- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Thus unceremoniously Wilson Brown found himself appointed Naval Aide to President Coolidge, and launched on a remarkable series of experiences. For while his purely naval career was not over (he was later head of the Naval Academy, and led carrier forces against the Japanese in 1942), he kept returning to the White House, serving also Hoover, Roosevelt and, briefly, Truman. An aide’s job, never formally defined beyond the ceremonial duties and the command of the presidential yacht, depends very much on the President himself. It amounted to most under F.D.R., whom Brown served twice, in the ’30s and in the war, giving him the daily war news and accompanying him on his travels, including the grueling trip to Yalta. No military man has studied four more different historic figures from such an intimate vantage point.
AMERICAN HERITAGE is privileged to present here excerpts from Admiral Brown’s forthcoming book, Four Presidents as I Saw Them .
At twilight on a pleasant August afternoon in the year 1926, Calvin Coolidge, thirtieth President of the United States, sat in a rocking chair at the side of his Vermont farmhouse. He had arrived at Plymouth only a few hours before, after a day’s journey from his summer camp in the Adirondacks. It was his first visit home since the burial of his father in the local graveyard the winter before. Then heavy snow in Vermont made all travel difficult, and piercing wind and cold lashed the funeral cortege. Today a green and smiling countryside welcomed Vermont’s most distinguished citizen. His purpose in this return was to revisit the grave of his father and his beloved younger son, whose recent tragic death also seemed only yesterday. Today, after all the hurly-burly of high office, President and Mrs. Coolidge could inspect the house he had inherited from his father, and they had it to themselves, attended only by an austere spinster neighbor who acted as their local housekeeper. Except for a few who remained in the neighborhood on duty, the presidential following of secretaries, Secret Service, telegraph and telephone operators, press and photographers had moved on another fifteen miles to the hotel in the neighboring town of Woodstock.
From where he sat, Calvin Coolidge could look across the country road to his pasture land that leads away to a green valley and hills beyond. He could also see what went on at the crossroads country store where he was born, fifty yards up the road—the only dwelling within half a mile. At the moment it had become the headquarters of the duty section of his Staff and there a curious crowd had quickly assembled beyond a cordon fixed by the State Police to prevent further encroachment on the presidential privacy.
The President had been very grumpy all day on the trip to Plymouth and had refused Mrs. Coolidge’s earnest pleas to address crowds that had waited hours for a single glimpse of him; and at times he refused even to stand up where he could be seen. It was clear to all of us that we should leave him alone unless we had something important to deliver. It fell to me, the new man, to be the first intruder.
It was a completely strange environment for me. I had taken command of the presidential yacht, Mayflower , and had assumed the duties of Naval Aide only a few months before. I had seen very little of President and Mrs. Coolidge. At the few White House receptions and during trips on the Mayflower I had found them friendly but very official and formal. On board the Mayflower I knew what my duties were and how to do them, but in the mountains of Vermont I had no intimation of what was expected of me beyond the generally accepted requirement “to be on hand in case something turns up.” The recent death of President Harding had put everyone around the White House on the alert for other possible emergencies and I was on my toes. My navy blue uniform with aiguillettes, which custom required me to wear, seemed particularly inappropriate to the surroundings. It collected all of the dust of all of the country roads in spite of most diligent brushing. I felt conspicuous and a little silly. I was staying with the nearest neighbor (Farmer Brown, the President called him) and, in order to be of some slight service, I had constituted myself a link between the President and our telegraph operators established in the country store with a direct wire to Washington.
The Coolidges had not enjoyed many minutes of quiet before the Washington operator reported that he had no further business and asked permission to sign off for the night. Reluctant as I was to disturb the tranquillity of the peaceful moment, I thought the President might be waiting for the all clear from Washington and I therefore passed through the police cordon, walked to the porch rail, made my report of all quiet and asked if he had any more business. “Come up and sit,” said the President. “Oh, no thank you, Mr. President,” I said, “I don’t want to intrude, but thought you might like to know there is no more business from Washington tonight.” “Come up and sit,” he repeated a little more emphatically.
Notwithstanding the command quality of his invitation, Calvin Coolidge, by some intangible quality of voice, expression, and gesture, made me feel that he did not resent my interruption, but, on the contrary, realizing perhaps my predicament, was glad of an opportunity to show me special kindness in a way that would be noted by others. We sat in silence for some time, but it was not an uncomfortable silence. The mere fact that Mrs. Coolidge did not feel it necessary to talk was reassuring. No one understood her husband’s moods as well as she, and she always came promptly to the rescue when the situation required. After a while Mr. Coolidge made an occasional comment—about the weather, the beauty of the view, and how fond he was of it. “Are you comfortable at Farmer Brown’s?” he asked, and I said yes. Later, as the light faded, he spoke again. “Perhaps you’d like to see the house. Most visitors do.” He led me through the lower floor pointing out where his father used to sit, where he used to study his lessons as a boy, where his father stood when he swore him in as President of the United States. After a few halting comments, I thanked him and said I’d better go. Was there anything I could do? We were passing through the kitchen toward the porch. Mr. Coolidge opened the icebox door, inspected its well-filled contents and said, “Well, Momma, anything you want Captain Brown to get from the store before they close?” But Mrs. Coolidge, it turned out, was all stocked.
We remained at Plymouth for several days during which Calvin Coolidge went tranquilly about the business of inspecting his heritage—house, barns, outbuildings, equipment and land. He allowed but few interruptions—now and then an occasional visitor too important to be refused the door and, as a sop to the press, posing for a few pictures. He put on dungarees and a large farmer’s straw hat for these and was shown doing farm chores in a rather unconvincing manner. At this time there was little in Calvin Coolidge’s physical appearance to indicate a farm background. He seemed too frail ever to have managed the tasks of farm labor or even ever to have taken part in school or college athletics. An oval-shaped head and clear-cut profile suggested Anglo-Saxon ancestry. A thin neck, sloping shoulders, rather shambling gait, suggested a boy who had never found time to play rather than one accustomed to outdoor life. He may have chopped wood, fed the chickens and milked the cow as a young boy; but I could not see him handling the plow or the hoe. Yet there was no pretense in Calvin Coolidge’s make-up. He wished the American people to see him and his neighbors as they were. He was proud of a strain of Indian blood, of the hardihood of his ancestors in surviving the rigors of northern winter, of the God-fearing principles of their lives.
While the Coolidges were intent upon their own affairs, the Staff and members of the press loafed in the shade of a fine old tree just outside the country store—pitching pennies, spinning yarns, discussing everything under the sun. For all of us there were many dull hours. One afternoon I took off down the lane away from the crowd, within sight of the house and store where I could be called if needed, to become completely absorbed in reading one of the four long volumes of Beveridge’s life of John Marshall. I was aroused from my concentration by a familiar voice at my elbow saying in clipped tones, “Well, Captain, studying navigation?” As I started to climb down from the rail fence where I was perched, he headed me off with, “Don’t disturb yourself. I’m just looking around and wondered what you were so interested in.” When I told him, his comment was, “A fine book. Every American ought to read it. You couldn’t spend your time to better advantage. Go ahead with your reading,”—and walked off. Years later when I praised the Beveridge work to Franklin Roosevelt, he disagreed completely, denouncing the books as “fusty volumes that thought only of property rights and worried little about human rights and public welfare.” This opposite judgment of the merits of Beveridge’s work is an excellent example of the basic differences in the political philosophy of Calvin Coolidge and that of Franklin Roosevelt.
When their affairs had been put in order at Plymouth, President and Mrs. Coolidge and the retinue returned to the Adirondacks and took over the main building in the Rockefeller Camp. The camp was five or six miles from the nearest railroad station, and approached by only one road, easily guarded by a squad of Marines and Secret Service. The camp itself, a fish and game preserve, comprised hundreds of acres of woodland and lake country and possessed, in addition to the main camp building, a half dozen or more guest cottages; so that, had Mr. Coolidge wanted to have friends about him, he could have entertained them with little or no trouble.
But he had come to the mountains to get away from people for a time; he wanted privacy and he got it. His secretariat, the press and the rest of us occupied quarters at a famous old caravansary called Paul Smith’s, while a nearby cottage was fitted out as the summer Executive Office, with direct telegraph and telephone lines to Washington. The President drove in to his office about ten o’clock every morning except Sundays and usually finished business in about an hour—signing what was prepared for his signature, scanning reports and taking away with him whatever required careful study. The job in that placid era was not the killing labor it has since become. There appeared to be no serious national problems. Business was still ticking along nicely and President Coolidge considered it his major responsibility not to rock the boat. Instead he intended to balance the budget, and to see that each branch of the Government ran its own affairs as directed by Congress.
Soon the reporters found that the monotony which had prevailed in Vermont had followed Mr. Coolidge to the Adirondacks; no one could make less news when he set his mind to it. The newsmen could find nothing at all to write about until, by pure chance, it was learned that the President fished for his trout with worms. Out of that relatively minor piece of intelligence the press managed to produce a storm of controversy all through the country between the angry advocates of fly-fishing and the defenders of the worm. Even this flurry of excitement soon played itself out, however; so that when that great showman, Al Smith, governor of New York, suddenly appeared in our midst, he was greeted with open arms by the press and corresponding chill by President Coolidge, who jealously withheld the limelight of the presidency.
The arrival of Governor Smith had particular news interest then, because he had refused to say whether he would call or not, even when reporters pointed out to him that George Washington and the governor of Massachusetts had established the precedent that when the chief executive of the United States makes a visit to one of the states of the Union, courtesy requires the governor of that state to call on him officially. Governor Smith had skilfully kept everyone guessing about what he would do and finally went to Paul Smith’s on less than 24 hours’ notice, thereby focussing public attention on the meeting of a Republican president and a potential Democratic rival at the next election.
The Smiths came on stage literally in a cloud of dust. With a squad of state police on motorcycles leading the procession, a caravan of a dozen or more cars bounced at high speed over the unpaved country roads to a sudden halt directly in front of our hotel. The squealing of brakes and the blowing of sirens and horns had an electric effect on everyone within hearing distance. Crowds rushed to the drive to see what was going on. The Governor and Mrs. Smith, a son and daughter, a delegation of in-laws, a clerical force, the governor’s own following of reporters and photographers debouched from the cars as if by signal and immediately went into action. Golf bags, fishing gear, tennis racquets and enough hand baggage to last a week were unloaded and whisked to the local yacht club house, which we learned only then had been commandeered in its entirety. The governor was immediately surrounded by his own photographers, quickly reinforced by our group, and posed for nearly an hour—swinging a golf club with more energy than skill, and displaying trout rod and tennis racquet. He did it all with enthusiasm and an infectious grin that was in marked contrast to the grave Coolidge demeanour. “How am I doin’?” he kept saying. “How’s this?”
While this scene was being enacted at the hotel, we telephoned news of it to the President at his camp. I soon received instructions to call on the governor, to invite him and Mrs. Smith to lunch at the President’s camp and to make it clear in the most tactful manner I could that the invitation could not be extended to other members of the party, owing—well—to the limited resources available at camp. When the photographers had finished at last, the governor withdrew to his quarters. I followed and tried to find someone to deliver my message, but the New York staff insisted, “The governor will want to see you himself,” and they hustled me into the nearest bedroom, crowded with the Smith family. No time had been lost in unpacking the most important part of the baggage, a lavish supply of fine liquor, which in those Prohibition days was an impressive sight. The governor’s voice could be heard from the adjoining bedroom joshing the occupants of our room about the show he’d just staged, while, judging from the sounds of splashing water, giving himself a thorough scrubbing. When told that I was there with a message from the President, he came in just as he was—stripped to an undershirt, suspenders dangling from the hips, energetically towelling face and hands. He looked dashed when I delivered my message. “But what about the other members of my party? They’ve come all the way up here to see the President. Presidents don’t visit New York State every day.” I explained that President and Mrs. Coolidge lived a very quiet life, that they had received little warning of the Smiths’ visit, that it was almost time for us to leave for camp now, that there would not be time for Mrs. Coolidge to alter her luncheon arrangements, that I would explain to the President about the other members of the governor’s party when we reached camp; and I asked the governor if he and Mrs. Smith could be ready to leave in the White House car in ten minutes. He accepted the invitation with the best possible grace and during the drive to camp talked with enthusiasm about re-forestation. When we arrived the meeting of the Coolidges and the Smiths was not photographed. Mr. Coolidge greeted his guests in the hallway without much enthusiasm, although Mrs. Coolidge tried to make them feel at home. And when the right moment arrived the hostess, with her usual tact and good sense, sent invitations to others of the Smith party for coffee and inspection of the Rockefeller Camp after lunch. When they returned to the hotel, they said they’d had a fine time; but the governor and party left for Albany that afternoon, week’s baggage, in-laws and all. The New York papers next day showed the governor going through his athletic paces but the President of the United States was not shown as one of the audience.
When Mr. Coolidge was Vice-President he and Mrs. Coolidge were obliged by the social requirements of the office to attend official or semi-official dinners nearly every night. His puritanical bearing, forming as it did so amusing a contrast to the gayer members of the free and easy Harding administration, led to many anecdotes. One, for example, had it that a lady who commiserated with the Vice-President for having to endure so much dining out got this laconic comment from him: “Gotta eat somewhere.” I suppose this tale was manufactured, like most of the world’s best “true” anecdotes, although I have heard it countless times.
But when Mr. Coolidge became President his habits changed. Henceforward he was at pains to avoid private social engagements—and all the entanglements they might involve—and keep everything official. At the same time formal entertaining at the White House reached a new high level, and so it was when I first had a part in it. Presidents Harding and Coolidge had reinstituted the full schedule of White House formal dinners and receptions initiated during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt but interrupted for a time by World War I and the illness of President Wilson. Every month there were about five dinners and an equal number of receptions. This meant a big party about every week during the winter, so that the main floor of the White House was in a constant state of activity, with furniture and rugs and flowers steadily moving in and out. There was a correct and established way of doing everything in the White House and everything had to be done according to that code. Each move for every ceremony was rehearsed with West Point precision by the Protocol Officer of the State Department, the Head Usher, Ike Hoover, and the Army and Navy aides. All hands, including President and Mrs. Coolidge, were made to toe the line. Strangely enough, that plain Yankee, with all of his real love for simplicity, approved the ritual.
