January 2, 2017

1968. President Johnson Picks Clark Clifford for Defense Secretary

Capitol Hill Reacts to Incoming Defense Secretary Clark Clifford
President-elect John F. Kennedy speaking with adviser Clark Clifford, November 21, 1960 (Getty Images)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 25, 1968

This coming Friday will see a change of command in the Pentagon. Robert Strange McNamara will give up his cabinet post as the longest-serving Secretary of Defense in the nation's history, and after seven years of devoted duty to two Democratic presidents, McNamara will take a month's vacation before assuming the presidency of the World Bank on April Fools' Day.

The new man at the Pentagon, as you know, will be Washington attorney and behind-the-scenes adviser for three Democratic presidents Clark McAdams Clifford.

The assessments of Secretary McNamara's stewardship of the nation's defense establishment will keep his friends and enemies busy for many months.

It's too early, of course, to judge what impact McNamara's reorganization of the US defense establishment will have on history. He was an innovator who brought in the so-called "whiz kids" with their slide rules and computers; who for the first time tried to make military science a predictable and measurable process, as a science is supposed to be. McNamara's introduction of "Weapons Systems Analysis" and "cost effectiveness" programs has now become a permanent part of the American defense and national security processes. The system may be modified by succeeding Defense Secretaries, but it will not be banished. It works too well.

As we pointed out, assessments of Secretary McNamara's regime will be the subject of a myriad of columns and PhD theses in the future. Right now we would say in farewell to the Secretary that he might have made one major philosophical misjudgment from the beginning—accepting the theory, if he did, that there is such a thing as "military science." We suspect that it's the same error which leads university professors to regard American politics as a creditable "science."

Right or wrong, we happen to think that there are so many variables and unknown equations—so many questionable human judgments to be made in both war and politics—that it's impossible to harness them to the disciplines and parameters of science.

If they do, then war and politics are the most unpredictable of the world's sciences, just as McNamara was, in his way, the most unpredictable of the administration's cabinet officials.

That's the reason why many officials here in Washington so heartily approve President Johnson's appointment of Clark Clifford as the new Secretary of Defense. Unlike McNamara, who was tapped by President John F. Kennedy for Defense despite his Michigan registration as an independent Republican—Clark Clifford is a life-long Democrat who learned his politics from childhood by watching the hometown machinations of the St. Louis Democratic machine.

Clifford served in the so-called "kitchen cabinets" of Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson; therefore his knowledge of the Washington scene is supposed to restore the fractured relations between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, which McNamara largely ignored.

Clifford started his career in Washington as a White House naval aide to Harry Truman; the theory goon, Clifford is fully aware of the prestige and respect due military rank—a condition which McNamara observed mostly in theory.

In fact, in this highly suspicious city, the appointment of Clark Clifford to head the Defense Department produced hardly a murmur of opposition or dissent anywhere in Washington.

Texas Republican Senator John Tower complained that the nomination of a White House insider obviously meant that Lyndon Johnson intends to assume complete control of the Pentagon, the Vietnam War, and everything else military.

And there were some echoes of displeasure reported from the political camp of New York Senator Robert Kennedy, presumably because Clifford did not get along with the younger brother when he was an adviser to President Kennedy.

But otherwise the overall praise for the new Secretary of Defense has been virtually unanimous.

Among the hawks and doves on Capitol Hill, Clark Clifford seemed to be the first thing they agreed on since the escalation of the war in Vietnam. For example, Congressman Mendel Rivers, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, believes the nation should mobilize and use nuclear bombs if necessary to win in Vietnam. Chairman William Fulbright of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is horrified at such bellicose suggestions. Yet on the subject of Clark Clifford, they agree.

Mendel Rivers regards the new Defense Secretary as likely to be more hawkish than McNamara. Fulbright called Clifford "a man who can be reasoned with."

The advance billing in the newspaper and syndicated columns tends to picture Clifford as a kind of consulting psychiatrist, expert on the political schizophrenia that plagues the Congress and the Pentagon, and at the same time a man with the persuasive pitch of a television salesman peddling nostrums for jangled nerves and sleepless nights.

As a matter of fact, the 61-year-old Clifford, with his curly, graying hair and matinee-idol profile, would fulfill the image of a TV star, commercial or otherwise. Standing well over six feet tall, Clifford is always impeccably dressed; eternally polite with the courtly manner of a European aristocrat; and all of this balanced with a quiet sense of the ridiculous and humor which has been the keystone to his enormous success.

