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Stuart Symington Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview
Stuart Symington

Surplus Property Administrator, 1945; Assistant Secretary of War for Air, 1946-47; Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, 1947-50; Chairman, National Security Resources Board, 1950-51; Administrator, Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 1951-52; U.S. Senator from Missouri, 1953-77.
Washington, D.C.
May 29, 1981
James R. Fuchs

See also Stuart Symington Papers finding aid

[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 May 29, 1981
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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


Oral History Interview with
Stuart Symington


Washington, D.C.
May 29, 1981
James R. Fuchs


FUCHS: I think we'll just skip down to how you happened to go to St. Louis with Emerson Electric Company; what was the driving force behind that?

SYMINGTON: I was president of the Rustless Iron and Steel. Corporation in Baltimore, Maryland, the plant headquarters. The owner of the company decided to sell it to American Rolling Mill Company; so it was sold to ARMCO. At that time I lived in New York, for a year or so went into various situations but really wanted to get back into plants. Some New York bankers came to me about a company in St. Louis in trouble, called


Emerson Electric. Inasmuch as prior to my going back into the steel business I had been head of Colonial Radio Corporation in Rochester and Buffalo, New York, owned 51 percent by me and my people, and 49 percent by Sears Roebuck, I knew something about the electric business, so went to St. Louis to discuss whether to go out as head of Emerson. We worked out a deal, so in September, 1938, I took over as Chief Executive Officer of that company.

FUCHS: Did you have any Missouri connections before that? Were you acquainted with...

SYMINGTON: I had a great-great-uncle, I think, who was commander of Jefferson Barracks around the War of 1812; and I had another great-uncle who lived for some years in St. Joseph, Missouri. Except for that, no known connection.

FUCHS: Okay. Well, then, how did you come to the attention of President Truman to receive your


appointment as Surplus Property Administrator?

SYMINGTON: In 1941 the War Production Board asked if I would go to England and find out how to build the first power gun turret plant in the United States. I discussed it with various people, including Jim Forrestal, who had been a friend in New York, also Bill Knudsen, and went to England in the early spring of '41; packaged their blueprints and returned to the United States to build a plant. This was well before we entered the war. The British were keen for 30 caliber guns, did not believe in daylight bombing. American experts said 30 caliber was not enough; we had to have 50 caliber, also said daylight bombing was right provided the planes attacked in formation, with 50 caliber guns. The prints the British had given us were all stressed for 30 caliber, so we had to revamp all our plans, including the purchase of machinery I had cabled for, in code, from England.

As a result, we ran into what well might


be called a mess. Certain equipment was already coming in we knew we didn't want because of the tremendous differences between 30 and 50 caliber stresses. As a result, we created a deep pit, you might say, problems that had to be worked out. Right about at the bottom of said pit, for possibly political reasons, we were investigated by the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by one Andrew Jackson May, who issued a dreadful statement about our plant; none of it true.

I immediately called May's office, but could not reach him. They said he was on his way by motor to his home in Kentucky. So I talked to other members of his committee, including Republican members, and they arranged to give me a hearing without him. As a result of that hearing, without Chairman May, said committee completely vindicated our position. Incidentally, May was a crook, later went to jail for accepting bribes. It was my first sad episode with Government.


We had basically a fine organization, but got caught because of 50 caliber needing different machine tools, etc., from what we thought was needed when we were in England.

FUCHS: Did you convert your plant, or was this a new plant?

SYMINGTON: New plant. Remember we were already working hard punching, drilling, cutting metal, days, nights, and Sundays; cutting metal for war orders, so there was little or nothing in it profit wise for Emerson, these turrets. There had been passed a heavy excess profits tax. This turret business was on top of our regular business. Do you follow me?


SYMINGTON: Our regular business was going great guns, so for the turrets we had to build a new plant, did so in Florissant, Missouri. Not too long after our indictment by the House Armed Services Committee, I received notice that the


Senate War Investigating Subcommittee planned also to investigate Emerson. I had barely met the then Senator Truman, did not know him well at all, but had had enough of investigations and knew this new turret business took a tremendous amount of everybody's time. We had a little bedroom and shower built next to my office; sometimes wouldn't go home, because turrets were needed yesterday, especially after Pearl Harbor.

We had had enough of investigations, however; had much work in our three plants downtown. So I called our lawyer, Sam Fordyce, at that time one of the leading lawyers of Missouri, and said, "Please draw up a contract to give this turret plant back to the Government; they can take it. We'll get a big gold key and turn it over to them in Washington."

He said, "You don't mean that." We got into a bit of an argument. I finally said, "Mr. Sam (he was a lot older than I), let's get it straight. Do you want to be our lawyer or don't you?"


Fordyce said, "Well, if you feel that way about it, all right."

"Thanks, please get up the papers."

Several days later called and asked, "Will you have lunch with me at the Noonday Club?"

"Sure, I'd be glad to."

I went down. With him was my old and close friend John Snyder. There was a fourth place at the table.

FUCHS: Had you already met Mr. Snyder?

SYMINGTON: Yes indeed, He was Emerson's banker and one wise man, was with the First National, our leading bank. I noticed a fourth place at the table. About halfway through lunch in came Senator Truman. After awhile, Fordyce said, "Harry, Stuart's going to quit this turret business."

