Clark, Ramsey

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Ramsey Clark

Born December 18, 1927
Dallas, Texas

U.S. attorney general, 1967–1969;
political activist

Ramsey Clark served as U.S. attorney general—the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the federal government—from 1967 to 1969, when antiwar protests reached their peak in America. During his time as head of the U.S. Justice Department, he oversaw the prosecution of several prominent antiwar figures who were charged with interfering with the nation's military draft. But he also displayed considerable independence from President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) and his administration. For example, Clark's position gave him authority to break up public gatherings that threatened to create civil disorder. But he resisted the Johnson administration when it pressured him to use that authority to break up antiwar rallies. He believed that such gatherings were protected by the U.S. Constitution. In 1969 Clark left public office and joined the antiwar movement.

Son of a Supreme Court justice

Ramsey Clark learned about American politics and government at an early age. His father was Tom Campbell Clark (1899–1977), who served his country as both a U.S.Attorney General (from 1945 to 1949) and a U.S. Supreme Court justice (from 1949 to 1967). Ramsey Clark's career eventually carried him into the world of American law and politics as well. Raised in Texas, he joined the U.S. Marines in 1945. After leaving the military one year later, he went on to college. In 1949 he graduated from the University of Texas with a bachelor's degree. That same year, he married Georgia Welch, with whom he eventually had two children. He then continued his education, securing both a master's degree and a law degree from the University of Chicago.

Clark worked from 1951 to 1961 in a Dallas law firm. In 1961 he accepted a post as an assistant attorney general with the U.S. Justice Department. Four years later, he was promoted to deputy assistant attorney general. And in 1967 President Lyndon Johnson—a longtime friend of the Clark family—selected him to succeed Nicholas Katzenbach as U.S. Attorney General. At that time, his father, Tom Clark, retired from the Supreme Court because his son, as the Johnson administration's leading law officer, would be arguing many cases in front of the Supreme Court. Tom Clark knew that if he remained on the Supreme Court, he would be faced with a serious "conflict of interest"—a circumstance in which his public obligation to make impartial (fair) rulings might clash with his personal interest in seeing his son succeed.

Clashes with Johnson and Hoover

Clark assumed his new duties at a time when Johnson was under furious attack for his Vietnam War policies. The Vietnam War was a conflict that pitted the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in the South. American involvement in the conflict began in the late 1950s, when the United States sent money, weapons, and advisors to South Vietnam to help it fend off the Viet Cong. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson sent American combat troops to fight on the side of South Vietnam. But deepening U.S. military commitments failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war in Vietnam settled into a bloody stalemate, and the American public became bitterly divided about continued U.S. involvement in the conflict.

In the late 1960s the American antiwar movement increasingly turned to big public rallies and demonstrations as a way of registering its anger with Johnson's Vietnam policies. These protests angered and embarrassed the president. As a result, Johnson repeatedly urged Clark to use his law enforcement powers to halt the gatherings. But the attorney general himself harbored significant doubts about the wisdom of American involvement in Vietnam. In addition, he argued that peaceful protests against the government were protected by the U.S. Constitution. For these reasons, Clark resisted Johnson's calls to break up the demonstrations. Instead, he concentrated his energies on other law enforcement issues. For example, he waged an effective campaign against organized crime activity in the United States.

As the months passed, Clark's relationship with the president continued to deteriorate. In fact, Johnson pursued alternative strategies to combat the antiwar movement that did not involve Clark. For example, he made special arrangements with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover—who was technically under Clark's authority—to use wiretapping and other spying techniques against antiwar leaders. But Clark fought against these surveillance activities as well, arguing that they violated the constitutional rights of the protestors. Clark's steady defense of constitutional principles during this period has since received high praise from scholars and historians.

In 1968 Clark did supervise criminal prosecutions of a number of antiwar leaders. These activists, including William Sloan Coffin and Dr. Benjamin Spock, were charged with conspiring to encourage draft evasion among young American men eligible for military service. The defendants were eventually found guilty of the conspiracy charges, but their passionate testimony against the war drew a great deal of attention. In addition, the guilty verdicts were never enforced. Instead, Clark's Justice Department dropped all charges against the defendants after their convictions were overturned on appeal.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Clark became a special target of Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon (see entry). Eager to portray Johnson's Democratic Party as "soft" on crime, Nixon charged that the previous year's mas sive antiwar demonstrations showed that Clark had done a poor job of preserving "law and order" in America. Meanwhile, the attorney general's relationship with Johnson became so bad that when the president left office, he refused to invite Clark to the farewell luncheon he held with top administra tion officials. In November 1968 Nixon defeated Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey to win the presidency. Clark's service as U.S. attorney general ended in early 1969, after Nixon's inauguration (official swearing into office).

