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Clark M. Clifford Oral History Interview, March 23, 1971

Oral History Interview with

Assistant to White House Naval Aide, 1945-46; Special Counsel to the President, 1946-50.

Washington, D. C.
March 23, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Clifford Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened April, 1977
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Clifford Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed | Top of the Page]



HESS: Mr. Clifford, when did you first meet Mr. Truman?

CLIFFORD: Well, I grew up in St. Louis and went to college and law school at Washington University. I came to the bar there in 1928, and practiced in St. Louis. I had a friend there, some years later, named James K. Vardaman, and after I was married, my wife and I would see a good deal of the Vardamans.


On one occasion, in the late thirties, we went over to the Vardamans for cocktails, and Senator Harry Truman was there. He and Mr. Vardaman were old friends and we visited (not for long), with then Senator Truman. That's the only time I had seen him or talked to him before I came into the White House in the spring of 1945.

The circumstances surrounding that event briefly are as follows: In addition to being a friend of Mr. Vardaman's, I was his lawyer when he had a shoe company in St. Louis. I left to go into the Navy toward the end of 1943 and he, also, had gone into the Naval Reserve. When Vice President Truman ascended to the Presidency in about April of 1945, one of the first things he did was have Mr. Vardaman, who was serving as a captain in the Navy, come in from wherever his duty was, and become Naval



And thereafter, when they began to plan the trip to Potsdam, Captain Vardaman had orders issued for me (I was either out on the West Coast or in the Pacific at the time), to come back to Washington to serve in the Naval Aide's office while he went to Potsdam with President Truman.

I was a lieutenant at that time in the Naval Reserve, and Captain Vardaman didn't want to turn his office over to the Regular Navy, and he wanted a friend to look after the office while he was away. So, I was, of course, delighted to do that for him. It was interesting and glamorous to be in the White House.

While they were away in Potsdam, which took some weeks, there wasn't too much to do in the Naval Aide's office. I had met Judge [Samuel I.] Rosenman, who was serving as Counsel to the President,


and I was not interested in remaining in the Navy. Thus, as the war was drawing to a close, I felt I had satisfied my obligation to the country by serving in the Navy. I must say, I had an enormous interest in what Judge Rosenman was doing. And so I volunteered to him that if he needed anybody to run errands or look up the law or do something of that kind, I'd be delighted to do it.

HESS: What sparked your particular interest in what he was doing?

CLIFFORD: I had always had an interest in government, although it had been somewhat academic. I had had a great interest in American history, and here was a man sitting in the White House working on presidential speeches and taking part in the determination of presidential policy. This was exciting and challenging to me, and when I suggested to him that perhaps he needed some help, he was


delighted to get some assistance. Thus, during the time they were in Potsdam, I really was working for Judge Rosenman.

And when the President came back, along with Captain Vardaman, a decision was made for me to stay in the White House, in the Naval Aide's office, where Vardaman said he could use me. I think Judge Rosenman said, "Yes, I'm beginning to use him, so keep him here." And I stayed in the Naval Aide's office, but I was spending a better part of my time working on matters for Judge Rosenman.

HESS: At the time that you were working as an Assistant Naval Aide, what were your duties?

CLIFFORD: Well, there were some duties attached to the Naval Aide's office. You served as liaison with the Navy, and then at White House receptions and all, you were a "potted palm." You simply


stood around, as there wasn't anything particularly serious going on at the time that would require much effort in the Naval Aide's office. I did, during that period, develop a very real friendship with Secretary [James V.] Forrestal, which was very valuable to me later on. But during that time I was doing quite a lot for Judge Rosenman. I gave maybe 20 percent of my time to Naval Aide duties and 70 or 80 percent of my time working for Judge Rosenman, there's where the interesting work was going on.

For example, I know that during the first summer I was there, I began work on a memorandum for Judge Rosenman on the question of compulsory military service. Some attention was being given to that. And I have some recollection either that summer or fall starting to work on a memorandum regarding the possible unification


of the services. I remember President Truman saying that we had won the war, but we had won the war despite the organization of our armed forces, not because of the organization.

Often, I might say, I thought the Army and Navy were fighting each other just as hard as they were fighting the enemy.

HESS: Who assigned those tasks to you? President Truman or Judge Rosenman?

CLIFFORD: Well, as time went on I began to know President Truman a little better, and I might get an occasional assignment from him. At first, however, my assignments came from Judge Rosenman.

And then toward the fall of the year, the President appointed Vardaman to a vacancy on the Federal Reserve Board. (Vardaman had been a banker before he became a shoe man.) I


handled the problems of his confirmation. They had quite a little confrontation up there in the Senate, but he was confirmed, finally, and went over to the Federal Reserve Board.

And then President Truman made me Naval Aide. But in order to be Naval Aide, I had to have attained the rank of captain. So, in that short period of time I had gone from lieutenant to captain, a period that ordinarily would take twenty or twenty-five years in the Navy. When people asked me how I had made such astounding progress, I said, "Well, it reminds me of the young man, who at age 30, was made head of his company and somebody asked him how it happened. He said, 'Well, it's one, because I'm intelligent, two, because I'm industrious, and three because I married the owner's daughter.'" And that's the way I explained it. They got the point, you see.


But then after I became Naval Aide, I continued to work with Judge Rosenman. And then on January 1, 1946, Judge Rosenman left to return to the practice of law and it was a great loss and it created a very real vacuum. And I might say, privately, I did what I could to fill that vacuum, because I had gotten terribly intrigued with that particular job. There's where the real moving and shaking was going on in the White House.

HESS: One question on that: At the time that Judge Rosenman left, President Truman announced that he was not going to fill that spot.


HESS: And then later, a few months later, you took over the spot. What events transpired to change the President's mind to show him that he had to have someone in this position?


CLIFFORD: I can't ever be sure about all the reasoning that went on in the President's mind, but I can cast some light on it. It was due I think maybe to the following: One, as I suggested, Sam Rosenman's leaving created a very real vacuum. There was work that was not being done that had to be done. Somebody had to work on the speeches; somebody had to serve as liaison with certain Cabinet members; some-body had to be in close touch with the Justice Department all the time. And gradually, in the two or three months that passed after his leaving, I began to work into this: (a) because nobody else was doing it; (b) because I wanted to do it; and (c) because by that time I had developed a relationship with President Truman where we understood each other and were getting along well.

Along toward the spring, maybe it was March


or April, came the railroad strike, which was maybe the first real crunch that President Truman had to face up to, or certainly one of the early ones. President Truman wanted a speech written for it and he handed me some notes that he had and we discussed it. Then he said to me, "Now, I want you to take my ideas here that I have put down in longhand and I want you to write a speech. And I have decided to go up to a Joint Session and address them on the question of this railroad strike, because it has become a national calamity."

I went to work and wrote early drafts of that speech, and that's really all that you do as a speechwriter. You don't write the President's speeches. You just take his ideas, you try to put them in written form, and then you resubmit them. You and he then work on the speech together. That's the way we did it.


The speech was a very tough speech. I think in the President's mind it helped break the strike. You will recall that very dramatic time that he was delivering the speech, the strike was broken. And he thought the speech really came off quite successfully. And I think that was one of the factors that led him to decide, in May, that he needed a Special Counsel, i.e., to fill the void that Rosenman's departure had left. Since he and I had worked together well, and I had done quite a lot of writing for him, I was appointed Special C