Clifford, Clark M.

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Clark M. Clifford

Born December 25, 1906
Fort Scott, Kansas
Died October 10, 1998
Bethesda, Maryland

U.S. secretary of defense and counsel

C lark M. Clifford's public career spanned the years of the Cold War (1945–91). He was an influential advisor to every Democratic president from Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) to Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81; see entry). As a special advisor to President Truman, Clifford assisted in the formulation of the Truman Doctrine, the U.S. policy of giving aid to forces engaged in resisting communist aggression. He was a political strategist in both foreign and domestic policy and was one of the most prominent and influential members of Truman's staff.

Clark Clifford guided the merger of the military service departments into the Department of Defense under the National Security Act of 1947. The act also established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Council. In 1968, Clifford became the secretary of defense and played a major role in persuading President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69; see entry) to de-escalate the Vietnam War (1954–75). Clifford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to civilians in the United States, on January 20, 1969.

Early life

Clark McAdams Clifford was born Christmas Day, 1906. He was the son of Frank Andrew Clifford, an official for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and Georgia McAdams Clifford. For several years in the 1930s, his mother, a professional storyteller, had her own weekly program on the CBS Radio Network. Named for his mother's brother (Clark McAdams, a newspaper editor), Clark had one older sister, Alice.

Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Clark graduated early from high school and spent a year working on the railroad. In 1923, he entered Washington University in St. Louis and went on to graduate from its law school. In 1928, Clark passed the state bar exam and began working as a trial attorney, later switching to corporate and labor law. While traveling in Europe in 1929, Clifford met his future wife, Margery Pepperell Kimball, whom he married in 1931. They would have three daughters.

Government service

During World War II (1939–45), Clark Clifford enlisted as an officer in the United States Naval Reserve. He was assigned to the White House in 1945 as an assistant to his friend James Vardaman, President Truman's naval aide, a presidential advisor who oversees activities of the navy. In 1946, Clifford replaced Vardaman, and nine weeks later Truman made Clifford his special counsel.

Initially, Truman relied on Clifford for advice on labor issues and speech writing. Soon, however, the president was turning to Clifford for advice on relations with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union operated under a governmental system called communism, which was very different from the capitalist democracy of the United States. Under a communist government, a single political party, the Communist Party, controls nearly all aspects of people's lives. In a communist economy, private ownership of property and business is prohibited so that goods produced and wealth accumulated can be shared equally by all. Already holding enormous influence in his position as special counsel to the president, Clifford further distinguished himself with the drafting of the Clifford-Elsey Report in 1946. It was a top-secret report to the president; its original title was "American Relations with the Soviet Union." Clifford coauthored the report with his assistant, George M. Elsey.

In the report, Clifford warned of Soviet expansionism, or the spread of communism into other countries, stating that the threat of Soviet aggression, described in previous reports written by others, was real. Clifford went on to state that the Soviet Union's intention was to dominate more and more countries and spread communism worldwide. He emphasized that the United States needed to develop a clear strategy and adopt containment, a policy to restrict the territorial growth of communist rule, to deal with this communist threat.

Clifford and Elsey wrote the report before there was an open break between the United States and the Soviet Union; therefore, the report rather optimistically declared that the primary objective of U.S. policy would be to convince Soviet leaders that it was in the Soviet Union's best interests to participate in a system of world cooperation. The report argued for cultural, intellectual, and economic interchange to promote the peaceful coexistence of communism and capitalism, an economic system where property and businesses are privately owned. However, it also argued that the United States needed to maintain sufficient military strength in order to restrain the Soviet Union. Clifford believed that military power was the only language that the Soviets would understand. He believed that the Western European nations and the United States needed to form an anti-Soviet alliance and be willing to back up any diplomatic efforts with military action. This idea led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a peacetime alliance of the United States and eleven other nations, and a key factor in the attempt to contain communism.

Cold War strategy

The political and economic rivalry between communist and democratic countries became known as the Cold War. The two principal players were the communist Soviet Union and the democratic United States. These two countries had emerged from World War II as the world's most powerful nations, or superpowers.

