Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened August, 1972
Oral History Interview with
September 27, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: To begin this morning Mr. Zuckert, if you will, give me a little bit of your background; where were you born, where were you educated, and just what are a few of the positions that you have held?
ZUCKERT: I was born in New York City and spent my early years in the New York suburban area; principally Westchester County, and was educated in the public schools there. And then I went to prep school in Connecticut, then to Yale College, then to Yale Law School, and was a member of the first combined Yale Law-Harvard Business School course which then Professor William O. Douglas, and now Justice William O. Douglas started. He was then Professor at Yale Law School and the combined course was really the foundation of
everything that happened to me afterwards.
In 1937 when I graduated from law school, and finished the combined course, I went to the SEC where Douglas was then chairman; I transferred to New York in the SEC, and in 1940 went back to Harvard Business School to teach in some of the early industrial mobilization programs they had. During my time there as assistant dean and assistant professor, I taught in something called the Air Force's Statistical Control School, which trained officers for the Air Force statistical control system, the only unified statistical control system that any of the services had in the war. And that also was kind of a major factor in what happened to me later.
I had been trying to get into the services, get my release to go into the services. I met Stuart Symington and he became interested in me and wrote a letter about me to James Forrestal, who was Secretary of the Navy, and as a result of that I received a commission in the Navy to go into their new inventory control program.
In 1945 Symington, who was then a manufacturer in St. Louis, was appointed by the President to become
Chairman of the Surplus Property Board, as it was then. I got back from a trip shortly after he took office and found a directive from the Under Secretary of the Navy telling me to take myself over to the Surplus Property Board to work for Chairman Symington.
He was only there about six months after I got there -- September '45 to early winter of '46 -- and he was appointed Assistant Secretary of War for Air, which was a post that had been held by Bob [Robert A.] Lovett during the war. Symington said to me, "Since you have been in this air force business why don't you come on over and see what it's like?"
So, I worked for Symington as Assistant Secretary -- no, not as Assistant Secretary, as his special assistant. My title was Special Assistant to the Secretary of War, but then I was really his assistant and worked there and was probably his top civilian assistant. And in September 1947, of course, the Unification Act had passed and we had a separate Air Force and Secretary Symington asked me to become an Assistant Secretary.
HESS: Since you've mentioned Justice Douglas, as you know he was prominently mentioned for the vice-presidential
spot both in 1944 with FDR, and Mr. Truman tried to get him to run as Vice President in 1948. Since you knew him, did you ever hear him speak of those events, why he may not have chosen to accept?
ZUCKERT: No. I never talked to him. My relations with him were personal and principally earlier, although I did see him a lot in the later years.
HESS: All right. What are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman himself?
ZUCKERT: Well, I guess my earliest recollections are from some of the functions I attended at the White House where I got to meet the President. He was always cordial to me personally, he knew me by name, but I couldn't ever say that I was close to the President.
HESS: Did you know Mr. Truman at all during the time that he was a Senator?
ZUCKERT: No, I didn't know him. See he was in the Senate up until what...'45, and of course I was a Lieutenant, (j. g.) in the Navy so that my chances
of knowing many Senators wasn't very good.
HESS: All right, now you've mentioned Mr. Symington for one, just what kind of a man is Mr. Symington? How good of an administrator is Mr. Symington?
ZUCKERT: Well, I thought he was among the top three administrators that I've ever met. He was a fast mover, he liked a young team and he gave young people a tremendous amount of authority. He was fun to work for because he was very graphic in the way he expressed things. You sit around today and the people who worked for him back in the old days remember some of the Symingtonisms that we heard back in '45 , '46 , '47.
He was very effective with the Congress. One of the things he taught me was that an administrator in one of these jobs, if he's going to be good, he just can't be partisan, he's got to work with both sides of the Congress and he spent a tremendous amount of his time working with the Senators and Congressmen. He was in many ways a nervous operator, I mean you always had to be on top of a situation immediately. He responded very quickly. We always were afraid if we told him
something that he might pick up the phone and do something about it unless we could keep him calmed down. He had a great grasp of -- well there were two things that I think he had. One was he had a concept of what I call defensive administration, and I've talked about it many, many times. A concept of defensive administration to build up the credibility of an organization.
Take the Air Force for example, we were a young organization with people who hadn't had much administrative experience, or certainly hadn't had much Washington experience, who were manning the top jobs. And if we were to build up the credibility for that organization a lot had to be done, because our people would dismiss the Air Force as a bunch of fly boys and the like.
Symington -- to be brief about it unless you want more information -- Symington's concept of the defensive team revolved around the General Counsel to make sure that everything we did was legal and that people would have a feeling of confidence in our action; the controller, to give a feeling of financial responsibility in the organization; the public relations fellow, he wasn't
there to "puff" the organization he was there to protect the organization; and then the legislative liaison the same way. Symington wanted to be sure that our standing on the Hill was good, that we knew what was going on, on the Hill. And finally the cop. We had a very bad incident in the Air Force in 1947, just before the Unification Act, and Symington -- well, this goes back to Mr. Truman. Symington did something analogous to what he had done in Surplus Property. When he came here in 1945 Mr. Truman told him, and Symington told this story many times, he said, "Stuart, there are going to be a lot of people try to steal," he said, "I want you to go over to J. Edgar Hoover and have him give you the best man that you can get and make sure that the stealing is kept to a minimum." He said, "Otherwise it will engulf you."
