- Historic Sites
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
At a press conference in Berlin shortly after World War II, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, director of the military government of the American sector of defeated Germany, announced, “We are not here as carpetbaggers.”
While the word was carved on the heart of every American Southerner of his generation, it probably escaped most Germans entirely. But Clay’s Southern background would have a profound, and wholly beneficial, influence on the rebirth of Germany. One could almost call it the last great accomplishment of Sherman’s March to the Sea.
A four-star general who never fought a battle, Lucius D. Clay is, perhaps, an improbable American hero. But hero he certainly is. It was Clay who was the major impetus behind—and who organized and commanded—that decisive, bloodless victory, the Berlin airlift.
But while Clay is remembered for the airlift, his service as military governor, a position roughly the same as MacArthur’s in Japan, has been largely forgotten. Yet in the long run it was probably more important. For he both secured German friendship for the United States with his compassion for Germany in defeat and made possible the resurgence of that devastated country by backing the radical economic policies of Ludwig Erhard.
By securing Germany, Clay secured Western Europe and made possible the long-term success of the policy of containment. The full scale of his accomplishments is being realized only today, more than forty years after he retired from the Army and fourteen years after his death.
General Clay was born on April 23, 1898, in Marietta, Georgia, the son of a three-term United States senator. Only thirty-three years after the end of the Civil War, Sherman’s march and the turmoil of Reconstruction were an almost palpable memory in Marietta.
That is precisely the reason Clay approached his task in Germany as he did. “I tried to think of the kind of occupation the South would have had if Abraham Lincoln had lived,” he once explained.
Clay attended West Point, graduating in 1918. Too late to fight in World War 1, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. There he advanced quickly, thanks both to his engineering skills and to his political ones.
In November 1944 Clay was sent to Europe to repair the port of Cherbourg, needed to supply the advancing Allied armies. In thirty days he quintupled the supplies passing through the port. In April 1945 he was put in charge of the military government being set up in the U.S. Zone. (At first Clay served under Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, the U.S. military governor, acting as what might be called his chief operating officer. In March 1947 he succeeded McNarney, thus becoming, in effect, chief executive officer as well.)
While the war still raged, the United States had had to develop a policy to deal with postwar Europe. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it decided on a draconian one. FDR had said to Henry Stimson that if he had his way, he would keep Germans on the breadlines for twenty-five years. The socalled Morgenthau Plan, drawn up under the direction of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., in 1943, called for Germany to be stripped of its heavy industry and converted into an essentially agricultural economy.
The Morgenthau Plan was utterly unworkable, and the plan that emerged at the end of the war was called JCS 1067. Prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this plan was still drastic, calling for what became known as the four D’s: demilitarization, de-Nazification, deindustrialization, and democratization. But plans drawn up by well-fed generals in the comfortable capitals of victory were no match for the reality that was immediate postwar Germany.
The German state had ceased to exist. Transportation was devastated. Millions of refugees with no place to live and no food to eat had swarmed into the country from the east in advance of the Red Army. What was left of the German economy was incapable of supporting the population at a level consistent with life.
It was Clay’s job to handle the dayto-day details of both implementing JCS 1067 and sustaining the lives of the people of Germany and making them once more capable of self-government.
His first task was making the Rhine, the Mississippi of Europe, once more navigable. Without the Rhine, coal from the Ruhr Valley could not be transported to industries and power plants; without the coal there hardly was a German economy.
Within a year he had cleared the thirty-five destroyed bridges that blocked navigation and had six shipyards back in operation, turning out barges and tugs. The economic heart of Europe began to beat once more.
But while performing such feats of engineering, Clay also pressed relentlessly for a change in American policy regarding Germany. He argued that a prosperous Germany would be far less likely to turn to communism than a desperate one. As American relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated, Clay made headway, convincing Senators Tom Connally and Arthur H. Vandenberg, the chairman and the ranking Republican of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee respectively. He also convinced his fellow Southerner Secretary of State James Byrnes. The President soon followed.