The gossip around Washington was that Mr. Coolidge ate his dinner in bored silence and refused to be drawn into conversation by the most charming ladies. One favorite story dealt with a Washington hostess, occupying the seat of honor at the President’s right, who was supposed to have confided in him that she had made a large bet that she could make him talk or at least get three words or more out of him, and begged him to let her win the bet. His alleged reply and only comment of the evening was, “You lose.” That story I think was probably made up out of the whole cloth, for Coolidge was not a man to be deliberately rude to a dinner guest. I have sat at his table at a good many formal dinners and even more smaller luncheons and I have never seen him ignore his partners. He was of course never loquacious and when pressed—especially by gushy matrons—would clam up completely. Nor was he niggardly, as many wits suggested. The Coolidge board fairly groaned and there were many courses. According to present-day standards there was too much to eat. Wine was, of course, never served as Calvin Coolidge would not temporize with the law even though he did not approve of Prohibition. An invitation was much sought after by all who did not, like the Cabinet, get too much of it.
State receptions were carried out with the same pomp as the dinners—lavish floral decorations, Marine Orchestra, aides in full uniform. The guests would begin arriving a full hour before the time set for the reception, for several thousand would have been asked. Except for a few seniors who led the line, the others would form in the order of their arrival—filling the East Room, the lower corridor and the stairway leading to the main floor from the lower corridor. The Cabinet and their ladies assembled in the Blue Room. At the appointed hour the President and Mrs. Coolidge would make their formal appearance to the strains of “Hail to the Chief!” Preceded by the aides, they would descend the stairs, normally kept closed with iron gates, to enter the lower hall in the midst of the assembled guests. The stairs are wide and graceful and their use lent a faint air of royal pomp or, at least, Viennese opera to this republican soirée . The President and his lady then passed through the crowd in the main hall by a passage kept clear by the junior aides, into the Blue Room where the Cabinet was assembled and up to the ropes that fixed the position of the receiving line. The President’s job of the evening would then begin—shaking hands with more than 2,000 guests. It was quite evident to all that Mr. Coolidge wanted only to get this manual marathon over with as quickly as possible, and he combined with his handshake a perceptible pull toward Mrs. Coolidge on his right. If the passer paused to chat, as many would, the pull was more powerful. But any apparent lack of cordiality in the President was counterbalanced by Mrs. Coolidge’s charm and friendliness. She really appeared to enjoy seeing people, calling by name without prompting all she had ever met before. Mrs. Coolidge never seemed to tire and would be as gay and sparkling at the end as at the beginning. This was frankly not so with the President or his two aides. Genera] Sherwood Cheney and I alternated every fifteen minutes, standing on the President’s left and announcing to him the name of each passerby. The guest would give us his name and we would repeat it to the President. We would turn the head to the left; concentrate on hearing and grasping the name; turn the head to the right and announce the name; then turn back to catch the next name; and so continue without pause until relieved. The faster the line moved the faster we had to turn, listen, turn, speak, as if in a squirrel cage. The head would get dizzy, the neck would ache. It all appeared very serious to Mr. Coolidge and we could sense his annoyance when we bungled a name. When I had the job to do years later with Franklin Roosevelt, who had the added torture of standing for a long time on braces, he was the gayest of us all and joshed General “Pa” Watson and me when we called a wrong name.
After one reception General Cheney and I had preceded the President and Mrs. Coolidge in their march to the second floor, which was always the finale of the evening. We started down the stairs as they turned toward their apartment; but, suddenly remembering that we had a question to ask about next day’s duties, we turned back just in time to see the President and his wife, believing themselves to be alone, solemnly dancing a minuet with exaggerated bows and curtsies. Perhaps he didn’t take his receptions as seriously as we thought.
Once I remember hearing an earnest lady admirer tell President Coolidge that she did not see how he could bear up under all his pressing responsibilities and that she prayed often for his health and guidance. Did he not often find his burden more than he could endure? “Oh, I don’t know,” said the President. “There are only so many hours in the day and one can only do the best he can in the time he’s got. When I was mayor of Northampton, I was pretty busy most of the time and I don’t seem to be much busier here. I just have to settle different kinds of things.”
It often seemed that Calvin Coolidge’s main pleasure in life was the privilege of taking weekend cruises on the old Presidential steam yacht, the Mayflower . As part of his duties Admiral Brown commanded this luxurious old craft, which had originally been built in the Nineties as a private yacht for Ogden Goelet and had been taken over by President Theodore Roosevelt after the Spanish-American War. The Admiral’s account of Coolidge’s seafaring routine recalls the tranquility of the time:
On board the Mayflower we would have little preparation to make except to check that all was shipshape, to order a huge supply of flowers from the White House greenhouse and large quantities of food. On sailing day we would give everything a final polish, and get our stores aboard, including a supply of newspapers, magazines, and books. Then we would single up the lines to the dock, and be ready to get under way the moment the President stepped aboard. Sailing was generally at eleven thirty, but by eleven we would all be on deck in dress uniform, the crew manning the rail, band and Marine Guard paraded clear of the gangway, sideboys within hail, stewards on the dock ready to bring baggage on board for the passengers. The commandant of the Navy Yard would come on the dock with a supporting cast of reporters, photographers, and a group of curious onlookers. The guests would then begin to arrive. Members of the Cabinet receive the honors prescribed by Navy Regulations: attention on the bugle, the side piped, ruffles and the appropriate march, guard at present arms, sideboys and all hands at salute. Most wives are visibly pleased and excited by this demonstration of their husband’s importance. Most husbands pretend to be bored, but are secretly delighted. I would shake hands with the guests at the gangway, escort them aft and turn them over to a junior officer to be shown their rooms. All guests then assembled on the spacious afterdeck to await the arrival of President and Mrs. Coolidge. When we got word from the Navy Yard gate that the President’s cars had passed through, ship’s company would jump to stations and, as the cars drew alongside, would render full presidential honors—except that the 21-gun salute was usually dispensed with. The presidential flag would then be broken at the main truck, the gangway hauled aboard, lines cast off, and the Mayflower would steam majestically down river, graceful as a swan. The President would walk aft to greet his guests and sit with them for a time on deck, where all could see the shore lines unfold and the beautiful outline of the city of Washington fade away astern.
A most important incident of the departure ceremony was always the arrival of the head steward on deck with the President’s yachting cap. This had been purchased by Captain Adolphus Andrews, my predecessor, at Brooks Brothers, a smart and expensive outfitter which Mr. Coolidge had never patronized—he visited a modest tailor and was scandalized to learn that Andrews would pay $150 for a suit of clothes. It was a well-designed, plain yachting cap with simple black visor, but the best that money could buy. Mr. Coolidge was very much pleased with it and wore it on deck at all times. When it was first presented by Andrews with the assurance that it was just what the President should wear, Mr. Coolidge was delighted and told a story. He’d always had a fondness for hats. He remembered distinctly how in his early days, a poor boy in a wealthy college, he saw a straw hat in a store window that he coveted greatly, but could not afford. He started to save enough to buy it, and watched the window for many days in fear that someone else would get it before his savings were enough, but no one did, the price was reduced, and Calvin bought the hat and enjoyed it all his college days. As in this case, Mr. Coolidge’s anecdotes were pitched at a rather low key.
Because the Mayflower dining saloon was below decks, the President usually delayed luncheon and kept his guests on deck until after we had passed Mount Vernon. Thus they could take part in the ceremonies prescribed by the Navy for all American ships passing Washington’s tomb—parading the guard, attention on the bugle, tolling the ship’s bell, all hands at salute. The simplicity of Mount Vernon as seen from the river, the fine sweep of the shore line at that point, the emotional effect of the ceremony will not be forgotten by many who have cruised on the Mayflower .
After quite a hearty tea, when conversation would begin to lag, Mrs. Coolidge generally announced that it was time to dress for dinner. Sometimes I was invited for dinner but more often not, as I had responsibilities on the bridge. I would say to the President that, if he approved I would anchor for the night off Piney Point at the mouth of the Potomac. He always said, “Very well,” as I knew he would, for that was the routine he liked. Then, quite early, he would go to bed, as would most of the guests. The ship then set a security watch and the Secret Service would keep close guard at the presidential cabin door. All enjoyed the sea breezes and all except the watch standers would have a good night’s rest.
While the Mayflower often enabled President Coolidge to escape the cares of state, I am sorry to confess that she and I caused him discomfort and embarrassment on the occasion when he was persuaded to hold a Fleet Review. At that period in our history the Navy was very much concerned about the already evident effects of the limitation of naval armament. The military clique of Japan, attacking “the indignity of the 5-5-3 ratio,” was stirring up strong anti-American feeling. We believed that they were building ships and fortifying the Caroline and Marshall Islands in violation of treaties—and yet we continued to haggle with Britain about how many cruisers each should have and, to show our good faith, destroyed on the ways thousands of tons of ships which, had they been completed, might have deterred Japan from ever making her attack on Pearl Harbor. Fearing the worst, the Navy Department saw in a Fleet Review an opportunity to throw the spotlight of publicity on the need for more ships and more positive action. They also wanted to demonstrate to the President personally some of our most evident weaknesses.
I think President Coolidge never had much faith in limitation of armaments as an instrument for peace; but he felt that, having gone so far, we must give it a fair trial. He was therefore reluctant to encourage any naval building at that time. Also, being a poor sailor, he was very fearful of being laughed at if he had the bad luck to be seasick during the review. But, after a good deal of discussion and with the aid of some members of Congress, he was finally persuaded that if we anchored the Mayflower in Lynnhaven Roads, well inside the Virginia Capes, there was very little chance of any motion and the fleet could parade by on its way to anchorage farther up the Roads. I pointed out that we could leave Washington as usual and make our customary two-day trip, except that instead of anchoring for the night at Piney Point we would keep under way at night and be anchored the second day for review. Finally President Coolidge reluctantly consented. There was a good deal of preliminary publicity. Weather conditions looked favorable. We left on schedule; but, alas, during the night a heavy ground swell began piling in through the Capes and when we anchored, the Mayflower had a roll—not a heavy roll, but heavy enough to embarrass others besides Mr. Coolidge—the one possible weather condition we had dreaded. The President was cross (as who isn’t when he’s seasick?) and stayed in his bunk most of the morning. In accordance with his instructions I entertained a specially selected group of press and photographers in the President’s dining room, and, at his expense, gave them a very superior stand-up luncheon. We told them that they had the run of the ship except for a small portion of the deck which was roped off to provide privacy for the presidential party. They were asked to keep clear of that space and I assigned an officer and two Marine orderlies to be sure there was no slip-up.
When the Fleet Flagship came in sight leading the column, a queasy Coolidge roused from his misery and his bunk and came to the bridge with his binoculars and yachting cap. During a full half hour he posed for the photographers, looking sternly through the long signal glass, pointing to each ship as she came abeam, returning salutes endlessly while trying to stand at attention and steady himself against the roll with the unengaged hand. He played his part correctly throughout the picture-taking ordeal. Then, when all the battleships had passed, Mr. Coolidge said he would go aft to the roped-off area and watch the rest from there. Behind the afterdeck house and out of sight of prying eyes, he sank into a sofa. Presently the fleet commander, Admiral Hughes, came aboard with a considerable staff, and a photographer slipped along with them unnoticed as the procession moved aft. Thus he was able to sneak a snapshot of Mr. Coolidge seated disconsolately on the sofa, grim-lipped, clearly dreaming only of terra firma and an end to his malaise. That rather comic stolen picture was given greater publicity than almost any other. Calvin Coolidge never uttered one word of reproach to any of us for causing his embarrassment. But neither did he give any support to a naval building program.
The man who, undoubtedly above all others, shared President Coolidge’s innermost thoughts and worries was his old friend, adviser and supporter, Frank W. Stearns, a successful Boston merchant. It was he, of course, who first singled out Calvin Coolidge as a man of destiny; conferred with him all through the famous Boston police strike; and with the help of Dwight Morrow, Thomas Cochran, and others engineered Coolidge’s election to the governorship of Massachusetts and later to the vice-presidency of the United States. As one success followed another, Frank Stearns spent the last years of his life applauding and encouraging his successful candidate.
Mr. and Mrs. Stearns were frequent visitors at the White House. They apparently had a standing invitation to visit whenever they liked and for as long as they liked. All of us on the Staff were always glad to see them, for they were charming, cheerful, friendly people and they gave each of us the feeling that they were fond of us and interested in our welfare. When they knew us well enough to feel sure we would not repeat confidences that might annoy the President, they told us some of the things the President told them. Some of these showed the Coolidge method of discouraging even his best friends from taking liberties with the President of the United States. “I’ll have you know, Mr. Stearns,” he said once—and it was always Mr. Stearns and Mr. President , “I will have no Colonel House in my administration.”
But if no one got too close to Mr. Coolidge, some of his friends understood him very well. One such, for example, was the late Major Coupal, an Army doctor who had served with Coolidge when he was lieutenant governor and governor of Massachusetts. He gave the President his daily physical check up; perhaps in some mysterious way it is easier to read a man’s character when his braces are down and his shirt is off. I remember that it was Coupal who pointed out to me one interesting idiosyncrasy of Mr. Coolidge: he liked the jingle of certain words and would often frame a sentence just for the pleasure of uttering them. He was particularly fond of an occasional military or naval expression that would catch his ear: psychiatrists, aware that Mr. Coolidge had no real military experience, may read into this what they will. Normally the military and naval aides wore side arms when accompanying the President—not pistols that might have been of some value against assassins but the old-fashioned saber for the Army and straight sword for the Navy, more badges of office than weapons. One day when we were to attend Mr. Coolidge when he went to the Capitol to deliver his annual message General Cheney and I decided, without bothering the President about it, to leave our swords at home. The law forbids the military from appearing on the floor of Congress under arms and we would have had to find some place to get rid of them. Just as the President got in his car, with photographers shooting pictures and reporters alert for something to write about, he turned to us with his best poker face and said, “What! No side arms, gentlemen?” and drove off before we could reply. We had to hustle to jump in our following car. On our return we were seriously debating whether to explain or wait to be asked, when Coupal came along and said, “Don’t be silly. He doesn’t give a damn whether you wore side arms or not. He simply wanted to hear himself utter ‘side arms’ before an audience.” Nothing more was ever said about it.
