Oral History Interview with
Assistant to White House Naval Aide, 1945-46; Special Counsel to the President, 1946-50.
CLARK M. CLIFFORD
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. ) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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
[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 time on, it seems to me, that we began to realize the benefits that Mr. Truman foresaw in true unification.
I might add as a postscript, that I have watched the process take place within the Defense
Department, since that time, since we started on it in 1945, which would at this point be twenty-six years ago. It proceeded rather slowly at first. It made some progress under President Eisenhower. I have a recollection in 1954 that he had an amendment passed that lent some strength to the theory of unification.
I've had the feeling also that we attained our goal of true unification under Secretary MacNamara. As he moved in in those early days under President Kennedy, and then under President Johnson, he put into operation many orders and innovations that I think completed the process of unification. I think that we achieved then what President Truman had in mind.
It took over twenty years to do it, but it was worth it, because now with the organization so much larger, with weapon systems incredibly complex, with world conditions infinitely more
involved than they were twenty-five years ago, the merit of the plan and the need for change, has become increasingly apparent. And I suggest to you that is one of the real monuments that President Truman created, and for which he should receive the undying gratitude of the American people.
HESS: Did you find the things that Secretary MacNamara had implemented to be of assistance to you when you took over in the Pentagon?
CLIFFORD: I did. The great majority of them I found to be helpful. Some of them I differed on and gradually I allowed some of his innovations to fall into disuse and ultimately disappear. I felt there had been, in some instances, too great a centralization of direction and control, from the office of the Secretary of Defense. We had almost gone to the other extreme under Secretary MacNamara. There was needed to be some decentralization, but only in minor areas.
HESS: Do you think this reflected his great love of organization and charts and things of that nature?
CLIFFORD: To a certain extent, and it also reflected the desire of a man who chose to make a great many decisions himself. I felt that by the time I came in in early '68, that the administrative burdens upon the Secretary had become so enormous that they interferred with the time and thought that the Secretary should give to major policy decisions. And so there was some minor decentralization that took place which I think improved the process, but that was merely my personal opinion.
HESS: Okay. Moving back into 1945, do you recall if Judge Rosenman was also assigned to work on problems of unification at the time that you were working on them?
CLIFFORD: I would assume that I probably performed my task under the direction of Judge Rosenman.
I do not recall the details, but I was new, young, and an unknown quantity at the time. I rather assume that the assignment would have been given to Judge Rosenman and me together, but that he would supervise my activity. I don't recall that specifically, but I'm sure that I would not be given an important assignment in those early days without some supervision.
HESS: You have been a naval officer, at the time you had been working on unification and going out and meeting the people, was it ever suggested to you that you were rocking the boat, that you were doing something that the Navy didn't like when you were working for unification?
CLIFFORD: Yes, but I think that Mr. Forrestal and I came to an early understanding about that. I was not a regular naval officer. I was serving temporarily, and I had assumed that when the war was over
that I would return to my law practice in St. Louis. As a result I had no background of training, tradition, or attitude, that would cause me to oppose the concept of unification. Further, during my own naval experience (which had been an exceedingly interesting one) I had encountered the same sort of problems that President Truman had, and I personally felt that unification would be of real benefit to the country. And it made no difference to me whatsoever that the Navy was opposed to it, because I was there only by accident and only there temporarily. Finally, it would make no difference what my personal attitude would be. I was working for the President, and if the President thought that this was the way to go, then that became my opinion. That's the way it had to be around the White House. The President makes the decision, and you subordinate your personal views to carrying out whatever
presidential decisions are made. In this instance I did not have to do that because I enthusiastically agreed with him on the need for unification.