Clark joins the antiwar movement

After leaving office, Clark quickly emerged as an out-spoken member of the antiwar movement. He publicly declared his opposition to continued U.S. military involve ment in Vietnam and used his legal expertise to represent Catholic priest Philip Berrigan (see entry on Daniel Berrigan), Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), and other elements of the antiwar movement. In 1972 he traveled to North Vietnam to review the impact of American bombing campaigns on the country. During his visit, he went on the Voice ofVietnam, North Vietnam's propaganda radio station, to condemn the U.S. bombing raids on the North. Clark claimed that U.S. air attacks had bombed the country "back to the seventeenth century" and purposely targeted civilian areas. American military and civilian officials strongly denied his charges.

In 1973 the United States finally withdrew from Vietnam after signing a peace agreement with North Vietnamese leaders. Two years later, North Vietnamese troops overran South Vietnam and reunited the war-torn country under one Communist government. In the meantime, Clark campaigned in New York in both 1974 and 1976 as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. But he failed to gain the Democratic nomination on either occasion. These defeats marked Clark's last attempts to resume his earlier career within the U.S. government.

Controversial career as political activist

Since the late 1970s Clark has worked as a lawyer and political activist, building a reputation as a harsh and persistent critic of U.S. government policies. He claims that the United States routinely bullies and mistreats poor, minority, and politically powerless peoples, both within its own borders and around the world. In fact, he has repeatedly charged that the "greatest human rights violator in the world is my own government." But Clark has also criticized the activities of other governments over the years. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s he represented Native American groups in both Canada and Mexico when they became involved in disputes with the governments of those two nations.

Clark's visibility as a political activist reached its height during the early 1990s. At that time he denounced the Persian Gulf War, in which U.S.-led forces drove Iraq out of Kuwait after Iraq had invaded its oil-rich neighbor. Clark expressed outrage over America's military strikes against Iraq, charging that U.S. air raids killed many Iraqi civilians. Since the war ended, Clark has remained a strong critic of U.S.-sponsored economic sanctions against Iraq. He claims that these sanctions, which have remained in place for nearly a decade, are hurting millions of innocent men, women, and children. Clark explained his feelings about the situation in Iraq in 1998, when he published Challenge to Genocide: Let Iraq Live.

Some officials, scholars, and peace activists express support for Clark's views on U.S. policies toward Iraq and other countries. But other observers differ strongly with him on these issues. For example, many people believe that U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf was necessary to protect political stability and oil supplies throughout the Middle East. In addition, critics note that while Clark has repeatedly criticized the United States for committing human rights violations, he has remained silent about the well-documented human rights abuses committed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime.

Clark has also been heavily criticized for other positions that he has taken during the past two decades. During the 1980s, for example, Clark became closely linked to Lyndon LaRouche, the anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) leader of an extreme right-wing political movement. Around the same time, he began a long association with the Workers World Party, a radical political group that has repeatedly expressed support for dictatorships around the world (in 1989, for example, the party defended the Chinese government after it killed hundreds of participants in a pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing's Tiananmen Square). Clark remained affiliated with this organization into the late 1990s.

Clark has also continued to advise and defend unpopular political figures around the world. His clients during the past two decades have ranged from the men who allegedly murdered Grenada Prime Minister Maurice Bishop in 1983 to a Rwandan pastor accused of masterminding a brutal massacre of the country's Tutsi minority group during Rwanda's civil war of the mid-1990s.

Clark's most notorious clients of the 1990s, however, were Serbian leaders Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. Both of these men were charged with war crimes for their activities in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, when the country dissolved into civil war. They are accused of issuing ruthless orders and developing brutal policies that resulted in the death or dislocation of millions of people from non-Serb ethnic groups in the region. But Clark has repeatedly charged that the Serb leaders are being unfairly victimized by the United States. In fact, he bitterly criticized the United States and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which the United States is a powerful member) for launching a bombing campaign against Serb positions in Yugoslavia in 1995. Many observers believe, however, that NATO air raids helped convinced the Serb leaders to end the bloodshed and reach a peace accord.

Clark remains respected among some liberal groups for his long record of advocacy on behalf of economically and politically disadvantaged people. In recent years, however, his expressions of public support for Milosevic, Hussein, and other political rulers of questionable repute have had a profoundly negative impact on the way he is viewed in the United States and in many other nations. Critics charge that he is a man whose dislike for the U.S. government has become so great that he is willing to ally himself with the world's most despised leaders, provided that they are in conflict with America's political and military leadership.


Clark, Ramsey. The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992.

Elliff, John T. Crime, Dissent, and the Attorney General: The Justice Department in the 1960s. 1971.

Judis, John B. "The Strange Case of Ramsey Clark." New Republic, April 22, 1991.

Margolick, David. "The Long and Lonely Journey of Ramsey Clark." NewYork Times, June 14, 1991.

Williams, Ian. "Ramsey Clark, the War Criminal's Best Friend." Salon (Internet magazine), June 21, 1999. [Online] Available (accessed August 1, 2000).

Zaroulis, Nancy, and Gerald Sullivan. Who Spoke Up? American Protest against the War in Vietnam, 1963–1975. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

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