Clark Clifford

Clark Clifford

Clark Clifford was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on 25th December, 1906. After graduating from Washington University worked as a lawyer in St. Louis, Missouri (1928-1943).

During the Second World War Clifford joined the US Navy and served as assistant naval aide and naval aide to President Harry S. Truman. In 1947 Truman appointed him general counsel and in this post he helped draft the National Security Act.

After leaving the government in 1950 Clifford practiced law in Washington. Over the next few years Clifford represented several large corporations. His main role was to help them to navigate their way through laws and regulations. One of his major clients was Howard Hughes.

A member of the Democratic Party, he worked as an adviser to leading politicians such as Stuart Symington and John F. Kennedy. May 1961 Kennedy appointed Clifford to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Two years later he became its chairman.

Clifford remained in this post after Lyndon B. Johnson became president. In 1967 Clifford and General Maxwell Taylor went on a fact-finding tour of Vietnam. During this period Clifford was seen as a foreign policy hawk and advised Johnson that he could win the war if he increased the number of American troops to Vietnam.

Clifford replaced Robert McNamara as Secretary Defense in March 1968. McNamara had been urging the president to gradually disengage from the conflict in Vietnam. In contrast, Clifford advocated an escalation of the war. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his main objective was to guarantee to the South Vietnamese people the right of self-determination.

McNamara had been against increasing American involvement in Vietnam. Clifford changed this policy and one of his first actions was to send 24,500 more troops to Vietnam. This increased the number to a new high of 549,500. However, he soon saw the futility of this policy and like McNamara before him, began to talk of disengagement. This brought him into conflict with Dean Rusk who argued that the war "would be won if America had the will to win it."

In order to get peace talks under way, Clifford supported Johnson's decision to end bombing north of the 20th parallel, an area comprising almost 80 percent of North Vietnam's land area. In May, 1968, North Vietnam and the United States began peace talks in Paris. On 31st October, Clifford announced the end to all bombing in North Vietnam.

Clifford returned to private practice after President Richard Nixon was elected to office and was senior partner in Clifford & Warnke. One of Clifford's clients was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). The bank was chartered in Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands and had offices in 70 countries. In 1981 Clifford became chairman of BCCI. Later it was called First American Bankshares and became the largest bank in Washington.

In July, 1991 BCCI was accused of fraud, laundering drug money and bribing bank regulators and central bankers in 10 developing countries. It was reported to have $20 billion in assets shortly before the shutdown, but liquidators were unable to find many of its assets. However, it was discovered that Clifford had made about $6 million in profits from bank stock that he bought with an unsecured loan from BCCI. As the New York Times reported: "A New York grand jury handed up indictments, as did the Justice Department. Clifford's assets in New York, where he kept most of his investments, were frozen."

Clifford and his law partner, Robert A. Altman, eventually reached a $5 million settlement with the Federal Reserve Board. Charges of bank fraud against Clifford had been set aside because of his failing health. Clifford told a journalist that he considered his role in extricating the United States from what he called that "wretched conflict in Vietnam" to be his finest moment; the day he was indicted and fingerprinted like a common criminal, he said, was "the worst."

Clark Clifford died at his home in Bethesda, Maryland on 10th October, 1998.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Chalmers Johnson, The Disquieted American (6th February, 2003)

In mid-1965, the legendary Major-General Edward Lansdale - 'legendary' for having thoroughly militarised the Philippine Government in the name of 'counterinsurgency' - was asked to return to Vietnam as special assistant to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. After hearing Lansdale talk in Washington, Ellsberg asked to join his team. He transferred from the Department of Defense to the Department of State at the same civil service grade, and set off for Saigon, still very much with the outlook of a Cold Warrior and a Marine infantry officer. Lansdale assigned him the job of visiting every province of South Vietnam and reporting on the 'pacification' efforts.

