The President vs. The Press

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Every administration attempts to shape coverage in the press. President Trump does so by tweeting, having virtually given up press conferences. Trump’s press secretary supports the boss’s message by defending and validating his tweets. Stung by press criticism of tweets loosely connected to fact, the administration regards the media as the “opposition party,” and the president’s press secretary has attempted to limit the attendance and questions of the mainstream press at White House news briefings. The Trump approach seems focused on damping voices that disagree.

John McCrea described quite different press relations at the White House in 1942, during the first year of WW II. Franklin Roosevelt regarded the press as essential to getting his message out to the country. Unlike Trump, he could not reach people directly and easily through a medium like Twitter, although he did make occasional radio broadcasts to the country. To be sure there were tensions about the quality of reporting and the amount of information released by the administration, but the relationship between president and press was more mutually beneficial than adversarial.

FDR held two press conferences a week, one for the morning papers and one for the evening ones. About 150 reporters attended. FDR enjoyed bantering with the reporters. Most of their questions were impromptu, but complicated ones requiring special briefing for the president could be submitted in advance to Steve Early, the president’s press secretary. Most of the reporters were respectful. McCrea knew of only one incident when a reporter’s insolence and his abusive and inaccurate columns made the president angry enough to consider excluding him from the conferences.

Since it was wartime, the president had to withhold information on matters that might harm the country’s war effort. Once FDR dispatched McCrea, his naval aide, to try to explain to a reporter why the president could not respond to his persistent questioning. Here I quote from Captain McCrea’s War about the incident:

In the late thirties and early forties, Elmer Davis was a well- known newsman and news broadcaster with a considerable following. Mr. Davis was one of the regular attendees of the president’s news conferences, and his pointed questions and remarks reflected criticism of the quantity and quality of the war news released by the administration. He was particularly persistent in asking about U.S. war losses. The president, as always, was exceedingly tactful in handling Mr. Davis.

I vividly recall the distress in the president’s voice one day after a press conference when he said: “John, catch Elmer Davis before he gets away. Take him aside and see if you can get across to him the idea that he can’t publish everything he wants to about our losses. Steve Early [the president’s press secretary] tells me he can make no headway with him, and I haven’t the time to take him on.”

I caught Mr. Davis and tried to explain that the release of information about war losses, particularly those unknown to the enemy, created serious problems for the administration and the armed services. Mr. Davis was, I thought, remarkably naïve. He responded, “The American public has a right to know what’s going on. If the administration released a daily summary of U.S. losses, the information would only be covered in the U.S. press, and the enemy would know nothing about it. I suspect you fellows in the military have something to cover up if you don’t want your losses known in this country.”

“Mr. Davis,” said I, “I don’t know you well, but you have a fine reputation among the news fraternity, and there is hardly anyone in your profession who has a greater following. I have in mind something to tell you, but I shan’t do so unless you are willing to promise that you will never repeat or make reference to it in your writing, broadcasting, or your private conversation or correspondence. If you give me this assurance, I will tell you. If not, we might as well forget any future conversations.” After a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Davis agreed to my terms.

I continued, “You have told me that a daily press report of U.S. losses could not benefit the enemy. You are absolutely wrong in this. Nightly, an embassy here in Washington sends a coded dispatch to its government’s foreign office containing a digest of all military news in our press. The country engaged in this activity is supposedly neutral, but we have proof positive that the military information transmitted by its embassy is reaching the Axis powers. I am not going to name the neutral country or tell you how we know the information is reaching the enemy. You will have to take my word for it. However, I am sure that you, as a patriotic American, would not want to give aid and comfort to our enemies. Do you need further proof of the wisdom of censoring our losses?”

“Well, no. But we can’t let censorship take over.” Mr. Davis still felt the people had a right to know, although he allowed that the issue of “when” they were entitled to know might be relevant. I do not recall that Mr. Davis ever again asked about our country’s losses at a presidential news conference.