The United States devised a three-pronged strategy for winning the Cold War. Clifford played a key role in developing each part of the strategy. The first part of the strategy was the

Truman Doctrine, which further spelled out the ideas in the Clifford-Elsey Report. The Truman Doctrine was a policy President Truman announced in 1947. He declared that the United States would provide aid to any forces engaged in resisting communist aggression. Greece and Turkey, two countries devastated by World War II, both faced communist expansionism; in fact, the situation in these countries is what spurred President Truman's announcement. The desperately poor Greek and Turkish people looked to the communists to provide a better life. In the past, Great Britain had aided both countries, but after the devastating effects of World War II, Britain could no longer afford to support them. American leaders felt that the United States had to step in and help rebuild the Greek and Turkish economies before the countries turned to communism.

Clifford also was involved in the creation of the second prong in the U.S. policy of containment; this part of the Cold War strategy came to be known as the Marshall Plan. The Soviet Union had emerged from World War II in a very strong military position. Its neighbors in Europe had not fared as well. The Marshall Plan was designed to help the European nations rebuild their economies and strengthen their military defenses and thereby protect themselves against attacks in the future. This plan was first introduced by Secretary of State George C. Marshall (1880–1959; see entry) in a speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947.

The final prong in the overall plan was the formation of NATO in 1949. Twelve free, democratic nations, including the United States, formed this alliance and stated that an attack on one member of NATO would be considered an attack on all the members. This was an effective deterrent because the Soviets were unlikely to start any war that would involve the United States. Having been an ally of the United States during World War II, the Soviets were well aware of American military strength and knew that the United States had possession of nuclear weapons. NATO was an answer to Clifford's call for an anti-Soviet alliance, an idea he initially proposed in the Clifford-Elsey Report.

Private practice

Clifford resigned from government service in January of 1950 in order to open a private law practice. The firm of Clifford and Miller opened up across the street from the White House. The firm represented many large corporations and continued to advise government officials. John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry) used Clifford as his personal lawyer; when Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he put Clifford at the head of his transition team. Kennedy frequently enlisted Clifford's help and in 1961 appointed him to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The board was put in charge of supervising the CIA after the CIA botched a top-secret invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Clifford became the chairman of the board in 1963. After Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson called on Clifford to reorganize the White House staff.

Secretary of defense

In 1968, President Johnson appointed Clifford as his secretary of defense. Although Clifford held this post for only a short time, it was an intense period in U.S. history. The controversial and unpopular Vietnam War was nearing its climax. When Clifford became secretary of defense, he supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam. However, the day before Clifford's Senate confirmation, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, a massive attack on the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies. U.S. military leaders had been optimistic about their progress in the war, but this attack demonstrated once and for all that their optimism was unfounded. The Johnson administration was bitterly divided about what to do next in the war. Clifford now publicly called for an end to American involvement in the war. He persuaded President Johnson to order a total halt in bombing and to de-escalate U.S. involvement in the war from that point on. He encouraged Johnson to hand over military responsibilities to the South Vietnamese forces.

Return to private practice

Clifford left office in January of 1969 to return to the legal profession. His firm, then Clifford and Warnke, represented major multinational corporations. Seeing that the Vietnam conflict had shifted from the battlefield to the conference table and that the Soviet Union was showing a new willingness to discuss arms limitations, Clifford expressed hope that international tensions would abate. He briefly returned to government service in 1977 as an advisor on several missions for President Jimmy Carter.

Final days

Clifford suffered a major reversal in 1992, when he was president of First American Bankshares, a Washington, D.C., bank. A grand jury indicted, or charged, him for his role in concealing the bank's ties to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). BCCI was a foreign bank whose criminal activities and later collapse cost investors around the world billions of dollars. Despite Clifford's indictment, he was not required to go to trial, because he was in ill health.

In his memoirs, Clifford considered his role in helping to remove the United States from what he called the "wretched conflict in Vietnam" to be his finest moment. The day when he was indicted and fingerprinted like a common criminal he cited as the worst. Clifford died at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, at the age of ninety-one.

For More Information


Clifford, Clark M. Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1991.

Parrish, Thomas. The Cold War Encyclopedia. New York: 21st Century Books, 1996.

Smith, Joseph, Simon Davis, and John W. Burbidge. Historical Dictionary of the Cold War. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Web Sites

Berger, Marilyn. "Clark Clifford, Key Advisor to Four Presidents, Dies." From New York Times, October 11, 1998. Mount Holyoke College International Relations Program. (accessed on August 22, 2003).

"Secretary of Defense Histories: Clark M. Clifford." DefenseLINK. (accessed on August 21, 2003).