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Clark Clifford's public career has spanned the entire Cold War: In 1946, he became President Truman's special counsel, in which capacity he helped draft the Clifford-Elsey report (warning about Soviet expansionism) and the president's Truman Doctrine speech. In 1961, he joined President Kennedy's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, becoming chairman in 1963. After Kennedy's assassination he became an important adviser to Presidents Johnson and Carter. The COLD WAR production team interviewed Clifford in November and December 1996.
On President Truman's reaction to Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech:
It came at a time when there was still hope in America that we could find a basis of living with the Soviet Union. And Mr. Churchill's speech was blunt, hard and tough. And [President Truman] came back to the United States after the Potsdam meeting quite optimistic about his ability to get along with Stalin.
Through 1945 and into 1946 that optimism began to fade. Stalin was fudging and violated portions of the Yalta agreement and the Teheran agreement, and believe it or not, even parts of the Potsdam agreement. And it became clearer all the time that the Soviets were engaged in some kind of plan for domination; whether it was Europe or the world we couldn't tell.
The speech was not well received in the United States. It was thought to be too tough a speech and the president was criticized by some for having Churchill over. Just goes to show how history changes. Now it's one of the great speeches that's ever been made, because it helped warn the world about the danger of the Soviet aggrandizement.
On riding with President Truman and Winston Churchill to Fulton, Missouri, for Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech:
Our president said to Mr. Churchill: "We'll be on this trip quite a while and I would be glad if you would call me Harry." Well, Mr. Churchill said, "I'll be glad to, if you will call me Winston." Mr. Truman said: "I don't believe I can do that." He said, "I consider you the First Citizen in the world and I just don't believe I can call you Winston." Winston Churchill said, "If you can't call me Winston, then I can't call you Harry." The president said, "On that basis, we'll do it." So it was Winston and Harry from that time on, and they got on very well.
An amusing little incident [happened] in the course of the afternoon, towards the end. Mr. Churchill said, "I've read in the press from time to time, Harry, that, you play poker." And President Truman said, "Yes, I've played a good deal." Mr. Churchill said, "Well, I played my first poker game in the Boer War." Well, that was very impressive; none of us could remember when the Boer War was, but it sounded like a long time ago. And Mr. Churchill said, "Is there any possibility that we might have a game on the trip?" The president said, "I can guarantee you that we will."
So that evening after dinner ... we settled down to play poker together. And from the way Mr. Churchill had talked, we thought he was gonna be a pretty good poker player. It turned out he wasn't. So that we'd been playing for about an hour and a half when he excused himself; Mr. Churchill said he'd be right back, and he left. And the president said, "Men, you aren't treating our guest very well. " He looked at his chips [and] he said, "Looks to me like he's lost about $300." One of the fellas spoke up and said, "Mr. President, you've got to have it one way or another. We're either gonna do our best, and if we do we'll take his pants. But if you want us to play 'business poker,' we'll do that." The president said, "Well, give him a good time, but don't let him go back and say that he beat us in the American game of poker."
So we had a charming time, played late, [and] he just didn't want to quit. And I think that at the end of it he may have lost about $250, but he had a wonderful time. Time and again, if fellas saw that they had him beat, they'd fold and let him win a pot. Which he did not know about. But he enjoyed it thoroughly.
On preparing, with George Elsey, the Clifford-Elsey report to the president on the Soviet Union:
The report was very outspoken, and we had received the attitudes of all of the top officials in the United States, and that caused the hardening of our report, because there was a curious unanimity of feeling in their attitude towards the Soviet Union. So we told about the history of the two countries in the report: we told about the splendid partnership we'd had when they were an ally of ours during the war, and then we told about the disintegration which was due to Stalin's attitude.
We ended up the report by saying the policy of our country should be set, and clearly set. The Soviet Union constitutes a real menace to freedom in this world. Freedom in Europe, freedom in the United States. So we must prepare for it. I remember the last line went something like, "As far as the Soviets are concerned, I want them to understand that we are too determined to be turned off, and too strong to be defeated."
On the Truman Doctrine:
This in some respects was the most important decision that President Truman made in his eight years in office. Keep in mind that in the farewell address of George Washington, our first president, George Washington said, "My major concern and my major advice is keep away from all entangling alliances in Europe."
In early 1947 the message came and it was flat: it said, "Great Britain is withdrawing from both economic aid and military aid to Greece and Turkey." Now, the significance of that is Greece and Turkey constituted the southern anchor of the eastern defense line. And if they went communist, it would be an extraordinary problem for the rest of the world.
[Truman] thought a great deal about it, worried about it a lot, consulted the leaders in Congress at considerable length, both Democratic and Republican. And finally in early March, after thorough investigation of it and a period of close, hard reasoning, he said, "We're going to take advantage of this situation. We must not leave that part of the world unprotected, and if the British leave it we will go in and replace the British, with economic aid and military aid if necessary."
