Oral History Interview with
Willard L. Thorp
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, 1945-46, and Asst. Secretary, 1946-52. Member of U.S. delegation serving as special adviser on economic matters, Paris Peace Conference, 1946; special adviser on economic matters, New York meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, 1946; American representative to the United Nations General Assembly, 1947-48; and chairman, U.S. delegation to the Ruhr Coal Production Talks, Washington, D.C., 1947.
July 10, 1971
by Richard D. McKinzie and Theodore A. Wilson
[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 January 1978
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Willard L. Thorp
July 10, 1971
by Richard D. McKinzie and Theodore A. Wilson
WILSON: Mr. Thorp, would you describe, please, the circumstance of your appointment as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs in 1945?
THORP: I suppose I should go back to when I was born, but I'll talk primarily about my entry into international affairs.
This goes back to 1933. Until that time I had been largely involved in such fields as
business cycles, corporation finance, and money and banking. For a period I was on the staff of the National Bureau of Economic Research, but, since 1927, I had been a professor in Amherst College.
In 1933 suddenly I got a call from the head of the American Statistical Association. He asked me if I would go to Washington to be a member of a group provided by the Association to advise Mr. Roosevelt and his Cabinet about how to reconstruct the statistical services of the Government. These had been substantially cut back in 1930, '31 and '32 by the Hoover administration, as part of the general effort to keep the deficit down.
I had been a member of a group which had met at Princeton and had already sent to Washington a strong protest about what had been happening
in the statistical field.
When I arrived in Washington that summer -- I went there as soon as the college year ended -- I was assigned to review the statistical activity of Commerce. I started circulating around in the Department. At that time the head of it was Daniel Roper, a political appointee, but the operating head was a man named John Dickinson, a lawyer from the University of Pennsylvania.
After I had been working on this job about a month I was called in by Dickinson who said, "We have a very difficult situation. There's building up a great pressure to appoint a Southern candy manufacturer as head of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. From my point of view this is the most important bureau in the Department. We've got to fill the post as quickly as possible. Will you take it?"
Here was I 34 years old, never having run anything except during the war, when I had been personnel officer in a training camp. Luckily, I had a very able chief sergeant who knew the ropes and really ran the office (I was 18 years old at the time). Except for that and one year as chief statistician for the New York State Board of Housing, I had been in research work, I had been teaching at Amherst, and suddenly was invited to become head of a large and important bureau. It included all the commercial attaches, or what was left of them (there had already been a hatchet man named Amory, who had fired a great many people in the period from March to June). It was the contact with businessmen. It also operated regional offices around the country and published voluminous reports.
I became the head of that bureau almost at
once and found myself deeply involved in foreign commerce. This meant that whenever any international policy problems came up, of which there weren't very many in 1933, I was pulled in on it not to mention the continuing responsibility for the commercial attaché apparatus.
I was one of the group that drafted the reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, along with Rex [Rexford G.] Tugwell, Herbert Feis, and others. I was also involved in the whole problem of how alcohol was to be treated after the ending of the prohibition, which again had a foreign angle. Most important was the whole question, since foreign trade was going to hell very rapidly, of what could be done about it.
This lasted until May, 1934, when through a series of circumstances that we don't need to go into, the President withdrew my name. Political opposition had come from Senator
[Hubert Durrett] Stephens of Mississippi, who was essentially responsible, because I had not appointed a client of his to a job. At any rate, this was my initiation into foreign affairs in the Government.
While I was head of the bureau, the State Department made a big drive to take over the commercial attaches. I made a successful resistance to this so that things went on as before. Parenthetically, when I was back in the Department of Commerce in '38 or '39, the State Department again made a drive for this. I abetted it on the grounds that the State Department appeared to be much freer of political choosing and handling of personnel than the Commerce Department. I had watched this whole operation now for five years and was prepared to arrange a transfer over the protests of a great many commercial attaches who said, "We will just be second-rate
citizens, we will not be absorbed. We will just be frozen, with no chance, no opportunity." It turned out in the end that a number of these fellows wound up being ambassadors. Walt [W. Walton] Butterworth is probably the best known one. He was one of the commercial attaches that I "sold down the river to the State Department."
During this period I had worked rather closely with a man in the Treasury Department: Dean Acheson. I met him on one of those lovely Government yachts which served to make sure that all ships in the Chesapeake were behaving properly, a job frequently done by high officials! I think within the next week I got a call from him saying, "On my desk there's an enormous pile of stuff having to do with the problem of dumping. I don't know anything about dumping. I wonder if you'd be willing to take all this and look it over and see what action the Treasury ought
to take on this problem." From then on when he got involved with a foreign problem, he was very likely to call me and ask if I would help him out. So that I came to know Mr. Acheson fairly well, on a working basis.
After the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce and a few brief assignments, I became head of the NRA Policy Board, and was there for a while. I then went up to Dun and Bradstreet and was its chief economist. Dun and Bradstreet had never had an economist before. The head of it, Arthur Whiteside, had been a member of the group heading the NRA and felt that a lot of its material might have economic use. I was very happily functioning there when I got involved again in Washington. Harry Hopkins, who was Secretary of Commerce, became sick and was limited in his activity. Three of us became
a triumvirate that ran the Department of Commerce. I think I spent two days a week in New York at Dun and Bradstreet and the rest of the week in Washington for that period. That involved also being the Commerce man on the TNEC (the Temporary National Economic Commission) which was a terribly exciting job. It unfortunately was reaching a point of conclusion when the war came along and we never really made use of all the work that was done.
