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.
May 10, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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: To begin this afternoon, Mr. Clifford, just a short question, and as the man who held the top position in the Department of Defense, I'd like to ask your opinion of the possibility, or feasibility, of the separation of powers between the two major departments, the Department of State and the Department of Defense. And it seems to me, that decisions made by the Department of State, bring about a situation where the Department of Defense is brought in to back up those decisions, and sometimes the Department of Defense almost makes foreign policy. Can a neat, straight line be drawn between the responsibilities of those two major departments?
CLIFFORD: My experience would indicate that it cannot. The fact is I have given some consideration
to recommending to a President at some state, that a study be made to determine whether a "super secretary" shouldn't be placed over the two departments which are then maintained in substantially the same form as they are now.
The degree of cooperation between the two must be very close. Oftentimes, in my experience, the Defense Department feels that the State Department moves so ponderously, and so lethargicly, that some better system should be devised. Also, and this looks at it just from the standpoint of Defense, it is felt that State operates so in the course of tradition that it prevents as much flexibility as is needed.
Now, I doubt the wisdom of combining the two departments because Defense is so enormous and the administrative task there is no great. But I believe that a new secretary post might some day be created to whom both the Secretary
of Defense and the Secretary of State report; that individual would be the person that the President of the United States would hold responsible for foreign policy and national security policy. Some means must be devised to make that operation a smoother more integrated type of operation than it is now. Sometimes, as you suggest, State will make policy in an area which Defense thinks that it is the most important factor; Defense will sometimes make policies that have an enormous impact on State, and they won't consult State at all.
A quick illustration: I think State should be taken in on the discussion of new weapon systems, because State could be very valuable in saying, "Well, let's don't give any attention now to new weapons systems for fighting jungle wars, because our longrange planners in the State Department don't believe we're going to get involved in any more jungle wars." State's
really never consulted in that area.
What the "super secretary" is called makes no difference, but there is the need for a higher authority so that the decisions of State and Defense can be ordered with a clear recognition of the interests of each department.
HESS: And there were times during the Truman administration when even the Department of Commerce got into the foreign policy act. What do you recall about the difficulties that befell Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace in September of 1946?
CLIFFORD: Well, that came awfully early in the Truman administration, before machinery had been devised which would prevent incidents of that kind. Later, I think the machinery was established by President Truman, which certainly
made it much less likely that an occurrence of that sort would take place. I recall it generally, and others will have more detail.
Henry Wallace was Secretary of Commerce; President Truman liked him. He was a sincere, patriotic American, who had different ideas from some of the rest of us at the time. He had come from a farm state, and he and President Truman had a good deal in common.
Secretary Wallace had agreed to make a speech at Madison Square Garden, and he came over to President Truman's office and indicated the type of speech that he was to give.
HESS: Did he have the draft with him on that occasion?
CLIFFORD: I was not present at the meeting. My recollection of it is that he brought a draft of the speech along with him. I understood that
he said to President Truman, "I have here a draft of a speech that I'm going to make later this week in New York at Madison Square Garden. The substance of it is so and so." And he sort of thumbed through the speech, and gave President Truman a general description of the content of the speech. I think that President Truman indicated in some manner that it sounded perfectly appropriate to him.
As a result, I think Secretary Wallace left with the feeling that he had cleared the speech with President Truman, which really was not correct.
Wallace went ahead and made the speech, and the roof fell in; the speech definitely intruded into the area of foreign policy. I have some recollection that Secretary of State Byrnes was away at the time. I think he was in Paris, but after he heard the report of the speech and
saw the treatment it received in the papers, he was either on the phone with President Truman or in touch by teletype. He was outraged by the speech.
It was a pretty serious time as far as the two men were concerned, because I never had the feeling that as a team they were working together any too smoothly anyway. It was a serious setback to the effective and smooth operation of our Government at the time.
HESS: At the time that Mr. Wallace came in, you personally did not read the draft, is that right?
CLIFFORD: I did not read the draft. I know that no one read it because, in discussing the incident with the President afterwards, he was very clear on the fact that a real gap had occurred. We then put into operation a rule that if someone
brought over a speech, or called the President to tell about a speech, President Truman would say, "Send a draft of the speech over here." And that was then done. He would pass it on to one of us to read and we would get a crack at it. So, as far as I can remember, that particular mistake did not ever occur again.
And I'll tell you something else that President Truman learned from that and from two or three other incidents. Sometimes a Cabinet member would come over and explain orally a course of action that he was going to take. And in the early days President Truman would say, "Well, that sounds all right to me," and the man would go ahead and do it. After a while President Truman said, "Submit a memo to me and I would like to consider that," and then the Cabinet officer would send the memo over. President Truman would submit it to the staff
and we might have a discussion of it. More than half the time it was something that President Truman wasn't in accord with, and he would then inform the Cabinet officer. Out of the Wallace incident, there thus came a change in operation of the White House that was very much to the good.
HESS: That gave the staff time to reflect and to think about what needed to be done.
