Lucius D. Clay

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Lucius D. Clay
Birth nameLucius D. Clay
Nickname(s)The Great Uncompromiser
Born(1898-04-23)April 23, 1898[1]
Marietta, Georgia
DiedApril 16, 1978(1978-04-16) (aged 79)
Chatham, Massachusetts
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchUnited States Army
Years of service1918–1949
Commands heldEuropean Command
Normandy Base Section
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsArmy Distinguished Service Medal (3)
Legion of Merit
Bronze Star Medal
RelationsAlexander S. Clay (father)
Lucius D. Clay Jr. (son)
Frank B. Clay (son)
Eugene H. Clay (brother)
Henry Clay (ancestor)

General Lucius Dubignon Clay (April 23, 1898 – April 16, 1978) was a senior officer of the United States Army who was known for his administration of occupied Germany after World War II.[1] He served as the deputy to General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945; deputy military governor, Germany, in 1946; Commander in Chief, United States Forces in Europe and military governor of the United States Zone, Germany, from 1947 to 1949. Clay orchestrated the Berlin Airlift (1948–1949) when the USSR blockaded West Berlin.

Early life[edit]

Clay was born on April 23, 1898,[1] in Marietta, Georgia, the sixth and last child of Alexander S. Clay, who served in the United States Senate from 1897 to 1910. In 1918 Clay graduated from West Point, where he later taught.

Early career[edit]

Clay held various civil and military engineering posts in the 1920s and 1930s, such as directing the construction of dams and civilian airports. Because Clay's work involved large government projects, he became closely acquainted with the people and workings of the federal agencies and Congress. He achieved close working relationships with an associate of President Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and with House Majority Leader and Speaker Sam Rayburn. In Rayburn's state of Texas, Clay supervised the building of the Denison Dam. At the time of its completion, in 1943, the largest earthen dam in the world. From 1940 to the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Clay selected and supervised the construction of 450 airports, which were the foundation of America's civil aviation network.[2]

World War II[edit]

By March 1942, Clay had risen to the position of being the youngest brigadier general in the army, a month short of his 44th birthday. All the while, he had acquired a reputation for bringing order and operational efficiency out of chaos, and for being an exceptionally hard and disciplined worker, who went long hours and "considered lunch a waste of time".[3]

Clay did not see actual combat but was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1942 and the Army Distinguished Service Medal in 1944 and received the Bronze Star Medal for his action in stabilizing the French harbor of Cherbourg, which was critical to the flow of war matériel. In 1945, he served as deputy to General Dwight Eisenhower. The following year, he was made Deputy Governor of Germany during the Allied Military Government.

Clay would later remark regarding the occupation directive guiding his and Eisenhower's actions that "there was no doubt that JCS 1067 contemplated the Carthaginian peace which dominated our operations in Germany during the early months of occupation."[4]

OMGUS and Cold War[edit]

Clay with General of the Army Eisenhower at Gatow Airport in Berlin during the Potsdam Conference in 1945.

Clay heavily influenced US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes' September 1946 speech in Stuttgart, Germany. The speech, "Restatement of Policy on Germany," marked the formal transition in American occupation policy away from the Morgenthau Plan of economic dismantlement to one of economic reconstruction. Clay was promoted to lieutenant general on 17 April 1945 and to general on 17 March 1947.

On March 15, 1947, Clay succeeded Joseph T. McNarney as military governor (or "high commissioner"[5]) of occupied Germany—the head of the OMGUS, the "Office of Military Government, United States." Clay's responsibilities covered a wide spectrum of social issues related to Germany's recovery from the war in addition to strictly military issues.[6] He commissioned Lewis H. Brown to research and write "A Report on Germany", which served as a detailed recommendation for the reconstruction of postwar Germany and served as a basis for the Marshall Plan. Clay promoted democratic federalism in Germany and resisted US politicians who sought to undo a constitution that a Constituent Assembly in Bavaria had adopted on 26 October 1946.[7] He also closed the borders of the American Zone in 1947 to stem the tide of Jewish refugees that was generating tension with the local populations.[8]

Treatment of Nazis during governorship[edit]

Clay was responsible for the controversial commuting of some death sentences such as convicted Nazi war criminals Erwin Metz and his superior, Hauptmann Ludwig Merz, to time served, five years of imprisonment. Metz and Merz commanded the infamous Berga concentration camp in which 350 US soldiers were beaten, tortured, starved, and forced to work for the German government during World War II. The soldiers were singled out for looking or sounding Jewish. At least 70 US soldiers died in the camp or on a later death march some by the hand of Metz himself.[9][10] West Germany was then considered strategically vital in the Cold War developing between the West and the East. Releasing the offenders early had the intended effect of boosting German public opinion towards the United States.

