Lt. Gen. Lucius D. Clay with General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower at Gatow Airport in Berlin during the Potsdam Conference in 1945.

For anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of World War II, certain names are easily recognizable, names like Eisenhower, Churchill, Roosevelt, Patton, and Macarthur. One key figure that very few will be familiar with is General Lucius Dubignon Clay.

Born in Marietta, Georgia in 1898, Clay was the great-grandnephew of legendary American statesman Henry Clay and the son of Alexander S. Clay, U.S. senator from Georgia during the years 1897-1910. A graduate of West Point, he was widely known as a man of keen intellect, penetrating understanding of complex issues, and tireless devotion to duty.

Due to Clay’s reputation of successfully completing hard tasks and establishing order out of chaos, he had risen through the ranks rapidly. Very soon after the onset of WWII, he was promoted once again and became the youngest Brigadier General in the entire U.S. Army.

Although longing for a combat command, his expertise in logistics kept him stateside in a variety of critical roles. Finally, in October of 1944, he was sent to Europe and given command of the Normandy Base Section. From that vital position, he would speed up the flow of men and materials pouring into the heart of Europe to secure the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

In April 1945, just days before the end of the war in Europe, Clay assumed the job from which he would ultimately leave a truly lasting legacy. He became the deputy Military Governor of Germany, under the overall command of General Eisenhower.

An impossible job

A few months later, in the fall of 1945, seventy five years ago this autumn, Eisenhower returned to Washington to became Army Chief of Staff and Clay moved up to become the commanding general for the Office of Military Government for Germany. For the next three and a half tumultuous years, he would have overall responsibility for establishing government and maintaining order, ridding the German nation of Nazism, guiding the country toward representative democracy, providing for a starving people who were also without adequate shelter, rebuilding industry and infrastructure, and standing strong against the ever expanding menace of Russian communism. How’s that for a job description?

When General Clay took over in Germany it is difficult to describe just how dire the situation actually was. Europe in general, and Germany in particular, was a wasteland. The euphoria and celebration that ensued around the world in the immediate aftermath of the surrender of Hitler’s Third Reich had given way to harsh reality.

Germany literally lay in ruins, especially the cities. People were living in the shells of bombed out buildings and in holes underneath piles of rubble. As they scavenged for food, the trash from U.S. Army dining facilities became a source of life for many.

Such was the situation in which General Lucius Clay found himself 75 years ago. The Allies had determined in advance that they would occupy a defeated Germany by dividing it up into four sectors. One sector each was to be governed by the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Russia. The decimated capital city of Berlin, lying wholly within the Soviet Russian sector, was also subdivided among the four Allied powers.

Long before the war ended, Russian plans to expand Communist rule throughout recently liberated countries surfaced all too plainly. That’s how Eastern Europe became and remained a part of the Soviet bloc until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. Now, counting on indifference from her war weary allies, Russia had her sights set on Germany as well. Lucius Clay, in an office that few would aspire to, faced two seemingly insurmountable obstacles, rebuilding a destroyed nation and standing up to a powerful ally turned enemy.

When the war had ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, feelings of retribution toward the German people ran high. The nation whose armies had succeeded in occupying and destroying much of Europe, while literally slaughtering millions of her inhabitants, seemed to deserve a very heavy hand. Those feelings, set forth in a plan offered by U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, were understandable at the time. Morgenthau’s proposal called for the leveling of German industry and for reducing her people to a purely subsistence agricultural existence.

Despite the harshness initially planned for the German people, a sense of sympathy for suffering human beings won the day. Clay was moved by the hopelessness and extreme hardships that he observed on every hand. How could a nation, cold, starving, and without hope, be led to embrace democracy? More fundamentally, how could fellow human beings turn their backs on those in such abject misery, even though the sufferers themselves had been at least indirectly complicit in propagating death and destruction during the war? In addition, the Russians were already busily at work, spreading the message that a Marxist utopia was the only hope for Germany’s downtrodden masses.

Speech of hope

Clay’s influence on those in the highest echelons of American government soon began to have an impact on occupation policies in Germany. President Truman and British Prime Minister Churchill were appalled by what they saw in Berlin. So was U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes.

Following discussions with General Clay and with the approval of the American government, Byrnes delivered a moving speech in a Stuttgart (Germany) opera house on September 6, 1946. Alongside over one thousand U.S. occupation officials gathered there, 150 Germans were also present. Millions more Germans listened at home on their radios to a live translation of Byrnes historic address.

The words of the Secretary of State, which came to be known as the “Speech of Hope,” we’re electrifying, and marked a reversal of more harsh official occupation policy toward the German nation. Americans had learned that “our peace and well-being cannot be purchased at the price of the peace and well-being of any other country.” He went on to add, “The American people want to return the government of Germany to the German people. The American people want to help the German people to win their way back to an honorable place among the free and peace-loving nations of the world.”

At the end of the speech, the entire audience stood, many of the Germans present openly weeping. It is said that tears moistened the eyes of General Clay as well.

Clay’s legacy

Before leaving Germany and retiring from the Army in May 1949, Clay would be vital in the formulation and implementation of the Marshall Plan, a massive U.S. aid program to help rebuild Germany and the rest of Europe. In 1948, standing almost alone at first, he would plead for a massive airlift to save the free people of West Berlin from Russian efforts to cut them off and force communism on them. The seemingly impossible Berlin Airlift, one of the greatest episodes in American history, might never have occurred were it not for the tenacity of Lucius Clay.

During his tenure in Germany, he would oversee the beginning of the German miracle. The Germans are a hard working and industrious people, but it was American kindness and compassion that paved the way for their rebirth as a nation.

Today, Germany is governed democratically, one of the world’s great economic powers, and a solid ally of the United States. Lucius Clay, beloved by many Germans who know their history, was an indispensable catalyst in what has since transpired. General Eisenhower would later describe Clay’s tireless efforts in Germany as “one of the outstanding contributions to our country.” Greatly esteemed by his countrymen at the time, Clay received a ticker tape parade in New York City upon his arrival home.

Roughly twenty years ago, while serving as a Navy Chaplain attached to a U.S. Marine fighter aircraft squadron participating in a NATO exercise in southern Germany, I met and enjoyed conversation with an older German gentleman who resided near Munich. Several years after the war he had served as a pilot in the newly established German Air Force, receiving his aviation training at military bases in the U.S. As we walked along a quiet road, he said, “You know my neighbors complain about the noise from your F/A-18 jets. I tell them, ‘Don’t complain about the Americans and the noise of their airplanes. That’s the sound of freedom.’ “

Remember General Lucius Clay, and others like him, who represented the benevolent spirit of the American people so well, and whose actions resulted in the beginning of an enduring friendship between two peace-loving nations ... 75 years ago.

“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” — Ronald Reagan

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