LEARNING FROM THE LESSONS OF THE PAST
Clark M. Clifford, 1985
Clark M. Clifford is senior partner in the law firm of Clifford and Warnke in Washington, D.C. He served as naval aide and Special Counsel to President Harry S. Truman and was principal strategist of Truman’s presidential election campaign in 1948. As part of extended government service, he has been a longtime member and Chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson. In recognition of the quality of his service to the people of the United States, Mr. Clifford is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Whiteley: Alexis DeToqueville, writing in Democracy in America in the 19th Century foresaw the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. What are the bases of that competition?
Clifford: In the first place, in modern times there are only two really great military powers in the world, and they’re the United States and the Soviet Union. Also, each wishes to bring the best that there is to their people, they with their system and ours with our system. So that it brings us into a competition in the economic field, in the field of trade, and more particularly, in the sociological and philosophical field. They feel their system is the best; we feel that ours is. Stalin once said that capitalism and communism could not live together in the same world. I deny that. It has lived. It has been now forty years since the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. We’ve been in the nuclear age and we have lived together, and we can continue to live together. Each President of the United States with whom I’ve had an association has understood that perhaps the major task and responsibility that he had was to find some way of getting on with the Soviet Union. That’s the most important question in the world today, because if a President fails in that regard then he has failed in the area that constitutes by far the greatest danger to our continued existence.
Whiteley: Let’s take each of the Presidents that you’ve served in turn, and I’d like to ask you what actions they took in regard to the Soviets that you saw particularly helpful in the long run in terms of preserving an unstable but continuing peace.
Clifford: President Truman, after the close of the second World War, started a relationship and worked at it very hard for the balance of his term, which didn’t end until 1952. Some headway was made. The Soviet plan at that time was not concerned really with entering into agreements with the United States. They were looking after the safety of their own country, preparing themselves so that they wouldn’t have to go through another invasion from the West, which has happened to them at least three times that you know of.
Whiteley: And in your view really shapes their thinking.
Clifford: To a great extent, a great extent. It’s a paranoid reaction, but quite explainable in many circumstances. President Eisenhower, after President Truman was not pressed with it, that was one of the calmest periods in American history. President Kennedy faced up to it. He had the problems, the beginning of problems with Southeast Asia. His contact at that time with the Soviets produced some benefits; each one added something to it. President Johnson added something to it. I remember one time that we use to have Tuesday luncheons - every Tuesday in the Johnson Administration - the Secretary of State and Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Head of the CIA, and those were the real working luncheons. And nobody ever had a drink at that luncheon. But this particular day he said everybody can have a small glass of sherry today because, he said, tomorrow morning at 9:00 o’clock simultaneously in this country and in the Soviet Union, there’s to be a joint announcement that we’re going to go to work and find the answer to arms control and cut down this insane race.
Whiteley: What led President Johnson to that perception?
Clifford: Oh, it was one of his main aims that we would stop the race in which they continue to build up thousands of weapons and we continue to build up thousands of weapons. But unfortunately, I remember that luncheon was really quite a pleasant experience as we looked forward to this announcement. At 5:00 o’clock the day we had that luncheon, the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, and that canceled out all of the preparations that we’d made. We’d been at it a year preparing for that series of meetings and those meetings were all canceled. It seemed to me that after that, and of course Mr. Nixon made a very real contribution. It was in the Nixon Administration that we got the first SALT agreement, and what perhaps is even more important the ABM agreement.
Whiteley: What actions were taken that led to those agreements? What was the nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States that made those agreements at that time possible?
Clifford: The same basic relationship that exists today: The people of the Soviet Union very much want an agreement with us, and the people of the United States very much want an agreement. Oftentimes it’s the governments that get in the way. But at that particular time the relationship was approached on a reasonable basis; we selected excellent individuals to do the negotiating. They were headed by Mr. Gerard Smith who did a splendid task, and the SALT I agreement was reached, and then the ABM agreement was reached.
Whiteley: You singled out the ABM agreement as a particularly important agreement that your fellow citizens should keep in mind.
Clifford: Oh, very much so.
Clifford: Because - oversimplification, but each side agreed in the ABM agreement not to construct an anti-ballistic missile force. If we had gone down that road each side would still be spending tens of billions of dollars searching for a defense against a nuclear attack. It didn’t exist then and it doesn’t exist today. There is no such defense. There is no scientist whose judgment I value today who believes that the present plan about developing a scientific defense against nuclear weapons is feasible.
Whiteley: In an era where defense is not possible in your judgment, what are the bases of American national security? We are the only country that’s both strong and free, and previous Secretaries of Defense have struggled with the balance of preserving freedom and providing for the national security. What needs to be kept in mind, and what are the bases of that national security?
