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Clark M. Clifford Oral History Interview, April 19, 1971

Oral History Interview with

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

Washington, D. C.
April 19, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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, you have mentioned that two of your first duties in the White House dealt with universal military training and unification of the armed forces. Would you like to begin today's session by covering what you recall on those two subjects?

CLIFFORD: Yes, sir. The first assignment, which came during the summer or fall of 1945, was to conduct an inquiry into the background of the whole subject of universal military training.

President Truman had the feeling at the time that it would be of tremendous aid to this country in facing any other danger, and possible war, to have a backlog of trained men. We have gone through very difficult times in World War II, training an army quickly after we became involved following Pearl Harbor in 1941.


I recall President Truman stating that we were slow in getting a military force into action because of our lack of trained men. I also recall him commenting on the fact that it was a national scandal, that so many of our young men were unable to pass the minimum Army test from the physical standpoint.

I do not recall the percentage, but it was inordinately high; something close perhaps to a third of our young men had physical defects of one kind or another. President Truman thought it would be of great benefit to the country to have our young men appear at a certain age and at a certain point in their educational process, go through a rigid physical, and take the rudimentary and elementary basics of military training. Then after a period of time, they could leave and go back into civilian life. When the call ever came, these men would constitute a solid


core around which a military organization could be built and built expeditiously.

I checked into the whole background of it. I found that at one time former Senator [James Wolcott] Wadsworth had researched the subject and believed deeply in it. As we got into it more deeply and we checked with leaders in a number of different areas in the country, I believe we all concluded, at that time, that it would be impossible to get the necessary legislation through the Congress. There was such a reaction after the Second World War; people wanted to forget the war, and hoped that this time that this was the last war. So many of our leaders and formulators of public opinion were opposed to it that President Truman reluctantly dropped the idea.

I turn now to the second of the early assignments; that is a study of the possible unification


of the services. President Truman stated, at the conclusion of World War II, that we could never fight another war with the organization that we had in World War II. He indicated one time that we had won the war, but it certainly was not because of the organization we had, it was despite the organization. There was a definite lack of coordination in our entire military effort. At that time we had but two departments; we had the War Department and the Department of the Navy. Each was represented by a Cabinet officer; each considered itself an independent executive department that was not subject to any type of control, except that that came from the President.

There were many instances that (we learned during the war), that independence of action on the part of the services were costly to the country, both in manpower and in resources.


The President thought that there should be a closer cooperation between the services. He felt that there should be an opportunity to effect substantial economies by having a central type of purchasing. We had learned many times during the war that the two services would bid against each other in a number of areas for rare commodities, and so push up the price for both of them.

Well, I started and conducted a study for him of the background of it. It was something that he felt very deeply, because, as chairman of the war investigating committee, he had a substantial and rich background of experience.

As a result of that study, which I started at his direction in 1945, I interviewed a number of top military men, and a number of our top civilians who had been involved in it. By 1946 we were making progress. I kept him fully and


closely posted with reference to it. And finally, we turned our attention to the possibility of legislation. Legislation was introduced, and finally, the first law was passed in 1947. I might say at that particular point that the Army favored unification, including the air wing of the Army who favored it because they felt that they could get separate identity and a separate air force. It was the Navy who opposed the idea so strenuously.

HESS: What was the basis for their reluctance?

CLIFFORD: The Navy felt that its independence, and its power to control its own operation, would be adversely affected if it became but a division in the Department of Defense. Also, the Navy had traditionally had great strength in the Congress.

At that time, and for a long time prior


thereto, the chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, Mr. Vinson, had been a great power in maintaining the independence of the Navy. The Navy felt that to become but a part of a Department of Defense would subordinate the Navy's importance and take away some of the power that the Navy had exercised from time immemorial to make its own decisions. It didn't want to be a part of a military service along with the Army and the Air Force. It particularly opposed the concept of the Air Force, because that meant that there would then be three services instead of two and they felt that that would have a tendency to minimize the importance of the services.

HESS: Did they think they might lose their air wing to the new Air Force also?

CLIFFORD: Yes, they were concerned about that. They were also concerned about the discussion at the


time that if you unified the services there would no longer be any need for a Marine force. The Marines could become part of the Army, which might have some logical basis, because they were ground troops.

Another major objection that the Navy had was that unification would mean that the Navy would no longer have a Cabinet representative in the President's Cabinet. As it was, with a strong Secretary of the Navy, they had immediate and continuing access to the President. They could see that with unification, the Navy would not have Cabinet representation, and feared that the Navy could very well be downgraded. So, under the then Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, they fought a bitter, intelligent, artful, and skillful battle, and they won. The first unification act was so watered down that the Secretary of Defense became really nothing


more than a coordinator. That isn't good enough in government. A service, or a department, or an agency, will assert all of its historic and statutory powers under coordination, so that the coordinator does not have sufficient authority to either rule or direct the service.

After the '47 act was passed (and we took it because it was the best that we could get), President Truman, with that rare judgment that he had, appointed James Forrestal as the first Secretary of Defense, and the result was most interesting.

After some number of months, I recall James Forrestal phoning me and saying he wanted to talk about a matter. We both sat down and discussed this subject at great length. The conclusion that Forrestal had reached was that the Defense Act of 1947 was so weak that he was unable to administer the Department of


Defense. He was perfectly forthright about it.

I recall later on that after we discussed it at some length, he said he wanted to see the President and suggested that I go in with him. We went in then, and as I've said a number of times, an incident occurred then that rarely occurs. In substance, Mr. Forrestal said, "President Truman, I have come over to confess to you, that I've been terribly wrong." And then he explained why. It was very gratifying to President Truman, and I had a notion that perhaps President Truman foresaw what might very well happen to Mr. Forrestal's attitude.

After Jim Forrestal stated that we needed a stronger law, we went to work at once lining up support for it, and that time we had Army support, Air Force support, and Naval support. Mr. Forrestal just stepped up with complete candor, said, "We have to have a stronger law." Also, I believe that from the experience of '47,


those objectors who were so bitterly opposed, had tempered their criticism somewhat, because the Navy organization had not been affected as adversely as they had assumed that it would.

So, with that support, we then obtained a new law in 1949. And in it, we finally achieved what we had started to work on in 1945, because the '49 law gave to the Secretary of Defense, the power, authority, responsibility, and control that he needed. And the Defense Department was strengthened to the point where it became a true executive department, with all of the rights and privileges inherent in a department. The three services gave up those rights that accrued under the law, to a separate department of government. From that</