I remember well when the Senator turned to me, then asked, "You're going to quit, eh?"

"You're damn right."



"Well," answered, "our people can't turn around without some Government employee looking over their shoulder and telling them what to do. We've had it, don't want any more part of it."

The Boss then observed, "The boys on the Anzio beachhead aren't quitting."

That hit home, you know, but I replied, "But they don't have people all over them like a bunch of locusts, telling what to do, not knowing what they were talking about."

Again the Senator observed, "The boys on the Anzio beachhead aren't quitting."

I looked at Fordyce and Snyder. Then Mr. Truman added, "If I give you my word that this investigation will be orderly, and that at any time you have a real problem you can come to see me in my office, will you go ahead?" You know, the Senator had all that incredible quiet strength in him. I replied "Yes, we will." So we had the investigation; it was orderly, well


done. Hugh Fulton was the Commerce counsel. When it was over, the then Senator wrote a much appreciated report about us. Incidentally, Emerson ended up getting two more Army and Navy E Awards than any of its competition.

There's a story in Fortune magazine, late 1943 that gets into all this, our first national story.

FUCHS: What was the name of that plant?

SYMINGTON: Emerson Electric, of Florissant, Missouri.

FUCHS: It was a new plant. It was private, but built with the Government's...

SYMINGTON: The Government put up the money, sure, about 12 million dollars. Emerson ultimately moved everything out there, and got rid of its plants in the city, concentrated in Florissant, built our new plant on farmland. When Jack Kennedy went out there to speak over 20 years later, running for President, Florissant was a


small town. I have a copy of that article. Would you like to see it? [A Yaleman and a Communist." Fortune, Volume XXVIII, No. 5, pp. 146-148, 212, 214, 216, 218, and 221]


SYMINGTON: It sums up the development of Emerson by October '43; tells the story. Here it is. I was not the Communist.

FUCHS: You were the Yale man?

SYMINGTON: Right. Rough title, but okay history.

FUCHS: Did you have occasion to go to Mr. Truman at any time about an investigation?

SYMINGTON: Never. His men came in, exactly the opposite of the hacks from the Armed Services Committee. They were quiet, respectful of our employees, just wanted facts. Everything was as it should be. The boys in the plant ended up by doing a mighty fine job.

FUCHS: Did they hold hearings?

SYMINGTON: They didn't hold any hearings; just had


the investigation.

FUCHS: Just had an investigation; there wasn't any kind of a formal hearing?

SYMINGTON: That's right. You sort of take me back. No, the report was quite laudatory. Then we branched out, did a lot of work, for example, on turrets we hadn't made ourselves; built a small plant over at Lambert Field, in St. Louis County.

FUCHS: What year would you say that was?

SYMINGTON: '43-'44 . Some in 1945.

FUCHS: Now, did you have occasion to see him again prior to when you were appointed to Surplus Property?

SYMINGTON: Yes. 1 went down with John Snyder to the announcement of his election as Vice President in Lamar, Missouri where this Vice President was born; and where he was formally told he would be the next Vice President; a delightful


evening, crowded and messy; a big crowd, everybody bouncing around. After he was elected but before he was inaugurated, he had lost his voice, so he went over to French Lick, Indiana, by himself, Then John Snyder said, "Let's go over and see the President."


Emerson had a plane, We were told the little runway was 1,500 feet, but our pilot came back and stated, "This is ridiculous, it's not more than 800 feet."

"Well, what will happen if we try?"

"We'll end up in a cornfield."

"Well, cornfields are generally pretty flat, so let's go ahead." He did, and we did end up in a cornfield; later a tractor pulled the plane out.

We took our two pilots up to visit with the Vice President to be in French Lick. A fellow Democrat, Tom Taggart, owned the big resort hotel; and we had a great time. I


noticed the way the President-to-be handled our pilots. They had previously asked, "Do you think we could shake his hand?"


The President-to-be made them feel so good you know. We spent all that day and much of the next day with him. By that time our plane was pulled out and we flew back to St. Louis.

FUCHS: This was between the time he was nominated and sworn in as Vice President?

SYMINGTON: Right. Then after President Roosevelt was again sworn in, the Vice President was sworn in. John Snyder and I later gave a reception for him in the Carlton Hotel here, for him and Mrs. Truman. John would remember more about that than I. It was a very pleasant reception. I saw a lot of people for the first time that I got to know quite well afterwards.

FUCHS: Any anecdotes you can recall either at French Lick or at the reception? People are always


interested in these as footnotes to history; illustrative of his character and so forth.

SYMINGTON: Well, I remember when we were at French Lick Mr. Truman couldn't talk much, you see, because he had lost his voice. We had lunch. Suddenly he said, "I think I'd like to take a little nap, do you all mind?"

"Of course not," so Mr. Truman just put his head like this on his hand and promptly fell asleep at the table. I remarked, "That man's going to live a long time." He had the capacity to relax.

FUCHS: And he did.

Were you involved in politics in any way at that time? Did you go to the convention for instance?

SYMINGTON: No, I was a Democrat; my father was a Democratic judge in Maryland