1. Home
  2. Library Collections
  3. Oral History Interviews
  4. Francis O. Wilcox Oral History Interview, February 1, 1984

Francis O. Wilcox Oral History Interview, February 1, 1984

Oral History Interview with
Francis O. Wilcox

Chief of Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1947-1955.

February 1, 1984
by Donald A. Ritchie
Senate Historical Office, Washington, DC

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Wilcox Oral History Transcripts]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Senate Historical Office and deeded to the public domain. 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 Wilcox oral history interview.

The Senate Historical Office has made this interview available in PDF as part of its Oral History Project.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It is a public domain document.


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Wilcox Oral History Transcripts]


Oral History Interview with
Francis O. Wilcox

February 1, 1984
by Donald A. Ritchie

Senate Historical Office, Washington, DC



RITCHIE: We're interested in what people's experiences were before they came to the Senate, and how they got to the Senate. I was looking through the records and saw that you were born in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and spent your early years in Iowa. I wondered if you could tell me a little about your family and what they did in Columbus Junction?

WILCOX: Well, that was quite accidental in a way, because we lived in the little town of Montrose, Iowa which was 80 miles south of Columbus Junction. My mother, for some reason which I was not then aware of, obviously, went to Columbus Junction for the birth of her baby. This was where my grandparents lived. She went there and I was born in Columbus Junction, although my family actually lived in Montrose, Iowa.

RITCHIE: Was your father a farmer?

WILCOX: My father was a druggist. He owned and managed a drug store in this little town. I worked in the drug store in my off hours from school, and between high school and college I spent a year working there with him. My job was to run the soda fountain part of the drug store, with the ice cream and candy and all those good


things that drug stores sometimes have. I worked after school and on weekends, trying to help out with the family affairs.

RITCHIE: Did you attend public schools there?

WILCOX: I attended public schools in Montrose, Iowa. -- As I recall there were 20 students in my graduating class in high school.

RITCHIE: Then you went to the University of Iowa.


RITCHIE: I read a tribute that Senator Thomas Martin gave you when you left the Senate. He said that you were a "brilliant student and an outstanding athlete" there.

WILCOX: Well, you know how senators are, they're inclined to exaggerate sometimes -- especially when their constituents are involved -- and I think he probably did on this occasion! I did reasonably well in my studies and I wasn't that good an athlete, but I was on the varsity team.

RITCHIE: This was early on in the Depression, in the early 1930s. Did that pose any problem about being in college?

WILCOX: It did, because my parents lost what they had in the Depression, and this meant that I had to work my way through school from the very beginning. As you know, it's not easy to work your way


through college, but you can if you really try. In a way, I suppose it was a handicap; it was also a discipline because I learned the value of money, certainly; and I learned the value of time. I could get my studies taken care of in a relatively short period of time, because I had to. I did all kinds of things: selling programs at football games, and waiting on tables; you name it and I did it. My first couple of years of graduate work I ran a pawn shop with a student in the law school, and we did fairly well on that: But there were a good many kinds of things that I did -- including the job of circulation manager of student publications -- to get through school.

RITCHIE:. I see that you stayed at the University of Iowa for graduate work.

WILCOX: Yes, for three more years.

RITCHIE: What was it that made you decide to go on -- in political science, wasn't it?

WILCOX: Yes, it was in political science. I had intended to go into the law, but because of the financial pressures I was under I decided that I could get a doctor's degree more easily than I could get a law degree because I could teach part-time and work my way through, in that way. In the law school this is rather difficult to do, for there aren't the same kinds of opportunities in the law school to earn your way through. So I did that, and I stayed at the


University of Iowa because I had these opportunities which I wouldn't have had if I had gone elsewhere. I remember that I wrote to a couple of institutions, Princeton in particular. I was interested in going to Princeton to complete my doctor's work, but they wrote back and said I had a very fine record, but they had only two opportunities and those were taken by people who were already on board, therefore they had nothing to offer. So I decided to stay where I was.

Then after that I went to Europe for two years. I got a fellowship from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and I was entitled to go anywhere that I wanted to go to take advanced work. So I went to Europe because I had had seven years of training in a provincial situation and I felt that I needed to broaden my horizons a bit. I went to what was then the best school of international relations in the world, the University of Geneva, L'Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationale, the graduate institute of international studies. It was at the time when the League of Nations was in its hayday, and I learned a tremendous amount -- or so I thought, anyway -- in a period of two years. But that's the reason I went abroad. While abroad I decided that since I was there for two years, I might just as well qualify for a degree that would be from another institution. So I took my doctor's degree from the University of Geneva. Not that I was hunting for degrees particularly, but it seemed to me that it would balance off my credentials a little bit to have an advanced degree from another institution.


RITCHIE: When you were at Iowa were you in international studies as part of your political science program?

WILCOX: Yes, my field of study was political science, but because the head of the department came to me one day and said that if I wrote my dissertation in local government, he had the money to publish it. Of course, every doctoral candidate is anxious to have his doctor's thesis published, so I said all right, I would do it. I went from county government -- I wrote my doctor's dissertation on the financial administration of county government in Iowa, taking Johnson County, Iowa, as a typical case, and it was subsequently published -- then I went from local government to international government, you see, in one big jump.

