Clark M. Clifford Oral History Interview, February 14, 1973

Oral History Interview with

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

Washington, D. C.
February 14, 1973
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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: To get underway this afternoon Mr. Clifford, let's discuss Key West for just a few moments. What was the general routine in Key West? How were the functions of the White House staff office carried on while you were down there?

CLIFFORD: I believe the outstanding characteristic of the Key West visits was their complete informality. A house had been prepared there for President Truman. We all lived in the same house. We had our meals together there.

After breakfast in the morning the President would have what might appear to be an informal staff meeting, at which time he might make assignments of some sort and receive comments or observations from teh group. We had complete communication facilities there that had been set up. The President made it a point to do


as little work as possible in Key West, so as not to interfere with the benefit of the rest and relaxation.

You will recall we went there for perhaps as much as two weeks after the election in 1948. It was by far our best vacation.

After the informal conversation following breakfast in the morning, usually there was the visit to the beach, and the morning volleyball game, which President Truman enjoyed watching. Members of the staff and the Secret Service had volleyball teams. He would get a good deal of enjoyment out of the competition and the humorous exchanges that went on. Most of the morning would be spent on the beach. We would return and have luncheon together. Then the afternoon belonged to teh individual. Mr. Truman usually napped in teh afternoon and read some. The rest of us were ordinarily available in the event that he needed to go


into anything with us. The group would gather together in the late afternoon for a cocktail hour. Mr. Truman would ordinarily have a drink or two before dinner.

After dinner almost invarialby we'd settle down and play poker, which was one of his great relazations. I might say about the poker games that they offered a medium first for the interest in and excitement of the contest, but to a great extent they offered a convenient way for the group to sit around the table and relax together. The stakes were not large enough to be engrossing, and it was more an opportunity for the good fellowship that comes from it. There was a great deal of humor in the different exchanges that went on. And I've always had the feeling that that was one of the major interests that Mr. Truman had in these games. It got the group together and kept them together all


evening. It provided for the opportunities of the good fellowship that came from it.

HESS: Was Mr. Truman a very good poker player technically?

CLIFFORD: He understood the game well, but he was too optimistic a poker player.

HESS: Trying to fill inside straights and things like that.

CLIFFORD: He would stay in too many hands in the hope that he might make a lucky draw. You can get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but you can't win playing that kind of poker. He didn't win too much, but as a matter of fact, it was not his basic purpose to win.

HESS: Over the years I have often asked the question who was the best poker player, and almost invariably people will say, "Well, Clark Clifford


was." What do you think about that? Do you think you were the best poker player there?

CLIFFORD: I'm not sure that I was the best poker player in the group. I think that possibly I was the most careful poker player in the group. I was operating on a very limited budget at the time, and I possibly paid more attention to it. As a result, I would say, I probably came out about as well as anybody else.

HESS: In the logs for the President's trips to Key West I noticed for the first trip, trip number one of November 17th to the 23rd of 1946 that you were along, and that was the time the President's party boarded the captured German submarine the U-2513 and the sub was submerged, and as you know there were reports in the press, some criticism of the captain of the submarine for submerging the submarine


with the President aboard. Also in the press at the time was the indication that's also mentioned in the log there that Admiral Leahy didn't care much for the submerging of the vessel. Do you recall anything about that incident?

CLIFFORD: Not the detials, but I do remember that there was quite a lot of publicity about it at the time. I remember quite a well-known picture that was published all over the country of a group of us standing on the superstructure of the submarine. My recollection is that obviously we would not have submerged had not President Truman's acquescence been obtained. And, althought I don't remember the detail, it would be completely typical of Mr. Truman to take the position that, well, now we were on the submarine let's see what it was like to go down in a submarine. There wasn't much


point in riding around on the surface.

HESS: Airplanes fly and submarines submerge.

CLIFFORD: It was interesting to go through with the routine and see the efficiency with which the men handled their various assignments. I think the Navy personnel involved were delighted to have that opportunity of demonstrating their competence to the President. It did not involve any particular danger of any sort--that submarine must have submerged and come up hundreds of times, and it did it on a routine basis again.

HESS: According to the log for the eleventh Key West trip--this was March the 7th tot he 27th of 1952--this was a little over two years after you left the White House, but you were along on that particular trip, and also listed as guests were Roy Harper, Frank E. McKinney, and


Charles E. Wilson. This was at the time of the 1952 steel strike--steel trouble--difficulties and Wilson was down to talk about the steel trouble. Now in some of the logs it would give the duration of the stay of people. In this particular log it did not. Do you recall being along in March of 1952?

CLIFFORD: My recollection would be really quite indistinct about it. I recall being asked to come over at the time to discuss the steel seizure problem. I happen also to remember that, although it obviously did not have any real impact on President Truman, I was opposed to that particular action at the time, and felt that there was some better course that should have been taken.

HESS: What course did you advise? Do you recall?

CLIFFORD: I do not recall at the time what the


alternative was.

HESS: Well there were several, one was the Selective Service Act; one was I believe Taft-Hartley. There were several--the one that the President was operating on was the "inherent powers of the President to take such actions in times of trouble."

CLIFFORD: My recollection is too indistinct. I do recall being definite about the position. That I thought it was unwise to test the "inherent power" issue under those circumstances and . . .

