Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Oral History Interview with
HESS: General, to begin with will you tell me a little bit about your background?
CLARKE: I enlisted in the Army in 1918 and served several months in the United States before I was discharged later on that year. I went from there to work in a steel plant, then a hardware store and then a grocery store and returned to high school to complete my high school education, after having been out for two years, much more motivated to get an education than I had when I dropped out of high school. In 1921 I took a competitive examination to go to West
Point, and to my amazement, I passed it and was graduated in 1925, as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. I served in the Corps of Engineers for the next sixteen years in normal engineer assignments, in postgraduate college study and in postgraduate schools in the Army. In 1940 I became associated with the build-up of the armored force and moved in 1942 from Engineering to Armor, was chief of staff of an armored division, commander of an armored combat command in the battle of France. And at the end of the war, was a brigadier general and commander of the Fourth Armored Division. When I returned to the United States in 1945 I became associated with organization and training of troops in which I specialized for the rest of my career, some seventeen years. During that time I commanded all of the commands of the Army except Panama and Alaska and commanded some ten million American and Allied soldiers during
that time. I was very interested in command and in leadership and training, and in handling the American soldier, that's what I specialized in. I never served on the Pentagon staff. I was in charge of the Army school system for awhile. I taught in the Army school system and was in charge of the Armored School during that time. So, my background has been in command, training, and in teaching, covering some ten million soldiers in the Regular Army and the Reserve and the National Guard, plus some foreign troops that were under my command from time to time. My education, aside from my bachelor of science degree from West Point, consists of a civil engineer degree from Cornell, a bachelor of laws degree from LaSalle Extension University, and a couple of honorary doctor's degrees that I have received along the line; also four postgraduate Army schools.
One thing that I am very proud of, because I -- we may talk about it later -- was that I was the one of five living Americans made an Honorary Senator of the University of Heidelberg. They have made only a relatively small number of Honorary Senators in five hundred and seventy-five years and only a few of them have been Americans. And I think, as I have looked over the list, I was the only general who has been Honorary Senator of the University of Heidelberg. I speak about this because it was due to my solving the public relations problems of stationing U.S. troops on the inside of a sovereign nation. That brings up a lot of problems which I think we might want to discuss later because the troops have to be properly told as to their status and to realize that they are guests in a foreign sovereign nation and they have to act as guests. This requires
a tremendous amount of orientation of the soldiers and it's a problem that a commander must address himself to if he's going to satisfactorily command troops in a foreign nation. Perhaps some of our problems in Vietnam today has been brought about because that has not been adequately done. I think it's being done at the present time more than it was in the early years of our Vietnam war, but it is a problem that I think we may want to discuss later.
I retired in 1962 as Commander in Chief of the Army in Europe, being held over an extra year over the retirement age of 60 by the President because of the Berlin wall crisis as I was in Europe when the Berlin wall was built. And after that situation stabilized, I retired at the age of 61, some seven years ago.
HESS: Let's move back in time just a little bit, General, can you tell me some of your first
impressions when you arrived at West Point as a young man?
CLARKE: Well, my background when I arrived at West Point was that of a farmer boy, a poor farmer boy from the country, a boy who had served some months in the Army as an enlisted man. I say boy, I was over twenty years old, who had worked in a steel plant as a laborer, had worked in a grocery store and a hardware store as a clerk and a delivery boy, and I was extremely awed by West Point; awed by its history; awed by its appearance; and awed by the prominent people and instructors and superintendents that I saw there. I think my first year as a cadet I was, of course, a plebe and subject to plebe rules, but it was a year of awe and it took me a year to settle down and relax as a cadet.
HESS: What were some of the activities that you took part in at West Point?
CLARKE: I joined the football squad and was on the squad for some three years. My second year I had my ankle broke in a game so I played no more and I helped coach the plebe, or the freshman team, my senior year. I had very few other activities except studying. I had to study a lot because I went to West Point with only two and a half years of high school, even though I had a Regents diploma from the State of New York, so I'd passed the necessary courses. But, in two and a half years taking the accelerated program that I took, I did this because I was much older than my high school classmates, my education had been somewhat skimpy and I had to do a lot of studying. But that paid off because I graduated 33 in my class of 246, which enabled me to be commissioned in the Corps of Engineers which
branch took only the upper part of the class.
