Clark M. Clifford Oral History Interview, October 4, 1973

Oral History Interview with

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

Washington, D. C.
October 4, 1973
by James F. C. Hyde, Jr. and Stephen J. Wayne

[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 September, 1988
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Clifford Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed | Top of the Page]



CLIFFORD: My major areas of interest, when I was in the White Housein the Truman administration, were in the fields of foreign policyand national security. I came into the White House first in the springof 1945. I was still in the Navy, and I came into the Naval Aide's officeat that time as an assistant to Captain [James K.] Vardaman [Jr.], whowas Naval Aide. I served in that capacity from the spring of '45 unti lthe spring of '46, at which time Judge [Samuel] Rosenman, who had been counsel at the White House, left. I then succeeded Judge Rosenman, and became Special Counsel to President Truman in the spring of '46, and served in that capacity for approximately four years


I was suggesting to you that the major areas of my interest were serving as liaison between the State Department and the White House and also between what at that time were the War and Navy Departments. You will remember that back in 1945 we had no Defense Department. That was first created in 1947. I'm giving you that bit of background because I'm not sure that I gave too much of my attention to the relationship of the White House and what was then the Budget Bureau.

WAYNE: I knew that you had taken Judge Rosenman's position, and I was under the impression that, for example, papers on major bills and particularly on enrolled bills, flowed through the Special Counsel on their way to the President. So we thought that you might have had some exposure in that connection.

CLIFFORD: Yes, I did.

WAYNE: Yes, and we have been carrying on questions in three areas. One is the development of the President's annual legislative program; the second one is the ongoing clearance of Administration positions on either sending legislation up, or before Congress; and the third is the enrolled


bill area. Perhaps if one or more of those is not relevant we could just save your time and concentrate on the one where you were involved.

CLIFFORD: Well, let me start talking about my recollection of my activity in those fields. Interrupt me anytime with questions if you will . . .

WAYNE: Thank you.

CLIFFORD: . . . so you can utilize me for the particular purposes that you have in mind.

Take one, the President's annual legislative program. As we did it then,that was pretty much the function and the responsibility of the Special Counsel. I would get up a letter in the late summer--that would perhaps be August of each year--and I would get that letter out to the departments of Government, and to the agencies of Government, and perhaps to some other individuals suggesting that they submit to the White House their views toward legislation, with particular reference to legislation that they desired for the coming session of the Congress.

Now, that would go to the State Department, to War and Navy, to all the other departments, Treasury,


Justice and so forth, and their replies would begin to come in. It also went to the SEC and it went to the Federal Communications Commission, the Power Commission, all of the quasi-judicialagencies of Government. One would go, or a letter would go, to the Council of Economic Advisors for any legislation that they had in mind. We started that first, it seems to me, maybe in 1946. I suppose some kind of similar policy had been followed before.

What we found out, perhaps even that first year, was that there would usually be an individual designated in each department or agency to handle this function. Over the next four years, we developed an exceedingly valuable and effective working machinery, because each one of these men who started doing it in 146 in the various departments and agencies usually continued on. In that way, the White House developed a relationship with a working member of each department. My recollection is that at times, in almost every instance, as we began to work on the State of the Union Message,we would invite the man in from State or Agriculture, whichever one he might be, to talk matters out with him. That gave us a much


better feel than just receiving some cold, formal documentation from the various departments.

The purpose of getting in this information was to have the background of the needs and opinions of the departments and agencies of Government so that we would be able to extract from that voluminous collection ofinformation a legislative program that President Truman wished to advocate and recommend to the Congress. That also pretty well formed the basis ofthe body of the President's State of the Union address, which of course the President would always deliver personally. We always felt that the language of the Constitution rather implied that the President of the United States should deliver that message personally to the Congress.

WAYNE: Did the Bureau of the Budget serve in any kind of a staff capacity to you and other members of the White House staff in winnowing, or screening this, or so on?

CLIFFORD: Yes, they did. I have some recollection that what we would do would be to bring over from the Bureau of the Budget--by over I mean a cross the street, because they were then quartered in the Executive office Building,


and maybe they still are, I just do not know--and we would bring over at that stage a man or two. My recollection is that that's perhaps the first time I encountered David Bell, who was a very able fellow. We brought him over, maybe with one or two associates, temporarily to serve in the White House during that period. We had a very small staff in the White House.

I might take a moment to comment on that. As time went on, I served as liaison with State and with the War Department and the Navy Department,and after Defense was created in 147 I served as the liaison there. That job, at that time, was handled by me and one assistant. George Elsey was my assistant. And then to some extent, as time went on, Charles Murphy used to work with me, and even for me. I remember that when I was getting ready to leave in 1950, I recommended to President Truman that Charlie Murphy succeed me. That was our total staff at that time.

Now, we did not serve in the broad area, for instance, that a Henry Kissinger serves in, but we performed many of the functions that the Kissinger operation performs. That is again, I say, the liaison


with the State and the Defense Departments. At one time I was told that Mr. Kissinger hasas many as 140 people working for him. So I don't know what's happened with that operation. We did, it with two, and then after a while three individuals, and I might say it worked very smoothly. I remember the Secretaryof State used to call me when he had something coming up and would tellme ahead of time what it was, and often times I would go in then, when hecame over to meet with President Truman. That relationship was very definitely that way when Secretary Forrestal, who was first Secretary of the Navy,and then was the first Secretary of Defense, would come over to see the President.

