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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 524

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This is the grave of Clark Clifford.

Born in 1906 in Fort Scott, Kansas, Clifford grew up in Missouri and attended Washington University in St. Louis. He picked up a law degree and practiced steadily and successfully between 1928 and 1943. He was a good Democratic Party insider in Missouri, but there was nothing here that suggested anything special about Clifford as he reached middle age. In 1943, he joined the Navy in World War II and became a captain by 1945. But he also had a friend who was a rising star in American politics: Harry Truman. The future president was always one to take care of his Missouri buddies (often leading to disastrous appointments) and Clifford was one of them. He became Truman’s naval aide. When Truman became president in 1945, Clifford, now a trusted political ally of the president, was right alongside him. Note that Clifford had absolutely no political experience and knew nothing outside the confines of Missouri. But again, these were the types of men Truman relied upon.

Clifford became White House Counsel in 1946, remaining in that position for the next four years. He played a quite large role in shaping Truman’s 1948 election campaign, one of the great upsets in American political history. He urged Truman to play a more populist role to pull support from Henry Wallace while arguing that the South would not buck on his civil rights stances. He wasn’t right about the latter and certainly Strom Thurmond’s run opened the door for Dewey to win, but in any case, it didn’t happen. Clifford began playing a big role in foreign policy too, helping convince Truman to recognize the state of Israel in 1948 over the objections of George Marshall. He also was one of the lead authors on the Clifford-Elsey Report, prepared for Truman in 1946, urging him to take a hard line on the Soviet Union for reneging on treaties and promises it had made in Europe. That combined with George Kennan‘s influential publications to turn the U.S. stance on the Soviets into a hard Cold War position.

When Truman left office in 1953, Clifford was not going back to Missouri. The whole time he was in Washington, he was cultivating himself as the consummate Washington insider and he very much became that. He opened a D.C. law practice and was advising Democrats on a variety of issues, biding his time before he could return to the government. That included advising the Kennedys. Truman couldn’t stand Joe Kennedy (hard to argue there) and didn’t trust John, but Clifford built bridges between the two as 1960 approached. But Kennedy mostly kept Clifford in the background. He was appointed to the Committee on the Defense Establishment, headed by Stuart Symington and created before he had taken office. His more important role was on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was appointed to that in 1961 and then headed it from 1963 until 1968.

When Lyndon Johnson took over after Kennedy’s assassination, Clifford grew in power. He again became a key presidential advisor, especially on Vietnam. Of course, most of the time he was head of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board was under LBJ. As Clifford had developed a reputation as a strong hawk going back to his first days advising Truman, he materially helped increase American involvement in that disaster. He started visiting Vietnam as well, taking on more official duties. When Robert McNamara was finally forced out as Secretary of Defense in 1968, Clifford was named to replace him because he was more hawkish than his predecessor. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around this, but by 1968, McNamara had developed some doubts about Vietnam. Clifford had not. Clifford had actually counseled against escalation in 1965 but once Johnson rejected that, he was all in. He wasn’t a particularly strong Secretary of Defense though. Largely, he was a caretaker, just keeping up the programs that McNamara had already begun. He went a bit further his McNamara on some cost-cutting exercises. But there’s not really that much to say except to say that over the year he was in office, he did start questioning the whole enterprise of Vietnam and wondering if it was worth it, basically placing him where McNamara had been when he resigned and in opposition to Dean Rusk, who continued to believe that the U.S. was winning the war. And then Nixon won in 1968 and Clifford was out of power anyway.

But then Clifford was never really out of power. He was still Mr. Washington Insider. His law office actually overlooked the White House, just to show everyone who he was and what power he had. Of course, this created some enemies from outsider types. When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, the kind of outsider candidate that was not useful to Clifford, his advisers had a mantra: “if you ever see us relying on Clark Clifford, you’ll know we have failed.” Well, as reality set it and Carter proved a weak president, Clifford was exactly the man they turned to in their failures to change Washington. Carter named Clifford special presidential emissary to India in 1980. Going back to his hawkish ways, he also publicly threatened war with Khomeini’s Iran, which did not help anything.

Not surprising, Clifford himself was cashing in the whole time. He grew fabulously wealthy, using his big-time connections for profit. This finally caught up with him in 1991, when he got busted in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal. Clifford was chairman of a bank called First American Bankshares, which was actually owned by BCCI, which had engaged in widespread global money laundering, bribery, arms trafficking, support of terrorism, tax evasion, and even the sale of nuclear technology. Clifford and the other FAB leaders were all caught up in this, getting loans from BCCI using their bank stock as collateral. Clifford had his assets frozen. He had long prided himself on his personal integrity and while there’s no evidence I know of that Clifford had really known what was going on, there’s plenty of evidence of willful ignorance, all the while using his tremendous influence to help out BCCI.

In 1991, Clifford published his memoir, co-written with Richard Holbrooke, about his years with Truman and Johnson. He appeared in 1997 PBS documentary on Truman. Clifford died in 1998, at the age of 91. Clifford was on the TV plenty, so let’s watch it.

And of course, there’s all the transcriptions of the LBJ tapes.

Clark Clifford is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of Defense, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Melvin Laird is also at Arlington and Elliott Richardson is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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