One of the things that I remember well from West Point that I think is important today, was that I did spend a lot of time tutoring deficient cadets. This was allowed of upperclassmen who had done well in certain subjects, and for this extra work that we took on we were allowed to have lights until 11 o'clock at night instead of 10 o'clock; so that would seem to be a motivating factor. But from that I developed an interest in teaching, in coaching students in how to study, and how to take exams; because most deficient cadets had the ability to pass the course, but like many students, they had never learned adequately how to study or how to approach an examination in high school. That's even true today. In fact I've written a little booklet [see Appendix V] on that which I'll give you that has been particularly true some four years later when
I taught freshmen for four years at the University of Tennessee. I found that those students needed to be taught how to go to college and how to study and how to take exams and, I think the first month in all of my courses each freshman year, I spent on that subject rather than the subject matter. I'm a firm believer that a lot of our dropouts in school today, and I think this may be said very much of our Negro students, the ones who are not passing. One of the reasons why they are not passing is because they haven't been taught how to study and how to go to school. There's an art and technique of being a student like there is an art and technique in being a brain surgeon. I think that art and technique can be taught. I think our school systems are remiss when they don't start off early in a student's career, even in grade
school, to teach him good study habits, because regardless of what you do in life, you'd better learn early good work habits and going to school is work. Unless you have those habits you don't get the best out of yourself. I've known students, cadets, who would sit down and study a subject for four hours in the evening; at the end of four hours really hadn't accomplished very much. Other cadets who had studied a difficult subject for an hour and then to bed had mastered the subject. It wasn't all difference in intelligence, it was difference in application.
HESS: What courses did you take there that you found most beneficial to you during your Army career?
CLARKE: Well, West Point is a generalized course leaning towards engineering, at least it was then. Now it's branched out into the social sciences more, but I think probably the courses that I took that did me the most good were
mathematics and science, English and history. And I wouldn't want to neglect to speak something about English because half of the problems in the world today are brought about by people who can't read and speak good English. Our law profession is kept busy by people who can't write what they mean, and that even goes for people that make the laws in Congress.
HESS: The lack of being able to communicate.
CLARKE: The lack of being able to communicate has been characteristic of engineering students and I say that because I am a civil engineer. When I took civil engineering in Cornell I found that all the Engineering students received at Cornell was one semester called Engineering English. I think that was very inadequate. They should have received a lot more because an engineer might have the best ideas in the
world but if he can't write and put them across, he can't sell it. That's why, when later on as a U.S. District Engineer in Texas, and I had groups of committees who came in to sell me projects almost every day, the spokesman was usually a lawyer. An engineer sat in the back of the room and he didn't say a thing unless he was asked a question. And he was the one who had written up the project. That encouraged me to get a degree in law. I think as an engineer, as a government engineer, I used my law more than I did my engineering. I had fifty or sixty very competent specialists in engineering working for me, I didn't have to know the details, I just had to understand them.
HESS: At what point in your career did you obtain the degree in law? I understand that you mentioned that was from LaSalle Extension University.
CLARKE: That was while on duty at the University of Tennessee.
HESS: What year was that?
CLARKE: That was in the year 1936.
HESS: How valuable to you did you find that?
CLARKE: I thought it was a wonderful course. The books that you studied were well written, the courses well handled. It was a difficult course, they worked you very hard. The truth of the matter, I understand that only about 10 percent that start that course ever finish it. In fact, Dr. Ray [Raymond W.I. Miller] is a graduate in law from that school. I never had any desire to practice law but it was a good balance to a technical education. It taught me many, many new ways of thinking that are associated with the thinking of lawyers. I
felt as though that was a great thing in my career, even though I never practiced law.
HESS: Are there any particular professors that you had at West Point who stand out in your memory? Men who have made an impression on you, men who may have helped you in any manner?
CLARKE: My first instructor that I went to was in mathematics and he was Major Omar Bradley. He taught me algebra.
HESS: That's starting off right at the top isn't it?
CLARKE: And then, of course, there were many fine instructors there. Probably the man that I remember most up there was the Professor of English. He was a Yale man, and had been directly commissioned as a colonel to be Professor of English, by the name of Lucius
Holt. Dr. Holt taught me one thing that I never have forgotten. He said, "If you're going to be successful in the military where you have to issue instructions and orders, you must have the ability to issue them, not just to be understood, but so you can't be misunderstood." I think some of our problems in Vietnam today are orders and instructions that are misunderstood. We find that every day in reading the paper and I've had people say, "Well, that is just a play on words, that is semantics," but it isn't, it's an attitude. I never write anything but what I go back and check it over to say to myself, "In what way can he misunderstand me?" My theory in handling people over the years has been based upon this premise: Everybody who worked for me I assumed wanted to do what I wanted done and when he didn't do it it's because he didn't understand what I wanted.
If you start to handle people on that premise, you've got the first great truth in how to handle people. This little booklet called Soldier Management and Morale (see Appendix VI) the first statement in that little booklet is that statement. This little booklet, by the way, has been published in the Army in a million copies. It's still being used and is the basis of leadership in the Army. It's a little booklet that you can read in twenty minutes but I've had many officers tell me that they carried that in their shirt pocket and every time they had a problem they found the answer in that little booklet. On the occasion of the millionth copy being issued, it was recently published in the Congressional Record.
HESS: And you wrote this in 1955?
CLARKE: I wrote it in 1955 and used it in my
commands and it's still being published by the Army. One of the problems I think that we have in our country is the colleges do not teach a course to students in leadership; how to handle people. Now maybe they get some of it in psychology, I'm not sure, but we're training our people who graduate from college to be leaders and I would think that one of the main courses in a college should be a course in leadership.
HESS: How would you set that up, just what would you have in a course of that nature?
CLARKE: I would have the practical points in there.