Clifford: The basis of our national security, and in my opinion the only sound basis, is that the Soviets have strength enough to destroy us, and we have strength to destroy the Soviets, and neither has been building a defense against that. So that balance of destructiveness has kept peace in the world ever since the first bomb was dropped. If we build up the way we’ve been doing now, then they build up. If they build up, then we build up. And we now maybe have twelve or thirteen thousand nuclear weapons, and the Soviets maybe have ten or eleven thousand, and we keep building. One time when this information was brought to the attention of Winston Churchill he said, "I don’t understand it", and he said, "They go right on building them?" The answer was, "Yes, they go right on building them." He said, "All they’re going to do is make the rubble bounce." It has a haunting refrain to it. We could cut the number of weapons that each side has by half and we’d still destroy each other.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that for you that’s the way to a safer world, yet Winston Churchill also said that keep the bomb until you have something better to preserve the peace, and one approach that is offered is that of arms control. Its critics do not see it in the national security of the United States, or at best it’s an illusion. Its supporters believe that it’s a central component in the national security of the United States and every effort should be made to work out verifiable arms control agreements. What do you believe, and what do you want your fellow Americans to think about?
Clifford: I know that the solution of this complex problem centers right centrally upon arms control, and the agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, (a) first to limit those arms because we’re way beyond what we need. Then I would like to see them reach the point where we would begin to cut back on those arms because we don’t need as many, and it’s very expensive to keep them up. We spend billions of dollars just keeping them up. We have so many now that we’re far beyond any possible conceivable need that would exist. What some of our administrations have not understood is that you can approach the Soviets, but you have to approach them the way you would approach anyone else. You have to approach them in the spirit in which you believe that you’ll be able to get an agreement. I was deeply concerned when the present administration came into power, and at the first press conference that was had in 1981, the statement the new President made was that you can’t have any agreement with the Soviets, that you can’t trust them, that they lie and cheat and steal to accomplish their ends. I thought it was the most unfortunate approach that I’d ever heard for one who was about to engage hopefully in negotiations with another power.
Whiteley: Dealing with the Soviet Union and thinking carefully about them is for you an integral part of preserving our own national security. What do you see to be the development of the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the decades ahead?
Clifford: I think we have to learn from the lessons of the past; that’s the way most nations learn. We’ve learned in the past if when we’ve made a reasonable effort to get with them and we sit down with them and talk, we’ve been able to reach agreement with them. We’re not going to be able to reach agreement with them when we refer to them as an evil influence in the world, and refer to them as an evil power. I think that’s exceedingly unfortunate. We spent all that first term, four full years, with no progress whatsoever. We kept building up, they kept building up.
Whiteley: Which for you that passage of time only made the circumstances worse.
Clifford: It makes it worse all the time. We spent this enormous amount building up ours. I don’t know which gets ahead. Maybe they get a little ahead and we build up, and then we get a little ahead and they build up. I don’t know how in the world anybody could ever explain it when we’re two and three and four times over the level of what we need, and we keep this insane building up of arms. That is what happened during this period. What I do not understand either, and I think is so fallacious, was the theory we must get much stronger before we can sit down and negotiate. We’ve heard it over and over again. We heard it the first year, the second year; four years go by - now they say, now we’re ready to negotiate. I give you my word that makes no sense at all. You can sit down and start the negotiation as soon as you come in - a new administration comes in. If you feel that you’re behind in strength you can be building up your strength while you’re negotiating, but it makes no sense to say we’ll have nothing to do with them until we build up the strength. While we’re building up our strength they’re building up theirs, and we lose all that valuable time.
Whiteley: What is possible in the relationship with the Russians?
Clifford: Anything is possible. We can achieve ends and results that people have not even begun to think of yet. I’ve dealt with the Soviets ever since back 40 years to the Truman days. I know they’re very difficult to deal with; their mind works differently than ours, their system works differently, their attitude is different. But we’ve made a lot of agreement with them these last forty years, and we can do it again. But you do it only by selecting people who believe that you can actually succeed and who believe in the efficacy of arms control. You cannot do it if you select people whom you know ahead of time philosophically don’t believe in arms control, believe that in the back of their minds that it’s probably a waste of time, and that you just go through the motions because there’s some public demand for it. There’s quite a lot of feeling as you know, in some circles in this country, that arms control is damaging to the United States.
Whiteley: Do you agree?
Clifford: Absolutely not.
Whiteley: Do we have to trust the Russians?
Clifford: We don’t have to trust the Russians. That’s a misapprehension that’s given by those who oppose arms control. We have so many scientific means now by which we can know what is going on. For seven years I served as Chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. We had access to all the intelligence that exists in our country, we helped build it up, we helped new ideas, we helped develop new kinds of cameras and new kinds of planes that would bring it. We don’t have to trust the Russians. We can make agreements with the Russians which we can police ourselves.
Whiteley: And with an agreement we’d have far more access to monitoring their system than we’d have without an agreement.
Clifford: Unquestionably, unquestionably. Now, with no agreements at all, with the bitterness and hostility that’s been developed between the two nations, both of which have contributed to it, we don’t have anything going on now. All we do is just get ready for war. I give you my word it is the utter absurdity of all time, whereas if we approached them and say, "Let’s stop, why don’t we just stop now building any more weapons, let’s negotiate, let’s stop first though." We could save a lot; they could save a lot. A freeze - a nuclear freeze - just stop. And then let’s see where we are, and let’s talk about all the areas that we can get together. I give you my word in a year we’d begin to have good understandings with them. They very much want to enter into agreements with us on arms control. The expense to them is as great perhaps as the expense to us, and yet instead of doing it that way we continue with this enormous arms build-up which we’ll do today, and we’re running a $200 billion a year deficit. And a great deal of that - most of that, I believe - comes from this enormous expenditure in defense.
