Truman and Corcoran; the Tapping of 'Tommy the Cork.' (Harry S. Truman, Thomas Corcoran; Includes Related Article on the Federal Communications Act of 1934)

By Bird, Kai; Holland, Max | The Nation, February 8, 1986 | Go to article overview

Truman and Corcoran; the Tapping of 'Tommy the Cork.' (Harry S. Truman, Thomas Corcoran; Includes Related Article on the Federal Communications Act of 1934)


Bird, Kai, Holland, Max, The Nation


In April 1976 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, headed by Senator Frank Church, made its valedictory report on domestic spying and other intelligence agency abuses. The 2,000-page Church committee report identified victims of wiretapping abuses by name, including Martin Luther King Jr., several newsmen, and aides to Henry Kissinger.

The report also included a cryptic reference to the wiretapping of an unnamed "former Roosevelt White House aide" between June 1945 and May 1948. The Washington Post speculated that the person involved was Thomas (Tommy the Cork) Corcoran, an influential Washington lawyer and power broker. But the story went largely untold because the documentation linking it to Corcoran was lacking and because other revelations, especially the wiretap on King, dominated the media post-mortems. Now, however, a considerable body of evidence, including Corcoran's own substantial Federal Bureau of Investigation file, crucial internal Bureau memorandums and the wiretap transcripts themselves, has been made public, much of it under the Freedom of Information Act. The story of the most extensive partisan political wiretap instigated by any postwar President can at last be fully revealed.

The evidence shows that just six weeks after assuming the Presidency, Harry Truman had Edward McKim, his top aide and close friend, ask the F.B.I. to place a wiretap on Corcoran. Although the order for a tap on the flamboyant lawyer came from the White House, the idea that Truman might eavesdrop on his political enemies was planted by J. Edgar Hoover, who was resentful of Corcoran's supposed efforts to depose him and eager to ingratiate himself with the untried President. The F.B.I. promptly installed the tap but, contrary to Justice Department rules on warrantless wiretaps, never obtained oral or written approval for it from Attorney General Tom Clark. For more than two years, Truman received summaries and transcripts from the round-the-clock tap through his military aide and poker companion Gen. Harry Vaughan. Truman retained the wiretap reports and transcripts in his personal files until his death, in 1972. Then they were deposited in the Presidential library in Independence, Missouri. The transcripts remained closed until Corcoran died, in December 1981, and were only recently opened to researchers.

The conversations of Tommy Corcoran cover a diverse range of foreign and domestic issues, which is not surprising, since he regularly chatted with such movers and shakers as Nelson Rockefeller, Drew Pearson, Harold Ickes, Lister Hill, Henry Morgenthau, Tom Clark, Francis Biddle, Alfred McCormack, Donald Hiss (Alger's brother), Abe Fortas and James Forrestal. The transcripts will be required and highly colorful reading for historians writing about the purging of the New Dealers from the Truman Administration, the use of the atomic bomb, early McCarthyism, the China lobby, Democratic politics and the machinations of Washington power brokers.

In the transcripts, Corcoran says Truman is "dumb" because he thinks he can "surround himself almost entirely with mediocre Missourians and run the greatest country in the world." He describes his own "troubles" with what he calls "the pro-Russians in the [F.D.R.] White House." He calls liberals, including Henry Wallace, Claude Pepper and Hugo Black, "a bunch of guys that had the world in their hands last year" and are now "a helpless bunch of sheep." He tells columnist Drew Pearson in August 1945 that he thinks the only reason the United States hasn't dropped more atom boms on "the Japs" is that "we and the British are sort of in an anti-Russian way and want to try to keep the Japs together as a nation," whereas "the Russians and the Chinks want to bust that nation up." Commiserating with the newly fired Nelson Rockefeller, he blames Rocky's fate on "that wild Commie-kike crowd that are sure that if you're not willing to dissolve all existing forms of society to their benefit you're an s-o-b. …

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