Mr. Molotov is Photographed at the White House

John McCrea was personally involved in arranging for the photograph of President Roosevelt and Vyacheslav Molotov, the minister of foreign affairs of the Soviet Union, in the president’s office. McCrea vividly described how he managed to find a photographer to take the picture and still preserve the secrecy of Molotov’s visit.

Molotov visited the United States in June 1942. He came to meet with President Roosevelt to discuss Lend-Lease aid and the opening a second front in the war. The visit was top secret, and Molotov traveled incognito under the name of Mr. Brown. On his last morning in Washington, Molotov went to the White House to say his goodbyes to the president. From here McCrea takes up the story.

 

[Mr. Molotov] was accompanied by his bodyguards, a tough-looking three or four, who were carrying sidearms, much to the distress of the Secret Service chaps on duty. Mr. Molotov presented this group to the President.

Shortly before Mr. Molotov’s arrival at the White House, the President called me on the telephone, and here is about the way it went. “Mr. Brown will be in my second floor study in half an hour. I want a picture made of this event. Get a photographer from the pressroom whom you can trust. Bring him upstairs and have him stand by to photograph our meeting on signal.”

“I recognize the secrecy connected with this occasion, Mr. President. I know no photographers in the pressroom, let alone one who could be trusted. And this being Saturday morning, there may not be any photographers in the pressroom anyway. But rest assured, Mr. President, I will have a photographer here when you give me the signal.”

I immediately rang up Captain Leland Lovette, the head of the Navy public relations office. I told him I wanted a photographer at the White House at once. Lovette replied that he only had one photographer on duty, and at that moment, he was in the outer office of the Secretary of the Navy, standing by to photograph the Secretary awarding a Navy Cross to someone who had distinguished himself during the Pearl Harbor raid.

“Leland,” said I, “grab that guy, get him and his equipment in a taxi, and send him to the northwest gate of the White House. Do this at once. I will meet him there and give him his instructions. This is an urgent assignment, and under no circumstances are you to question the photographer as to its nature. Do you understand?” Leland replied that he did.

I met the photographer at the Pennsylvania Avenue northwest gate. We walked up the gravel drive to the White House. As we came through the front door, the chief usher, Howell Crim, said that the President wished to see me at once. On the way up to the second floor, I briefed the photographer. “After the photographs are taken, you are to return to your laboratory, develop your film, make no prints, and bring the film to my office on the second floor of the Navy Department, front corridor. You are not to volunteer any information as to the nature of this assignment, nor answer any questions about it. Captain Lovette, your chief, has been similarly instructed by me in this matter.”

The photographer and I went directly to the President’s study. The President introduced me to “Mr. Brown.” The pictures were quickly taken. I sent the photographer back to the Navy Department in my Navy-chauffeured Pontiac and returned to the President’s study. Shortly afterwards, I took off with the official party for the Anacostia Naval Air Station where a Russian plane was ready to fly Mr. Molotov and his associates back to Russia.

The photograph was released by Steve Early, the president’s press secretary, after Molotov had arrived back in the Soviet Union

The President vs. The Press

FDR at Press Conf 1

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.