Clay, Lucius Dubignon, Sr.

views updated

CLAY, Lucius Dubignon, Sr.

(b. 23 April 1897 in Marietta, Georgia; d. 16 April 1978 in Chatham, Massachusetts), retired army officer and businessman who served as President John F. Kennedy's special representative to West Berlin during the Berlin crisis of 1961–1962.

The youngest of six children of Alexander Stephens Clay, a U.S. senator from Georgia, and Sarah Frances White, Clay graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1918, and was commissioned in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On 21 September 1918 he married Marjorie McKeown, with whom he had two sons. During World War II Clay served in the Army Service Forces, helping to direct the procurement and production of war supplies and earning a reputation as a skilled administrator who could get things done.

In March 1945 Clay was appointed assistant military governor of the U.S. occupation zone in Germany, and two years later he became military governor and commander of U.S. forces in Europe. Committed to creating a viable German state, he promoted self-government, fostered economic self-sufficiency, played a key role in currency reform, and was a driving force behind the drafting of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany. When the Soviet Union in 1948 blockaded all land traffic between the western zone of Germany and Berlin in an attempt to drive the Western Allies out of the city, Clay ordered an airlift of supplies that ensured it would remain in Western hands, and led the Soviets to lift the blockade in 1949, just days before he retired from the army. Clay's efforts to create a new German nation and his steadfast determination to see that West Berlin did not come under Communist control made him a hero of towering stature in West Germany.

During the 1950s Clay was chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Continental Can Company, but he returned to government service on a temporary basis in 1961 as a result of a crisis over Berlin. Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev had first tried in 1958 to 1959 to end the Western presence in West Berlin and force the Allies to recognize the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, or the GDR) by threatening to allow it to regulate traffic between West Germany and Berlin if German questions were not resolved within six months. In 1961, amid growing cold war tensions, he launched a new campaign. Tensions were further aggravated when Khrushchev supported East German president Walter Ulbricht's attempt to stem western influence in the GDR and staunch a massive outflow of East Germans to the West by erecting a wall separating West Berlin and East Berlin. At first the wall, which the East Germans began constructing on 13 August, consisted of little more than barbed wire. Before long, however, the wire was replaced with concrete blocks.

Kennedy had no intention of sparking a clash of the great powers by trying to knock down the wall; however, he knew he had to demonstrate Allied resolve to stay in the city and thereby shore up the confidence of West Berliners, who feared that the building of the wall was a precursor to a new blockade. Consequently, he sent a battle group through East Germany to Berlin to reinforce the U.S. garrison. He also dispatched Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to West Berlin with a letter of support for Mayor Willy Brandt. At Kennedy's request, Clay accompanied Johnson, the idea being that his participation would reassure West Berliners about U.S. commitment to the city. Welcomed by enthusiastic crowds, the Johnson-Clay mission arrived in West Berlin in time to greet the battle group as it rolled into the city on 18 August. The additional U.S. troops and the Johnson-Clay mission had a calming effect on West Berliners, and by the time the two men returned to the United States on 19 August, the city's morale had been stabilized.

During the next weeks the Soviets and East Germans interfered with Allied air access to the city, and placed restrictions on travel from West Berlin to East Berlin. When the Allies failed to take countermeasures, morale again plummeted in West Berlin, and neutralist sentiment in West Germany grew. Believing his leadership was being tested, Kennedy on 19 September sent Clay to Berlin as his personal representative to reaffirm his commitment to West Berliners. Immediately after his arrival, Clay flew to the isolated West German enclave of Steinstucken, a small village on the outskirts of the U.S. zone of Berlin that was separated from the city by GDR territory. Since the construction of the wall, the villagers had been virtually imprisoned, and by his visit, Clay took a dramatic first step in reversing the erosion of the West's position in Berlin.

Khrushchev, thinking he was pushing Kennedy too hard and worried about a U.S. military buildup, terminated his deadline in October 1961. But Ulbricht was still bent on eroding the Western position in Berlin, and GDR police began to challenge the right of Western personnel to move freely in and out of East Berlin. Determined to stand up to Soviet pressure and deny the GDR any legal authority over Berlin, Clay refused to permit U.S. officials to show their passports to East German border guards, and sent military policemen to escort them into East Berlin. To give added weight to his hardline stance, he sent tanks to Checkpoint Charlie, the principal gateway between East and West Berlin, on 25 and 27 October. The Soviets responded by sending their own tanks to the checkpoint, and on 28 October they faced the U.S. tanks "nose to nose." Facing a no-win situation, both sides soon pulled back their forces, and the crisis passed. Clay claimed that by standing firm, he had discredited any notion of GDR sovereignty over East Berlin. In West Berlin, morale gradually recovered, and thereafter Kennedy and Khrushchev proceeded more cautiously in regard to Berlin. In 1962, Cuba replaced Berlin as the major hotspot in the cold war.

Clay returned to the United States in May 1962, and in 1963 was appointed a senior partner in the investment house of Lehman Brothers, remaining with the firm until his retirement in 1973. A tough, wiry man with a hawk-like nose and an autocratic temperament, he stands out in the 1960s as a living symbol of the continuing U.S. commitment to uphold the Allied position in West Berlin. Clay died of heart failure and was buried at West Point.

A collection of Clay's papers covering the period 1950 to 1978 is in the George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia. Collections of Clay's papers covering earlier aspects of his career are in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Oral histories are in the Columbia Oral History Project at Columbia University in New York City, and the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The major biography of Clay is Jean Edward Smith, Lucius D. Clay: An American Life (1990). Clay's place in the Berlin crisis of 1961 is discussed in Jack M. Schick, The Berlin Crisis, 1958–1962 (1971); Curtis Cate, The Ides of August: The Berlin Crisis, 1961 (1978); and Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Apr. 1978).

John Kennedy Ohl