CLIFFORD: Right. President Truman did not have time, not does any President have time to read all of this material. By having the person send over drafts of the speech or a memorandum of what they intended to do, somebody could read it and point out to the President what was in it that he should know. I think we prevented a number of serious misadventures from occurring after that incident.
HESS: In Volume I of Mr. Truman's Memoirs he has a
letter to "Mama and Mary," one of his letters home, and I won't read it all by any means, but in it he refers to the firing of Henry Wallace and says:
Charlie Ross said I'd shown that I'd rather be right than President, and I told him I'd rather be anything than President. My good counselor, Clark Clifford, who took Sam Rosenman's place, said, "Please don't say that." Of course Clark, Charlie and all the rest of my good friends are thinking in terms of 1948--and I am not.
An observation: Are you aware that this reference in Volume I, and the reference to your participation in the meeting, and the review of the twenty-one point message in 1945, which we have covered, are the only two times which you are mentioned in Mr. Truman's Memoirs?
CLIFFORD: I was not conscious of that fact.
HESS: It surprised me when I saw that in the index. Does it surprise you as one of his--one of the
top members of the staff to find that you are only mentioned twice in the Memoirs?
CLIFFORD: No, because a staff member to a President does not expect to attain any particular place in history through the occupying of that position. You are there to serve the President.
President Roosevelt expressed it very well when he said he wanted staff members who had a passion for anonymity.
Now, the press does not permit that to happen, because they're interested in the men around the President. And so, some of us received a substantial amount of publicity; all staff members do. But when a President writes his Memoirs I don't believe that any President refers at any length to his staff men, because they really do not constitute an independent opinion or even an independent
individual. They become part and parcel of the Office of the President.
When people ask me did I write speeches for President Truman, I say invariably, "I worked on the President's speeches. I would talk with him and get his idea; I would do research and I would prepare drafts. In the end they became the President's speeches." And that same theory applies to any other type of service that an assistant would render to a President.
Now, on the other hand, a Cabinet member is in an entirely different position and a President, in writing his Memoirs, will very likely refer at considerable length to his contact with a Cabinet member. That person is a separate individual and the position he holds is set by law. By comparison, many of the White House staff positions are just created by the
President. The staff members merge their identity, their personality, their very being into that of a President.
HESS: All right, one brief question relative to your memorandum on Soviet Russia that appears in Arthur Krock's book as Appendix A. Were there other times that you worked on contingency plans of this nature concerning other countries? Was this something that was discussed in the higher levels of Government? What should we do if England takes certain action? What should we do if Germany takes certain actions? What should we do if China takes certain actions? Did you work up similar memos on other countries?
CLIFFORD: I did not. I think there's a reason for that. Memoranda on other countries as far as the President was concerned would fall clearly within the province of the State Department.
That's where the experts were located and if some problem came up with reference to China, or Japan, or whatever the country might be, they had experts.
I remember at one stage for instance, the State Department prepared a so-called "White Paper" on China that set forth the whole background of the relationship where we were and what we might expect in the future. The President was very clear that that was all within the province of the State Department.
Now, if you will give special consideration to what he wanted when he talked to me about this in the spring of 1946, you will see that this was really not a State Department function. What he wanted was the opinions of the top senior personnel, all through the Government, and not just the State Department. He wanted it to be much broader than that.
There was only one other major power in the world at that time, and that was the Soviet Union. After the war was over, no one else had the strength that would constitute any threat to us at all. The fact is, in my opinion, that continues down to the present day. There is only one other power in the world today that is a threat to the United States, and that's the Soviet Union. That's the way it was in 1946, and that's the way it is now, twenty-five years later.
Our whole preoccupation at the time was with the Soviet Union--what was our future to be as far as the Soviet Union was concerned and was there some possibility of building a relationship based upon the fact that we were allies during the Second World War? That's why it was clear in my mind that the President said, "I want a broad panorama of opinion from
our senior men in Government about where we go from here with the Soviet Union.
He did not say this, but he clearly didn't want just some Soviet expert in the State Department to get up a memo. He already knew how they felt. He wanted War, and Navy, and Justice and Admiral Leahy, and the State Department, and anybody else whose activities in any way impinged upon our relationship with the Soviet Union to join in this major senior study. Our relationship was developing at the time so that I think he just said, "Well, this is the way I want it done and this is the fellow I want to do it."
HESS: All right, let's take up the subject of the group of liberals that met at the Wardman Park Hotel in late 1946 and early 1947, whenever it was, until the time of the election, describing in many books as the Ewing-Clifford group. When
was it set up, why, and by whom?
CLIFFORD: I cannot recall the exact date. I'm sure somebody who has explored it and written it would remember it. I came into the position of Special Counsel on June 1, 1946, and my guess is that sometime toward the end of that year, or the beginning of 47, the group was organized.
It was organized by Oscar Ewing who then held a position in the Government. Interestingly enough, he was a New York lawyer who had come out of the old Chief Justice [Charles Evans] Hughes law firm, a very conservative New York law firm that represented the large corporate clients. But Oscar Ewing was a basic, living, breathing liberal, and was a very valuable man t