Young In World War II

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(A group of very youthful bluejackets sunbathing on USS Iowa)

My husband and I sent a copy of Captain McCrea’s War to Elmer, my husband’s 90-year-old cousin who, after 20 years of farming, had recently moved to a retirement community in Nebraska. Some years ago, we attended a family reunion at the farm that Elmer and his wife ran in northeastern Nebraska. At the time, Elmer expressed great interest in my wok editing John McCrea’s memoirs because he too had served in the navy during WW II, although at a far lower rank, he hastened to add.

I was moved and intrigued by Elmer’s letter about our gift. He was amazed by the book’s pictures and was thrilled to have this “lesson in history.” He signed off as “a swabby Electrician’s Mate second class,” and I sensed his pride in the role he had played in defending our country and his powerful emotional connection to that important time.

With his note, Elmer enclosed a recent article written about him when he and his wife moved to their retirement community. Entitled “Brookdale resident fondly remembers his days in the Navy,” the article offers a glimpse of Elmer’s WW II experience, which was very different from John McCrea’s, but important service none the less:

“I was drafted into the Navy. When we went to the induction place, they said ‘Army, Army, Navy, Marine,’ I happened to be the third one so I was in the Navy. This was in 1944.”

[Elmer] graduated from Lincoln High on May 19, and headed off to boot camp in June. He worked on a ship where they delivered ‘frog men.’ These ‘frog men’ were guys dressed in rubber suits, fins, goggles and had good swimming ability. They would set charges out for ships.

Specifically, he was an electrician on an amphibious personnel destroyer, and received his training as such up north in the Great Lakes. [Elmer] said that his most memorable Navy experience out of his two years was WWII’s ending.

“We saw that little boat come up by our ship. We were tied up to the [USS] Missouri, and the Japanese Generals and Admirals were going up the ladder on the Missouri to sign the surrender. We watched, and when it was over, they came back. That was the highlight of my life in the Navy.”

The worst experience [Elmer] remembers about the Navy is a typhoon that came up while his boat was docked at Tokyo Bay. This typhoon ended up destroying two ships and killing 46 men.

I was struck by two features of Elmer’s story. First, his description supports the impression I have from photographs that the lower ranks in Navy ships were full of teenagers and very young adults. It must have been an enormous challenge for commanding officers such as John McCrea to mold these youngsters into an effective fighting team and to maintain their morale when many had never been away from home before. Second, was the randomness that shaped wartime experience. Many battle veterans have spoken of the randomness of death–how some died and others, right next to them, survived. Not only was the draft random, but pure chance determined that Elmer went into the navy and not the army or the marines.

Source

Courtney Upah, “Brookdale resident fondly remembers his days in the Navy,” in “Golden Years,” Wayne Herald (Wayne, NE), December 13, 2016, p. 2.

What Is A Naval Aide?

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(Captain John McCrea escorting President Roosevelt in the summer of 1942. Note the aiguillettes on McCrea’s right shoulder, indicating a presidential naval aide)

On 16 January 1942 Captain John L. McCrea reported to President Roosevelt as his naval aide. Despite the honor of working for the president of the United States, McCrea was not enthusiastic about this assignment. He knew the job involved many ceremonial duties, and at least during peacetime, was none too challenging. McCrea had hoped for a ship command. He wanted to fight the war.

What exactly is a presidential naval aide? The simple answer is a naval officer assigned to the president who does whatever the president wants him to do. The job is authorized by navy regulations, but it is undefined. By tradition the naval aide serves as a liaison between the Navy Department and the president, but beyond that there are few parameters.
One constant for all presidential naval aides is a feature of their uniforms. Naval aides wear ornamental braided cords, known as aiguillettes, looped over one shoulder. Aides to high ranking naval officers and certain civilians wear aiguillettes on the left shoulder. By contrast, aides to the U.S. president wear aiguillettes on the right shoulder and thus can easily be picked out in photographs.

The man who knew the most about the job of presidential naval aide was Rear Admiral Wilson Brown, who had three tours as naval aide and served four presidents. Two tours were during peacetime. The first was working for Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover in the ‘20s, and the second was working for FDR in in the mid-30s. Brown’s third tour was during WW2, when he worked for FDR a second time upon relieving John McCrea.