While I think the late Chief Justice Hughes was wrong in persisting in the limitation of naval armament experiment when he was secretary of state, I am sure that the success of his Pan-American efforts spoke for themselves in World War II. The first positive step in his campaign was the conference of all the Americas at Havana, Cuba, engineered by Secretary of State Kellogg with the powerful support of his distinguished predecessor, Mr. Hughes. These two felt that the President should address the conference as a gesture of friendliness and as an indication of the importance the United States gave the meeting.
Needless to say President Coolidge was hard to persuade. He was too cautious—not to say timid—to make such a decision without careful thought and consultation with Congressional leaders as well as his Cabinet and other advisers. He questioned whether the voters would approve; the sea trip raised the old problem of seasickness and ridicule; and he was doubtful how he would be received by the Latins.
He finally consented. I was instructed to make all travel arrangements, in co-operation with the Secret Service, for a distinguished group of about a dozen U.S. delegates, including Hughes and Kellogg and an unspecified number of reporters and photographers. Everything started off as scheduled. The President was edgy and held everyone at arm’s length. He and Mrs. Coolidge kept to themselves in the presidential armored railroad car and never invited the Secretary of State or any other delegates in for a meal or for tea. Some of the delegates were a little miffed. Several hours before we were due at Palm Beach, Mr. Kellogg asked the White House First Secretary, Everett Sanders, what the President would wear for the drive around the city. Everett said he didn’t know and wasn’t going to ask, as he had had his head bitten off every time he’d gone near the President since we’d left Washington. I volunteered to find out.
I found Mrs. Coolidge knitting tranquilly while the President hid behind a newspaper. When I told him that Mr. Kellogg had asked whether the delegates should wear top hats and tail coats, for the drive through the city, or straw hats and summer clothes, he answered without looking up from his paper, “That’s his hunt.”
“Now Calvin,” Mrs. Coolidge said, “that’s no message to send to the Secretary of State.”
Mr. Coolidge angrily lowered his paper, glared at me and said, “What are you going to wear?” When I told him, he said, “What do you think I should wear?” I advised straw hat and summer clothes. He snapped, “Tell Kellogg to wear a top hat.”
I thought at the time that it was pure cussedness, but learned later that he usually angered at being asked to make a trivial decision that should have been made by someone else. If I had said, “If you approve, Mr. Kellogg will instruct the delegates to wear straw hats,” he would have agreed without a moment’s hesitation. The ill temper lasted all the way to Havana.
The sea was never kind to Calvin Coolidge. The morning we embarked at Key West we had a high wind and choppy sea instead of the dead calm which usually holds through the early morning. To get from the tug to the Texas we all had to choose our time to cross a rather insecure gangplank, for when the two vessels rolled in opposite directions there was risk that the plank might be pulled away from the Texas ’ deck in spite of holding lines. Mrs. Coolidge skipped across without help and without the slightest hesitation; but Calvin balked. After several false starts he crossed at just the wrong moment and caused us all deep concern until he was safely over. After that all was plain sailing.
As we neared shore the ship performed a spectacular feat of seamanship by holding her speed until it looked as if she would surely pile aground, backed full just in time, let go the anchor, out booms and boats all in one smart evolution. A roar of applause went up from the waterfront, which was black with people crowded all along the mole and thick as flies on every house top. “Dear, dear,” said Mr. Hughes, “this is discouraging for the statesman who works for years trying to make friends and along comes the Navy and carries off all the honors.” “Oh, I can’t agree,” I said, “I’ve been ashore in uniform in this city when they’d spit at you in the street and there was constant risk of being mobbed. I think they are not cheering the Navy but, rather, your new policies.” “How very profound,” said Mr. Hughes, wagging his beard and looking at me as if he were seeing me for the first time. “I hope you’re right. I do hope you’re right.”
President Coolidge returned home with the firm conviction that he had well served a good cause. The press, at home and abroad, sang his praises. For a time he was friendly and smiling with everyone. It even seemed to me that for a few days after his return to Washington, he walked with a slight swagger.
Mr. Coolidge had been a faithful custodian of his office and residence. He knew the history of the White House, the gossip of the easygoing, mint julep days of U. S. Grant, and particularly of Harding and his poker parties and the Teapot Dome scandal. He was determined that there should be no critical gossip about any of his household. He would not allow his son John, when home on vacation from college, to entertain any of his friends or even to accept invitations to parties lest it lead to stories of a White House clique as had happened in many previous administrations. We felt that he would not allow Mrs. Coolidge to have her friends feel free to visit her for the same reason. None of the previous Presidents whose portraits look gravely down from the walls of reception rooms and halls ever tried more faithfully to preserve the prestige of the presidency. And now the thirtieth President was about to leave; if only the party convention at Chicago, rushing to nominate Mr. Hoover, had taken time to say in some way to the man who did not choose to run, “well done,” I think he would have been content.
By the morning of March 4, all of the Coolidge belongings had been shipped to Northampton except the overnight bags. Mrs. Coolidge had conducted Mrs. Hoover on a tour of inspection from basement to attic. They agreed there were not enough closets just as Mrs. Eisenhower and Mrs. Truman are said to have agreed recently. Immediately after the Hoover inauguration, Colonel Latrobe (who had succeeded Cheney as Military Aide) and I escorted Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge directly from the steps of the Capitol to a private car at the Union Station. They did not stop at the White House. Mr. Coolidge was pale, drawn, and emotionally upset. He seemed to us almost on the point of collapse. We said good-bye. It must have seemed strange for them at first to be left to themselves after so many years of being attended by a retinue wherever they went. I don’t know why there were none of his Cabinet or others at the station to see them off. I suppose he wanted it that way. I never saw Mr. Coolidge again.
When the Hoovers moved in there was no hushed reverence—they came with a host of relatives and friends, smiling and excited. There was a great deal of rushing in and out. Many stayed for buffet lunch—more than were expected. In poured a whole group of strange faces for the guards and ushers to identify, some without proper credentials, and in the confusion an uninvited crackpot got through, entered the dining room and accosted the President. Fortunately the intruder was harmless and was hustled out in short order. For the Hoovers it was a disturbing incident that shouldn’t have happened, and there was a great to-do the next morning to fix responsibility. The law gives it to the Secret Service, but these officers have no real authority over the footmen and ushers, nor over the Park Police who surround the White House. The Military Aide had no authority over any of them but was responsible only for seeing that the servants were properly organized and did their jobs as directed by the housekeeper, and he was liaison with the War Department in case of threatened riot or disorder. There was some pretty fast footwork by all accused of being to blame, until someone suggested Colonel Latrobe, who of course was with me at the railroad station at the time, seeing the Coolidges off. Latrobe was a comparative newcomer whom Coolidge had brought with him from the Black Hills; he had never been on duty in Washington before and found all the ceremony very silly. Nobody likes to be made the fall guy, but I think when he was found to blame he was secretly pleased to get out of Washington.
There were rumors at the Washington Navy Yard that while he was Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover had spent a good many weekends fishing in Chesapeake Bay. We accordingly expected he would continue to amuse himself in this fashion. Bay fishing had never interested President Coolidge; and since none of us on the Mayflower knew much about good fishing spots, favorable season, tide and proper bait, I went to the Bureau of Fisheries soon after the Hoover nomination and asked them to prepare for me a chart with all helpful fishing information written on it. They did a fine job. The professional and amateur fishermen all over the bay divulged their most treasured secrets under promise that the information would be used only for the entertainment of the new President and given to no one else—exact ranges that had been kept as family secrets for generations and all the lore that good fishing requires.
I showed the chart to President Hoover one morning and told him if he could give me a few hours to get bait, we could be ready to leave at any time for whatever fishing grounds he liked. He seemed interested and much pleased. Consequently at his press conference that afternoon I was dumbfounded to hear him announce that as an economy measure he had directed that the Mayflower be put out of commission and the White House stables closed. The press immediately played it up as a joke on Coolidge—Coolidge economy outdone. Calvin broke his rule of silence to say in effect that he guessed the sailors and horses would still have to eat at government expense. There was a good deal of harmless amusement for a few days, but in the long run the de-commissioning had a bad political effect. We had hundreds and sometimes thousands of visitors each day who were shown about the living quarters and lower decks. The President’s suite, with an oversized marble bathtub installed for William Howard Taft, the handsomely brocaded saloon and dining rooms, the spit and polish of the upper deck were all greatly admired and approved. To get aboard, it was necessary to bring a letter from a member of Congress. The abrupt ending of this easy way of entertaining visiting constituents was resented by many members of Congress.
After the Mayflower was de-commissioned, the Navy Department started to convert her into a survey vessel. During the alterations, however, a fire occurred, so intense that the old yacht sank at her dock from the weight of water pumped into her. She was then sold for junk, but she proved too tough a bird to endure such a fate. Someone raised her and, as I understand, she has since then had a most adventurous career—as a private yacht, as a floating nightclub and gambling hell in the inland waterways and even, some say, as a rum runner. I never knew what happened to President Taft’s fine old bathtub; the amount of gin which could have been manufactured in it staggers the imagination.
Shortly after the good old Mayflower was abandoned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, I got word that the President wanted me to be ready to leave the White House with him the next day and to bring an engineer officer of the Marine Corps with me. We were to be gone all day, Mrs. Hoover would bring lunch for everyone, and we were advised to wear leggings. The Secret Service were the only ones who knew what it was all about and Colonel Starling enjoyed keeping us guessing.
We drove to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to a spot previously scouted by the Secret Service. Some local agents with horses were awaiting us. President and Mrs. Hoover mounted their horses promptly and started up a trail that followed a stream called the Rapidan up a mountainside, leaving word for the rest of us to ride or walk as we saw fit—we would all meet for lunch at one about a mile up the trail. President Hoover in the saddle on a prospecting mission, I saw at once, was a different person altogether from the rather hesitant, wool-gathering man we were used to seeing at the office. He sat his horse with assurance, his eyes were alive with interest, he went about his survey as if he knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. In the course of the day he made his decisions quickly and clearly—main cabin here facing so and so; guest cabins here, here, and here; mess hall and galley there; put in dams here, there, and there and stock with trout. In a few hours the whole project was laid out and many details settled. It only remained for my Marine colonel to prepare his drawings for final approval and get the work done.
I never saw the completed camp. I understand that a great deal of the Mayflower’s equipment was sent there—rugs, china, linen and furniture. Also the Navy cooks and stewards. For the first time in the annals of the Navy, without the necessity of shipwreck, a naval vessel was replaced by a shore station, but this did not disturb President Hoover.
Admiral Brown served Hoover only a few months, leaving before the crash which brought the relatively carefree Republican era to a close. After his regular sea and shore commands, including a tour of duty in charge of the great submarine base in New London, Connecticut, where he could watch Hoover’s depression economies chipping away at American naval strength, he was to return to the White House in 1934 to become aide to a man whose ideas on sea power were very different. Brown served Roosevelt longer than any other President and his account of their personal relationship, which goes back many years, throws fresh light on a number of historical episodes.
On a bright sunny morning in the spring of 1913, I stood beside the coxswain of the commandant’s barge as we made our way up the East River. I had been detailed by the commandant to pick up the newly appointed assistant secretary of the Navy at the New York Yacht Club landing, and bring him to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was a half hour’s trip up the busy East River, and we passed by all the bustling harbor traffic, past piers loading and unloading, past ships from all over the world. Back of it the skyline of New York reared up like some mountain city, a sight that never fails to stir the pulse of even the most hard-boiled seaman. The barge was one of the smartest in the whole Navy. Its mahogany hull shone like a mirror, its brass work could decorate a Tiffany window, and a hand-picked crew showed their pride in the boat by some of the fanciest woven mats, hand lines, and boat cloths the eye of seaman ever beheld.
The story was young at that time about the prairie congressman who, upon visiting his first ship, stared down an open hatch in genuine astonishment. “By gum,” he exclaimed, “it’s hollow, ain’t it!” Would the new assistant secretary prove to be as ignorant as this? Probably not, I decided, for he was a Roosevelt and a Harvard graduate. We were almost the same age—just thirty. Like nearly everyone else in the Navy I had become a staunch admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, not only for his leadership, but his showmanship, flamboyant though it was.
All I knew of Theodore’s young cousin, Franklin, was that he’d stepped into politics not long after leaving Harvard. I’d met few Harvard men and shared some of the prejudices against them. In the mind of a Navy man, there was also the usual curiosity about a political civilian executive. Would Franklin Roosevelt be friendly or aloof? Would he be an effective leader in developing a strong Navy or would he actively resist that effort? All of us were fearful that the entire Wilson Administration, just elected to four years of power, would be hostile to the armed services. The new Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, had lectured throughout the country on the virtues of pacifism and the need for total disarmament. Our new Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, was believed to be a fervent disciple of Mr. Bryan. Would his assistant, this young Roosevelt, likewise follow in those pacifist footsteps? Such thoughts ran through my mind as we made our way up the East River. Then the coxswain put over his helm. The barge eased alongside the New York Yacht Club wharf and tied up.
I can see to this day the new assistant secretary-to-be as he strode down the gangplank to the club float with the ease and assurance of an athlete. Tall, broad-shouldered and smiling, Mr. Roosevelt radiated energy and friendliness; his physique would have caught the eye of every crew coach in the country. We shook hands, and he introduced me to some friends with him; then we all made our way back to the barge. Most sailors are accustomed to the gushing enthusiasm of visitors aboard ship. We take it for granted, and we take for granted, too, an enthusiasm which leads them either to muster a misplaced vocabulary in an attempt to show themselves at home or to maintain a guarded silence in the hope of avoiding mistakes.
As we stepped aboard the barge I wondered just how much young Mr. Roosevelt knew about the sea and ships and the naval establishment over which his new office would give him authority. I didn’t know then that he was a good yachtsman, a skilful pilot, and an expert small boat handler; nor that he was already an authority on naval history in general and of United States naval history in particular.
