Clark Clifford: The Wise Man of Washington (review)
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Clark Clifford: The Wise Man of Washington. By John Acacia. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Pp. 440. $39.95 cloth)

Clark Clifford was the consummate Washington insider. He had come up during the Truman administration as a naval officer in the White House, really a minor position. From there he rose to become one of Truman's chief advisors, the man with the president's ear. He became a specialist at synthesizing information for the president. In fact, he turned the works of others into his own and then presented the final result to the president in a manner that the president needed and even admired. In the 1960s, he became an advisor to Lyndon Johnson, and then his secretary of defense when Robert McNamara decided that he could no longer stomach the war in Vietnam. Clifford convinced Johnson that the war was not winnable. Johnson decided not to seek another term, and he spent the remainder of his presidency trying to bring an end to the conflict. Clifford returned to being the highest of high-powered Washington lawyers until the early 1990s when he became embroiled in a nasty bank scandal that damaged his reputation just as his memoir, Counsel to the President was about to hit bookstores.

John Acacia, in his book Clark Clifford: The Wise Man of Washington, has addressed some of the big questions that have always surrounded Clifford. Was he an idea man? Acacia says, emphatically, no. Clifford blatantly took the works of others, placed his name on the coversheets, and passed the work on the president as his own. Probably the best example is the nearly infamous "Clifford Memo" that mapped out Truman's 1948 upset victory over Republican Thomas Dewey. The memo was written by James Rowe, and Clifford, through the remainder of his life, was never really willing to give up that information. It was much the same with the "Clifford-Elsey Report," a document that Clifford claimed to be at the origin of the Cold War, the foundations of NATO, the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. It may have been all of those, but the document, according to Acacia, was most probably written by George Elsey and not [End Page 272] Clifford. Clifford also took credit for the "China White Paper," the explanation of the Truman administration for the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist army, a document written, again, by Elsey.

These and other similar situations have gotten Clifford one of history's bad raps. He is often labeled as the unoriginal thief of others' ideas. But Clifford had a gift. Acacia recognizes it (and he is even willing to accept it), but he refuses to see that men like Clifford make certain that the nation's leaders are properly informed. Truman had little use for Rowe or Elsey. If Clifford had not placed those memos before the president with his own name attached, Truman almost certainly would not have read them, and presumably would not have been properly informed. Clifford was the facilitator, the man who took those ideas from the dark into the light. His biggest crime was his refusal to acknowledge it later in his life. These several strategy memos established the foundations of Clifford's Washington reputation, and for that reason he continued throughout his life to insist that he alone was the author of those documents.

Historians have also wondered how Clifford made the dramatic transition from hawk to dove, from a primary supporter of Johnson's war strategy in Vietnam to the leader of a group of foreign-policy experts who finally pushed Johnson into realizing that the war could never be won. Acacia's answer is clear: Clifford was always a dove; he never truly supported the war, but as an advisor to Johnson he felt obligated to support the president's policies—and that meant staying at the president's side on the war. He finally convinced Johnson that the effort was worth neither blood nor treasure.

Acacia makes and important point that Clifford never seemed to connect to the Carter administration. Clifford, the consummate insider, the chief representative of the Washington establishment...