It's no secret in top legal circles that Clifford's law firm is one of the most expensive and successful in the country. The grapevine says that the new Defense Secretary, who has pledged to sever all business connections with his law firm, is giving up a half-million dollar annual income to accept the thirty-five thousand dollar cabinet post.

The companies which Clifford has represented include General Electric, RCA, Standard Oil of California, and the DuPont interests. Columnist Drew Pearson reported recently that these companies alone held almost two billion dollars in defense contracts with the Pentagon, plus almost another five hundred million dollars in research grants, all from the government.

Yet, such is Clifford's reputation for integrity in Washington that no question of a possible conflict of interest has arisen.

Clifford was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, but the family moved to St. Louis where his father prospered as an official of the Missouri Pacific railroad. Young Clark received his law degree at Washington University in 1928 and joined a St. Louis law firm, volunteering to work for nothing to learn the business. He did. A year later, during a European vacation, he met Margery Kimball, the daughter of a wealthy Massachusetts arms manufacturer. Clifford's whirlwind romance spanned a half-dozen European countries. The couple was married two years later and they had three daughters.

Despite his marriage ties Clifford applied for a commission in the Navy Reserve during World War II, and this set him on his fabulous Washington career. A St. Louis friend, James Vardaman, was President Truman's naval aide. Clifford became Vardaman's assistant in the White House and has been associated with the executive mansion in one way or another since.

Clifford became a speechwriter for Mr. Truman and then chief counsel, playing the personal adviser role that Colonel House played under Woodrow Wilson or Harry Hopkins played under Franklin Roosevelt. It was Clifford who directed the White House legal strategy in the 1946 steel strike crisis when John L. Lewis and the United Steel Workers drew more than seven hundred thousand dollars in fines for defying the federal courts.

Clifford also was instrumental in drawing up the Truman Doctrine of 1947 which blockaded the Communist takeover of Greece. You may remember that the Doctrine declared: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities and outside pressures . . ." It was the basis for the Marshall Plan which followed later. And in Clifford's view the Truman Doctrine is still valid—and applies to the current condition of South Vietnam.

Clark Clifford is credited with inventing the term "Fair Deal" and masterminding Harry Truman's upset victory over Republican Thomas Dewey. He retired from the government during the Eisenhower administration, but was in the thick of politics in 1960, managing the unsuccessful presidential campaign for fellow Missourian, Senator Stuart Symington. When John Kennedy got the nomination, Clifford worked for the Democratic victory that came in 1960, and because of his earlier White House experience served the President-elect by working with the outgoing Eisenhower administration for an expeditious transfer of power.

Since that time, Clifford has been what The Washington Post calls the "insider's insider"—a kind of confidential White House troubleshooter and super sleuth. He investigated the nation's defense establishment and recommended the legislation which placed greater power and direction over the military in the hands of the Secretary of Defense—the power, incidentally, he will take over on Friday.

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he was appointed to the new Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board which keeps a political eye on the operations of the Central Intelligence Agency.

When President Kennedy bumped heads with the powerful steel industry, it was Clifford who acted as a go-between to reconcile the White House and the nation's business community.

And on November 22, 1963, Clifford was in the White House at a meeting of the intelligence board when news came of the assassination in Dallas. He served President Johnson in those dolorous days in yet another transfer of executive power. The two men became fast friends.

Now, after twenty years as a behind-the-scenes power in Washington, Clark Clifford starts a new career as a public public servant. He refuses to classify himself as either hawk or dove on Vietnam, but it's well-known Clifford has opposed any bombing truce with Hanoi without assured reciprocity.

Under the Clifford regime, the pace of business may not be quite so frantic at the Pentagon, and there will be greater style and elegance on the third floor suite of offices of the Secretary of Defense. But if any general or admiral thinks he has a soft touch in Clifford—if any lobbyists or bureaucratic empire builders think he can exploit the new man—they will be wrong.

Clifford's thinking and philosophy already is at odds with the so-called "liberal isolationists" who are his friends from the Fair Deal and New Frontier administrations of Truman and Kennedy.

And from the beginning he has been in on the planning of the present Vietnam strategy—which includes the utmost prudence to prevent that Southeast Asian conflict from exploding into World War III.

Which leads to the conclusion that, in succeeding Robert McNamara, Clark Clifford will not change things very much. Not right away, at least.

This is Bill Downs in Washington. Now back to Don Gardiner in New York.