Hopkin's illness brought me back into the Commerce Department again because I had to do everything that was substantive; from advising Mr. Hopkins whether or not to approve the form for the 1940 census, telling the railroad industry, "For heaven's sakes, buy a lot of freight cars and get the economy going. That's a good opportunity that you've got and you'll need it." But mostly I was still at Dun and
Then suddenly I got a call from a Federal judge to come and see him. It turned out to be about one of the two biggest crooks of the twenties, Howard Hobson. Hobson had gone to jail, his enormous empire was in bankruptcy. The judge wanted to know if I would come and be a trustee of this.
It turned out later, to my surprise, that one of the people who had suggested me was Acheson. This judge had offered the post to Acheson and Acheson had said, "Well, if I do it, I'll do it only if a fellow named Willard Thorp would come and be my assistant on it," or something to that effect.
For the whole war period I headed this utility system, the third largest in the country. When I say I "headed it," I must modify that.
I had a co-trustee who was twenty years older than I. He was a lame duck congressman who left it all to me to do.
MRS. THORP: His claim to fame was that he had uncovered the fact that the letters against the proposed Public Utility Holding Company Act with which the Congress had been inundated were shams. They were letters with names taken from cemeteries and what have you.
THORP: It was a little more obvious than that. They tended to be letters from people whose names began with A, B, and C. Nobody whose name began with T or W sent in a letter!
MRS. THORP: Dennis Driscoll was an enchanting loveable man, but of course, the whole outfit needed somebody with brains and drive. The financial community bet that it was going to
take twenty years to get this mess straightened out. It was out of re-organization in six years.
THORP: The re-organization of the Associated Gas and Electric Company was an education in law and business operation. There were some very difficult law suits against accountants and banks, and very lively tax problems to be settled. Many of the properties had to be sold. Besides all of this was under the jurisdiction of a Federal judge; whenever you wanted to hire a stenographer you had to go and ask permission and so forth and so on.
Incidentally I don't know whether it is typical or not, but since he knew something about the market for stenographers, it was harder to get the judge to approve a stenographer than to approve the refunding of a bond issue that might involve ten million dollars.
MRS. THORP: This was also because he was a political appointee. All of this was much too complicated for him to comprehend.
THORP: To try to keep a small international thread in this, and this is a very gossamer thread, I should mention that this system had been built up by accumulating existing properties. This was, of course, a very essential way in which the country shifted from local electric light companies to large systems. Systems in the twenties were primarily built up by buying a company, floating bonds of greater value than were paid for it, and then using that money to buy another company.
One of the things the Associated owned was the Manila Electric Company. I was therefore actually involved in operating a foreign electric light and power company. I must say, however,
that the problem of operating a Philippine company in the early forties was never challenging. It finally had to be sold under S.E.C. orders.
Now to get back to your original question. I got a phone call in the spring of '45 from Ed [Edward S.] Mason, an old friend of mine, and a professor at Harvard. At that time he was Will [William C.] Clayton's assistant. The State Department had never had an economic staff of any significance. Herbert Feis had been there; as a matter of fact, he was there, as far as I know, back in 1933. When they passed the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, the problem of negotiating these was put on the State Department. Henry Grady came in and built up a group for this which included people who came later to be of considerable importance, like Leroy Stinebower. But, the weakness of the Department is evidenced by the fact that
there had to be a separate Foreign Economic Administration set up during the war. There was just very little to build on.
Will Clayton, who came into the State Department in December, 1944 and Ed Mason decided that the Department was going to be faced after the War with a tremendous variety of problems beyond the trade policy problem, and that it must build up a substantial staff.
MCKINZIE: Do you think Secretary [Cordell] Hull had anything to do with that decision?
THORP: I wouldn't know. I would rather doubt it. My earlier contacts with Secretary Hull did not suggest that he was a very imaginative person. Anyway, Hull was out and Stettinius came in, in December, 1944.
MRS. THORP: I think it was Will Clayton who telephoned Willard. He didn't find out until afterwards
that Ed Mason had suggested him to Will Clayton.
I happened to be sitting in Willard Thorp's office when the call came from Will Clayton asking him if he would take this on. He turned absolutely silver-color, really grayish. At this time he had a wife (not this one) and three children who were naturally a major expense -- adolescent children. When he got off the phone and told me what the invitation was, I said, "Well, you just can't do this." He had parents also, his father was a retired minister and clearly didn't have very much to live on. I said, "You just cannot afford, with all the requirements on you, to take on a job like this in Washington."
He looked at me -- there was nobody else present, and no heroics about him -- and said, "What kind of citizen would I be if I refused to go broke to serve my country?" I knew what he was talking
about, because he had already gone broke once in the New Deal days.
THORP: Yes, that's right. In '33-'34 I ended up going up to Dun and Bradstreet having borrowed on my life insurance.
WILSON: Why did this remarkable group of people come into the Government, or stay on, at a great personal sacrifice?
MRS. THORP: I have a thing about this. I get absolutely enraged when people go into hysterical kudos for someone like [Robert] McNamara or George Romney from American Motors. These and other people gave up a million dollars worth of securities and turned it into some form of trust. It's one thing for people whose fortunes are absolutely assured; it's quite something else for somebody who says, "I will wear a hair shirt
for the rest of my