LUCIUS D. CLAY

An American Life

By Jean Edward Smith

Henry Holt. 835 pp. $35

WHEN World War II ended, the United States, feeling its way toward superpowerdom, assumed a dominant role in the political and economic rehabilitation of Japan and Germany. Five-star General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, a hero of the Allied victory in the Pacific, presided over the occupation of Japan. A little known, 48-year-old Army general, Lucius Dubignon Clay, who had waged the entire war at a desk in Washington, presided over the American occupation of divided Germany.

Of the two assignments, MacArthur's was by far the easier. Few cared about the fate of remote, inscrutable Japan. MacArthur ruled imperiously, freezing out the Soviet Union and our other allies -- and the State Department as well -- and did pretty much as he pleased, not without success. In distinct contrast, almost everybody cared about the fate of Germany and had conflicting ideas about what to do. Consequently Clay operated from a Cold War slit trench under heavy and relentless fire from every quarter.

Lucius Clay was the youngest of six children of a liberal United States senator from Georgia, Alexander S. Clay, who served from 1896 until his death in 1910. Born in 1897, Lucius grew up in a Kennedyesque "political household," with one foot in Georgia and one in Washington, where he rubbed shoulders with political bigwigs, including his father's friend, President Theodore Roosevelt. Appointed to West Point in 1915, he graduated (first in academics, last in discipline) in 1918, too late to fight in the Great War, married Marjorie McKeown, daughter of a wealthy Irish immigrant who was president of the New England Button Company, and thereafter served with distinction and lived well (cooks, polo ponies, etc.) in the Army's small, elite, highly politicized Corps of Engineers.

By happenstance, Clay was assigned to Washington in 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the Army -- the Corps of Engineers in particular -- to assist in organizing and managing many New Deal public works projects. In this four-year assignment, Clay worked closely with New Dealers Harry Hopkins, Jesse Jones, James Byrnes, Henry Morgenthau and others, and was courted by members of Congress, including House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn, who were seeking dams, harbors and other job-generating federal projects in their districts. Fulfilling an Army requirement for overseas service, in 1937 Clay was assigned to Manila, where former Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur (then retired) and his chief of staff, Dwight D. Eisenhower, were attempting to field a Filipino army and air corps. As a result of his family heritage and these assignments, Clay emerged as "one of the most skillful politicians ever to wear the uniform of the United States Army," as John Kenneth Galbraith put it.

On the eve of World War II, Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's right arm, and Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones drafted Clay to manage the crash construction of 500 airfields. Clay's deft performance in that job earned an early promotion to brigadier general and a new post of immense sweep and responsibility -- chief of procurement for the hugely expanding U.S. Army. Serving in that post throughout the war (and on Lend-Lease and other committees), Clay awarded contracts, obtained priorities for and supervised production of, among other items, 299 million pairs of pants, 50 million field jackets, 2.3 million trucks, 178,000 artillery pieces, 88,000 tanks and billions of rounds of ammunition, "all without a breath of scandal," Smith writes.

By war's end, Clay had won the unstinting admiration of every top-level official in Washington and when it came to managing a nation's resources, manpower and industrial production, he had no peer. Secretary of State James Byrnes told Roosevelt that given six months, Clay "could run General Motors or U.S. Steel." Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau agreed: "The most able fellow around this town is General Clay." He was thus far more qualified for the task of rehabilitating Germany than appeared at first blush. HOW CLAY survived against all odds and managed to plant the seeds of a democratic and prosperous West German republic is the centerpiece of this superb biography, by the editor of Clay's papers and Cold War specialist Jean Edward Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. In view of the momentous events unfolding in Germany today, the book is especially timely.

Fundamentally a liberal in his father's tradition -- or that of the New Deal -- Clay stamped out Nazism (and punished its surviving leadership in hundreds of war crimes trials), quickly gave the defeated and bewildered Germans a new constitution guaranteeing self-government, civil liberties and free speech, and attempted with all his might to unify the two Germanies, politically and economically. It is fascinating -- and instructive -- to be reminded that (as Smith and Clay tell it) the French, abetted by pro-French, anti-Soviet hawks in the State Department, did more in the early days to thwart German unification than the Russians. The climax of his tour -- and of this book -- was Clay's rescue of Berliners from communist engulfment in 1948-1949 by the creation of the Berlin Airlift, for which the West Germans idolized him.

As this brief sketch indicates, Lucius Clay, now mostly a forgotten figure, played a pivotal role in three epochal events of the 20th century: the rescue of America from the Depression, the mobilization of America for World War II and -- his crowning achievement -- the rehabilitation of West Germany. In bringing Clay -- and his times -- to life, Smith has not only rendered a valuable service for students of history but also set a new standard in military biography. Adroitly balanced, thoroughly researched, beautifully written, consistently fascinating, the book leaves you gasping in admiration.

Clay Blair's latest book is "Korea: The Forgotten War." He is at work on a history of the German U-boat war.