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.
July 26, 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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, to begin this afternoon I'd like to ask a few questions. And as the release of the 47 volume study conducted in the Pentagon on the background to events in Indochina has been very much in the news, I'd like to ask you a question or two about President Truman's thinking on the subject of Indochina. Now, in an article in the Washington Post on the third of this month, written by Chalmers Roberts, the first two paragraphs read:
On May the lst of 1950 President Truman approved the allocation of 10 million dollars for the Defense Department to cover the early shipment of urgently needed military assistance items for the French in Indochina.
It was the first crucial decision regarding U.S. Military involvement in Indochina, according to the analysis of the RooseveltTruman years in the Pentagon papers available to the Washington Post.
And on June the 27th, 1950, shortly after the invasion of South Korea, President Truman issued a statement on the situation in which he had the following paragraph:
I have similarly directed an acceleration in the furnishing of military assistance to the forces of France and the Associated States in Indochina, and the dispatch of a military mission to provide close working relations with those forces.
Now I realize that you left before these events took place, but I'd like to ask anyway, what had been the view of the President and his advisers on the advisability of concerning ourselves with matters in Indochina?
CLIFFORD: I do not have an independent recollection of any details regarding Indochina during the period that I was with President Truman from 1945 until 1950. I have a general impression, during that time, that President Truman was interested in taking those actions that would be helpful to France after the Second World War.
A great deal of the fighting, you'll recall, had taken place in France. After the Second World War, the nations of Western Europe were prostrate and the United States, generally under the aegis of the Marshall plan, took those actions that would assist the nations of Western Europe to returning to some form of economic viability.
I have a general recollection that the only interest that I can recall our country having in Indochina during that period of 1945 to 1950, was to take those steps that generally would be of assistance to France in recovering its economic equilibrium. I would say generally that it was felt at the time that the assistance that we could be to France in restoring its posture in what had been French Indochina was calculated to be of assistance in France gaining some type of its former economic stability.
Now, I do not recall individual actions such as you describe of May lst. As you say, I had left the White House by then, and I wouldn't be likely to recall individual action after the passage of over twenty years. I can recall merely a broad attitude our country's government took toward what was then known as French Indochina.
HESS: Do you recall Mr. Truman making any statements to you in this context about Indochina?
CLIFFORD: I do not.
HESS: Do you recall any discussion with Mr. Truman, or among his advisers, that even though the French had this territory in their possession before the war that actually it is the territory belonging to the indigenous people and that perhaps we should work through the indigenous people and not through the colonial countries?
CLIFFORD: I do not recall any philosophy or ideology of that kind being discussed. It was more the attitude that now that the Second World War was over, we would attempt to help the nations of Western Europe reconstruct. France had owned Indochina. The reason they'd lost it was due to Japanese aggression. We were, I believe, attempting to take those steps which would tend to return areas of that kind to' the status quo. I don't recall taking part in any kind of discussion or policy debate about whether we should assist the French in their colonial or imperialist attitude. I would be rather surprised if there was much of a debate in that regard because it seemed to me to be the rather settled policy that we were attempting to return conditions to those that had existed prior to the changes that had taken place in the Second World War as the result of Communist
aggression--Communist or Japanese aggression.
HESS: Did you ever recall what Mr. Roosevelt's attitude was, might have been, on helping the French after the war in this area?
CLIFFORD: I have since read about it, since it became such an important topic during our presence in Vietnam. But at the time I do not recall it coming up for discussion.
HESS: Anything else on that subject?
CLIFFORD: I can offer very little because it was not a subject of major importance and merely fell within the framework of our attitude toward assisting France in regaining its feet.
HESS: Do you think we might have been better off if we had worked with the indigenous people? Not necessarily Ho Chi Minh, not necessarily the Communists, but finding someone who is
there, someone who is a native of the country rather than working through foreign countries.
CLIFFORD: An answer to that question would be based upon all that we have learned in the last twenty years. At the time, I do not believe that the world had any real understanding of the spirit of nationalism that was then starting to come into focus; it would have taken a man of very considerable prescience. At the time we were engaged mainly in saving Western Europe and doing those functions that contributed to that.
It was Western Europe that really mattered to us at the time, because you will recall that during the Second World War and thereafter, the Soviets started their very aggressive expansionism towards the west. They took forcibly all of the nations on their western periphery such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Rumania,
Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and they were pressing onward. The major concern during those years was that they might press on even from the west.
Also you will recall the Russians at that time established what was known as the Comintern, i.e., Communist cells were established in each country to try to break up the government of that country and transform it into a Communist country.
The Communist Party was a very powerful force in France after the Second World War and had they gotten control of France, one would not know what Western Europe would look like today.
So this was our main consideration and I think that territorial concerns regarding former properties owned, not only by France, but other Western powers, was really not a matter of major concern. We were fighting to save Western
Europe at the time.