Once aboard the barge the prospective assistant secretary showed immediately that he was at home on the water. Instead of sitting sedately in the stern sheets as might have been expected, he swarmed over the barge from stem to stern during the passage to the Navy Yard. With exclamations of delight and informed appreciation he went over every inch of the boat from coxswain’s box to engine room. When she hit the wake of a passing craft and he was doused with spray, he just ducked and laughed and pointed out to his companions how well she rode a wave. Within a few minutes he’d won the hearts of every man of us on board, just as in the years to come he won the hearts of the crew of every ship he set foot on.
In that first inspection of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, made impetuously before he was even sworn in, Franklin Roosevelt learned a great deal about its building and repair capacity and the possibilities for expansion, things he never forgot. He demonstrated then that he had the invaluable quality of contagious enthusiasm—a quality which Calvin Coolidge did not have, and which Herbert Hoover showed only occasionally.
When I put him ashore at East 23rd Street I felt that the Navy had drawn a fine assistant secretary.
No study of Franklin Roosevelt is complete without considering what his service as assistant secretary of the Navy did to prepare him for his job as President in World War II. I was privileged to watch this development and saw much that now has greater significance than I realized at the time.
When Roosevelt took office in 1913 he found the Navy Department in a turmoil. Trouble was blowing up in Mexico. British oil interests, in an effort to gain control of the fields in the Tampico area, were stirring up anti-American feeling with a violence that threatened the safety of our nationals on the spot. The United States Fleet was dispatched to Mexican waters in the hope that its mere presence would prevent violence, a gesture which was weakened, to put it mildly, by the declaration of our secretary of state that we would never use force. Such irresolute behavior on the part of a republic, which most chancelleries regarded as a second or third class power at best, naturally convinced the European nations that it might be a good time to test the Monroe Doctrine. Indeed, a German seizure of Haiti was averted only by the outbreak of the first World War.
Eventually, of course, we landed at Vera Cruz, in the spring of 1914, but this convulsive final action was preceded by a confusion so classic in its proportions that it taught many of us, including the young assistant secretary, valuable lessons for the future. At the time I had not yet gone on duty in the Navy Department but instead was lying off Tampico myself, as gunnery officer of the fleet flagship Connecticut , sharing the general exasperation of men awaiting word to go into action. Fully dressed and armed, I slept on deck with the landing party, ready to pile into the boats and make for shore whenever the orders came from Washington. But, when that then primitive contraption worked at all, what did the wireless bring? Get ready! No, wait! Get ready! No, don’t make a move!
Not only was President Wilson undecided, but there was plenty of plain old-fashioned bungling at the Navy Department. To advise him about the instructions he should issue, Secretary Daniels had chosen a group of three senior officers headed by old Admiral Fiske. Then, instead of taking their combined judgment, he began playing one off against the other, consulting with them separately. The advice was often conflicting, and given in ignorance of action that had gone before, but Mr. Daniels took it. So unsatisfactory was this experience that a group of naval officers at length conspired with members of Congress to create a central naval authority with the power to make decisions—the present Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. To Secretary Daniels this smacked of Prussianism, of the German General Staff, but it was established despite his bitter opposition. Fiske was retired and Admiral Benson appointed the first “CNO.”
When I came on duty in Washington, and Admiral Benson gave me a part in the work of setting up the new office, I found the assistant secretary quite out of sympathy with his chief. We sometimes discussed my experiences in the Mexican campaign and the problem of giving our growing military forces modern organization. Mr. Roosevelt could not, of course, openly oppose his chief, but as time went on he showed his political adeptness, his ability to get things done in spite of obstacles. Consider, for example, the need for preparedness, which the assistant secretary saw much more clearly than Daniels and, apparently, Wilson himself. Striving for neutrality, the President forbade us to repair our ships, even when a refit was overdue, as though the very act might be interpreted as a preparation for war. For the same reason, nothing whatever was done to develop naval aviation, nor were any plans perfected to build anti-submarine craft.
Meanwhile from all over the Navy flowed in urgent messages pleading for equipment and repairs and permission to prepare for what so many of us, including Franklin Roosevelt, saw was inevitable. Time after time our naval representative in London, Admiral Sims (who had, incidentally, once been Naval Aide himself), reported that the rising fury of the Kaiser’s U-boat campaign was bringing England face-to-face with starvation if help did not come soon. I brought these gloomy dispatches to Mr. Roosevelt daily. He shared the Navy’s view that preparation should be started at once, whatever any belligerent might think about it, but there was little enough he could do except to keep pressing the President and the secretary. At least, he urged, let us repair a few of the ships that need it most! But the faithful Daniels searched every letter and dispatch for the slightest deviation from neutrality or his policy of inaction. When all other methods of delay failed, he took correspondence home and left it there. Every afternoon at one I had to wait upon him in his anteroom, ready to explain naval problems or technicalities contained in his mail, and this went on for a year. Never have I seen a man so indefatigable at delay, so dedicated to doing nothing.
After a while, however, Roosevelt found a way around his boss which helped us a little. When Daniels was away, he would seize his pen and sign orders to which the secretary had refused his assent. To my surprise Daniels never seemed to resent such action and the two remained the best of friends all their lives, but it was an embarrassing state of affairs…
If I have made young F.D.R. seem a fire-eater, spoiling for a fight, I must point out that, while he condemned our failure to prepare for war long before we did, he always held that President Wilson was right to delay joining the Allies until public opinion demanded it. He cited it as a fine piece of timing—a consideration he held to be of greatest importance in all democratic processes. In fact, in those neutral days, Franklin was one of the mildest Roosevelts in town, quite overshadowed by strenuous Cousin Theodore and his beautiful daughter Alice, who was married to Nicholas Longworth, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Despite the differences in political faith, young Franklin stood in some awe of his famous cousin; there was no doubt about how Colonel Roosevelt, as he best liked to be called, stood on the issue of intervention. I still recall vividly one day when Assistant Secretary Roosevelt and I were going over the mail and Louis Howe burst into the office, a strange gleam in his eye, to lay a calling card down on F.D.R.’s desk. It read “Colonel Roosevelt.” Franklin took one look at the card and sprang to his feet as though Howe had exploded a bomb. “What!” he exclaimed in alarm, and it was obvious he thought his belligerent cousin had come to the Navy Department to breathe fire at Wilsonism and demand some impetuous action.
Then the door opened and in strode—not Teddy—but Harry Roosevelt, still another cousin, with a grin on his face stretching from ear to ear. As the shouts of laughter and Howe’s guffaws subsided we learned that Harry, who was in fact a captain in the Marines, had become, albeit technically and briefly, a colonel in the Haitian Gendarmerie. He had cards printed up at once, purposely confusing him with Cousin Theodore, and in this guise was doing the town.*
* Harry Roosevelt himself later became assistant secretary of the Navy under F.D.R., and I suspect nominated me for my second tour as Naval Aide.
War came soon enough, although few will remember the unusual way in which word of the declaration was flashed to the Navy Department. It was common knowledge, of course, that the moment would come soon and, following the famous example of von Moltke, we had all the necessary instructions to the forces afloat prepared and ready for issue at a moment’s notice. Several hundred dispatches were coded and ready to go except for the addition of dates and times. Our offices in the old State, War and Navy Building overlooked the White House grounds. In readiness to signal us as soon as the President’s message requesting a declaration of war was approved by Congress, an officer was stationed in the President’s ante-room. The day came, and the hour. Tensely we watched through the windows the figure of Commander Byron McCandless. Suddenly he began to wave his white handkerchief up and down in our direction for the prearranged number of times. War was on! Our dispatches were sent on the instant, but never before, I imagine, has the customary token of surrender been used as a signal to start the fighting.
Orders for sea duty came to me in December, 1917: command of a destroyer out of Queenstown. Roosevelt too wanted to go to sea, and wanted it badly, taking his requests right up to President Wilson. But there was no hope for him; the assistant secretary had proved himself too valuable. He it was who had been primarily responsible for the yacht conversions, the subchaser building, the construction of new ship yards. Condemned to civilian life, Roosevelt nevertheless discovered one urgent matter after another which called him to the battle areas. There were European naval and air bases to be inspected personally; he had to visit our Marine forces fighting with the Army in France. And he had a pet project to oversee. At the time when the Germans threatened Paris with the famous Big Berthas, which outranged all Allied land artillery, Admiral “Cy” Plunkett, an ordnance enthusiast whom Roosevelt admired, insisted that we had high velocity naval guns which alone could match the Berthas. His argument was that, if we couldn’t take battleships to Paris, “by God, we could take the guns there on railroad cars!” And it was done, with flatcars and 14-inch naval guns. All obstacles were hurdled, including strong and, I suppose, well-founded Army opposition. Plunkett was a picturesque character, reminiscent in some ways of the late General George Patton, given to odd uniforms and plain speech. Young Roosevelt enjoyed twitting the determined, if land-locked old salt, and the quixotic audacity of two seafaring guns charging into the thick of Europe’s biggest war appealed to his always well-developed sense of the dramatic.
Although when Franklin Roosevelt accepted his naval asignment in 1913 he was a carefree, rather inexperienced young lawyer, when he left office in 1920 he was a veteran office-holder of the then greatest war in history.
After I left White House duty with President Hoover in 1929 it never occurred to me that I might some day return, as no naval officer ever had been ordered back for a second tour; but return I did. I did not seek the reappointment and, wishing to hold to straight line duties, did not at first welcome the assignment; but, after reporting for duty in 1934, I realized that serving under Roosevelt was a great adventure. Soon I became one of his most devoted followers and admirers. It was impossible not to be impressed with the whole-hearted devotion of every member of the Staff, no matter how humble or exalted, personal loyalty more ardent than any I have ever known, and I have been part of some very loyal and enthusiastic naval commands. President and Mrs. Roosevelt made me feel at once that I was being received as an old friend; the secretaries hailed me as a member of the team. My service colleagues, the late beloved General Edwin Watson, U.S.A., Military Aide, and Vice-Admiral Ross T. McIntire, M.C., U.S.N., the President’s physician, and I soon formed a harmonious triumvirate. We enjoyed working together and managed, what is more, to escape every pitfall of palace politics.
I found President Roosevelt a very different man from the carefree assistant secretary. While at times, with an audience present, he showed the old élan and told his stories with zest, when alone in repose his expression was serious and thoughtful. Physically he was a much more powerful man except for his damaged legs. He had put on weight; but so long as he had time for his swimming exercises it was hard muscle in shoulder and trunk. He could lift himself about wherever he could grasp anything strong enough to hold his 190 pounds. When skylarking in the pool the most powerful swimmers had to be cautious of grappling with him, for he could duck any of them with a half-nelson few men could throw off. In those early years Roosevelt and his doctors still hoped that swimming exercises might restore the muscles of his knees—vainly, it turned out. His ever-increasing responsibilities left little time for play. Swimming hours became less and less frequent. By remaining in office Mr. Roosevelt sacrificed any chance of walking unaided again, just as later he gave his life to finish the war.
Because President Roosevelt was confined to a wheel chair we all felt a special sense of responsibility for him. There have been too many attempts to assassinate presidents, three of them successful. The size of Roosevelt’s Secret Service contingent kept growing throughout the war, and I suppose the results justify that growth. Yet some of us in the Army and Navy were a little irked to have him surrounded by an entire squad on board ship, at army posts and at Malta, even while receiving the highest military honor the British Army can give. Mr. Churchill also survived enemy attack with only a single Scotland Yard inspector as guard!
Once the Secret Service asked Mr. Roosevelt not to stand under the heavy chandelier in the Blue Room when he received guests. They thought the chandelier might drop on him, through accident or design. He scoffed at such a danger and thereafter made a point of standing directly under it. Meanwhile, Doctor McIntire kept picking away at all of us to do all we could to hold down the President’s schedule and to guard him against fatigue. The President, however, never felt much concern about nursing his strength until he had nearly reached the limit of his endurance. When air, motor, train, or sea trips were being planned he took the keenest interest in drawing up a schedule: where we were to go; what we were to see; whom we were to meet. Risks to his personal safety never occurred to him.
It was evident to me that the suffering he had endured, the shock of finding himself a cripple while at the threshold of a vigorous life, had brought their compensation in spiritual and intellectual development. He had taken time to read and to think, giving special attention to history, to geography and to social reform throughout Europe. All this exercise further developed a memory which had already been outstanding. He kept himself fully informed of every detail that affected the Army and Navy. At a moment’s notice he could accurately cite how much money had been appropriated for any major service project. I was supposed to have in mind all of the figures about the naval appropriations, but often I would be confounded by the President’s more accurate recollection. Facts imprinted themselves on his memory like a stencil. Suffering had filled him with an understanding sympathy for the suffering and underprivileged of the world and a crusading ardor to do something about it.
At the same time it always seemed to me a pity that he caused so much bitter hatred among businessmen and people of property, not just for what he did but even more for what he said. When the newspapers criticized him, his early advisors spurred him on to retaliate with ever more bitter attacks on the Republican Party and the “economic royalists.” It was none of my business as Naval Aide, but one day, when a favorable opportunity offered, I said to him that I didn’t think he realized how bitter businessmen were becoming because of his repeated charges that all of them were selfish and greedy exploiters of labor. I added that although he and I knew that business had many ruthless slave drivers, we had to admit that the great majority of executives were too intelligent not to be concerned with the welfare of their people, and that many of them were models of social responsibility. Didn’t they spend millions on housing, recreation, schools and hospitals? I said I thought he should differentiate between the good and the bad. He said indignantly that he had never accused business as a whole; that he had said time and again that he was attacking only the exploiters, and if the shoe pinched, let it pinch. How many times did I want him to explain? The guilty would only think he was beginning to hedge.
I recall in this connection how, in the early years of his presidency, some of his advisors would urge him not to make cruises with his friend Vincent Astor because, they said, it was bad politics to fraternize with the very rich. The President indignantly rebuffed this advice and went his own way. I went along on the escorting destroyer to serve as the communication link between Washington and Astor’s Nourmahal , and to act as secretary pro tem . “Why shouldn’t I cruise with Vincent?” he asked me plaintively. “The rest on board are all boyhood friends. None of them has an ax to grind. Why should I give up old friends I’m fond of?”
Notwithstanding his crippled legs, the President and Mrs. Roosevelt carried out the old Coolidge schedule of official parties with even more private entertaining on the side. Because he tried to conceal how much discomfort and suffering it caused him to walk or stand, only his intimates knew how helpless he was without his braces and someone or something to hold on to.