Clay also reduced the sentence of Ilse Koch, the "Beast of Buchenwald," who had been convicted of murder at the Nuremberg trials and who had infamously (and perhaps inaccurately) been accused of having gloves and lampshades made from prisoners' skin. The reductions in sentences were based on the hasty convictions of some Buchenwald personnel following the end of the war. Evidence was sometimes questionable, and many witnesses claimed to have been beaten by Allied interrogators.[11] Clay confirmed several death sentences as valid, commuted several, and had some like Koch released after they had served a reduced sentence because of questionable evidence.[12] Under the pressure of public opinion, Koch was rearrested in 1949, tried before a West German court, and, on 15 January 1951, sentenced to life imprisonment.

Berlin Airlift[edit]

Clay on the cover of Time (July 12, 1948)

On June 26, 1948, two days after the Soviets imposed the Berlin Blockade, Clay gave the order for the Berlin Airlift, which was only later authorized by President Harry Truman.[6] That was an act of defiance against the Soviets, an incredible feat of logistics[13] (at one point, cargo planes landed at Tempelhof every four minutes, 24 hours a day), a defining moment of the Cold War, and a demonstration of American support for the citizens of Berlin.

Clay is remembered for ordering and maintaining the airlift, which would ultimately last 324 days and ended on September 30, 1949. He resigned his post days after the blockade had been lifted on May 12, 1949.

Later career[edit]

On May 15, 1949, Clay left Germany and was replaced by John McCloy as civilian high commissioner for Germany. Clay retired from the Army at the end of the month. In the same year, he was elected as an honorary member of the North Carolina Society of the Cincinnati. In 1950, he became the chairman of the Continental Can Company for 12 consecutive years.[14][15] He retired from Continental Can in 1962 to become a senior partner in Lehman Brothers investment banking house until his retirement in 1973.[14]

Cultural cold war[edit]

Meanwhile, Clay hired the American intellectual and former Army combat historian Melvin J. Lasky. Both developed the concept of a "cultural cold war" through which the Soviets would be fought a psychological and intellectual level.[16] Clay was instrumental in creating, funding, and promoting Der Monat, a journal intended to support US foreign policy and win over German intellectuals. Copies of Der Monat were delivered along with supplies during the airlift.[17]

Clay also studied television propaganda and suggested that in Europe "you get this constant repeated propaganda without advertising and without break," but in the United States, "the advertising gives you a direct feeling of assurance that you haven't got propaganda in the program being thrown at you."[18]

Eisenhower administration and Crusade for Freedom[edit]

After OMGUS ended, Clay served the United States in other capacities. He had previous experience in 1933 with managing and organizing projects under the New Deal and later became one of Dwight Eisenhower's closest advisers and assisted him in securing the 1952 Republican nomination and helping him select members of his cabinet upon ascension to the presidency. When Eisenhower was in office, Clay served as his unofficial emissary in Europe. One of his first duties as Eisenhower's emissary and, as the national chairman of the Crusade for Freedom, was to dedicate the city of Berlin's Liberty Bell.[19] In 1954, he was called upon by Eisenhower to help forge a plan for financing the proposed Interstate highway system.

During the Berlin Crisis of 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked him to be an adviser and to go to Berlin and report on the situation. Two years later Clay accompanied Kennedy on his trip to Berlin.[20] During his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech, Kennedy said, "I am proud .. to come here in the company of my fellow American, General Clay, who has been in this city during its great moments of crisis and will come again if ever needed." That mention triggered enthusiastic cheers from the hundreds of thousands gathered to hear the president.[21]

Foundations, corporations, and committees: 1950–1978[edit]

The George C. Marshall Foundation, which oversees Clay's correspondences with corporations, foundations, and committees,[22] assembled an alphabetical list that gives a very good overview of Clay's broad range of activities in those fields. Clay served all of the following institutions in some capacity as an associate, as board member, or in a similar position.