WAYNE: Do you deplore the proliferation of White House staff as a general proposition?

CLIFFORD: Oh, I think it's ghastly. I think that whole operation is inimical to the proper operation of our Government. I have a lot of regard for the State Department. I think that the State Department should be handled in such a manner that the men who work there have a sense of the importance and dignity of their operation.


I think the morale of the State Department has been abysmal these last four years, because I think they've been given almost routine administrative tasks to perform, and all the policy decision have been made within the White House. I think that's unfortunate.

HYDE: Mr. Clifford, on the same subject, would your comments also hold true on the domestic area, the construction of a fairly large White House which begins with Johnson under Califano and then extends to Nixon and the Domestic Council? Would you feel also that this robs some of the departments azd agencies of their policy input and perhaps significance?

CLIFFORD: Generally speaking, I would say yes. But I think it is not nearly so acute or extreme as it is in the foreign policy and national security fields.

WAYNE: You mean extreme in a sense of the way that it was done, or just doing it?

CLIFFORD: In both. Again, let me say that in the foreign policy and national security fields, so much of that whole effort was drawn into the White House. It left


very little for the rest of the Government to do.I think that the functions of the Government that could have been used,were not used, and I think that we lose something by that. I think that there is a value to keeping the departments and agencies in a status of importance, and I think that that was all changed, or has been changed these past years.

HYDE: You were on the other end of this in a way, were you not, in the Johnson administration? Was it Mr. Rostow that was the Henry Kissinger of that day, when you were Secretary of Defense?

CLIFFORD: Yes, to a certain extent that was so. I'll touch on that in a minute. I was going to give a further answer to the question, and that is that as far as domestic policy is concerned, I would feel the same way.I think it's inadvisable to draw so much power into the White House. I think that saps the strength of the Government. I feel less strongly about it in the domestic field, for two reasons. One, a President perhaps needs more centralization in domestic policy, because that's one phase of Government that members


of Congress are so interested in, and there are other people so interested in it. I think, to some extent the President's faced with domestic issues so much and he has to pass that on to people. Also, I fee lthat way because, for a second reason, the domestic policy operation was not nearly so large in either the Johnson or the Nixon administrations,as was the foreign policy operation within the White House. There were not 140 men handling domestic policy. Califano had a substantially larger staff than existed in President Truman's day, or existed in President Eisenhower's day. I don't have the feeling that there was a very large centralizationin the Eisenhower administration, that is, pulling a lot of people in. There was great centralization in putting the military staff concept into the White House, which President Eisenhower did.

Now, getting on to your question, Mr. Hyde, about looking at the White House operation from my standpoint when I was in the Defense Department.Ordinarily speaking, the operation at that time, I felt, did not impinge too seriously on the relationship between the Defense Department and the White House because I had a very


long personal relationship and friendship with President Johnson that went back 25 years. I can see however, if it had not been for that kind of relationship, it's entirely possible that the Rostow operation would have interfered with and would have impinged upon it. I don't know how big his staff got, maybe it was 30 or 40 or 50,or something of that kind. But I did not have the feeling that it was nearly as encompassing.

For instance, you had Dean Rusk in State, and although he and I differed on some policy questions, I considered him to be a dedicated public servant,an experienced man in his field. And he had quite a lot of influence with President Johnson. So I don't believe that Rostow had too much to do with that relationship. And certainly, he didn't interfere very much with the relationship that I had with President Johnson. After a while, as far as Vietnam was concerned, I knew how Rostow felt and he knew how I felt. We were at directly opposite ends of the pole, and President Johnson had the benefit of hearing both of us. For instance, President Johnson was too experienced to get my views of Vietnam through Mr. Rostow, you see. That would have


been a curious effort. It would have meant going through a considerable distortion, I assure you. But we both had the opportunity to speak out at the time.

HYDE: On that point, Mr. Clifford, what was it, the Tuesday luncheons,the famous luncheons where you met with the President, did that sort of equal the way things worked in the Truman day? Is that what your remarks suggest because of your personal relationships?

CLIFFORD: It was similar to a certain extent. The operation in the Truman administration was a very informal one. Mr. Truman didn't have a tendency to institutionalize as some Presidents do. Also, President Truman was avery personal, direct man, and that carried through in his contacts with other people. If he did not have confidence in an individual, if he did not feel comfortable with an individual, he didn't see that person very much, and that person would have considerable trouble getting his views before Mr. Truman. On the other hand, if he was comfortable with a man and worked well with him, and in the past had developed confidence, then he saw that individual and he wanted to continue to see him. That's


one reason why I think the operation around President Truman was kept within certain bounds. He didn't want to bring a lot of people in; he didn't want to have to expand a whole lot of contacts. That was up to the people on whom he depended. For instance, he expected that we were in contact with a lot of the departments, that that was our job to do, and that we wouldn't bring a lot of extra people in.

Now, the Tuesday luncheon was very valuable. That brought together the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President's advisor on National Security, whether it was Mac Bundy or Walt Rostow. Then sometimes a staff member like Harry McPherson and the President's Press Secretary was there. You could speak with complete freedom. Even Dean Rusk would speak with freedom there. Dean Rusk was very concerned about speaking at larger meetings. I wasn't, because I didn't care whether what I said leaked or not; it was all right with me if it did, because we were engaged in those very important policy considerations.At those Tuesday luncheons, the forthrightness and candor with which the men spoke was


very valuable. And the President could speak very freely at those luncheons, so