Normally he depended on his wheel chair for getting about the house and office, and put his braces on only when he wanted to stand in public. He could move from one chair to another and in and out of the wheel chair without help by lifting himself by the arms of the chair and swinging over to the new seat. When standing or walking he was completely dependent on his leg braces and on someone to put them on. Someone had to help get his trousers on over the braces, and lend a supporting arm in walking. He had devoted and competent valets. At receptions, dinners, and most public appearances, General Watson and I took turns walking with him. He liked best to walk with one of his sons, but they were frequently away on business of their own.
The receptions were carried out just as they were in the Coolidge and Hoover days, and likewise the formal dinners, except that the guests filed by the President instead of the President walking around the circle to shake hands. At the table he had a struggle to get in and out of his chair. Sitting required him to release the catch on the braces in order to bend his knees; then when he wanted to walk he had to straighten his legs and throw the catch back in. Once in an upright position he seized his escort’s right arm just above the elbow, grasped his walking stick in his right hand and began to walk. For the escort it was exactly like trying to steady a beginner on stilts. Roosevelt walked stiff-legged with a slow swinging motion that went without effort for the escort as long as balance and timing were good. If some distraction upset the President’s balance, or we hit uneven pavement, the escort had to be alert and braced to hold him up. We were in constant fear of his falling backward, and the Secret Service men were always on hand to jump to the rescue.
One of the daily events I like to remember was my first greeting and talk with him each morning. He began his working day in his bedroom as soon as he had finished breakfast. Dr. McIntire and the secretaries went there to plan the day’s work. Admiral Leahy and I waited in the Map Room on the ground floor near the foot of the elevator for the warning bell signal that the President was on his way from his bedroom to his office. When the elevator arrived at the basement floor, there followed an amusing parade. Several husky Secret Service agents led the march along the colonnade toward the office. Another emerged with arms laden with baskets of mail that the President had worked on during the evening and night before. The President’s wheel chair was pushed out smartly by his valet and moved toward the office at a rapid gait. The President’s “Good morning” managed subtly and intentionally to reflect his state of mind to all of us. By his expression and tone we had come to know whether they indicated satisfaction with the day’s news, annoyance at persistent difficulties, or grim determination to tackle and overcome them. With his long cigarette holder clamped in his mouth at a jaunty angle, his Navy boat cape—a gift from Mrs. Roosevelt—thrown about his shoulders, he rode his wheel chair proudly erect, more like the winner of a Roman chariot race than a confirmed cripple. Admiral Leahy had to hustle to keep abreast of the chair on one side, and I was equally hard-pressed on the other. Leahy gave a brief of progress as we walked, and I got in a word now and then. Fala, the President’s Scottish terrier, fully aware of the important part he played, dashed ahead of the procession chasing imaginary squirrels, while harried on by his master. Any visiting grandchildren used also to tag along, and while Harry Hopkins lived at the White House, his nice little daughter, Diana, was often a shy observer.
Once we reached the President’s office that was so unlike an office, with circular walls covered with Mr. Roosevelt’s photographs and pictures, its domed ceiling, and the large desk littered with dozens of mascots, toy souvenirs and little gadgets, all doors were closed and Admiral Leahy and I had the floor to ourselves until we had finished with urgent war affairs. Admiral Leahy had a sheaf of out-going dispatches ready for the President’s approval; I had a batch of in-coming dispatches and a last-minute summary of action on all fronts. We were given little time, however, for General Watson, standing first on one foot and then on other, would make desperate signals to us to cut it short to allow in the first of the day’s official callers.
The President’s routine day had begun. He would be a tired man when he came to Dr. McIntire’s dispensary for massage and check-up at six or seven o’clock or later, when I showed him the crop of the day’s dispatches, and the at times exciting intercepted dispatches of the enemy, who were blissfully unconscious that their codes had been broken. I then went home for a restful evening. After his dinner the President usually worked on his mail until late hours.
In their attitude toward the sea and sea going, Presidents Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt could not have been more different. Coolidge distrusted the sea, Hoover was bored with it, Roosevelt loved it. This love of the sea was the spur for his enthusiasm in serving as assistant secretary of the Navy, in acquiring knowledge of world strategy, and his acquaintance with the needs of our naval establishment. He would have made a superb naval officer.
But I could never persuade him to get a proper yacht to replace the Mayflower . When I joined him he had a small converted Coast Guard patrol boat named the Sequoia . She had a fairly sizeable sleeping cabin and bath on the main deck, adjoining a dining saloon where as many as eight could be seated comfortably. There were two very small double cabins and three tiny single cabins on the deck below. A comfortable lounging deck aft and a sun deck over the after cabins tempted passengers to spend most of their time on deck. This was all very well, but she didn’t have a single watertight bulkhead, she was a gasoline burner, and if she had ever been hit in a fog by a vessel of any size, she’d have probably burst into flames and sunk with little warning. But Roosevelt had his reasons for refusing a larger and more seaworthy craft. If he had more cabins, for instance, he would have to invite more guests. He wanted a shoal-draft craft for fishing and for exploring the many interesting coves of Chesapeake Bay from the water side as the early colonials had done. He was not willing to go in for a luxury yacht at a time when so many were on relief. If he had any ocean trips to make, he said, he would travel on a man-of-war as he was entitled to do in his role of Commander-in-Chief. This proved to be a very wise prophecy, for he spent 120 days aboard ship while I was with him, not counting Chesapeake Bay week-end cruises and those he made during the six years I was not with him. When I persisted in urging a safer craft for Chesapeake Bay cruises, he compromised by replacing the Sequoia with another converted Coast Guard patrol boat of about the same size but of more modern design. He named the relief the Potomac . She had Diesel engines and a stout hull. The cabin arrangements were an almost exact duplicate of the Sequoia’s and she had only slightly greater draft. She was a fine craft for Chesapeake Bay, but not a good seagoing vessel since her original stability had been marred by the additional topside weight of cabins and an elevator.
During the pleasant days of peace we used to make a Chesapeake Bay week-end cruise about twice a month during spring and fall, leaving Saturday noon from the Washington Navy Yard or Annapolis, returning Monday morning. These expeditions furnished the President a change of scene, rest and recreation, combined with an opportunity to clear up any mail that had accumulated. The President’s loyal helpers, Louis Howe and “Missy” LeHand, went along for a time until ill health caused both to be hospitalized. Mrs. Roosevelt also came when she was free from her ever-increasing burden of engagements. Pa Watson, Ross McIntire and I were the most regular companions. The President got a good nap after lunch, came on deck when he felt like it, worked for a time sorting out additions to his stamp collection, and finally summoned Miss LeHand to clear up the mail before we reached the fishing spot he had selected. Once the anchor dropped, work was abandoned and five rods were put in action. We had pools for first fish, biggest fish and most fish. Franklin Roosevelt won more than his share of the pools because he had the patience not to let his attention wander. Sunday was a restful day, too—cruising, exploring the landings of colonial estates, fishing. When we returned on Monday morning the presidential energies had been restored.
The Chesapeake Bay cruises taught us how to get the President aboard and off ship, standing on his own feet and not parading his lameness. This was required by his absolute edict to the Secret Service, press photographers and the rest of us that he was not to be photographed while being helped to his feet or struggling with his braces to sit down. So far as I know, the registered photographers never tried to evade that request, but there was no assurance that some plain citizen with a camera might not try for a scoop. Therefore, whenever he appeared in public, all of us in attendance grouped around him as he was getting to his feet or sitting down. The special problem was getting him aboard ship. After some experimenting we designed a gangplank for the Potomac with handrails just high and far enough apart so that he could walk aboard without help by bearing most of his weight on his arms. His car simply drove close to the end of the gangway—he then straightened his legs and locked the braces as he eased himself out of it. Seizing the handrails, he had no further difficulty in walking up the gangway by himself, provided the state of the tide did not make the grade too steep. Once aboard, there were handrails near the gangway on which he could steady himself after taking the honors. There he would stand at the rail facing the curious crowd on shore and smiling broadly for the photographers. Once we were clear of the dock he went to his cabin and removed the braces. Until our return he depended on his wheel chair for getting about.
It did not require much ingenuity to rig gangways from ship to wharf so that it was possible for the President to walk aboard. It was a very different matter to get him over the side into a small boat for a day’s fishing when the sea was choppy. Usually we rigged the ship’s gangway ladder. The ship’s boat came alongside. The President was wheeled to the gangway. The ship’s company were sent about their business to avoid the assembly of a curious audience. Two helpers stooped on either side of the wheel chair, F.D.R. put his arms around their shoulders, they locked hands under his knees, picked him up and walked down the gangway ladder to hand him to two of us in the boat. Then we settled him into his fishing seat, where he sat happily all day, rain or shine, smooth water or rough. As long as we caught fish he did not worry, as we did, over what the weather might be like by sunset when we would have the job of getting him safely back on board. Of course we always sought a sheltered anchorage and quiet water, but such conditions did not always offer themselves near the fishing area, and quiet water in the morning may be very different in late afternoon. Sometimes the ship had to get underway to make a lee, and even then there were times when we faced a hazardous undertaking with the boat bouncing around and the ship rolling. Our timing had to be just right in lifting him from the boat to the waiting hands on the ladder. There was always a moment of suspense, and the grave risk of misjudging the sea and the correct instant for action. It would be a strain to get any helpless friend on board under such conditions. To be responsible that the President of the United States should not be dropped between boat and gangway was quite a different matter. We found consolation in the knowledge that, if he once got hold of the ladder he could hold on, or, if he went overboard, that he was a strong swimmer. The real danger was that he might be caught between boat and gangway and injured should the two crash together. Occasionally we tried hoisting him over the side in a boatswain’s chair swung from a boom. He did not like that, nor did I, for any roll of the ship might drop him hard in the boat and jerk him back in the air on the return roll, before he could be released. Neither did he like being put in the boat at the rail and hoisted out with a crane.
The outstanding feature of all our small boat ventures was his unfrightened acceptance of the risk. He was as good a small boat sailor as any of us and was quite aware of what weather and sea might do. He showed no concern that we might bungle the job. Fortunately we had no accidents, and he was never hurt.
Once at Roosevelt’s direction we stopped at Cocos Island to enjoy the sail fishing for which that island is famous. But he also remembered some supposedly trustworthy accounts of piratical raids on the treasures of Peru in the Seventeenth Century, and persistent rumors that the loot had been buried at Cocos. He had told us about it before we reached the island, and when we arrived, sure enough, an English treasure hunting expedition was already there. Since the island had been wholly uninhabited most of the time for centuries, these visitors aroused the latent treasure hunting instinct in everyone. The Englishmen had cut their way from the only good landing place to the center of the ten-mile-long island through some of the most dense tropical vegetation imaginable, and had succeeded in doing this only by following the bed of a stream which led to a plateau several hundred feet high. They were trying to locate the treasure with a secret electric finder in which a good many English men and women had bought stock. President Roosevelt pointed out to them, and to us, that they were going about it the wrong way, maintaining that no pirate would blaze a trail to his hiding place by hacking his way through the forest. A much more probable method for sailors of tall-masted sailing craft, skilled in the use of block and tackle, Roosevelt contended, would have been to bring their ship alongside the island, where high cliffs dropped straight away to deep water, get a line ashore from a yard arm, and hoist out the treasure. Then the pirates would have set trusted hands to burying it right there, “bumped off” the trusted hands and sailed away, leaving no trace of their visit. We figured that there were several spots on the shore line where that could have been done. But no treasure was found—if it had been, Costa Rican guards were on hand to take their share.
On our way to the Hawaiian Islands, the President noticed from a study of the chart on which he carefully plotted the ship’s position each noon, that a tiny spot in the ocean marked “Clipperton Island, P. D.” (position doubtful) was only a few miles off our great circle course. He directed that we sight it. The resulting visit was memorable to me for two reasons. During the war it was the subject of a dispute between British and American air interests which I persuaded President Roosevelt to straighten out with the help of Prime Minister Churchill. It was also the only occasion when the President showed anger with me.
When we hove to, the fragment of an island was some five miles away—the chart gave no assurance that it was not surrounded with shoals—and such a heavy swell was running, and the ship was rolling so deeply that even the President realized he could not possibly do any fishing. However, he was curious to learn more about the island and its marine life than could be seen from the ship and authorized three boats to explore. With a coxswain and engineer, I took Franklin Junior along in the motor whaleboat and two miles from the shore fish began striking our feather lures. I have never seen such fishing. The instant the lines hit the water we both had strikes. They were mostly ten and fifteen pounders that put up such a good fight we were soon physically tired before ever getting near the beach. So we hauled in our lines and stood in closer. Young Franklin put his line over about a hundred yards from shore and instantly got a strike; it took up most of his line before he could slow up the first rush. All of his oarsman’s strength was needed to inch the prize nearer the boat. After ten minutes or so, the ship hoisted the general recall. The other two boats responded promptly, but I was urging Franklin on to greater and greater effort. The ship then began blowing her whistle, hoisting signal flags up and down, and finally firing a gun, while we could see them putting out boats to come to our rescue. We then realized that it must look to observers aboard ship as though we were aground in the heavy surf, whereas actually we were well outside and in no danger at all unless the motor stalled. I said to Franklin, “You’ve either got to get that fish in, or we’ll have to cut loose and get back to the ship.” “Father would never forgive me if we don’t get this boy,” he muttered between clenched teeth. Providentially at that point our catch heaved over on his side and revealed himself to be a 250 pound shark. Our reaction was instantaneous and unanimous—we cut him loose and started full speed to meet the rescue boats half way.
The President was waiting for us in his wheel chair at the gangway, his face contorted with rage, his eyes blinking as they always did when he was angry. “Did you not see my signal?” he asked me. “Did you not hear the whistle and the warning gun? You gave me a very bad scare. I thought you were smashing up in the breakers.”
“Yes, Mr. President,” I said, “I did get your order to return, but we thought Franklin was on to the biggest tuna ever caught. If you had been in my place I think you would have done just as I did. I’m sorry you were worried, but we were never in any real danger.”
We both went to our staterooms in something of a huff, but an hour later at lunch time everything was serene, and we never spoke of it again. Anger after unnecessary alarm is a very human trait.