Death and burial[edit]

Clay died on April 16, 1978, in Chatham, Massachusetts. Clay lies buried in West Point Cemetery, between the graves of Apollo I astronaut Ed White and Panama Canal chief engineer George W. Goethals. At Clay's grave site is a stone plate from the citizens of Berlin that says: "Wir danken dem Bewahrer unserer Freiheit" (We thank the Preserver of our Freedom).


Clay was a descendant of senator Henry Clay. Due to his notorious stubbornness, Lucius derived his nickname "The great uncompromiser" as a play on Henry's nickname "The Great Compromiser." Lucius Clay was the father of two sons, both of whom became generals. Clay's son, General Lucius D. Clay Jr.,[23] held the positions of commander-in-chief of the North American Air Defense Command, the Continental Air Defense Command, and the United States element of NORAD, and was also a commander of the United States Air Force Aerospace Defense Command. Clay's other son, Major General Frank B. Clay, served in conflicts from World War II through the Vietnam War, and was an adviser to the US delegation at the Paris peace talks which ended US involvement in the Vietnam War.


Clay was given a ticker-tape parade, among many other honors, upon his return to the United States on May 19, 1949. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine three times. Clay also received an honorary doctorate of the Freie Universität Berlin and became an honorary citizen of Berlin (West) in 1953. One of the longest streets in West Berlin was named Clayallee in his honor, as was the Clay Headquarters Compound, which was located on the street. It held the headquarters of the Berlin Brigade, U.S. Army Berlin (USAB), and the U.S. Mission in Berlin.[24] Marietta, Georgia, named one of its major streets Clay Road, and South Cobb High School's football stadium is named "Clay Stadium" in honor of his work in creating what is now Dobbins Air Force Base there. While now called South Cobb Drive (State Route 280), it still carries memorial signs at each end dedicating the highway to him.

Lucius D. Clay Kaserne

In 1978 a new U.S. Army base in Northern Germany north of the city of Bremen was named for Clay and until the end of the Cold War housed a forward-stationed brigade of the 2nd Armored Division, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Armored Division, which had been based at Fort Hood, Texas, with the rest of the 2AD. This unit was redesignated as the 2nd Armored Division (Forward). 2AD (FWD) saw action in the Gulf War of 1991 before being disbanded as part of the post-Cold War drawdown of the U.S. Army. Since October 1, 1993, these barracks are used by the Bundeswehr and are still named after Clay. The "General-Clay-March" by Heinz Mertins was written in his honor.[25] Wiesbaden Army Airfield, near Frankfurt, Germany, was renamed "Lucius D. Clay Kaserne" in his honor on 14 June 2012. Wiesbaden Army Airfield was used extensively in "Operation Vittles," aka the Berlin Airlift. The name "Lucius Clay" features in the song "The Legend of Wooley Swamp" by the Charlie Daniels Band. Clay had just died (of emphysema and heart failure) around the time the song was written.

Awards and decorations[edit]

Clay's decorations include: the Army Distinguished Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, World War I Victory Medal, Army of Occupation of Germany Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, Order of Kutuzov, Order of the British Empire, Military Order of the White Lion, Officer of the Military William Order, Commander of the Legion of Honour and Bundesverdienstkreuz (Grand Cross).

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster

In addition to military awards, he was also awarded the international human rights award Dr.-Rainer-Hildebrandt-Medaille.

Dates of rank[edit]

Insignia Rank Component Date
No insignia Cadet United States Military Academy June 15, 1915
US-O1 insignia.svg Second lieutenant Regular Army June 12, 1918
US-O2 insignia.svg First lieutenant Regular Army June 12, 1918
US-O3 insignia.svg Captain Temporary June 12, 1918
US-O3 insignia.svg Captain Regular Army February 27, 1920
US-O2 insignia.svg First lieutenant Regular Army November 18, 1922
US-O3 insignia.svg Captain Regular Army June 19, 1933
US-O4 insignia.svg Major Regular Army March 1, 1940
US-O5 insignia.svg Lieutenant colonel Army of the United States June 12, 1941
US-O6 insignia.svg Colonel Army of the United States September 23, 1941
US-O7 insignia.svg Brigadier general Army of the United States March 12, 1942
US-O5 insignia.svg Lieutenant colonel Regular Army July 4, 1942
US-O8 insignia.svg Major general Army of the United States December 3, 1942
US-O9 insignia.svg Lieutenant general Army of the United States April 17, 1945
US-O7 insignia.svg Brigadier general Regular Army March 5, 1946
US-O10 insignia.svg General Army of the United States March 17, 1947
US-O8 insignia.svg Major general Regular Army January 24, 1948
US-O10 insignia.svg General Regular Army, Retired May 31, 1949



