Tuesday, January 12, 2016

eyewitness to history

George Elsey died over the weekend at the age of 97. I remembered seeing his name in documents I saw on President Truman's foreign policy, but I didn't realize how much of U.S history he observed first hand. I managed to find a copy of his 2005 memoir, An Unplanned Life, and read it with great interest.

In the fall of 1940 he volunteered for the U.S. Navy, preferring that to being drafted for the Army. He was commissioned and assigned to naval intelligence -- and given a plum assignment in FDR's Map Room, the wartime predecessor to what is now the communications hub called the Situation Room. He learned that all messages to Churchill and other world leaders were sent by navy code and all incoming messages were decoded by the army. "The president doesn't want any place in Washington except the Map Room to have a complete file of these messages," he was told. That's how FDR ran things.

In a common Washington pattern, Elsey proved his value through hard work and was rewarded by promotion and work for a mentor. Elsey was asked by Truman to stay on after the war and he became a key subordinate to Counsel Clark Clifford. He wrote statements and speeches -- in the case of Truman's March 1947 speech to Congress, he says he turned the flat State Department draft into the stirring declaration of the Truman Doctrine: "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside forces."

He regrets that Truman did not seek congressional support for the Korean war. The President told him,"It was none of Congress' business. If Congress wanted to do it on its own initiative,that would have been all right with me, but I just did what was in my power, and there was no need for any congressional resolution."

Elsey also recounts Truman's anger at double-dealing and disloyalty by Louis Johnson, his close friend and second Secretary of Defense, and how Truman demanded Johnson sign a letter of resignation while in a White House meeting.

Lots of interesting insights in this book by an unsung but important public servant.

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