Brown’s peacetime duties were the sort for which McCrea had little enthusiasm. For Coolidge, Brown commanded the presidential yacht and stood on formal receiving lines to introduce visitors to the president. Anticipating Hoover’s presidency and knowing that Hoover was a fisherman, Brown scoped out good fishing grounds in Chesapeake Bay accessible to the president’s yacht. However, Hoover decided the yacht was an extravagance so Brown presided over its decommissioning and helped to develop a presidential trout fishing camp in the mountains of Virginia. During his second tour at the White House, Brown played the same role at FDR’s receptions and state dinners as he had for Coolidge and Hoover. FDR was an enthusiastic sailor, and Brown commanded FDR’s presidential yacht and went on many fishing trips with the president.

When McCrea arrived at the White House about a month after U.S. entry into the war, his activities were vastly different than those of a peacetime naval aide. He immediately launched into setting up the White House Map Room, the communications hub and repository for war information from all branches of the military and for FDR’s dispatch correspondence with Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek. Coordination with the Navy Department, keeping the president current on war developments, maintaining security, handling the press, and dealing with countless dignitaries visiting the White House all assumed vital importance, and McCrea found himself in the center of the action. He personally briefed the president at least twice a day–in his bedroom in the morning and in the afternoon, often in his doctor’s office–and at additional times, as necessary. Because the secret service discouraged FDR’s use of the presidential yacht because of the danger U-boat attack, McCrea was assigned to set up and administer Shangri-La, now known as Camp David. Highly compatible, FDR and McCrea worked closely together on many matters, and McCrea undertook to alleviate as many pressures on the president as he could.

When Admiral Brown returned to the White House as McCrea’s relief, he confirmed that “the office of Naval Aide in war was a very different, and much more interesting job, than during peace.” He inherited the responsibility of administering the Map Room, and attended all FDR’s wartime conferences with Churchill subsequent to the Casablanca Conference. Brown especially enjoyed morning presidential briefings, but they were more formal than in McCrea’s day. Brown and Admiral William D. Leahy, the president’s chief of staff, briefed the president together, and they did so in FDR’s office.

Sources

“Aiguillete, United States,” Wikipedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aiguillette#United_States, (last accessed 1.30.2017).

Wilson Brown, “Aide to Four Presidents,” American Heritage 6, No. 2 (February 1955), http://www.americanheritage.com/content/aide-four-presidents?page=show (last accessed 1.30.2017).

Vice Adm. John L. McCrea, Captain McCrea’s War, (New York; Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).

January 30 – FDR’s Birthday

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(Returning from the Casablanca Conference during a flight from Trinidad to Miami, President Roosevelt celebrates his 61st birthday. Seated (L to R): Guy Spaman, secret service; Admiral William D. Leahy, FDR’s chief of staff; Lt. Cone, captain of the plane; and FDR. Standing (L to R): Charles Fredericks, secret service, Capt. John L. McCrea, presidential naval aide; Elmer Hipsley, secret service; Lt. George Fox, naval medical corps; Rear Admiral Ross T. McIntire, surgeon general of the navy)

On January 30, 1943 on the return trip from the Casablanca Conference, President Roosevelt celebrated his 61st birthday in an unusual venue, aboard a Pan Am Clipper flying from Trinidad to Miami. The event was organized on the initiative of John McCrea during the journey to Casablanca. There were champagne toasts, a birthday cake, and the president received a gift, a book of prints showing scenes of Trinidad, where the presidential party had had overnight layovers on the way to and from North Africa. It was the first time—and possibly the last—that a president of the United States had celebrated his birthday in the skies.

Casablanca Conference

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(President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill addressing reporters at the joint press conference at the end of the Casablanca Conference)

On 24 January 1943, at the conclusion of the Casablanca Conference, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill held a joint press conference. Seated in chairs on a beautiful sunny day, with the correspondents spread out on the lawn before them, the two leaders discussed what had been accomplished during the conference. The president spoke first. Near the end of his remarks he stated:

“…I think we have all had it in our hearts and our heads before, but I don’t think that it has ever been put down on paper by the Prime Minister and myself, and that is the determination that peace can come to the world only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power.