HESS: All right, now moving back to our date in 1948, where we were, one point I want to bring up concerns Judge Sam Rosenman. In the files of the Library I found a couple of interesting letters. On March the 10th of 48, Judge Rosenman wrote to the President saying in part, "As you know, I want to be of whatever service I can from now until election day."
President Truman wrote back a couple of days later and said among other things, "I am counting on you to be on the team, as usual."
Judge Rosenman did come to Washington, he went to the convention in Philadelphia, he assisted you I understand with the writing of President Truman's acceptance speech, but when the campaign came on he was not utilized, why? Any particular reason?
CLIFFORD: I do not know of any specific reason. Certainly there was no break between President Truman and Judge Rosenman. Remember that he had left the end of the year 1945, so held been gone for over two years during all of 46 and '47.
HESS: February the lst of '46 was the official date of his resignation.
CLIFFORD: Yes. So he'd been gone over two years before he wrote the letter of March of 48. That two-year absence from the scene makes a great deal of difference in government.
You naturally assume that a man has not kept up with the day by day, week by week, or even month by month developments
that take place. Obviously he cannot. He had gone back to the practice of the law and it's just generally understood that he would not be as informed as were those who were working with the President every day.
The second point I think is that we had developed a team, after Judge Rosenman left. The President, I think, was really quite satisfied with the team and with the team spirit that existed.
Third, I might say that it was loyal, and certainly friendly, of Judge Rosenman to write that letter in March, because there were very few individuals, who in March of '48, thought that President Truman had any chance really to be reelected. The only time I independently
remember working with Judge Rosenman was when he came down and assisted in the preparation of the President's acceptance speech in Philadelphia. Now he may have come down once or twice before that, but it would not have been on a very regular occasion. The fact is, the President had rather moved away from those who had been prominent in the Franklin Roosevelt administration. I believe that it is possible that there was maybe some psychological reason he wanted to run on his own. He had been in the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt for so long.
HESS: And the close association between Judge Rosenman and Roosevelt might have been in some people's mind, a little bit too close to Roosevelt?
CLIFFORD: I believe so. I'm not sure that it was reasoned out that way, but I was very conscious
of the fact that those around us, particularly as we began to prepare for the campaign, were ascertaining President Truman's independence. President Truman himself was asserting his individuality, and asserting his image of a man who was his own boss. And, as a result, persons who had been closely identified with Franklin Roosevelt were not called back for the campaign. If there was any reason that I could think of right offhand, I think that would be it.
HESS: Was there any discussion among the staff on that point?
CLIFFORD: I think not. I'm not sure that it was specifically discussed. I do not recall from the time we got in the campaign (that would be the time between the convention and the election) seeing Judge Rosenman once.
HESS: That is correct.
CLIFFORD: Now that is my feeling and I think this is the main reason behind it. The President wanted to be surrounded by just his own men and not FDR's men.
HESS: Not running in Roosevelt's shadow any longer.
CLIFFORD: Exactly. Exactly.
HESS: All right, just after the Democratic convention on July the 26th of '48, two Executive orders were signed, Executive Order 9980, "Regulations Governing Fair Employment Practices Within the Federal Establishment," and Executive Order 9981, "Establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services." Now some historians have said that the timing, just after the convention, and before the campaign, was for political
purposes. Would you agree or disagree with the timing of those two Executive orders, or with that premise?
CLIFFORD: I suppose that if a President has followed a certain policy and he is then preparing to get into a campaign, that it is considered appropriate at the time to dramatize and emphasize the policies that he has been following. So, I would say that it is entirely possible that there is some political flavor to the timing of those two events.
Let me hasten to add, however, there was no change in policy. I have contended on a number of occasions, that President Truman did more in working toward equality for our minority groups in the United States than any President before him. You perhaps would have to say he did more with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. In the Franklin Roosevelt administration,
there was a lot of conversation about what you were going to do for the blacks and they for the first time, I think, had blacks at the White House. There was, in short, a good deal of publicity about the Roosevelt administration's interest in the blacks, but it was not until President Truman assumed office that real, concrete, affirmative, progressive steps were taken. History will show that he took such determined actions prior to that convention that that was the issue that caused such great touble at the convention. You remember there was a walkout of southern delegations from the Philadelphia convention.
I recall in the spring of 1948, at the Jefferson-Jackson annual dinner, the South Carolina delegation purchased a table right in the center of the banquet hall and then no one showed up. There was thus an empty table that
just stared at everybody during the dinner. And as you know photographers spent most of their time taking photographs of that . . .
HESS: Empty table.
CLIFFORD: . . . empty table. Now the reason the South Carolina delegation did not show up was that they were bitterly opposed to President Truman's civil rights policy; the South was bitterly opposed. He had done a great deal in that regard long prior to the convention and was paying the price for it as shown by the attitude of the southern states. So, I would say to you that it is possible that the timing of those two orders had some political connotation. You can't do anything between a convention and a campaign that doesn't have some political element in it. But I'm emphasizing it did not constitute a change in his policy on civil rights. It was just a next logical step to what
he had been working towards.
HESS: If I recall correctly, the southern de