HESS: Did you articulate that to the President?

CLIFFORD: Yes, I did at the time.

HESS: What did he say?

CLIFFORD: I do not remember. I have a recollection


of attending more than one meeting on-it, and I'm sure we discussed a number of other alternatives, but I'm not clear now on just what took place. I had known Mr. Charles Wilson for a long time. It's entirely possible that as you suggest that we were down there for a number of other alternatives, but I'm not clear now on just what took place. I had known Mr. Charles Wilson for a long time. It's entirely possible that as you suggest that we were down there for a day or two for this kind of discussion. There were other occasions I remember going down there.

One time I know Chief Justice Vinson and I were guests for maybe four or five days. I know we were there for quite a while, as guests, and sat in the games and generally were relaxing.

HESS: I believe that was the previous trip in


November of 1951, I think.

CLIFFORD: It might well have been.

HESS: Two days after the President returned from that particular trip he announced at the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner at the National Guard Armory that he did not intend to run for reelection. The announcement was March the 29th, very shortly after his return from Key West. While you were in Key West was the subject broached? Do you recall him saying anything about his having made up his mind whether or not to run in that next election?

CLIFFORD: My memory on that is quite good. I would say with considerable positiveness that he did not discuss it with me nor did I hear it discussed with anybody at all. I think that was a private decision of his, and that he must have been in the process of arriving at it over a


very considerable period of time.

HESS: On the subject of Mr. Truman's Cabinet, what did Mr. Truman see as the proper role of his Cabinet? Were they his principal advisers on all matters, or on some matters, or just what was their role?

CLIFFORD: Different Presidents use Cabinets in different ways. I believe that President Truman used his Cabinet in two ways: one, they were his specific representatives in the various departments, which it was their administrative responsibility to conduct. And then from time to time matters of broad general interest would be presented for discussion so that he might get, if possible, some thrust of agreement in general areas. He did not use his Cabinet as a board of directors.

I understand that to a certain extent President Eisenhower used his Cabinet as part of


the policymaking machinery. President Truman did not use his Cabinet that way. He understood that that was not the function of the Cabinet under our governmental system. The Cabinet as a group has no power. It does not even have any existence in our law. It is just a term that's been applied to a group of men who happen to be appointed to specific positions.

President Truman was very much aware of the lack of power of the Cabinet. He, on occasion, would refer to the incidents that occurred in the administration of President Lincoln. I believe it had to do with the Emancipation Proclamation, when Mr. Lincoln submitted the Proclamation to the Cabinet. Lincoln received quite a negative vote from the Cabinet, and in effect said, "Well, I'm glad to get the opinions of all, but inasmuch as this is a presidential responsibility I shall exercise that authority and responsibility and I herewith sign the


Proclamation." He would not call the Cabinet to discuss important specific problems. At Cabinet meetings he oftentimes would start discussions which would give him a general feeling of their attitude toward matters; but he did not depend on them as a policymaking body, nor did he assign any responsibility in that regard to his Cabinet.

HESS: We hear today of occasions when White House staff members interpose themselves between the President and his Cabinet members. Were there similar actions attempted by any staff members during the Truman administration?

CLIFFORD: I doubt that one could say that staff members would interpose themselves. President Truman used his staff a great deal. He developed a good feel for the kind of contribution that his staff could make. He was closer to his staff


than any President that I know.

As an illustration, I believe President Truman was the only President who took his vacation with his staff. Other Presidents would take their personal friends and might even prefer as part of the relaxation to get away from their staff. President Truman was comfortable with the staff, he used them well.

A system developed to some extent whereby Cabinet members would use staff members as contacts with the President. There grew up in my operation as counsel, a relationship with the State Department and the Defense Department that I think became an important part of the operation. For quite a while Robert Lovett was Under Secretary of State. He and I were friends and he used me as his contact in the White House. Dean Acheson was Under Secretary and then Secretary, and he would use me as his contact. I'd had


from early days of my coming to Washington in the spring of ‘45 a relationship that developed with James Forrestal, who at that time was Secretary of the Navy. We went through those long and arduous difficulties that led ultimately to the unification of the services. So there developed informally an exceedingly effective system of cooperation between State and Defense and my office. At times when they would like information, and they couldn't call the President, they would call me. Often the President would say to me, "Pass the message on to Acheson or to Forrestal." And in that way we developed a closely coordinated operation that I think served the President well and served the Government well.

There would be times when staff members would differ with Cabinet members. It is good for a President to hear different views. Maybe


we touched one time earlier on a dramatic meeting that I remember when Secretary of State George Marshall came over with Lovett and we had a conference on whether or not our Government should recognize Israel. We had very sharp differences of opinion.

There is one comment also that I think has value: the President learned so much as his Presidency progressed. At the very beginning, I believe he accepted as carte blanche representations or recommendations from his Cabinet members, and sometimes got into trouble by doing so. You remember the Henry Wallace incident, and the speech in Madison Square Garden which must have been back in . . .

HESS: September of '46.

CLIFFORD: . . . September of '46.

After some experiences of that kind President Truman would many times have Cabinet officers


submit recommendations in the form of a memorandum. Then he would have the staff go over the mem