In the summer of 1936, in accordance with the normal alternation between sea and shore duty, I became due for service at sea. I was reluctant to ask to be relieved because I knew, no matter how capable my relief might be, the breaking-in of a new aide would involve some minor inconvenience to the President. I went to his bedroom one Sunday morning shortly after he had finished breakfast, and was fortunate enough to have a few minutes with him alone. I told him of my predicament, that I felt I should go to sea in order to carry on with my profession, but I hated to leave him and to add to his difficulties by putting him to the necessity of training a replacement.
His response was immediate. He would miss me very much, but of course I must go. That was what I had been trained for from my early days at the Academy. He asked what duty I would get. I told him that Secretary Swanson had said, if the President would release me, I might have command of the Training Squadron, the Atlantic Fleet of that day, and fly my flag as an admiral on board the battleship Arkansas . President Roosevelt’s reply was, “You are the luckiest man on earth. I would give anything in the world to change places with you.” And then he told me a story. Back in 1916 he had paid an official call one day on Admiral Osterhaus, then commander of the Fleet. Going aboard the flagship he discovered to his dismay that the admiral, having reached retiring age, was having to give up his command the very next day. He expressed his regret. “This must be one of the saddest days of your life, Admiral,” he said. To his astonishment the admiral replied, “I’m not unhappy, I’m delighted, Mr. Roosevelt. At last I’ll be able to realize a lifelong ambition. I’ll be able to raise canaries.” To command a fleet was Mr. Roosevelt’s idea of the greatest job in the world. And here was a man who was giving up that great responsibility almost with glee at the thought of breeding canaries!
Just as Louis Howe deserves most of the credit for the successful start of Franklin Roosevelt’s political career, so Harry Hopkins must be credited with being the person who helped him most during the war years. In those anxious years Roosevelt trusted Hopkins’ judgment more than that of any other person in the Cabinet, in the Congress, or in his own Staff. It was not so in the beginning of the administration, however. There were times then when Harry’s standing in the presidential favor was very insecure. On week-end cruises on the Sequoia , during the days of W.P.A., I heard the President and Louis Howe berate Hopkins more roughly than I ever heard them talk to anyone else. Harry smartly took the wind out of their sails by admitting that he knew nothing about their complaint, that he should have known about it, and that he had been just plain dumb. Although he disarmed further attack by pleading stupidity, we all knew he was not stupid.
From the beginning Hopkins worked with others to prepare the President’s speeches, but I think he might never have gained the position of chief counsellor, had he not gone along on the 1935 cruise aboard the Houston . During that month aboard ship he was amusing and not too talkative; we could see that he was wearing well. In that brief association Franklin Roosevelt found in Hopkins a man after his own heart, one who paid little attention to precedent and red tape and kept the goal always in mind; who was courageous, even audacious, in accepting the gravest responsibilities.
When I left the President for sea duty in 1936, Harry was still director of W.P.A. His influence with the President was growing, but he had access to the President by appointment only, just like any other administrative head. When I returned in 1943, however, Harry and his young daughter were living at the White House. He was installed on the ground floor in a newly built suite of offices, which became, so to speak, the cornucopia from which he dispensed the generous billions of Lend-Lease. Hopkins was now recognized at home and abroad as the President’s spokesman and, some thought, his heir apparent too. As far as I know, he was never given any authority over the rest of us, but he did not hesitate to interfere in any of our affairs whenever it served his purpose. He had a finger in every pie. I locked horns with him shortly after I returned to Roosevelt’s staff. Without saying a word to me or to anyone in our Navy Department, he got the President to sign an order directing us to follow British ideas about the size of convoys and the number of their escorts rather than American. The British, short of everything as they were, believed in large convoys guarded by just as few destroyers and corvettes as possible. The combined Staffs had been debating this matter for months. Since most of the merchant ships were American, carrying American crews, we realized that the resulting losses would be largely ours. Furious with Hopkins, Admiral Leahy and I convinced the President that it was wrong for him to assume responsibility for such a technical decision and that it was certainly no business of Harry Hopkins. The President promptly cancelled the order, but, unfortunately, one oversized convoy was already at sea. Ships were sunk, and men were drowned. The only Hopkins comment I ever heard was, “Those goddam admirals certainly took the hide off me.” In fairness to Hopkins, I must admit that the British plan was adopted again later, but only after our hunter-killer groups—planes from escort carriers working with fast destroyers—had the German U-boats on the run.
When Mr. Churchill visited the White House in 1943, Harry acted for the President, played host, and attempted to keep up with the Prime Minister’s late hours. I had a chance to see how they worked together one week end at Shangri-La. It was a very select party. The President invited only Mr. Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook and Harry Hopkins. Commander Thompson, Mr. Churchill’s secretary, and I were the working staff. We had our own detached cabin but ate our meals with the presidential party. The main points under discussion were who should command the Normandy landing, and what should be done about various phases of Lend-Lease. Mr. Churchill wanted to talk shop at meals. The President was not then ready to make decisions and was unusually quiet and reserved. Churchill and Beaverbrook did a little sparring to break a rather strained silence, but Harry carried the ball most of the time and kept the party from being dull by starting debates on social justice, finance and the war, about which he knew very little. He drew fire from everyone—as he intended.
In Volume Three of his Memoirs , Sir Winston Churchill has singled out Harry Hopkins as one of the brilliant figures of the war, and with this most of us who saw him in action will agree, but Sir Winston, with his usual acumen, also says: “Hopkins was, of course, jealous about his personal influence with his Chief and did not encourage American competitors.” Therein lies the fundamental difference between the loyalty of Louis Howe and the loyalty of Harry Hopkins. Howe’s one purpose was to build up an efficient organization to make the Roosevelt Administration a success. He had no personal ambitions. He wanted the best for the Boss. Hopkins’ actions, however, show that he was willing to sacrifice good teamwork in order to build his own political fences and to hold his position as chief advisor. He brought to the President’s favor men of his own choosing, and kept away as much as he could those who were unfriendly to him.
If Hopkins’ health had permitted him to keep steadily on the job, and if he had possessed Howe’s singleness of purpose, he could have been an outstanding chief of staff and an even more useful public servant. But he was in the hospital or on the sick list a great deal of the time. He had no more sense than a child in matters concerning his own health or that of Franklin Roosevelt. Instead of resting when he had a chance to, he looked about for diversion, and found it in cards, horse racing, café society and eager talk with interesting people. After Yalta, when completely played out, he stayed up all night playing poker and then took to his bed in a state of near exhaustion. He lacked the power to relax, a gift in which F.D.R. normally rejoiced. Hopkins lacked the common sense to conserve his energies. I was very fond of him during my first three years of association with him, but I grew annoyed toward the end because of his lack of consideration for the President’s well-being and his lack of co-operation with the rest of us. He was rarely in his office for any length of time and it was usually a mystery to the rest of us where he was or how he could be reached—except at the big conferences when he took charge of everything and made the President work until all hours of the night, as he did himself. I pointed this out to F.D.R. at lunch aboard a ship on our way to Yalta, and urged with some vigor that we hold to White House organization and schedule. The President’s only reply was the mask-like, blank stare that he used when displeased. As a result, although Hopkins spent most of his time in bed in a state of near prostration, this careless man controlled the President’s schedule throughout the Yalta visit and did it without the least consideration for conserving the President’s waning health. Mr. Churchill sensibly went to bed every afternoon as usual.
I soon found that the office of Naval Aide in war was a very different, and much more interesting, job than during peace. I experienced a complete change of routine over my previous duty. I had an office in the White House, in addition to my old office in the Navy Department where I had easy access to Admiral King and the secretary. I had the particular responsibility of keeping the President informed of all important developments on all battle fronts, and I was custodian of the President’s personal messages to other heads of state and many of his private and secret papers. I was responsible for the security of his communications. In order to keep the President informed of the latest disposition of the Allied forces, and where known, that of the enemy, my predecessor Rear Admiral McCrea, on the order of the President, had established what was known as “The White House Map Room.” Mr. Roosevelt got the idea from Mr. Churchill. When Mr. Churchill visited the White House in 1942, he brought with him from London his war map. It was set up in his rooms at the White House. Mr. Roosevelt viewed it with undisguised envy and admiration. Within the shortest possible time he had his own map room.
It was situated on the ground floor opposite the elevator used by the President, and alongside Ross McIntire’s dispensary. It was therefore easily accessible to him at all times. The walls were covered with maps of all battle areas. An elaborate system showed the location of all our air, land and sea forces throughout the world. Files were maintained of daily secret dispatches and information bulletins. A coding machine was operated in one corner. Eight junior officers, four Army and four Navy, stood a continuous day and night watch so that important war news could be delivered to the President at any hour.
As the bearer of war news, I had the immediate right to see the President at any time of the day or night. Except on very rare occasions, however, when the President demanded to be informed at once of the outcome of any expected action, we established as regular a routine as possible in order to lighten his load and to interfere as little as possible with other government business.
My standing orders were that all important war news was to be delivered to the President at once, and then to me. After the President had gone to bed, all news was to be telephoned to me on my private wire, which passed through the White House switchboard only. Unless his immediate decision was required, there was no need to disturb his sleep. Good news or bad could wait till morning, if there was nothing he could do about it. Once on a train trip, when a message came through several hours after the President had turned in, I had to call him as a member of the Cabinet asked for immediate instructions from Washington. I went to the President’s stateroom and knocked on the door. “Mr. President,” I called, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I have a message I think you ought to see at once.” “Come in,” he called back in drowsy tones. By the time I’d opened the door, he’d turned on the light, reached for a cigarette, and was wide awake. He read the message carefully, discussed it with me for a few minutes, and then gave me an answer, clear, brief, positive. He said next morning he’d gone right off to sleep again. The incident shows his faculty of ceasing to worry over a matter once he had made his mind up and given a decision. It is one of the reasons Franklin Roosevelt survived twelve years of killing toil and responsibility.
I attended President Roosevelt as his naval aide at all of the conferences except those at Newfoundland and Casablanca. I saw a good deal of the Roosevelt-Churchill teamwork at close range at all the meetings, but of them all I like best to recall those at Quebec. The war was definitely going our way by then. Instead of the tense and distrustful atmosphere of conferences with the Russians, there was the hospitality of smiling friends who spoke the same language and held the same aims. The preliminaries indicated the cordiality of the occasion.
The President had invited Prime Minister Churchill to meet us at Hyde Park for preliminary discussion on our way north to Quebec, and he arrived shortly after we did, accompanied by a small staff and his daughter Mary. Mr. Churchill used the occasion to provide entertainment for himself and others. We had noted before that, like my friend General Watson, who would arrive on the Sequoia in Tyrolean costume, he enjoyed at times appearing in new and sometimes strange dress—sometimes very smart uniform or civilian clothes, sometimes very informal attire. At Hyde Park Mr. Churchill had the stage all set for one of his best performances. The day after our arrival Mrs. Roosevelt invited all of us to her cottage, about two miles from the big house, for a swim in the pool on her grounds and a hot dog luncheon to be cooked and served by herself. It was a hot day and a swim was most welcome. The President would not go in because he wanted to discuss the Irish situation with our Minister to Ireland; but he sat on the terrace where he could watch the swimmers. Mary Churchill was the first in the water and became the center of interest at once by doing all sorts of difficult dives from the springboard with great skill and grace. None of the rest of us could begin to match her stunts and, as a result, we crawled in and out of the water in the most inconspicuous manner possible. But not the Prime Minister. Accompanied by his trusted Scotland Yard inspector and carrying a small black bag, he marched to the outdoor men’s dressing room with the confident air of a maestro.
“Wait till you see the old boy in a bathing suit,” muttered one of the less respectful aides to me. “He looks exactly like a nun buoy.” And sure enough when Mr. Churchill emerged there was no denying that the greatest circumference was very near the waistline. But if there was any momentary doubt about his agility, it was soon dispelled when he advanced quickly and without a moment’s hesitation to the end of the springboard. There he jumped up and down several times for momentum, leaped into the air in a graceful parabola and landed head first in the approved manner, albeit with considerable splash. The President led the applause, which was modestly acknowledged with a benign smile as the performer swam sedately to shore employing the old-fashioned breast-stroke. Mrs. Roosevelt alone had sufficient courage to compete further with Mary on the springboard.
At Quebec the entire Hotel Frontenac was turned over to the several hundred of the Combined Staffs and their multitude of helpers. Hopkins, Leahy, and I were installed with President Roosevelt on the second floor, while Mr. Churchill, Commander Thompson and a few helpers took quarters on the first floor. We had our meals together in the state dining room, where the President presided, as if he were senior member of a mess aboard ship. He assigned the seating arrangements, generally in accordance with rank, but when Mr. Churchill became too insistent in so pressing a point during the forenoon that he might be expected to continue during lunch, the President would invite him to join the fourth ward.* He always enjoyed Churchill’s company, but at times he seemed a little miffed.
* The junior end of the mess table.
There was always a good deal of chaffing between the two leaders. Both seemed to enjoy the give and take of friendly sparring to reach a compromise. At the time of the first Quebec conference in August of 1943, we had driven the Germans out of Africa and Sicily; we had landed in Italy and Mussolini’s fall was expected at any moment. The problems facing the conference were the complexities of strategy and priority: How much steel could be spared to build landing craft, landing piers and temporary harbors without interfering with the ship-building schedule? Would this hinder the steady flow of troops to England with necessary supplies and equipment? How much could be spared from Overlord for Mediterranean operations? Could we allocate enough to pin German troops to the defense of Italy, southern France and the Adriatic? What could we spare for the Pacific, and how could we keep open the Burma Road in support of the forces of General Chiang?
The Prime Minister’s lively imagination was working at full blast. He had brought with him various advocates of schemes that appealed to him as worthy of thorough investigation. Harry Hopkins shared his enthusiasm and instead of leaving technical decisions to be acted on by the Combined Staffs, Hopkins started bringing visitors to see the President in his bedroom before the poor man had even had breakfast, keeping a steady flow of visitors all day when we were not in conference, so that the President had no chance to look at his Washington mail until late in the afternoon just in time to dress for dinner. He had an hour or so to sit quietly at the movies; but when they were over, faced hours of further conference and debate. Part of my self-appointed responsibility was to try to hold the President down to reasonable working hours. But he was excited and enthusiastic too. He was never one to spare himself and did not like to be nagged. To break up a night session I several times invented a fictitious telephone call from Washington when I could tell by his expression that he had had enough. He was always pleased by the subterfuge.
