Clifford Clark
Clifford Clark; drawing by David Levine

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

The right wing would come to call this the “Aesopian language” of Communists, which makes any communication with them impossible. To oppose it, one can only mimic it, professing to work for, e.g., arms agreement, but knowing that talk does no good with the Soviets: “The United States, with a military potential composed primarily of high effective technical weapons, should entertain no proposal for disarmament or limitation of armament as long as the possibility of Soviet aggression exists.”11


In order to cope with such a monster, we must adopt some of its loathsome traits:

Because the Soviet Union is a highly-centralized state, whose leaders exercise rigid discipline and control of all governmental functions, its government acts with speed, consistency, and boldness. Democratic governments are usually loosely organized, with a high degree of autonomy in government departments and agencies. The United States can not afford to be uncertain of its policies toward the Soviet Union. There must be such effective coordination within the government that our military and civil policies concerning the U.S.S.R., her satellites, and our allies are consistent and forceful.12

That last sentence gives the motive for the proposals Truman was soon sending to Congress—for uniting the military branches; for setting up the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the security clearance program. The President did not get everything Clifford recommended. Universal Military Training (UMT) should be adopted, according to the report: “In addition to increasing the efficiency of the armed forces, this program would have a salutary psychological effect upon Soviet ambitions.”13 What Clifford was calling for was the remobilization of America on a wartime basis only a year after the Second World War had ended. The report treats earlier calls for demobilization (and for racial integration in the services) as Communist propaganda:

One of the objectives of the American Communist Party is the subversion of the armed forces of the United States. Important activities in this connection were the recent soldier demonstrations relating to demobilization and the recent anti-caste agitation. 14

Even without UMT, Truman’s programs put America part-way back on a wartime footing. In war, the Constitution tends to be suspended in some of its operations. The CIA, secretly funded, contravenes Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution: “A regular statement and account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time (i.e., with no period of time omitted).” Thenceforth, secretly reporting to a few congressional members would count as “publishing,” since the things a citizenry may not know grow inordinately in wartime. The security clearance procedure set up in 1947 surpassed anything of the sort in World War II, and the amount of material now “classified” means that ordinary citizens are disqualified from judging the actions of their superiors. As recently as last fall, Secretary of State Baker, testifying on the Gulf intervention, dismissed the misgivings even of experts because they did not have the highest clearance to read the latest cables. Democracy is wounded at its very center when only a “cleared” elite can discuss policy, not the body of the people at large.

In accordance with the war mentality adopted in 1947, the presidential title of “Commander in Chief” received a sudden and vast inflation. During last fall’s debate on the Gulf, member after member rose in Congress to say “we must support our Commander in Chief.” He is not their Commander in Chief. That short title is itself a distortion. The President is Commander in Chief of the armed forces in active service. The full constitutional title is this:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States (Article II, Section 2, italics added).

The President is not even Commander in Chief of the Militia except when two conditions are fulfilled. That is: he is not even the Commander in Chief of those in Congress who belong to the reserves—much less of those who have no military connection at all. It is a sign of our willingness to submit to wartime discipline in peace that the President is now widely considered to be the Commander in Chief of the American people. John Kennedy used the term that way, and so does Clark Clifford in his book. (He speaks, for instance, of civilian guests’ conduct toward “their Commander in Chief” while visiting Lyndon Johnson’s ranch.)

This is not a harmless locution—it can harden to a demand for military obedience, as when Alexander Haig, executing Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” told Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus: “Your Commander in Chief has given you an order. You have no alternative [but to obey].” Advocates of a presidential war-making power now rely on the Commander in Chief clause, confident that people feel the president has the power to commit the whole citizenry to following his lead. This is at the far end of a spectrum that has its quiet, almost folksy, other end in the treatment of Mrs. Tartiere. Mr. Clifford, in telling her that “one should not refuse a President” in the name of national security, was doing General Haig’s work in the modest way that eats gradually into citizen independence at all levels.

While continuing to use “national security” when it fits his own (or Mrs. Kennedy’s) convenience, Mr. Clifford tries to edge away from what he considers the abuses of the programs he helped set up. He thinks CIA covert activities have gone too far, though he admits he helped frame the “Aesopian language” in which the agency was empowered to undertake “such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.”

The “other” functions the CIA was to perform were purposely not specified, but we understood [who is we?] that they would include covert activities. We did not mention them by name because we felt it would be injurious to our national interest to advertise the fact that we might engage in such activities.