Whiteley: Let’s start with what we can do as a country to influence the Russians to take actions by us seriously. You’ve indicated that proposing and implementing a freeze for you would be one such action. What other actions can we take that would influence the Soviets in your judgment?
Clifford: I think that we could begin to greatly increase the volume of commerce between the two countries. That’s one of the best ways for two countries to get together, to enter into a mutually profitable commercial intercourse between two countries. We don’t do that; we’ve cut them way off. We can enter into all kinds of different exchanges, cultural exchanges. We can enter into exchanges in which more Americans go to the Soviet Union and many of the Soviet Union come to this country. We can look back over the last forty years and we can find ten or fifteen or twenty areas in which we can begin to develop a better understanding of the Soviet Union. The greatest tragedy that has happened in this relationship is when the decision was made that you really can’t deal with these people.
Whiteley: Let me ask you to reflect back on the Presidents of the United States that you’ve served and ask you to indicate, irrespective of administration or time, what actions lead to peace? You’ve already singled out the importance of appointing officials who share in your view of commitment to arms control as a part of the national security. What else?
Clifford: There’s one fundamental attitude that has to exist, then everything else is inconsequential if that fundamental attitude is not present, and that is you have to believe that you can sit down with the Soviets and reach agreements that are of benefit to the United States.
Whiteley: And in your view we don’t have to trust them?
Clifford: We cannot trust the national security of our nation to trusting anybody else, whether it’s the Soviets or whether it’s the Germans or Italians or anybody else. We have to know ourselves that we’re not getting into danger by entering into an agreement with another power. We can know that. That whole process can be greatly expedited and broadened and dramatized if we are actually talking with each other. The Soviets are feeling the pressure now. They’re having to keep up this very substantial arms race. By so doing it they’re channeling funds into arms that might be going into consumer products for their people. I think the people get restless every now and then, but they’re very disciplined people.
There’s an attitude over in this country, again I think very wrong in some quarters, that if we keep building the arms and we keep them at arms length and no agreements, that ultimately the economic pressure will be such that they’ll say, "We give up." That isn’t going to happen. They’re not going to give up any more than we would give up.
Whiteley: We’ve negotiated three treaties with the Soviet Union in the last fifteen years that have been signed by a President of the United States and then not ratified by the Senate. How does the process need to work differently in order that agreements we enter into after a protracted period of negotiation (one of those agreements took seven years) to build an awareness of what’s going on in the Senate so that agreements that are entered into can be ratified?
Clifford: Yes we can’t change our system; we have to continue to have the system - a tripartheid system - in which you have the Executive and Legislative and Judicial Branches, and each operates as a check upon the other. What we can have, and what we need so badly, is the kind of Presidential leadership that is so strong and so powerful in the direction of moving toward peace, and moving toward the control of arms and in that whole area, that he can lead the Congress along toward confirmation of agreements that can be made.
Whiteley: SALT I and the ABM Treaty were absolutely fundamental departures from how we had approached national security and arms control in the past, yet both were ratified. How did that occur?
Clifford: It occurred because both the Soviets and we were ready for that forward step at the time. Each realized that it was but the first in a number of very important steps, and the SALT I was agreed upon as was the ABM, and we accepted it as the first step toward reaching our ultimate goal. And then along came SALT II. I thought it was a splendid agreement. I thought it would go a long ways toward leading to the third step. We agreed to it, it was signed, we brought it back, and then it got caught up in the political pressures here and was never confirmed. I would like to go back and I would like to resuscitate SALT II and bring it out again - it might need some minor amending now - but that would be a splendid start for us. What I’ve always looked forward to is SALT III which after I and II stop the building at a level, SALT III would begin to trim it back. There’s the way it is. The history of mankind demonstrates conclusively that you don’t find peace by each power building up more and more and more weapons. That’s not the road to peace; that’s the ultimate road to ultimate destruction. You build it up by approaching it from the standpoint that it is an absolute necessity.
Whiteley: What do you want Presidents to do differently in the years ahead? What actions, in your judgment, will lead America to a safer world?
Clifford: I want each President in the future of the United States to accept as his major responsibility the task of getting along with the Soviets. It isn’t enough just to sit on one side of the ocean and quarrel with them. He must find the means, he must early in the administration sit down and talk with them. They do want arms control. I know that. A great many others I’ve met know that who have dealt with the Soviets. So the President must recognize that. It isn’t a question of having to trust the Soviets. Some people say you can’t trust them. We can’t trust any other country with our national security or our survival as a nation, and we don’t have to trust the Soviets. We have ways in which we can determine whether or not they are complying with agreements that we make. But a President could be successful in every other endeavor in which he undertook, but if he failed to find a basis of getting along with the Soviets then he will have failed his country.
Whiteley: Mr. Clifford, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the ways to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.