Mrs. Churchill and Mrs. Roosevelt were present at the second Quebec conference and during most of our stay effectively stopped our having late night sessions and visitors before breakfast. Dr. McIntire, who was tied up with medical conferences at home and could not get to Quebec until after the conference started, had charged me, before we left Washington, with the responsibility for making the President hold to a reasonable schedule. With this in mind, I had the bright idea of putting it up to Mr. Churchill, and sent to him through his aide, Commander Thompson, the message Dr. McIntire had given me. The party broke up that night immediately after the movies, about ten thirty. As well all moved off together toward our quarters, Mr. Churchill, his arm firmly held by Mrs. Churchill, muttered to me, “Aren’t I a good boy?” His sanctity did not last long, however, for soon everyone was working until all hours over post-war control of Germany, Royal Navy participation in the war in the Pacific and other important matters. At that time President Roosevelt insisted that we must have a base in the vicinity of Hamburg and direct communication with Berlin so that our line of supply could be by sea with only a short land haul. The British objected that control of the Atlantic seaboard of Europe was essential to their security and that, since their armies were already on the coast, it would be a most complicated maneuver to exchange positions with the American army. President Roosevelt held to his demand until the last minute before giving in. I don’t know who or what persuaded him to surrender then, but I suspect it was Harry Hopkins. As for the British fleet in the Pacific, we felt that because of their short cruising radius British capital ships at that stage of the war would be more of a hindrance than a help. In order to convince Mr. Churchill, the President directed my map room to prepare special charts emphasizing the distances involved and the great increase in the number of tankers that would be required. We had too few tankers to serve the U.S. Pacific Fleet alone. The Prime Minister parried with the suggestion that the proper strategy for the Pacific was to occupy Sumatra—a suggestion that confirmed his statement that he had not given the Pacific much thought.
In spite of the grave issues involved it always seemed to me that Winston Churchill enjoyed the battle of wits and took it all in good part, although one of his moments of heat is engraved in my memory. Turning to the President, he cried: “I’ve told you time and time again that the British Empire is bankrupt and that you are the only one who can save it. What do you want me to do? Get down on my knees?”
Many other men, with so many grave and conflicting problems before them, would have lost their tempers and thereafter found it impossible to work together; but fortunately for us all, both Roosevelt and Churchill were adept at give and take, and the fine art of banter that leaves no sting.
A great deal of planning was required to pave the way for the Yalta meeting without letting the enemy know that a conference was to be held and where and when. The President decided that he would go by ship as far as Malta, meet Churchill there, and fly with the Combined Staffs and several hundred attendants to the Crimea. The situation was complicated by the President’s further instructions to arrange for a meeting, after Yalta, with the Emperor of Ethiopia, the King of Saudi Arabia and the King of Egypt in the vicinity of Cairo. How to arrange with Turkey to permit our passage and how to fix a meeting with the three kings without a leak to the enemy was a feat of diplomacy that our State Department handled with great finesse. As far as I know there was no leak from these sources.
It was, of course, my responsibility to arrange with the Navy Department for the safe delivery of the President at Yalta through waters exposed to enemy submarine and air attack. Experience in two wars had taught me the importance of secrecy of movement as a means of reducing the hazard. I had served my apprenticeship in World War I as ship movement officer when Kitchener was sunk without trace, and I was in command of a destroyer in the English Channel when many a good ship was being lost through careless barroom talk. And in the Second World War we were thoroughly alive to the menace of Japanese espionage. I did my best to impress everyone about the White House with the importance of secrecy. But the President himself was only lukewarm about it. He issued his instructions to the Secret Service and sent them ahead to make advance arrangements without considering the chance that the agents would be recognized—after all they were always in the forefront of all press photographs taken of the President. And then, one day, I was very much concerned when I chanced to overhear Harry Hopkins say that he was leaving ahead of us in the President’s plane to visit Londo, Paris and Rome before joining us at Malta. I protested that the President’s plane should have ample time at Malta to tune up before taking the President aboard and that Hopkin’ appearance in Europe would arouse a suspicion that a meeting was about to take place. Harry looked somewhat amused and said, “Well, Wilson, I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t see what business it is of yours.” I replied with some heat that somebody had to concern himself with the safety of the President of the United States, and that he, Hopkins, certainly did not do so. He invited me to a conference with him and a representative of the Air Force. We agreed that Hopkins should fly the presidential plane as far as Gibraltar and then shift to another Army plane there. He did not tell me what he hoped to accomplish, but it proved to be a most unfortunate venture.
When we were halfway across the Atlantic a message came from Hopkins with the now famous Churchill pronouncement that “if we had spent two years in research, we could not have found a worse meeting place than Yalta.”
This was soon followed by a more detailed message from the Prime Minister which said that one of his most experienced pilots had reported that the motor trip from the air field over the mountains to Yalta was “a most dangerous and frightening experience,” and that Yalta was “rife with typhus and lice.” All this was very disturbing. We were on our way and could not turn back. The President did not show any signs of concern and treated it all as a joke, but it certainly did not add to his peace of mind. I have never heard whether the Germans succeeded in breaking our code or whether they intercepted those particular messages. I think they should not have been sent. We also received radio broadcasts of Hopkins press interviews at all capitals, which seemed to me to give warning that something was going on in the Mediterranean. It may or may not be a coincidence that the Germans had a concentration of submarines in the Straits of Gibraltar when we passed through. Admiral Hewitt, commanding our naval forces in the Mediterranean, got us through safely by providing a heavy destroyer and air escort and speeding us up to thirty knots for the passage. It would have taken a very skilful submarine commander to get in a shot at us; but think of the Iron Crosses for a lucky hit! Hewitt not only provided a safe passage but attended to the lice at Livadia Palace by sending his flagship, the Catoctin , and four of his minesweepers to Sevastopol ahead of us with a highly modern delousing unit. The Turkish government was persuaded to allow the Catoctin and escort through the Dardanelles. They were the first men-of-war of any nationality to pass through the Black Sea mine fields. Their primary purpose was to provide living quarters for the President and Chiefs of Staff in case the quarters furnished by the Russian government proved unlivable. In addition the Catoctin furnished us with supplies of all kinds and fumigated the British quarters as well as our own. They were a very great help to all.
Before we reached Malta we received the following, final message from the Prime Minister:
* This was written before the Third Volume of the Churchill Memoirs appeared in print. The slight difference in the text may be due to coding errors.
He was there good as his word, smiling and cheerful, surrounded by a host of ambassadors, admirals and generals of the Combined Staffs. It was a bright sunny day and everyone was in good humor. Harry Hopkins, looking very much the worse for wear, said that he and his plane had taken a terrible beating. He admitted to me that he was glad he had not subjected the President’s plane to such rough flights. But Harry himself was all in and spent most of the time in bed at Yalta just when the President needed him most. He blamed his exhaustion on his visit to France, where he had gone, quite in vain, to mollify De Gaulle.
Mr. Roosevelt had stored up energy during the sea trip and upon his arrival at Malta thoroughly enjoyed a busy day receiving a steady stream of visitors and attending both an official luncheon and an official dinner. But after it was over he was so exhausted that he went aboard his plane to go immediately to bed. But there was to be no rest for Roosevelt that night; every ten minutes a plane took off alongside us headed for the rendezvous. And the take-offs continued until we left in the early morning. The President did not like flying, and for this reason Dr. McIntire always tried to hold the pilot down to 10,000 feet. It was a weary man that arrived at Saki airfield to begin one of the most grueling days I have certainly ever experienced. After a welcome from Mr. Molotov and a review of the guard of honor, we started off at a tearing pace in a great cavalcade of cars. The road had been completely demolished by the Germans, and the Russian effort to restore it had accomplished little beyond filling in a few of the more impossible holes. The President took his daughter, Secretary Stettinius and Governor Byrnes with him. I hope he had a better car than the one assigned to us for the best of cars could not have driven over that road without serious discomfort. The springs on our car had been broken years ago. If you have ever ridden for six hours in a jeep at breakneck speed over rough fields, you can faintly comprehend the distress of that journey. Admiral Leahy, who by virtue of his seniority sat in the comparative comfort of the front seat, complained at frequent intervals that not only was it breaking every bone in his body, but he was being asphyxiated by the engine exhaust.
Our Russian driver’s tenacity in holding his place in line despite hell and high water was a fine example of discipline through fear. He soon convinced us that he would keep his place or die in the attempt, taking us all along with him. If it was bad enough during the level stretches of the forenoon, the pass over the mountains was indeed as the British pilot had described it—a “frightening” experience. The great danger was that we might be caught in the pass during a snow storm, when the entire cavalcade might have been held up for the night. That mountain road had been built in the era of the horse when long-base cars had never been dreamed of. The curves were short and sharp, without retaining walls, and jutted out to the very edge of a continuous precipice. Passengers were thrown about in the constant change of direction; one escape from the abyss was quickly followed by another hairbreadth deliverance; and all the bumping and banging on an unsurfaced road kept pounding us to pulp.
An eight-course dinner at Livadia that night helped restore us, abetted by a great variety of wine and served by one of Moscow’s most distinguished chefs. That first meal was unquestionably delicious, but after several days the same dishes and wines began to cloy. In fact, toward the end, those of us who were free to choose contented ourselves with large bowls of soup and Russian bread. It would have been better for us all if we had been allowed a plain drink of whiskey and a simple meal. The poor President had to attend state dinners every night, suffering through innumerable toasts and late hours after working hard all day long. He never had a chance to catch up with the fatigue of our flight from Malta until the conference was over and our course was set for home.
At the plenary sessions the President was attended by Hopkins, Stettinius, then secretary of state, Governor Byrnes, director of war mobilization, and Chip Bohlen, then the official interpreter. Fleet Admiral Leahy and Ambassador Harriman also attended some sessions. Since the President had relied on us to keep him informed of the progress of the war and to handle his exchanges with Churchill and Stalin, Watson, McIntire and I as a matter of course followed the President into the council chamber the first day and seated ourselves on the sidelines where we could follow what took place. But the President waved us out and explained afterwards that he felt better progress would be made with a small group and that his associate conferees would follow his example in the number who attended him. On the final day, however, I was in the main corridor helping to look out for our arriving guests as the President passed through to the council room. He sent Hopkins back to invite me to come in, and in I went. And so in consequence I am now one of the few surviving Americans who had an opportunity to witness the Big Three in their final conference.
President Roosevelt dominated that meeting. He was alert, tactful, and resourceful in smoothing the ruffled feathers of the other two and holding the discussion to the final issue—which was the post-war handling of Germany. It was evident that Stalin liked and trusted Roosevelt. He deferred to him and his whole expression softened when he addressed the President directly. He and the Prime Minister did a good deal of sparring whenever Mr. Churchill injected one of his artful and clever trial balloons to probe Russian post-war ambitions. In the joint effort to win Stalin’s confidence in the West, Churchill had to overcome centuries of European distrust of “perfidious Albion,” whereas Roosevelt had a great advantage because of his known sympathy with the underprivileged and America’s reputation for fair play. Each of the three principals consulted their advisors from time to time and in turn the advisors whispered to their principals. The principals as a rule remained seated when they addressed the conference. Toward the end, however, the Generalissimo rose to his feet and delivered a prepared speech. Though he spoke in Russian and we didn’t understand what it was all about until the Russian interpreter repeated the whole thing in English, one could understand how Stalin was able to sway multitudes by his logic, eloquence and vibrant personality. Instead of the guttural tone characteristic of the Slav voice, there was in his voice a clear, well-modulated, baritone quality. He stood proudly erect with an air of assurance. One forgot his short legs and saw only his powerful chest and shoulders. The theme of his address was “ Germany must pay .” He pounded the table at times to emphasize his points. He left little doubt in the minds of his listeners that, if given the power, he would be cruel and ruthless in exacting penalties for Russian sufferings. He presented his demands for reparations and German territory. When the speech was over, President Roosevelt eased the tension by finding fault with the use of the word “reparations.” He said that the American people had a serious dislike for that word because of the unhappy aftermath of the Versailles Treaty. He suggested that the conference should find some other term such as “payment in kind.” The final meeting adjourned on that note, leaving it to the hard working secretaries to draw up the agreements and the joint announcement for the press.
The morning before leaving Yalta, President Roosevelt told Admiral McIntire that although he was disappointed with some of the European boundary settlements, he felt that all the major aims of the United States had been accomplished. He was content and hopeful for the future.
There was no place in Livadia Palace where those of us who lived there could foregather, when not at work, except the bedrooms. Watson and I had one of the larger rooms of the Tsarina’s suite directly below the room occupied by Admiral King and General Marshall. French windows opened onto a veranda that looked down on the Black Sea. They must have been pleasant quarters before the Germans stripped them of royal trappings. It was still a room of comparative comfort on a sunny day even though our only furniture was two army cots and a few very uncomfortable chairs. Having no closets, we stacked our baggage along the walls and this lent a camping-out touch. Mr. Churchill borrowed my bunk one afternoon for his nap. Many of our friends gathered there at all hours of the day and night, partly because it was roomier than most of the other bedrooms but also because we had one of the few fireplaces. When we could get a little fire wood—it was doled out to us in small quantities—the blaze partly relieved the chill of the unheated barracks.
My greatest concern at that time, however, was to get the President back to the Saki airfield without the danger and discomfort which attended the drive over. The only alternative that we could find was a comparatively short drive along the Black Sea to Sevastopol where the Catoctin was moored. We would spend the night on board, we decided, and take off next day for a shorter and easier drive to Saki, around the flank of the mountain instead of over it. Above all we must not risk being caught in a snow storm in the mountain pass. Mr. Roosevelt approved the Sevastopol route. At the last minute Harry Hopkins advocated going by rail; but after all we had heard of Russian trains, there was little enthusiasm for that.
