thought it would be nice if Mrs. Truman and Margaret sat in the box at the head of the main aisle with me, and I would introduce Mrs. Truman and Margaret to as many delegates as came down that aisle; and that I did. Everybody wondered why I was stopping them and introducing them to Mrs. Truman and Margaret. About an hour later they found out.

HESS: Do you think that might have been the first time that many of the delegates had met Mr. Truman? Was he rather an unknown quantity to many of the delegates?

SULLIVAN: I wouldn't say it was the first time they had ever met Mr. Truman. It certainly was the first time they had ever met Mrs. Truman or Margaret.

HESS: So you thought it was a wise thing to bring the family in and introduce them to the delegates?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I did.

HESS: Do you recall anything about Mr. Truman's efforts during that campaign in 1944?

SULLIVAN: No, I don't.


HESS: Mr. Roosevelt made a number of speeches in that campaign. I recall he caught a cold in New York one time when he rode in an open convertible, and they were in the rain.

SULLIVAN: That's right.

HESS: Then he had a follow-up speech, I believe, to the teamsters, when he mentioned about Fala. But Mr. Truman did make a couple of campaign swings.

Mr. Roosevelt was inaugurated on the South Portico of the White House, I understand.

SULLIVAN: I was there.

HESS: What do you recall about that, was it a pretty cold day?

SULLIVAN: I hadn't seen him since the last week of the campaign, and both Mrs. Sullivan and I were frightfully shocked. There had been such a disturbing change in his appearance that we both felt that he was desperately ill.

HESS: His health had noticeably deteriorated since the campaign, is that right?

SULLIVAN: Very badly.


HESS: And then right after that, he had a difficult job to do when he went to Yalta, just after the inauguration. Then he came back, spent a little time in Washington and then went down to Warm Springs, and on April 12, of 1945, President Roosevelt died. Where were you when you heard the news of President Roosevelt's death, and what were your thoughts and impressions?,

SULLIVAN: I had left the Treasury the last of November in 1944, because I had so many cases in New Hampshire that had been postponed and I had to clean them up. On the day of the President's death, I was in the office of Basil O'Connor, who was head of the American Red Cross as well as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. He was trying to persuade me to relieve Harvey Gibson and run the Red Cross for Europe and UK. Basil was an old friend and I was listening, although I had no intention of undertaking that job. The phone rang and Basil said, "It's for you."

I took the phone and this voice said, "Can you be at work at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning?"

And I said, "Who's this?"

He said, "Jim."

I said, "Jim who?"

He said, "Forrestal."


Whenever you talked with Forrestal, he never said "hello" or "goodbye," you were right in the middle of the conversation the minute you picked up the receiver. I said, "No, I can't be at work at 8 o'clock in the morning."

He said, "Be here at 8 o'clock Monday."

I said, "Wait a minute, Jim, what about?"

He said, "Haven't you heard from the President in the last 48 hours?"

I said, "No."

He said, "Did you fill out a blank check when you left the Treasury?"

I said, "Yes, I guess I did."

He said, "Well, he's filled it in and we sent your nomination papers down to Warm Springs this morning, and they're going to suspend the rules of the Senate and you'll be confirmed tonight. Be here Monday morning."

I said, "Wait a minute, as what?"

He said, "Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air."

So I told Basil what I was in for, and left and returned to the Waldorf and couldn't find any newspapers in the newstand. I inquired why they didn't have any newspapers and they said, "Oh, stick around. There'll be another extra in a minute."