  1. ^ a b c When he entered West Point, Clay stated the birth year as 1897 because he thought that he was too young. The incorrect year became part of his military record, and hia biographer Jean Edward Smith discovered the discrepancy only in 1970. Smith, Jean Edward (2012). Eisenhower in War and Peace. Random House. pp. 28, 39. ISBN 978-0-679-64429-3.
  2. ^ Lucius D. Clay: An American Life by Jean Edward Smith, New York: Henry, Holt & Company, 1990.
  3. ^ Cold War—Episode 4: "Berlin" (5:24), retrieved March 26, 2022
  4. ^ A Nation at War in an Era of Strategic Change, p.129 (Google Books)
  5. ^ "Max Lowenthal, Lawyer, Dies; Book on F.B.I. Stirred a Storm". New York Times. May 19, 1971. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  6. ^ a b Vaughn, Mark (February 5, 1998). "GENERAL LUCIUS DUBIGNON CLAY (1897–1978) – FATHER OF THE BERLIN AIRLIFT IN 1948 – 1949". Berlin Airlift Veterans Association. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  8. ^ "U.S. Army and the Holocaust". Encyclopedia Judaica. Macmillan Reference. 2008. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  9. ^ John W. Reifenrath. "An American Slave in Nazi Germany". Jewish Virtual Library.
  10. ^ Wayne Drash (October 28, 2010). "'You don't forget': Medic's Holocaust diary tells story of hell". CNN. Retrieved October 7, 2020.
  11. ^ Hackett, David A. (1997). The Buchenwald Report. Westview Press. ISBN 978-0-8133-3363-2.
  12. ^ McCarthy, Jamie. "Frau Ilse Koch, General Lucius Clay, and Human-Skin Atrocities". Bloomberg News. Retrieved September 13, 2011.
  13. ^ Clay speaks on Berlin Airlift, 1948/10/21 (1948). Universal Newsreel. 1948. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
  14. ^ a b "The Papers of Lucius DuBignon Clay – Biographical and Subject Summary" George C. Marchall Research Foundation
  15. ^ Kisatsky, Deborah: The United States and the European Right, 1945–1955. p.11 Ohio State University Press, 2005
  16. ^ Lasky, Melvin (May 21, 2004). "Melvin Lasky". The Telegraph. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  17. ^ Saunders, Cultural Cold War (1999), pp. 30, 140.
  18. ^ Anna McCarthy, The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America, New York: The New Press, 2010, p. 23.
  19. ^ Bennett, Lowell. Freedom Bell Tolls Message of Hope and Faith, in: Information Bulletin, High Commission of Germany, November 1950.
  20. ^ Andreas Daum, Kennedy in Berlin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-521-85824-3, 47‒49, 73, 80, 101–102.
  21. ^ Daum, Kenndey in Berlin, p. 141, 224.
  22. ^ The Papers of Lucius DuBignon Clay – Biographical and Subject Summary George C. Marshall Research Foundation (Undated)
  23. ^ "Lucius D. Clay Jr. USAF Biography". Archived from the original on February 11, 2004. Retrieved December 19, 2006.
  24. ^ Headquarters of the Berlin Brigade named after General Lucius D. Clay Archived January 4, 2005, at
  25. ^ "German Federal Defence Forces Massed Bands". YouTube.
  26. ^ Official Register of Officers of the United States Army. 1948. Vol. 1. pg. 349.


External video
video icon Booknotes interview with Jean Edward Smith on Lucius D. Clay: An American Life, November 18, 1990, C-SPAN

Primary sources[edit]

  • Jean Edward Smith. The Papers Of General Lucius D. Clay Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1974.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by Commanding General of the European Command
Succeeded by