Legislation cannot “advertise” (i.e., specify, admit) what it is up to. Can it be any surprise that accountability (the essence of republican self-government) is hard if not impossible to exact from those carrying out legislation whose very drafters refused to be accountable for what they were framing? Who was being kept in the dark here—potential enemies (who would not know their government was being overthrown, since that was just called “other duties”)? Or the legislators asked to pass the bill—would they not know they were buying a pig in a poke if the poke was baggy and shapeless enough? Or the citizenry (“Coo-coo-cachou Mrs. Tartiere”)? It is hard to know who is meant for exclusion in a system where secrecy becomes a goal in itself. All really important things are to be henceforth secret, and only really important people are to be given access to them. How can one be sure, with Mr. Clifford, that an instrument like the CIA was abused? To use it at all was to abuse the democratic process.

Mr. Clifford, though he has run many presidential errands over the years (e.g., to Glen Ora), only served briefly in two administrations, as counsel to the president in the Truman administration (for three and a half years) and as Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense (for a year). Clifford takes deserved credit for helping to pry loose Lyndon Johnson’s panicky clutch upon his very own war; but when he tries to give us the meaning of Vietnam, he does not live up to his reputation as a wise man. He thinks it was right to help an ally, but that the effort should have been cut off when it became clear that the gains (preservation of a rickety and corrupt regime, against a determined and resourceful foe) were not to be won with anything like proportionate expenditures of men and money. The larger historical view is entirely missing. The point of Vietnam was that the United States tried, for its own reasons, to continue a native regime tained by colonialism, when even the French had given up on this late outpost of colonialism. Clifford still thinks in terms of a bipolar world where the collapse of colonialism is an epiphenomenon of the cold war and not the largest geopolitical fact of the postwar world.

Apart from his relatively brief time on the government payroll, Clifford has earned his reputation as an informed adviser of presidents and a wealthy counselor to businessmen seeking something from Washington. For years he maintained the thin pretense that the latter role had nothing to do with the former. Much as he spoke for presidents, he would not speak to Washingtonians, impressed by his White House access, as anything but an informed observer of the government. He did a little recital for all who became his clients. It was repeated verbatim, over and over:

I do not consider that this [law] firm will have any influence of any kind here in Washington…. If you want influence, you should consider going elsewhere. What we can offer you is an extensive knowledge….

Who was supposed to be fooled by that little performance? Clifford’s briefcase may not really have contained tortures and places of exile, but was certainly stuffed with influence, formal and informal, direct and indirect. Others listened to Clifford because the President (any president) listened to him, and the man who escorted Mrs. Tartiere out of her house to the sounds of “Hail to the Chief” was certainly not shy about firing his own set of twenty-one guns when it helped him get his way. After all, he calls his own book Counsel to the President—a job he held, formally, for only three and a half of his eighty-five years. Obviously, he lets his glory time color everything else about his life.

Who was supposed to be deceived by his disclaimer of influence? Perhaps, as with the weasel words put into the CIA’s enabling legislature, Clifford was indulging in omnidirectional obfuscation. But the one person the speech seems to have ended up deceiving was Clifford himself. It was his influence that made bank regulators trust him so far in the recent scandal, where Clifford, unwittingly or not, served as front man for Arab money launderers. It is customary to wonder how Mr. Integrity could have ended up in the plight he clucks over, in his book, while describing Abe Fortas:

What had driven a man of such exceptional intelligence to bring himself down through such dubious financial arrangements? I would ask myself this question many times in the years that followed.

Now people are asking that question about Clifford. How could the wise counselor to others have given himself so little guidance? The customary thing is to say that this book would have been the final laurel wreath on Clifford’s triumph but for the banking scandal he is now caught up in.

But there was always something dubious about Clifford’s triumphs. The national security state is not the best gift to have left the citizenry of this country. Clifford served a presidency he helped to bloat—he swallowed his first misgivings about Vietnam after President Johnson ignored them, and loyally served a bad policy before, late in the game, ameliorating its worst aspects. The CIA as he helped conceive it was bound to go wrong. A man who either believed or cynically recited the astonishingly obfuscatory words about his advisory role over the years was acting on a personal mandate as slippery as the CIA’s first charter. It is dangerous, as Thucydides said, to uncouple words from things. One starts out fooling others, and ends up fooling oneself.

This Issue

July 18, 1991