If Wilbert Chapman was on Twitter….


President Harry Truman goes fishing, photo courtesy of Truman Presidential Library and Life magazine


…I guarantee we’d all be following him, and I don’t follow anybody. One of the interesting things about him was how modern he was in creating a following. I’ve been through a lot of his papers, including is State Department files, and they are filled with requests from people asking for reprints of his papers and his talks. The requests came from all over the world.

There were so many requests, that quite early in his public career, and certainly during his State Department days, he developed the habits of incorporating a great deal of background detail into his daily letters. This habit means that his letters are tremendously informative, tremendously useful for a historian.  His correspondence network by 1949 was so large, he copied people extensively on his letters, and I imagine his letters were forwarded on to others. He was the great expert, the man who had fished in the equatorial Pacific.

“From New Caledonia up through the New Hebrides and Solomon’s to Green Island and back to Guadalcanal I traveled by small fishing craft, trolling all the way,” he wrote in April 1945 from his desk in San Francisco.  He had seen fish in commercial quantities and he wanted American boats to start catching them as soon as possible—or else the Japanese or the Soviets would dominate this high-seas resource that Chapman compared to buffalo on the Great Plains.

Chapman’s letter is widely circulated, I found a copy in the files of Washington Senator Warren Magnuson. By June of 1945, President Harry Truman is in Seattle fishing with Nick Bez.


A portrait of Nick Bez, by Karsh of Canada. Permission of the Bez family.

The Truman Proclamations are issued in September.

There are two proclamations: the first deals with oil and gas, the second with fishing. The fisheries side of the proclamation marks an enormously important event in world fisheries, you could liken it to the gun being fired at a race, since it certainly set off a race for nations to rapidly expand their fisheries.

During the next year, Representative Joseph R. Farrington of Hawaii would write a bill to provide for the exploration and development of high seas fishing in the Territorial and Island possessions in the subtropical Pacific. There will be $350,000 for the research lab in Honolulu, $700,000 for three vessels, and $355,000 for operating expenses. Annual budget will be $650,000. For a nation that hadn’t spent much money on oceanographic research since the 1930s, it was a lot of money.

Chapman was in the thick of the fight to pass the Farrington Bill; legal scholar Harry Scheiber has written a great deal about this.[1]

Chapman wrote to Seattle’s Nick Bez, asking him to bring the bill to the attention of President Truman. “It is quite possible that our fishermen could be shut out of potentially rich fishing areas in the Pacific in the future under the terms of our own Proclamation,” Chapman wrote. Bez was busy overseeing the reconstruction of the Pacific Explorer, one of the wartime projects that survived after the war.

“We have strong potential competition in the area from Japan and Russia. Both of these nations are moving more alertly than we are.”[2] If Bez wrote to Truman, the letter has been lost, but Bez undoubtedly threw his support behind Chapman’s efforts to ensure that American boats could expand into the central Pacific.



[1] Harry N. Scheiber, Pacific Ocean Resources, Science, and Law of the Sea: Wilbert M. Chapman and the Pacific Fisheries, 1945-70, 13 Ecology L. Q.381 (1986). Available at:http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/elq/vol13/iss3/1

[2] ATA files, Box 26, Folder “Dr. Chapman’s Report (Pacific Fisheries, etc.),” Chapman to Nick Bez, Dec. 2, 1946.


About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
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