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Clark Clifford

advisor to four Presidents; Secretary of Defense

Clark McAdams Clifford

Clark McAdams Clifford was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on December 25, 1906. He received both his bachelor and law degrees from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and practiced as a trial lawyer in that city for fifteen years. He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1945, including an assignment as assistant naval aide and naval aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1945, Clifford landed a job in the White House. Quickly earning President Harry Truman's trust, he was named counsel to the President. Despite having no experience in politics or public affairs, Clifford participated in the development of the Truman Doctrine on the containment of Communism, the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe after World War II, and the building of the national security apparatus that eventually became the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council. He also participated in Truman's 1948 re-election campaign, advising Truman to "be controversial as Hell" during the campaign.

In 1950, Clifford launched a unique law practice in Washington, specializing in advising clients on how to deal with the government. His client list included such big-names as General Electric, Standard Oil, DuPont, Phillips Petroleum, and Howard Hughes.

Following the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, Clifford advised President John F. Kennedy to create an independent presidential board to oversee the intelligence community, which had been accused of misleading the White House. In May 1961, Kennedy appointed him to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which he chaired beginning in April 1963. Clifford continued his advisory role after Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency, and even undertook short-term official duties, including a trip with General Maxwell Taylor in 1967 to Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

In 1968, President Johnson named Clifford to replace Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense; he took office on March 1 of that year. Having previously turned down Johnson's offers of ambassador to the United Nations, National Security Adviser, CIA Director and Undersecretary of State, Clifford said in his memoirs that he felt he could not refuse the Defense position because he had drafted the legislation that created the department. During his eleven months in office Clifford managed the initial de-escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. He left office upon the end of Johnson's term, on January 20, 1969.

With Republican Richard M. Nixon taking over the White House, Clifford returned to his private law practice, after being rewarded for his years of public service with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969. He returned to the role of presidential adviser during President Jimmy Carter's administration, helping win Senate ratification of the Panama Canal treaties.

Clifford would have stayed out of the public eye during the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan except that he was caught up in one of the largest (if not the largest) banking scandals in history. In July 1992, Clifford and his former law partner, Robert Altman, were indicted on charges of fraud and accepting bribes from the foreign-owned Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). The men were charged with concealing from federal regulators BCCI's secret ownership of First American Bankshares, Inc., a major bank holding company in Washington that they headed. Both Clifford and Altman denied the charges and claimed that they had been duped by BCCI's executives. Although criminal charges against Clifford were finally dropped in 1993, his health suffered greatly during the months of grueling court appearances, and he all but disappeared from public view afterwards.

Clifford died of pneumonia in Bethesda, Maryland, on October 10, 1998.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Harry Truman
World War II
Howard Hughes
President John F. Kennedy
President Lyndon Johnson
President Richard M. Nixon
President Jimmy Carter
President Ronald Reagan

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 20th Century, 1961-2001 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on September 24, 2017.