RITCHIE: But you were tending towards international relations while you were at Iowa?

WILCOX: Yes. Because when I got the fellowship to study somewhere else, I decided that this was what I wanted to do. I had taken several courses in international relations, and I became very much interested in that field. So I chose to go abroad then for my post-doctoral work.

RITCHIE: Did you do another dissertation in Geneva?


WILCOX: Yes. The Ratification of International Conventions. It was published by George Allen and Unwin of London, and was my first book.

RITCHIE: I was curious about the impact of living in Europe in 1933 to 1935, and again in 1937, in such a period of tumult. Do you think that being there then shaped some of your world view?

WILCOX: Oh, there's no question about that. The milieu was an international one, and the graduate institute of international studies, as I said, had the best professors in the world at that time. I became very much interested in the League of Nations and its efforts to work toward world peace. I was there from 1933 until 1935. And, of course, it was a rough time economically. My wife and I got there -- we were married just before I left for Europe -- we got there in August and some months after that we had word that President Roosevelt had devalued the dollar. That meant that our fellowship was cut almost into half. As a result we had a pretty rough time financing our two years in Europe.

RITCHIE: I was going to ask if you traveled much through Europe while you were there, but that must have held you back.


WILCOX: We traveled some. We took advantage of vacations and went to Italy, for example, and spent some time in Paris. We did travel a bit, although our limited financial resources meant that we had to keep out traveling to a minimum.

RITCHIE: If you were in Italy did you have a chance to get some sense of Mussolini's impact there?

WILCOX: Yes. The grandeur of Mussolini and the fascist regime was apparent. I remember the people were praising him because he "made the trains run on time." Frankly, at that time, my wife was interested in art, and we spent a good deal of time in Florence and other cities in Italy where art collections are renowned and very famous. But we did, of course, get to attend the discussions in Geneva centered around Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, just before I left Geneva. Of course, that stirred up a lot of concern and question and comment. I remember coming back to the United States and I wrote a series of articles for the paper in Iowa City, where I had gone to school, on the Ethiopian situation.

RITCHIE: What paper was that?

WILCOX: The Daily Iowan.

RITCHIE: What was your impression of the League of Nations, when you had a chance to watch it in action?


WILCOX: I suppose like all young people imbued with a certain amount of optimism and hope about the future and about the maintenance of world peace and avoiding another war, I studied the League of Nations with a great deal of interest and hope. I read a great many books about it at that time. The library of the Institute was a very good one and it had many, many volumes on the League of Nations and its weaknesses, its strengths, its hopes, and its aspirations. I read many of those with a great deal of interest. Also, some of the classes were centered primarily on the work of the League of Nations. So I obviously became very much interested in that aspect of world affairs.

RITCHIE: So your feeling at that time was that the League of Nations was performing, it was working?

WILCOX: Well, we watched with hope. And, of course, when the situation in Manchuria developed in 1931 as it did, and then the one in Ethiopia in 1935, we began to have some reservations obviously, as people now have reservations about the United Nations and its capacity to keep world peace. It did not have the means at its disposal, the required will on the part of the states that were members, and the willingness to put down aggression where it occurred.

RITCHIE: Do you think that your experiences watching the League of Nations shaped the way you thought about the United Nations when it was founded?


WILCOX: Yes. I remember drawing up a list of lessons from the League of Nations as we were studying the UN Charter: what were the weaknesses of the League of Nations and to what extent did they charter of the United Nations take into account those weaknesses. So there was no question but what my interest in international organization was stimulated greatly by my experience in Geneva.

RITCHIE: You went back to Europe in 1937 for your Ph.D. at the Hague?

WILCOX: Not for my Ph.D. I went back there for a summer at the Hague Academy of International Law, which is known all over the world for its work in the field of international law. I had a fellowship to go there for the summer. So I spent some time in Berlin and some time at the Hague.

RITCHIE: What was your impression of Berlin in 1937?

WILCOX: Well, you couldn't help but feel that Hitler's efforts were moving the world toward a very serious situation. I remember going down one of the main streets, maybe the Unterdenlinden, I'm not sure now, and seeing great big signs: "Give Me Four Years Time." This was what Hitler was saying in 1937. And, of course, you know what happened in less than four years' time: he had the world at war. So, yes, you couldn't help but feel a great concern about the


future of Nazism and what this was going to do to Germany and the world, because Hitler's aggressive tactics had already been. clearly demonstrated.

RITCHIE: The United States at this time was going through a great debate between internationalism and isolationism. I assume, from your experiences, you tended towards an internationalist view. Is that true, or did you have reservations about America's role in the world?

WILCOX: Well, when you saw the nature of the Hitler regime and the philosophy that characterized its leaders, you couldn't help but feel that. this thing had to be stopped some way, otherwise its aggressive designs would either destroy the world or have tremendous adverse impact upon the world. So when Hitler invaded Poland, everybody obviously had to be deeply c