‘Within my lifetime, we have gone from cranking telephones to interplanetary communications,” John Wesley Snyder marveled at his own life.
His own life was a marvel, moving from delivering the Jonesboro Evening Sun as a youngster to eventually serving in the cabinet of President Harry S. Truman.
Snyder was born in Jonesboro in 1895. His father was a pharmacist and inventor and active in the community. He encouraged his son from a young age to seek an education and expand his imagination. He delivered newspapers in his youth and eventually saved up to buy a set of encyclopedias. In a 1967 interview, he recalled that his visit to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, changed his life. He was amazed by the inventions and displays all around him, which he said was like “a fairyland opening up the eyes of a country boy.”
He graduated from Jonesboro High School in 1914 and enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, hoping to become an engineer. However, a collapse in cotton prices deeply affected Northeast Arkansas and his family’s own finances, forcing Snyder to drop out. He returned to Arkansas, taking a series of jobs in St. Francis County. For a time, he served as a school teacher. He also worked at his uncle’s lumber company for a time.
With World War I approaching, Snyder enlisted in the army. He was made a lieutenant in the artillery. After his arrival in France later in 1917, he served as a general’s aide and Brigade Operations Officer. After Germany’s surrender, he served as part of the occupational force.
Snyder’s uncle, Judge E.A. Rolfe, was part owner or owner of several businesses, including a bank, for which he convinced Snyder to work after his return from Europe. Though Snyder had little formal training in the area, his sharp mind and willingness to work hard allowed him to learn quickly. He often said that his most profitable hours were “learning how things should not be done.”
He soon moved to Missouri and worked with several different banks, often trying to sort out the finances of faltering or bankrupt institutions. Snyder continued to serve in the army reserves after the war, rising to colonel, which led him to meet Harry S. Truman in a training exercise in 1928.
His experience sorting through the finances of wrecked banks served the nation and his career well in the 1930s. When the Great Depression hit, Snyder began working for the federal government to work with the finances of insolvent banks. This led him to become manager of the Reconstruction Finance Office in St. Louis in 1937 and was soon promoted to special assistant to the RFC chairman.
In 1945, Truman, now president, asked Snyder to direct the Office of War Mobilization and Reconstruction, to help with the problems of veterans returning home and reintegrating into the workplace as well as the transition of the national economy back to peacetime production. As part of this work, he helped lobby passage of a new GI Bill to help veterans with housing and employment.
In 1946, Truman nominated then-Treasury Secretary Fred Vinson to become Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Truman nominated Snyder to be the new Secretary of the Treasury. Truman’s many critics argued that Snyder was either not qualified for the position or too close to his friend Truman, but he was confirmed to the position easily and took up his new assignment on June 25, 1946.
Though Snyder was the first native-born Arkansan to hold a presidential cabinet position, he was not the first Arkansan in a cabinet. Augustus Garland, who was born in Tennessee and had served as Arkansas governor between 1874 and 1877, served as the United States Attorney General under President Grover Cleveland between 1885 and 1889.
One of his greatest responsibilities was the financing of the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from World War II. The finances of Europe were a mess, and the Marshall Plan gave these nations the resources they needed to rebuild. Within a few years, Europe had mostly recovered from the devastation thanks to American aid.
In spite of the difficult post-war economy and the Korean War, Snyder was able to help the federal government produce budget surpluses for 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1951. By the time he left the position in 1953, the overall national debt had been reduced by $5 billion ($45 billion in 2016 dollars) from its wartime peak of $270 billion.
Snyder’s term ended with the end of President Truman’s administration on January 20, 1953. He spent the next few years in various positions in the private sector. Between 1955 and 1976, he served as an advisor to the Department of the Treasury. He died quietly at his home in South Carolina in 1985 at the age of 90.