To do this, Ellsberg associated himself with another legendary figure, John Paul Vann, then working as an adviser to the US Agency for International Development. With Vann at the wheel of a jeep, they drove all over South Vietnam. Vann taught the neophyte Ellsberg many tricks of the trade: always drive fast because that makes it much harder for guerrillas to detonate a mine under your car, and always travel in the morning, after the previous night's mines have been blown but before they have all been replaced.

During these inspection tours, Ellsberg went on patrol with American units and often found himself in combat. Even though he was technically a civilian, he could not go along as a simple observer. He got a Swedish K submachine-gun from the CIA and revived his skills as an infantryman. He was surprised to discover that, with a little experience, you can usually tell from the sound when a bullet is coming directly at you. From walking around up to his neck in flooded marshes he caught hepatitis. In mid-summer 1967, after he had recovered somewhat, he left Vietnam and returned to Rand.

This tour of duty was very important to Ellsberg's political development. There was no pacification, since our South Vietnamese allies simply had no stomach for fighting their fellow Vietnamese. He discovered that the conflict was not a civil war, as so many academics around the world believed. One side, the South, was entirely equipped and paid for by a foreign power. As he writes, 'we were not fighting on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.'

Back in the US, Ellsberg was particularly incensed by the daily drumbeat of official statements from the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State and the high command in Vietnam, all of them insisting that the US was making great 'progress' in winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people.

Then came the Tet Offensive of 29 January 1968 - simultaneous Vietcong attacks in almost every province of South Vietnam as well as in Saigon itself. The scale of the offensive strongly suggested that American leaders were either incompetent or lying. On 10 March, the New York Times published a leak from inside the Pentagon to the effect that General William Westmoreland, the commanding officer in Vietnam, was asking for 206,000 more troops. Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith reported this leak, which was accurate and had a devastating effect on Congress and the American people.

It did not come from Ellsberg, but 'as I observed the effect of this leak,' he recalls, 'it was as if clouds had suddenly opened. I realised something crucial: that the President's ability to escalate, his entire strategy throughout the war, had depended on secrecy and lying and thus on his ability to deter unauthorised disclosures - truth-telling - by officials.' It dawned on Ellsberg that, in the wake of Tet and the leak, President Johnson could not get away with his deceptions any longer.

Ellsberg was recalled from Rand to Washington to join a high-level working group evaluating the full range of options on Vietnam for the incoming Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford. In the capital he learned that McNamara had ordered John McNaughton to organise the writing of an internal historical study of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to the present based on top secret documents. McNaughton assigned the project to his deputy, Morton Halperin, who in turn delegated leadership of the work to his deputy, Leslie Gelb. At the time neither Halperin nor Gelb had ever been to Vietnam.

They, in turn, hired Ellsberg to write one of the projected 47 volumes, and he chose to work on JFK and the year 1961. One of the first things he did was to obtain from the CIA all the National Intelligence Estimates for Indochina from 1950 to 1960. 'What was evident in each one of the years of major decision was that the President's choice was not founded upon optimistic reporting or on assurances of the success of his chosen course.' Ellsberg thus began to ask himself a forbidden question: why did every one of the Presidents from Truman to Johnson 'mislead the public and Congress about what he was doing in Indochina?' He had discovered part of the answer: it was not because the President's subordinates deceived him.

(2) Marilyn Berger, Clark Clifford, New York Times (11th October, 1998)

A secretary of defense for one president, friend and confidant of three others, Clifford frequently played the role of capital wise man in inner-sanctum crises, helping President Harry S. Truman find peace with labor and warning President Lyndon B. Johnson about the folly of the Vietnam war.

With a gentle drawl and an insider's run of the halls of power, Clifford was consulted as well by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, bridging the nation's postwar political era until he ran into legal troubles in high-finance brokering.

For all the roles he played in presidential history, Clifford faced a rigorous ordeal in his final years, insisting on his innocence to the end as he faced charges of fraud, conspiracy and taking bribes in the biggest banking scandal in history, the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.