Clark Clifford was tall, dapper, brilliant and witty. He was famous for combining Midwestern humility with courtly sophistication, personal qualities that endeared him to the four U.S. presidents whom he served.
But his defining characteristic and the reason why four presidents came to rely upon him was his judgment. At a fateful juncture, Clifford’s judgment would prove critical to the State of Israel.
Trained as a lawyer, Clifford had already built up a thriving legal practice in St. Louis when the World War II broke out. Well into his 30s, married and a father, he volunteered for the Navy. His legal training brought him to Washington, serving in the Truman White House first as an assistant White House counsel, and then in 1946 as White House counsel.
In that role, Clifford drafted key legislation, including the law authorizing creation of the CIA. He later became John Kennedy’s personal lawyer and served as Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson.
In the days leading up to his recognition of Israel, Truman relied heavily on Clifford’s advice to support a homeland for the Jewish people. At the time, Arabists in the State Department tried stridently to prevent U.S. recognition of the Jewish state. Ignoring the president’s instructions to maintain a favorable position to the partition of Palestine at the United Nations, the State Department directed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Warren Austin to instead support a U.N. trusteeship of Palestine.
Truman understood that a trusteeship would be used to thwart the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. It was largely Clark Clifford’s sustained counsel that led America to ultimately vote in favor of the partition plan.
Early in May 1948, Truman had promised Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who would become the first president of the Jewish state, that he would recognize Israel when it declared its independence. The leading administration opponent of recognition of a Jewish state was Secretary of State General George Marshall, whom Truman greatly admired and respected. To resolve the policy dispute, Truman held a meeting on the subject, choosing Clifford, his most articulate aide, to present the case for recognition. Clifford’s arguments were so powerful and persuasive that Marshall never again spoke to him, refusing even to mention his name.
For the rest of his long career as a government official and an informal adviser to American presidents, Clifford remained a devoted friend of the Jewish state.