“Some of you Britishers know the old story—we had a General called U.S. Grant. His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant, but in my and the Prime Minister’s early days, he was called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan. That means a reasonable assurance of future world peace. It does not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy, or Japan, but it does mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people.

“While we have not had a meeting of all of the ‘United Nations,’ I think that there is no question—in fact we both have great confidence that the same purposes and objectives are in the minds of all of the other ‘United Nations’—Russia, China, and all the others.”

John McCrea attended the press conference in a position where he could clearly see the prime minister. When the president spoke the words “unconditional surrender,” the prime minister sharply turned his head in a manner that suggested to John that this announcement came as a surprise to Mr. Churchill. John learned later that the president and the prime minister had discussed, and were in complete agreement on, this point.

Presidential remarks (click here)

IOWA Is Big

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(This photo shows Iowa’s commissioning ceremony at the NY Navy Yard on February 22, 1943. The ceremony took place on the stern of the ship under the 16-inch guns of the ship’s third big gun turret)

As I selected photographs for my talk on December 7th at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, I was struck once again by the enormous size of USS Iowa. She is the first of the Iowa class battleships, the largest battleships ever built by the United States. Her length is 887 feet, about the size of 3 football fields laid end to end. Her beam (width) is 108 feet. She was designed to be able to pass through the Panama Canal with a mere 22 inches of clearance, 11 inches on either side.

However, statistics fail to capture the size of the ship. This shot shows Iowa’s bow with 2 of her three 16-inch gun turrets. The photo was taken from sky patrol, where men with binoculars surveyed the ship’s surroundings.

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(In this photo, taken at Iowa’s christening and launch on August 2, 1942, her hull dwarfs the onlookers on the side of the launching ramp)

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(This shot shows a portion of Iowa’s superstructure)

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The Trip To Casablanca

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[On board the president’s C-54 in North Africa. Seated, 1st row (L to R): FDR and Harry Hopkins. Seated, 2d row (L to R): Lt. George A. Fox and Rear Adm. Ross T. McIntire, FDR’s physiotherapist and physician, respectively; Guy Spaman (back turned), Secret Service; and Captain McCrea. Standing (L to R): unidentified man; Arthur Prettyman, FDR’s valet; Charles Fredericks, Secret Service; E.R. Hipsley, Secret Service; W.K. Deckard, Secret Service; and Captain Otis Bryan, pilot of the plane.]

In the evening of January 9, 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt and his party departed Washington by train for Casablanca, Morocco, for meetings with Winston Churchill and British military leaders about the next phase of the war. Among the president’s party were Harry Hopkins, presidential adviser, Admiral William D. Leahy, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Captain John L. McCrea, the president’s naval aide. The president had placed McCrea in charge of all the travel arrangements for the trip to North Africa.

The itinerary from Washington to Casablanca was far from direct. The group was to travel to Miami, Florida by special train. There they would board two chartered Pan American Clippers and fly south to Trinidad and Belém, Brazil, and then east, across the South Atlantic Ocean, to Bathurst, Gambia on Africa’s west coast. From Bathurst, they would fly north in two army C-54 planes to Casablanca. The Clipper legs of the trip essentially followed the route used by U.S. Army Air Transport Command to fly war materiel from the United States to the African theater of the war. This route was chosen because it offered the relatively limited aircraft of the day the shortest passage across the Atlantic.

The Arcadia Conference

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(President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill hold a joint press conference in the president’s office on December 23, 1941)

On December 23, 1941, Admiral Harold R. Stark, the chief of naval operations, asked his aide, Captain John McCrea, to accompany him to a meeting at the White House with President Franklin Roosevelt. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had arrived from London with an entourage of top British military leaders for the so-called Arcadia Conference, the first U.S.-British meetings about the war since the U.S. had become a combatant. Admiral Stark and Captain McCrea were introduced to the prime minister, a man McCrea would come to know much better during the following 13 months. Mr. Churchill said a few words, and drinks were served. The next day top level military planning meetings began, and McCrea served as the secretary for the navy at those meetings.

