Clifford's Hidden Legacy


August 15, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

WASHINGTON — Washington-- Clark Clifford is much in the news these day because of his connection with the BCCI scandal. The famous wise man vouched for that disreputable bank in all the right Washington places. He also published his memoir, ''Counsel to the President'' (Random House), just in time for the scandal to overshadow this report on his long career.

Some feel that Mr. Clifford's recent troubles, even if they should prove to be deserved, should not detract from his many years of public service. But others point out that Mr. Clifford's book gives us a partial and very self-serving view of his performance as an adviser to President Truman. One historian who has done a great deal of research into Mr. Clifford's past is Frank Kofsky of the California State University at Sacramento.

Professor Kofsky has sent me some illuminating material on Mr. Clifford that should be shared with others. In 1947, when the Cold War was just coming into existence, Mr. Clifford sent President Truman a memo based on a paper by James H. Rowe, another member of the Truman administration, saying that the Cold War was just what the Democrats needed in terms of the difficult election coming up in 1948:

''There is considerable political advantage to the Administration in its battle with the Kremlin,'' Mr. Clifford wrote. ''The worse matters get, up to a fairly certain point -- real danger of imminent war -- the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis the American citizen tends to back up his president.''

Mr. Clifford went so far as to say that ''a president who is also a candidate must resort to subterfuge'' in order to ''stay in the limelight.'' He proposed, for instance, that President Truman play up a constitutional title, commander in chief, that has nothing to do with his relations to civilians in a time of peace. ''World War II taught the American people something they too easily forget -- our president is also the commander in chief. . . . The White House can be the scene of many announcements on military affairs; and the commander in chief, not the secretary of defense, should make them.''

Scholars have long debated how much the Truman administration should be blamed for initiating or intensifying unnecessarily the Cold War. If Mr. Clifford had his way, then the blame is considerable. True, Mr. Clifford advised against actually going to war for electoral purposes, but he was all for encouraging steps short of that.

All such measures had long consequences, changing our view of the Constitution's force in time of peace and hardening the public mood against anything connected with the Soviets. Our long arms buildup, the refusal to see differences between the Russians and the Chinese, the Korean and Vietnam wars fought to prevent Soviet domination -- all these things are part of Mr. Clifford's legacy to the nation. They can make even the BCCI scandal, bad as it is, look minor.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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