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Keeper of the Seal

When not arranging the fate of nations, Clark Clifford took on humbler tasks, he informs us with a knowing grimace. One such assignment, offered almost as comic relief in this book of grand designs, came from Jacqueline Kennedy when she moved to the White House. Mrs. Kennedy, casting about for a weekend place to stay in “hunt country,” had fixed her eye on Glen Ora, a four-hundred-acre estate. But the owner, a Mrs. Tartiere, did not want to sell or rent her house. She had the effrontery to prefer keeping what Mrs. Kennedy was determined to have. When the normal realestate agents failed, Mrs. Kennedy turned to Clark Clifford, the man who had served the Kennedys in earlier emergencies (handling the charge that John Kennedy was not the real author of his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, coping with Edward Kennedy’s cheating record at Harvard).

Clifford said that, in his emollient terminology, he would “establish a relationship” with Mrs. Tartiere. But the determined widow, who had lived in her house since her husband’s death, resisted even Clifford’s fabled blandishments. He deployed all his resources, using charm, name-dropping, flattery, cajolery, and dough. Still no sale. Then he played his trump card:

I appealed to Mrs. Tartiere on what amounted to national security grounds, saying that one should not refuse a President such a reasonable request, especially if it would help ease the great burdens of his office. This time, Mrs. Tartiere very reluctantly agreed….

Mrs. Kennedy drew Clifford a special valentine, which he reproduces in his book, with the caption “Jacqueline Kennedy’s charming thank-you note….” She pictures a jaunty Mr. Clifford striding briskly toward a house with his briefcase full of tools. Those sticking out of the case are labeled Tortures, Places of Exile, List of Jails. It has become another Kennedy family joke, and an addition to the Clifford legend for performing impossible tasks, that a woman was bullied out of her home for the First Lady’s convenience. But what should be most interesting to us is the resort Clifford fell back on when all else failed. This little story is a parable, in ways Clifford himself does not recognize. There are three serious lessons here.

  1. When someone in authority wants something, and the matter cannot be decided on its merits, invoke national security. When appropriations are asked for and Congress stalls, say that national security demands this weapon, or that education grant. Dwight Eisenhower said it was a matter of national security to build interstate highways for wartime troop movements and evacuation of cities.

  2. National security measures, invoked against foreign enemies, are really more useful as weapons to be used on American citizens. Premier Khrushchev was not inconvenienced by Mrs. Kennedy’s weekends at Glen Ora, but Mrs. Tartiere was. The “secret bombings of Cambodia” were no secret to those being bombed. They were only a secret to the United States Congress, which had the means to stop them if they were revealed. The assassination attempts on Castro were no secret to Castro, or to Khrushchev, only to the American people. Thus when Khrushchev said the missiles were there for defense against American aggression, and Kennedy denied that any such aggression was occurring, the Soviet leader was telling the truth and the Leader of the Free World was lying—but only to us. We had to be deceived for national security purposes. When the President wants to bamboozle us, we get the Mrs. Tartiere treatment.

  3. The scope of national security extends to anything that might conceivably ease the life of a president. By contrast, anything that makes the president’s job more difficult is, by definition, an assault on the national security. This argument, lightly invoked to intimidate Mrs. Tartiere, is used on more serious occasions in Mr. Clifford’s book. When the railroad unions threaten to strike, Mr. Clifford says they must be prevented, in order to demonstrate presidential forcefulness—to Premier Stalin:

Did he [Truman] have the personal strength and political power to deal with American labor? If he did not, how could he deal with the darkening world situation, so graphically outlined by Winston Churchill in his “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, only ten weeks earlier?

The cold war now dictated domestic policy. Truman understood this identification of the nation itself with presidential prerogative, and said of the railroad strikers that it was time to “hang a few traitors.” (Clifford, not for the last time, replaced the candid conclusion to be drawn from his own premises with a more presentable statement.)

Clifford has a proprietary right to the use of the national security argument. As much as anyone he created the national security state, its rationale and its organization. He laid out the rationale in his famous report on American-Soviet policy, drawn up with the help of his assistant, George Elsey, in the summer of 1946. The two men meant to turn the analysis of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” of that spring into policy recommendations. Kennan, Acheson, and others were canvassed, but the sense of urgency in the report was Clifford’s. (Acheson later tried to tone down some of Clifford’s anti-Soviet rhetoric.)1 It was not till the next February that Senator Arthur Vandenberg told the President he must “scare hell out of the country” if he wanted support for the Marshall Plan. But the Clifford-Elsey memorandum, submitted six months earlier, scared even Truman, who ordered all copies except his own destroyed. Clifford quotes his boss as saying, “If it leaked it would blow the roof off the White House, it would blow the roof off the Kremlin.”

It is hard, from the part of Clifford’s report quoted in this book, to see what caused such panic in the President. As Clifford blandly remarks, after printing some bland excerpts, “Today this may seem a self-evident summation of American policies during the Cold War.” One may wonder why Clifford, in a book meant to lay out his entire record, does not print the whole report. He had kept his own copy, and showed it to Arthur Krock in 1966, who ran it as an appendix to his memoirs, published in 1968.

If one turns to that printing of the report, it becomes clear why Clifford would prefer that we read only the excerpts he now advances. For one thing, the report showed a disquieting enthusiasm for germ warfare:

Therefore, in order to maintain our strength at a level which will be effective in restraining the Soviet Union, the United States must be prepared to wage atomic and biological warfare….

