Clark Clifford was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on 25th December, 1906. After graduating from Washington University worked as a lawyer in St. Louis, Missouri (1928-1943).
During the Second World War Clifford joined the US Navy and served as assistant naval aide and naval aide to President Harry S. Truman. In 1947 Truman appointed him general counsel and in this post he helped draft the National Security Act.
After leaving the government in 1950 Clifford practiced law in Washington. Over the next few years Clifford represented several large corporations. His main role was to help them to navigate their way through laws and regulations. One of his major clients was Howard Hughes.
A member of the Democratic Party, he worked as an adviser to leading politicians such as Stuart Symington and John F. Kennedy. May 1961 Kennedy appointed Clifford to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Two years later he became its chairman.
Clifford remained in this post after Lyndon B. Johnson became president. In 1967 Clifford and General Maxwell Taylor went on a fact-finding tour of Vietnam. During this period Clifford was seen as a foreign policy hawk and advised Johnson that he could win the war if he increased the number of American troops to Vietnam.
Clifford replaced Robert McNamara as Secretary Defense in March 1968. McNamara had been urging the president to gradually disengage from the conflict in Vietnam. In contrast, Clifford advocated an escalation of the war. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his main objective was to guarantee to the South Vietnamese people the right of self-determination.
McNamara had been against increasing American involvement in Vietnam. Clifford changed this policy and one of his first actions was to send 24,500 more troops to Vietnam. This increased the number to a new high of 549,500. However, he soon saw the futility of this policy and like McNamara before him, began to talk of disengagement. This brought him into conflict with Dean Rusk who argued that the war "would be won if America had the will to win it."
In order to get peace talks under way, Clifford supported Johnson's decision to end bombing north of the 20th parallel, an area comprising almost 80 percent of North Vietnam's land area. In May, 1968, North Vietnam and the United States began peace talks in Paris. On 31st October, Clifford announced the end to all bombing in North Vietnam.
Clifford returned to private practice after President Richard Nixon was elected to office and was senior partner in Clifford & Warnke. One of Clifford's clients was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). The bank was chartered in Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands and had offices in 70 countries. In 1981 Clifford became chairman of BCCI. Later it was called First American Bankshares and became the largest bank in Washington.
In July, 1991 BCCI was accused of fraud, laundering drug money and bribing bank regulators and central bankers in 10 developing countries. It was reported to have $20 billion in assets shortly before the shutdown, but liquidators were unable to find many of its assets. However, it was discovered that Clifford had made about $6 million in profits from bank stock that he bought with an unsecured loan from BCCI. As the New York Times reported: "A New York grand jury handed up indictments, as did the Justice Department. Clifford's assets in New York, where he kept most of his investments, were frozen."
Clifford and his law partner, Robert A. Altman, eventually reached a $5 million settlement with the Federal Reserve Board. Charges of bank fraud against Clifford had been set aside because of his failing health. Clifford told a journalist that he considered his role in extricating the United States from what he called that "wretched conflict in Vietnam" to be his finest moment; the day he was indicted and fingerprinted like a common criminal, he said, was "the worst."
Clark Clifford died at his home in Bethesda, Maryland on 10th October, 1998.