George Elsey's 'Unplanned Life' George McKee Elsey quietly witnessed and participated in the making of American history as an aide to two presidents — Roosevelt and Truman. Now 88, he tells his story in An Unplanned Life.
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George Elsey's 'Unplanned Life'

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George Elsey's 'Unplanned Life'

George Elsey's 'Unplanned Life'

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Here's how we're marking the passage of time in this year's final week. We're meeting people of long experience who can give us what we call the Long View. We've heard the editor Lewis Lapham and the novelist P.D. James. And today we'll meet George Elsey. In World War II, he was a young Navy officer who became an aide to two presidents. Flip through his memoir and you find a photo of a young man in a white uniform standing behind Harry Truman. Another photo shows him saluting the coffin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today, during this time of war, George Elsey is 87. He remembers working in the White House Map Room, the nerve center of another war in another time.

Mr. GEORGE ELSEY (Former Presidential Aide): The walls were covered with maps and charts, and because the United States and Britain had broken the Japanese and German naval codes, we were pretty confident of where the enemy ships were located. They were all posted on the wall.

INSKEEP: This was all for practical purposes a code room as well because you were...

Mr. ELSEY: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...receiving any number of secret messages and decoding them.

Mr. ELSEY: All the messages between Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin were delivered to us. We also were privy to the plans for future operations. Our safes held plans for the Normandy invasion as it was being developed. So it was a very secret place, a fascinating place to be assigned.

INSKEEP: And you write that all the desks were pushed to the middle of the room so that FDR could roll his wheelchair...

Mr. ELSEY: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...around the outside where the maps were.

Mr. ELSEY: Exactly. I did not know until I actually met him that he was totally unable to move on his own. And when he came to the Map Room, it was so secret that the Secret Service was not allowed in the room. I or one of my colleagues would push him around the room in his wheelchair. And the desks and file cabinets were in the center of the room so that he could be looking directly at maps on the wall.

INSKEEP: Was he a nice guy?

Mr. ELSEY: He was very warm, very cordial to us. We were totally in awe. Here was the commander in chief and here we were, a bunch of ensigns and second lieutenants and so on. But he was invariably courteous and polite and jovial if the news were not bad. Sometimes it was simply so grim that he was in no mood for jocularity of any sort.

INSKEEP: You were in a unique position in another way as well because your father was a scientist who was involved in work that related to the Manhattan Project, the building of the atomic bomb.

Mr. ELSEY: Yes.

INSKEEP: And at the same there you were decoding and passing on secret messages about the progress of the Manhattan Project.

Mr. ELSEY: But I never talked with my father about it. I couldn't because what I knew was privileged. He could not talk to me about it for the same comparable reasons. I sensed what he was up to from the geography, from the travels that he was doing, but the two of us never discussed anything about what was going on.

INSKEEP: Some people who were involved in the Manhattan Project later regretted what they had unleashed upon the world, however necessary they believed it was at the time. Did your father ever show any regrets?

Mr. ELSEY: No, he felt that that kind of scientific advance would have taken place anyway. So he played a part in it, he as glad that the war ended, but he regarded the development of atomic energy as inevitable. I can think of no event in my lifetime that has had such a dramatic effect on humanity as the two bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those two together signaled that the world would be forever different.

INSKEEP: And even today, here we are worrying about who's going to get the bomb and whether it might be used by a terrorist group or by a rogue state.

Mr. ELSEY: And we're worried simply because we know how devastating it would be to humanity if it were to happen again.

INSKEEP: Here's another issue that seems to resonate today. You spent a period of years handling some of the most sensitive secrets that the United States possessed. Now we're in the middle of another war and there are any number of debates about government secrecy, about the leaks of classified information, also about what the government chooses to do keep secret.

Mr. ELSEY: But the times are very different. I'm afraid there isn't the unity in the country today that there was in World War II. And so many of these people in positions of power or of near-power frequently talk too much, say too much, pass judgments on matters on which they are ill-informed, motivated by their own self-interest.

INSKEEP: Sometimes people who are advocates for more openness in government will say that far too much is classified. They will agree that the real secrets really need to be kept in real time, but that the public could be told more about what the government is doing.

Mr. ELSEY: I agree with that. There is a tendency today to regard too many things as secret and too many things that ought to be talked about in public aren't talked about. There isn't the close relationship in the executive branch with the leadership in Congress that I would like to see.

I recall, jumping now from World War II to the Truman days, Harry Truman's partnership with Senator Vandenberg, for example. Now here was Vandenberg, a Republican leader, and Harry Truman could talk face to face on an intimate basis and each trusting the other. We couldn't have had the Marshall Plan, we couldn't have had many of the great developments that shaped the postwar world if it hadn't been for the trust and the mutual confidence that Truman and his immediate colleagues and Vandenberg and his colleagues had with each other.

INSKEEP: Mr. Elsey, I'd like to ask about one more thing that you were involved in during your days in and around the White House. You write that you were involved in redesigning the presidential flag.

Mr. ELSEY: Yes.

INSKEEP: And I've just been looking at a picture. Currently what you see is an eagle surrounded by 50 stars. What changed about it?

Mr. ELSEY: The presidential flag had only four stars. I went to the chief of heraldry in the Army and together we came up with the plan to surround the eagle with a circle of 48 stars, there being 48 states at that time. And Arthur Du Bois, the heraldry chief, said, `You know, there's one thing wrong with the flag. The eagle faces to its left and that's all wrong. In heraldry, facing to the left is a sign of dishonor. We should turn the eagle and make its head face right.' But nobody in the country would care about heraldry. That is a word that itself doesn't mean much to anybody. So when I wrote the press release, I said, `President Truman has determined that the eagle's head should face to the olive branch of peace in its right talons rather than the arrows of war in its left talons.' So every time I see the presidential flag or the seal of the president, which you see every time he appears on television, I sort of chuckle to myself and say, `Well, that's one thing I did.'

INSKEEP: George Elsey is the author of "An Unplanned Life."

Thank you very much.

Mr. ELSEY: You're very welcome. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can see how the presidential flag changed by going to where you can also find other conversations in this series. Tomorrow, we get the Long View from Mike Wallace of CBS.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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