We left Livadia in sunshine, just after lunch, with no prospect of snow. Had we made an early morning start over the mountain the next morning, the weather would have been a gamble. As it was, that drive to Sevastopol was an extremely tiring journey over rough mountain roads that taxed the endurance of all of us “tired old men.” We were rewarded by the sight of many historic scenes, where Briton, Slav and Roman had disputed the Crimea in times past. We got to the ship before dark in time for a good American beefsteak dinner and a long night’s rest. But it was the beginning of tragedy.
Just as we were leaving the Catoctin next morning, General Watson had a heart attack. He refused to be left behind and Drs. McIntire and Bruenn literally supported him between them through that whole long drive. When we reached the Russian airfield, the Russian sentries tried to hold us up for the parade ceremonies; but our car broke through in spite of their protests and we got Watson into a bunk where he was soon reasonably comfortable. A haggard Harry Hopkins arrived meanwhile by train, announcing that between the bedbugs and the constantly crashing cars, with their flat wheels and lack of springs, the journey had been a nightmare.
The return air trip was bumpy and all were concerned for Watson as well as for the President. Once aboard the Quincy , Watson seemed to make rapid improvement for a time and the President enjoyed his famous good will meeting with the three eastern kings. He gave them all the same advice—to use their natural resources for the good of their people by better roads, schools, hospitals, sanitation and irrigation. After a brief stop at Alexandria for a last talk with Churchill, we thought our troubles were over, but it was not to be. Despite all signs of a quick recovery, Watson suddenly died at the very moment that the doctor thought he might begin to see visitors. It was a great shock to all of us, and a bitter personal blow to Franklin Roosevelt, who for twelve years had greatly enjoyed the company and counsel of this loyal and cheerful servant. We were at sea at the moment and I dispatched a destroyer to stand off at some distance from the task force and transmit the news home. Thus no interception by Axis forces would betray our position.
It was a sad homecoming for us all. And we had hardly begun to get readjusted when a tirade arrived from Stalin accusing the President of bad faith in negotiating a truce with Austria without consulting Russia. The President’s indignant reply was immediate and equally tart. Stalin finally hedged by saying he never questioned the President’s integrity but believed he was not getting all the facts from his generals. This was also flatly contradicted and the incident passed into history. After all the effort that had been made to bring Russia into the family of nations, it was a disturbing sign of Russian suspicion and distrust.
When the President was persuaded to take a rest at Warm Springs, I had not the slightest foreboding of a crisis. I knew he was tired, but I had seen him very tired many times before and I never ceased to be amazed at how quickly he responded to even a few days’ rest. I was his age and pretty tired myself, and in fact tried to suggest my retirement to him. But Mr. Roosevelt returned my memorandum with a wry smile and this endorsement: “Returned disapproved, without consideration…The time is not ripe to raise canaries like old man Osterhaus. F.D.R.”
One day I seized the opportunity for an afternoon of golf. My wife and I were coming in on the second nine when a house boy came running out to tell me the White House had been trying to get me on the phone for the past hour. As he turned away, he said, “You knowed the President is dead, didn’t you?” “How dare you say such things,” I said, crossly. “I don’t know,” said he, “that is what they say.” I reached the White House gates after a frenzied drive just in time to see Mrs. Roosevelt, Ross McIntire and Steve Early drive out on their way to the airfield. They gave me a sad wave in passing. I paused for a moment to watch them go as if they were the last tangible link with a friend I loved and revered. I had been the first naval officer to welcome him at New York 33 years before and the last to bid him farewell on his visit to the Springs.
When I got to my office the swearing in of President Truman was all over. The wheels of government had moved smoothly, thanks, I believe, to the competence of Secretary Steve Early, who had been a reporter on the train with President Harding at the time of his death and knew from experience exactly what to do.
The next few days still have for me a sense of the numbness and unreality which accompanies bad dreams. The weeping, stricken throngs that lined Pennsylvania Avenue in place of the cheering multitudes of former days; the service in the East Room of the White House; the final drive with the casket to the train; the unloading at the Hyde Park side track; the gallant struggle of the cavalry horses to drag the heavy caisson up the steep unpaved country road with frightening risk of tumbling casket and caisson into the ditch; the quiet burial service at the grave.
It seems to me that the strain of that whole Yalta expedition must have hastened Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Had he realized the cost, I think he would not have hesitated to go, for he hoped the Russians might be persuaded to join the family of nations in the spirit of good neighbors. He believed they should be given their chance. Some men can gentle a wild horse, and some can’t. Who knows whether Franklin Roosevelt, if he had lived, might have gentled Stalin? Probably not, but he would gladly have given his life trying.
For two years my daily Washington routine had started with my attending the secretary of the Navy’s secret information conference at nine o’clock. At this conference the head of Naval Intelligence gave a brief of the day’s war news, and I had an opportunity to question any member on any technical subject that interested the President.
After the conference, which usually lasted only fifteen minutes, I went direct to the White House, read over the night’s dispatches in my office, and waited with Admiral Leahy for the President to come downstairs to his office. Toward the end he delayed his arrival more and more so that we always had time to spare for sorting out the important dispatches and Leahy to block out suggested action.*
*Sir Winston has written that President Roosevelt was so ill after Yalta that General Marshall handled all exchanges with Churchill and Stalin. He is mistaken about that. Before and after Yalta all dispatches dealing with military or naval matters were taken up by Admiral Leahy with the Joint Chiefs. They blocked out a recommended dispatch. President Roosevelt usually accepted the sense of this message, but by rephrasing or adding a word or two gave the message a Rooseveltian touch that could be recognized by all who were familiar with his style and favorite expressions. This procedure was continued to the day of his death.
On the morning of President Truman’s first day of office I made my usual routine visit to the Navy Department, but on arrival at the White House, I was told by a somewhat flustered assistant that the President had been in his office for well over an hour and was somewhat impatiently waiting for Admiral Leahy and me to make our report. We hastily assembled our papers, hurried over to the Executive Office and were ushered into the President’s private office at once.
Since the Roosevelt fourth term inaugural ceremonies, I had seen nothing of Vice-President Truman. And even on that occasion he kept rather modestly in the background. I was naturally anxious now to have a closer look at him and to see how he stood up under the shock of assuming without warning the grave responsibilities that lay ahead. He was alone in the presidential office, seated behind the large desk still covered with F.D.R.’s trinkets and gadgets—looking rather small in contrast to the larger figure of his predecessor. His expression of alert expectancy, so cleverly hit upon by some cartoonists, made me feel at once that he would note accurately all I had to say and how I said it. We moved up to his desk, and Leahy, standing as we had been brought up to do when making reports to seniors, and always did with F.D.R., began to give a general outline of what war problems the Joint Staff were working on. The President interrupted at once, “For God’s sake sit down! You make me nervous! Come around here in the light where I can get a good look at you.” And when we had pulled up chairs he examined each one of us in turn, just as some doctors do, without the least trace of self-consciousness about the fact that we were also examining him.
During the wakeful hours of the night before I had asked myself what was the most important problem of the war situation that I should bring to President Truman’s attention while I still had the chance. I decided that the increasing Russian arrogance since Yalta was most important. Circumstances gave me a good opening, for I had the report of Lend-Lease that came to my desk each month for delivery to the President. And so when Leahy had finished his brief summing up of problems before the Joint Staff, I told President Truman about Stalin’s bitter messages accusing us of bad faith in negotiations for the surrender of Austrian troops and of President Roosevelt’s angry reply. I mentioned also Roosevelt’s growing concern for the increasing number of reports of Russian misdeeds. I handed Mr. Truman an inventory of Lend-Lease supplies then en route to Russia—a perfectly amazing list of shiploads of locomotives, railroad cars, miles of track, trucks, artillery, gasoline, food—and stated that the Russian people were not being told where those vast stores came from, and that the Russian government never even said “thank you” to us. I urged the President to take the list home and study it carefully at his leisure. “Thank you, I will,” he said, and I felt confident that he would not forget the matter in the flurry of his first day of office.
As we were leaving, I told him that two highly competent officers had been in training for over a year in preparation for duty as new aides: Colonel Parks of the Army, a former attaché in Moscow who spoke Russian and had combat experience in Europe; and Commander Tyree of the Navy, a submarine captain with numerous cruises in Japanese waters to his credit. I added that Dr. McIntire had told me that I could plan on retiring. President Truman thanked me politely for my recommendation of Parks and Tyree, and added that he was willing to let me go only because Dr. McIntire said he ought to.
I felt quite pleased with the interview—reassured for the country’s welfare by the poise of our new leader and gratified that he would have such competent aides as the two I had recommended. My gratification was somewhat dashed before nightfall, however, when the evening paper announced that the Military Aide would be a Colonel Vaughan and the Naval Aide a Lt. Commander Vardaman, U.S.N.R.—being rushed back from the Pacific to take charge. This announcement was made, as I understood it, by Vaughan—not by the President.
In spite of the record he made later, I found Colonel Vaughan a pleasant man to work with. He had a friendly smile, easy manner, and no airs. My first serious question to him was whether he or the Naval Aide would take charge of the map room. Vaughan immediately rejected the idea of having any part of it. He said he did not know the Pentagon, knew practically no one who worked there, and didn’t pretend to know very much about strategy. I think I quote almost his exact words to clarify his future role: “Harry Truman would rather be called a horse thief than thought to have a swelled head now that he’s President. I’m an old friend who knows most of his old friends and my principal job is going to be to handle the personal correspondence he hasn’t time for.” That pleased me too, as it looked as if our capable understudies, Tyree, Parks, and Elsey would continue their service while the war lasted. I had not been comforted by that thought for more than a few hours when Secretary Early brought a young man to my regular, tiny office in the basement and introduced him as one destined to hold a very important position in the Truman administration—he was not at liberty to say what. I shall call him “Mr. X.” as I haven’t the faintest recollection of his real name. Mr. X. informed me that he had been making a survey of the assignment of office space in the White House and that his first conclusion was that all officers of the Army and Navy would have to move elsewhere, that Mr. Truman was a man who liked privacy and liked to read in surroundings where he would not be disturbed, and that we should therefore look for office space elsewhere. I pointed out to him the absurdity of suggesting that President Truman would ever seek privacy in the basement alongside the kitchen when he had ample space for privacy and quiet in his extensive living quarters, that it had taken years of intelligent work to develop the map room as an essential part of the equipment of the President of the United States in carrying out his duties as Commander-in-Chief in time of war, which I reminded him was still going on. I pointed out to him that it would be easy to destroy the function of that room in its convenient location and impossible to replace its usefulness elsewhere. Mr. X. did not seem impressed, but I never saw or heard of him again. His talents were not employed at the White House after all.
It seemed to me that during the first few days of the Truman administration there was a greater feeling of uncertainty, and therefore of unrest, among many who had served President Roosevelt than there had been during the Coolidge-Hoover turnover. This was perhaps natural, as in the latter instance there had been ample time to plan ahead, whereas President Truman and his followers had no warning. Nevertheless I had the unpleasant feeling that there was a general scramble among some former Truman associates to get in the limelight and to push out all who were in the way. It seemed to me that this unseemly haste did not come from President Truman himself, but from his too-eager followers.
When I had been relieved from all active duty, my wife and I packed our belongings for about the fifteenth time and moved to our house in the country at Waterford, Connecticut, where we have lived ever since except for trips to milder climes each winter. We have made it a point to visit Washington once a year to keep in touch with old friends, but during none of these visits did I ever return to the White House as I had no urge to play the part of Rip Van Winkle. So that, except for occasional correspondence with some of my old friends continuing their map room service, I had no association with the Truman administration for seven years until, out of a clear sky on December 12, 1952, a telegram reached me from Secretary Connelly which read:
“The President hopes that you can come to the White House on the evening of December eighteenth at 7:30 P.M. at which time he is giving an informal dinner (Black Tie) for the men who have served him in various capacities on a staff level since he first took office in April ’45…”
The night of December the 18th turned out to be a clear, mild, starlit night. As I walked slowly from the Army and Navy Club along the park to the brightly lighted residence, I thought of the many, many times I had covered the same route before, usually in a White House car in uniform, in company with my Army colleagues, Cheney, Winship, Latrobe, or my beloved Pa Watson. I arrived at the North Door in a very sentimental frame of mind to be met by my old friends the ushers, all three of whom had served through the Roosevelt incumbency, and by Mays, the doorman, who dates back certainly to Calvin Coolidge and, I think perhaps even to Theodore Roosevelt. Everything seemed as it always had been; it was as if I had left only the night before instead of seven years ago.
But when I entered the Blue Room with the other guests, it was quite a different story. Leahy, Jonathan Daniels, and Vaughan were almost the only ones I recognized. The others seemed very young. They were very friendly and cordial. It was nice to be back. On studying the plaque I was surprised and delighted to find that I would sit on the President’s left, between him and Vaughan. Before he came down I had time to inspect all the rooms on the main floor to note the changes that had been made in the complete rebuilding and redecorating of the reception rooms. In spite of the newness of everything it seemed unchanged.
The President came to the Blue Room promptly on the stroke of seven-thirty, and made the rounds of his guests, shaking hands with each as custom prescribed. In spite of all that he had been through in the past seven years, I could see little change in his appearance or manner since I last saw him. He moved quickly and alertly from one guest to another and had a ready response for each. After an interval for cocktails, he led the way to the dining room and exerted himself to be an entertaining host. I said to him that I appreciated being included in this party. “Why shouldn’t you be included?” he said. “You started me off, didn’t you?” I said I felt I could hardly claim that, but that I was glad I had brought the Lend-Lease to Russia to his notice at the very start. “I remember that! I remember that very well!” exclaimed Mr. Truman. “And they never even said, ‘Thank you!’”
In the course of the dinner the President told me quite a lot about the problems of rebuilding the White House supports, the weaknesses they had uncovered, and other details that he repeated later in a brief speech of farewell. As he seemed so willing to talk, I said to him that I hoped he would write his memoirs while the circumstances of events, the knowledge available to him at the time he made important decisions, were still fresh in his mind. I told him that during the past years when he had been working so hard, I had had time to read practically all of the books written about the Franklin Roosevelt era and that few writers had a clear recollection of what the known facts were at the time decisions were made, and that the old human weakness of hindsight was apt to distort history. “Well of course I don’t know what history will say about me,” said President Truman. “But I can honestly say I did the best I could. No man can do more.”