Whether it would actually be in the country’s interest to employ atomic and biological weapons against the Soviet Union in the event of hostilities is a question which would require careful consideration in the light of the circumstances prevailing at the time….2 But the important point is that the United States must be prepared to wage atomic and biological warfare if necessary.3

On another matter, the internal threat of communism, Clifford now expresses views quite different from the report’s. In this book, he regrets giving in to pressure from J. Edgar Hoover and the Republicans when Truman established the loyalty program. He went even farther in a 1978 interview with Carl Bernstein:

My own feeling was there was not a serious loyalty program. I felt the whole thing was being manufactured. We never had a serious discussion about a real loyalty problem…. I have the sensation that the President didn’t attach fundamental importance to the so-called Communist scare. He thought it was a lot of baloney. But political pressures were such that he had to recognize it…. There was no substantive problem…. It was a political problem…. He [Truman] was under enormous political pressures, and he was pushed into answering them…. They [the House Un-American Activities Committee] were giving us trouble. The political implications of it were such that he could not do anything but issue it [the security clearance procedure]. He had to face up to it, and take some action with reference to it. There was the whole [Hiss as] red-herring question: They beat him with it to a bloody stump. He had to recognize the political realities of life. He’d gotten a terrible clobbering in 1946 in the congressional elections. And for the next two years.

We gave a good deal of thought to how to respond. We had a presidential campaign ahead of us and here was a great issue, a very damaging issue, so he set up this whole kind of [clearance] machinery. How it functioned is an unknown chapter to me.”4

Clifford does not refer to Bernstein’s book in his text, though he cites it in his select bibliography, which seems a tacit agreement to the accuracy of Bernstein’s reporting. And Clifford’s book expresses, more judiciously, regret for yielding to the pressures of the 1948 election. Yet he does not give enough credit to his own 1946 report, which warned Truman that “the armed forces, government agencies and heavy industries are the principal targets for communistic infiltration at present,” after noting that “everywhere agents of the Soviet government work to weaken the governments of other nations and to achieve their ultimate isolation and destruction.”5

There is continuous Communist propaganda within the United States Army and from without to promote left-wing sentiment among soldiers. Strong and continuous efforts are being made to infiltrate the educational service of the Army and to color the material used in indoctrination and education of the troops. A definite campaign, in the making at present, is being sponsored by the Communist Party to indoctrinate soldiers to refuse to act in the event the United States Army is called on to suppress domestic disturbances, to take over essential industries, or to operate public utilities.6

No wonder Truman thought that people with “left-wing sentiments” about his seizing of the railroads should be hanged as traitors.

Though the report says that the United States should work for peace with the Soviet Union, it shows no hope for accomplishing that except by hostile pressures kept up over a long period:

The general pattern of the Soviet system is too firmly established to be altered suddenly by any individual—even Stalin.7 Conferences and negotiations may continue to attain individual objections but we cannot talk the Soviets into changing the character of their philosophy and society. If they can be influenced in ways beneficial to our interests, it will be primarily by what we do rather than by what we say, and it will not happen suddenly.8

For that reason, if the occasion arises for pressuring the USSR out of the UN, “the United States should not oppose Soviet departure.” Thucydides said that society disintegrates when men no longer agree even on the terms for discourse.9 That is the position Clifford describes in US and USSR dialogue.

They utilize interpretations [of agreements] which are entirely at variance with the views of other signatories, exploiting to this end the Soviet definitions of terms such as “democratic,” “friendly,” “fascist,” et cetera, which are basically different from the noncommunist understanding of these words.10

  1. 1

    Truman’s March 12, 1947, message to Congress on the Communist threat in Greece was drafted in the State Department. “George Kennan thought it too strong, since it took the line I [Acheson] had taken with the legislative group, and feared that it might provoke the Soviet Union to aggressive action. Clark Clifford thought it too weak and added some points that I thought unwise. Using General Marshall’s great prestige, I got Clark to withdraw his additions and recommend the message as the General had approved it.” Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation (W.W. Norton, 1969), p. 221. Clifford contends here that most of his changes survived State’s objections, but he admits he was fighting to make the speech “tough enough,” and he considers Kennan’s objections a fudging on his own “doctrine” in the Long Telegram: “It was oddly characteristic of this remarkable and lonely hero, soon to be famous for coining the word ‘containment,’ that he would become the first dissenter from its first application.”

  2. 2

    This sentence was added by George Kennan, according to interviews in Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men (Simon and Schuster, 1986), pp. 376, 785–86.

  3. 3

    Clark Clifford, “American Relations with the Soviet Union,” in Arthur Krock, Memoirs: Sixty Years on the Firing Line (Funk and Wagnalls, 1968), p. 478.

  4. 4

    Carl Bernstein, Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir (Simon and Schuster, 1989), pp. 197–200.

  5. 5

    Arthur Krock, Memoirs, p. 432 (italics added).

  6. 6

    Arthur Krock, Memoirs, p. 475 (italics added).

  7. 7

    Contrast with George Kennan’s Memoirs 1925–1950 (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1967), pp. 365–67: “When I used the term ‘Soviet Power’ in the X-Article, I had in view, of course, the system of power organized, dominated, and inspired by Joseph Stalin…. If, then, I was the author in 1947 of a ‘doctrine’ of containment, it was a doctrine that lost much of its rationale with the death of Stalin….”

  8. 8

    Arthur Krock, Memoirs, p. 480.

  9. 9

    Thucydides 3.82.4: Corcyra “fell into its component parts” because “the agreed upon currency of words for things was subjected to random barter.”

  10. 10

    Arthur Krock, Memoirs, p. 445.

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