He made that announcement in what has become known as the Truman Doctrine speech in March ... and I remember riding up to the Congress, and he said, "I just don't know what the reaction of the American people is going to be." He said, "I think we can get the support of Congress." But he was greatly pleased to get the support that he did from the country. He explained why it was necessary, and it was in that speech that he said, "The United States must help those nations who are besieged by foreign interests both from within and from without, and we shall assist those nations in keeping their freedom."
Well, a thrill went clear around the world. Letters poured in from practically every country. The United States had taken a position, and to some extent had come in full force into the 20th century, and had shown it intended to defend against Soviet aggression.
On the Marshall Plan:
Part of the president's attitude toward the Soviet Union was we must begin not only to strengthen ourselves, but to strengthen our historic allies, so as [the Soviets] continue on with their aggressive designs we will have allies and we can work together, and we will perhaps some day have to fight to save Europe. And he wanted to build up Europe, which was prostrate at the time.
Now, at the end of the Second World War the Soviets were very powerful militarily; they'd come through the war well. We had supplied them with mountains of material, so they had modern weapons and everything they needed. And they had a battle-hardened army. We used to talk about the fact that the Soviets could, if they chose, send their army westward across Europe and they could march unimpeded to the British Channel. Nobody could stop them. France was bled dry, Italy was out of the picture, nobody there to do it. And he thought that it wasn't enough just for us to strengthen our defenses, but that we should begin to tell the rest of the world what this danger was, and help build them up so that they could be a force to align themselves with us and defend the world.
On how it came to be called the Marshall Plan:
I was much younger then, and in some areas rather inexperienced. So when we took in maybe the first draft of that speech to President Truman, and we went through it and he was generally pleased with it, and I said, "Mr. President, this is one of the great decisions of your administration, and it may be the first time in the history of the world one of the great wealthy nations had reached out and helped a number of others that needed help at the time, with no hope of aggrandizement, no hope of additional territory, doing it as a humane act." [He] said, "I agree to all that." So I said, "I'd hope your name would be connected with this plan." He said, "No. No, Clark. If this goes up as a Truman product, it'll lie up there for a day or two and then turn belly up and die." He said, "The Republicans are not going to pass anything that's called the Truman something."
In a day or two he makes the decision that it should be called the Marshall Plan. And it was given to General Marshall and he delivered it ... at Harvard University, in their commencement. And he was right: when it was called the Marshall Plan, a Republican of any stripe could vote for it then. So his judgment was entirely right.
On the Berlin blockade:
[Truman] talked with [General] Clay and with [his chief of staff], Admiral Leahy, and they recommended that we prepare a convoy of trucks loaded with the greatest firepower that had ever been seen in the world, and that we inform the Soviets that that convoy was going to go to Berlin.
Now, if the Soviets stepped aside and the convoy went through, then peace would continue. If they chose not to let the convoy through, then it meant war. It was just that simple. And the last thing in the world President Truman wanted to do was see our country get into another great war. We'd just come out of one. So a lot of attention was given to what we could do.
Some advisers just didn't believe that we could supply Berlin by air; such a thing had never been thought of before. And he said, "It's worth a try. We must do something, and let's try this." And so for nine months we supplied Berlin with everything it needed: food, drink, fuel, clothing. And the planes flew on a regular schedule, day after day, and the Soviets couldn't do anything about it. And Berlin was getting along really pretty well.
About nine months after it started, one night the Soviets came in and removed all the barriers, so there was no blockade any longer. It's important that you have the feeling what the result was. The result was a tremendous victory for the United States. The Soviet Union had stepped up harshly and said this is what we're going to do. The United States had avoided war and Berlin had prospered under the policy that we had. It was one of the great public relation victories that we had and was very valuable to us.
On U.S. Cold War strategy:
The United States offered a three-pronged plan. First was the Truman Doctrine, which saved Greece and Turkey and gave hope to the world. The world and freedom might be saved.
The second was the Marshall Plan, and we spent any number of billions of dollars in building back the economies of the European nations, and they came back wonderfully with that help.
Then came the third leg on the stool that was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It, in very simple language, said to the Soviets: If you attack any one of our allies you're attacking the United States, and it means war. Just that simple. It was Stalin's decision to make. And when that threat was made it had a particular emphasis in it, because at that time we had the bomb and they didn't. But even after they got the bomb, the idea of attacking one of the NATO members -- there were 14 -- and starting a war with the United States was very unappealing to the Soviets. They'd come to have an enormous respect for America during the Second World War as a production of our economy, the way [we] rose to that occasion.
So I would say to you, and I would say to the public, that the five years following the Second World War, 1946-1950, was one of the proudest periods in the history of our country. Because in my opinion the United States under Truman's leadership saved the free world.