Symington got a fellow by the name of Joe Carroll who was a tremendously able fellow in Surplus Property. Well, we had this bad incident in the Air Force in 1947 where an anonymous letter concerning a retired general had been batted around and nobody had investigated it, nobody in the military had wanted
to investigate it. Symington got himself Joe Carroll again, put him in uniform, I don't remember whether it was a colonel or a general officer, but put him in charge of something called the Office of Special Investigations. And that office is in the Air Force today.
Joe Carroll eventually became the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a three star general. For a non-rated officer to get that kind of recognition long after Symington had gone, proves a lot to me.
The important thing about this defensive operation of Symington's was that the members of the defensive team that I enumerated, General Counsel, Comptroller, Public Relations, Legislative liaison, the cop, reported direct to him. This kind of shook the military, but he wanted to be sure that there were no barriers between him and what he felt were the sensitive, vulnerable areas where he or the agency could get badly hit.
The other thing -- I have talked about the defensive team -- the other thing about Symington is that he was a great concept man. Symington really had more to do, I think, than any other individual, with the rebuilding
of the Air Force in the 1946, '47, '48 time period. You've probably run across it in the Archives, the Air Force seventy group program. Symington, I think, was in a large part responsible for the creation, and if I recall correctly, by the President, of the Finletter Committee which turned in the report that recommended a rejuvenation and building back the Air Force after the thing fell apart really in 1945, and 1946, and that there were no plans for building it.
Symington would take something like that and work on it tirelessly. He'd get concerned with little things -- criticism of him or the Air Force -- once in a while they were the kind of things that made him nervous, but most of the time he operated on the high priority issues.
I remember one time I was trying to interest him in a project of my own in connection with the disposition of surplus property, and every time I came to his office my paper would be at the bottom of the pile instead of at the top of the pile. Finally I had to conclude it was on purpose. So I asked him and he looked at me and he said, "Gene," he said, "with me number one is
number one, number two is number two, and number three is number three, and after that," he says, "it doesn't matter whether it is number four or number fifty-four." So Symington had a tremendous ability with great intensity to keep his eye on what he thought were the major problems of his administration. This plus the defensive operation, plus his knowledge of the Air Force, which he had gotten as an Air Force supplier prior to World War II, these were the things that, in my book, plus his fine intuition, his strength and his personality made him so successful. Of course, we had some rough times, and we had some rough times with the President, and the Director of the Budget, because of our desire -- our feeling that it was necessary -- his feeling really, to build back the Air Force, and the conflict that this created with the budget considerations, the ceiling budgets, which haven't changed much since 1947.
HESS: Was this during the time that James Webb was Director of the Budget?
ZUCKERT: That's right.
HESS: Was he the Director of the Bureau of the Budget that seemed to want to cut back on defense measures more than the other directors? Or did it just come about in that time?
ZUCKERT: I don't know whether it was the timing, and as I told you before, I can't remember dates, but I know that Jim Webb felt, and made no bones about the fact that he was operating under the President's instructions. And I remember one confrontation between Webb and Symington where this came out pretty clearly. Both of them thought that they were working for the President, but Webb I'm sure, at least -- I'm not sure -- at least it's always been my observation over the years that I've been connected with these defense problems that the President has a political problem. What's feasible, the science of the possible as far as getting appropriations from the Congress, and I think that he charged Webb with waging the battle for that. I'm sure Webb must have been there when the Congress gave us more money than the President wanted to spend and I can't remember the years, it probably was '48 or '49. And Jim Webb, as you know, and as you've seen in NASA, a tremendously forceful person, and Symington was an
equally forceful person and the confrontations were pretty vigorous.
HESS: We'll probably have more questions on that same subject but just what is your general opinion on the necessity for unification, for the unifying of the armed forces, which was one of the big subjects of this time, one of the big problems.
ZUCKERT: Well, I think that it was absolutely necessary that the forces be unified. In the first place, you didn't have joint planning that was really worth the name, you didn't have, under the old system of the Secretaries of War and Navy with no one over them you didn't have an arena in which you could make sure that the separate services were not each seeking to fight the whole war for which they were planning. You just had no way of controlling them. And when Mr. Forrestal came in, Mr. Forrestal had been Secretary of the Navy, he had an idea that he could coordinate the services and still achieve some of the objectives of unification without falling into some of the dangers that he feared and made his support of it pretty reluctant.
HESS: Do you think he retained sort of a Navy view when he was Secretary of the Navy?
ZUCKERT: I wouldn't characterize -- I'd say that it was a natural view for Mr. Forrestal as a person. Actually his view was a lot different from the real Navy view, but I think he had some reservations.
HESS: The admirals?
ZUCKERT: The admirals. Their feelings were pretty strong that this unification was a terrible thing and you only accepted it under Forrest Sherman because you had to. And Mr. Forrestal, I was very fond of him, but he had -- obviously all of us have faults -- if he had a fault that seemed apparent to me, it was too much of a propensity to see both sides. And, in other words, not be tough enough in making a decision that would hurt somebody and making it stick, and I think that