Remembering Judge Bill Clark, Cold War Advisor to Reagan
The finest national security advisor you’ve never heard of died Saturday, Aug. 10. Judge Bill Clark served as President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor for just under two years, from January 1982 to October 1983. These crucial years marked the foundational period in Reagan’s Cold War policy. During this window, Reagan began to implement his ...
Why is Clark so little remembered today? The position of the assistant to the president for national security affairs (NSA for short) has been defined in the popular mind by luminous giants such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft, who wielded tremendous influence while at the White House and have continued to have a prominent public voice in the decades since. Not so the self-effacing Clark, who never wrote a memoir, gave few interviews, and otherwise seldom spoke out after leaving office, content instead to repair to his beloved California ranch. Clark’s historical reputation was also diminished by a few of the memoirs written by some of his former Reagan administration colleagues that unfortunately tried to settle old policy scores at Clark’s expense (and to which the devout former seminarian generally turned the other cheek). For example, former Secretary of State George Shultz’s otherwise superb memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, is, to my mind, unduly critical of Clark.
In a regrettably revealing display of the stale conventional wisdom that ignores Clark’s legacy, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post even saw fit to write a dedicated obituary of him. Instead both merely ran this minimalist treatment by the Associated Press that devotes but two sentences to his tenure as national security advisor. Clark’s legacy, as well as the history of the Cold War, deserves better. (Some conservative outlets have shown a greater appreciation for Clark; see especially this thoughtful remembrance by Steven Hayward over at Power Line, or this one by K-Lo at National Review. For an affectionate tribute from the journalist who knew Reagan and Clark best, see this from the indispensable Lou Cannon).
Part of the reason for the prevailing underestimation of Clark, then and now, was his relative lack of foreign-policy experience — a deficiency he readily admitted. His résumé was indeed thin; before becoming national advisor he served only one year as deputy secretary of state, which in turn only came after an embarrassing Senate confirmation hearing that highlighted his callowness in the field. Yet Clark also possessed several attributes that proved essential to his successful tenure as NSA. These included a close personal relationship with Reagan, a shared set of convictions about the nature of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, organizational acumen, and the loyalty and affection of his staff.
Clark was Reagan’s alter ego. Rejecting the prevailing conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union was stable and destined to coexist with the United States as a perpetual rival, Reagan and Clark instead saw the USSR as vulnerable and sought to exacerbate its internal contradictions. The pillars of this strategy included launching a massive arms buildup that would stress the fragile Soviet economy in a failed effort to keep pace, highlighting the Soviet Union’s illegitimacy through ideological and economic warfare and active support for political and religious dissidents, and transforming the perverse nuclear trap of mutually assured destruction. At the National Security Council, Clark developed these insights through an ambitious series of national security decision directives and implemented the strategy through new measures as varied as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Now that the Reagan administration archives are beginning to be opened and declassified, the process of historical scholarship should hopefully begin to restore Clark’s reputation as an essential architect of American Cold War policy. For scholars, I hope this will serve as yet another caution against relying excessively on conventional wisdom and personal memoirs. For policy practitioners, Clark’s role as NSA serves as a reminder that while foreign- policy knowledge is important, ultimately it is secondary to wisdom, integrity, the unreserved trust of the president, and the right set of policy convictions.
Not long ago I had dinner with a former Reagan NSC staff member who had served under several of Reagan’s NSAs. I asked his assessment of Clark. Without hesitation came his firm response: “Bill Clark won the Cold War.”
An exaggeration, perhaps, but not as much as the prevailing neglect of Clark’s legacy would have you believe. With his death the nation has lost a great and a good man. May he rest in peace.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
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