A Roosevelt Tradition

 

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 (A bud vase of roses on my mother’s dresser)

John McCrea was a gardener. When I knew him, he specialized in flowers, especially roses, dahlias, and amaryllis in the winter. But he had a long history of gardening in various places around the globe. More on that on another occasion.
At our summer house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, John had a rose garden. It was not elegantly designed, but it was substantial. It contained tree roses as well as bush roses, and John spent considerable time tending his charges with water and fertilizer. Although I never thought of him as the organic gardening type, he used to buy shipments of ladybugs, which he launched among the roses to attack the aphids.

The fruits of John’s efforts were prolific and visible. Bunches of fragrant roses arranged by my mother were displayed downstairs in the house. John usually wore a rose in the button hole of his jacket lapel. One particularly fond memory of summer weekends in Marblehead was the appearance of a small bud vase of fresh roses on my bedroom bureau. These bud vases were filled and placed there by John, not my mother.

Some years ago when I toured Springwood, the Roosevelt family house in Hyde Park, I noticed a bud vase of fake roses on a bureau in one of the bedrooms. I felt an immediate flash of recognition and recollection of Marblehead summers past. I wondered whether John’s bud vases could have been inspired by the Roosevelts. He had visited Springwood in the summertime.

After my visit to Hyde Park last week, I emailed Paul Sparrow, director of the FDR Library and Museum, to ask if he knew anything about the bud vase I had seen in a bedroom at Springwood. To my surprise, he responded immediately that roses for guests were indeed a Roosevelt family tradition. John greatly admired the gracious thoughtfulness of the president and his wife. While I can’t know 100% for certain, I feel sure that John’s practice of placing roses in the bedrooms at Marblehead was an homage to the Roosevelts. What a lovely connection!

Pearl Harbor Day

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(Julia C. Tobey reading from Captain McCrea’s Book at FDR Library and Museum)

This past week I had the honor of giving a book talk about Captain McCrea’s War at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. The date was Wednesday, December 7th, 2016, the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the beginning of my talk, I read John’s story from Chapter 1 about what he did on Sunday, December 7th, 1941. I have always felt this account was one of the most powerful of the memoir.
At the time, John was a senior aide to Admiral Harold R. “Betty” Stark, the chief of naval operations. John learned that Pearl was under attack when he went to cash a check at the Army Navy Club in Washington, and he departed immediately for the Navy Department. He spent the afternoon listening in on Admiral Stark’s telephone calls from Pearl Harbor about the damage and writing up longhand memorandum summarizing the calls.
The calls were made by Admiral Claude C. Bloch, commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District in Honolulu, Hawaii. Neither Stark nor Bloch was sure whether the phone line they were using was secure, and both understood that damage information could have great value to the enemy. To me, the anguish of that terrible afternoon was captured in the poignant plea of Admiral Block at the end of one call, when he remarked, “If anyone other than Admiral Stark and I have overheard this conversation, I beg them, as loyal citizens, to keep the nature of this conversation to themselves.”
After my talk, a group of us toured the featured exhibit at the FDR Museum, “Day of Infamy, 24 Hours That Changed History.” This excellent exhibit, which runs through the end of the year, tells the moment by moment story of what was going on at the White House during the Pearl Harbor attack up to and including FDR’s delivery of his famous Day of Infamy address to Congress. The exhibit starts with FDR receiving the news of the attack and drafting his own press release about it because it was Sunday, and no one was around the White House but Harry Hopkins, who lived there. It includes audio of Mrs. Roosevelt making the first radio announcement of the attack during her previously scheduled radio broadcast. The original edited first draft of the Day of Infamy speech is on display with the typed words “world history” crossed out and replaced in pencil with “infamy” in FDR’s hand.
Thinking back on my afternoon in Hyde Park, I have the sense that the Washington of December 1941 has mostly faded into the mists of time and forgetfulness. However, two Washington locales remain with us. The top floor of the Navy Department and the nearby White House are still as crisp and three dimensional as they were on Pearl Harbor Day, courtesy of John McCrea’s memory and the research and ingenuity embodied in the Day of Infamy exhibit.