Alexander Haig, 85; soldier-statesman managed Nixon resignation
By James Hohmann
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A01
Retired Army Gen. Alexander Haig, who held influential positions in the U.S. military and government and who as White House chief of staff shepherded Richard M. Nixon toward peacefully resigning the presidency, died Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore of complications from an infection. He was 85.
FILE - This 1981 file photo shows Secretary of State Alexander Haig. The former Secretary of State, who served Republican presidents and ran for the office himself, has died.
Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter sent the four-star general to Europe as supreme commander of NATO. Ronald Reagan made him secretary of state, a brief and stormy appointment in which he famously tried to assert command after the attempted assassination of the president. And Gen. Haig himself, a tall man with blue eyes who kept his chin-up military bearing long after he left the service, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.
In a statement, President Obama said Gen. Haig "exemplified our finest warrior-diplomat tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service."
Gen. Haig's influence peaked in his late 40s, during Nixon's last 16 months in office, when brewing developments in the Watergate scandal damaged and increasingly distracted the president. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously told Gen. Haig to keep the country together while he held the world together during one of the greatest constitutional crises in the nation's history. Special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, and many others, called Gen. Haig the "37 1/2 president."
Gen. Haig, untainted by the botched break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, took over as chief of staff in May 1973 from H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, who would spend 18 months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. When the public learned about the secret Oval Office taping system, which would eventually implicate Nixon in the coverup, Gen. Haig, as he acknowledged later, urged the president to destroy the tapes.
When Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Jaworski's predecessor, pursued his investigation too aggressively for Nixon's comfort, the president dispatched Gen. Haig in October 1973 to instruct the acting attorney general, William D. Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. "Your commander in chief has given you an order," Gen. Haig told him.
Ruckelshaus refused, quitting instead in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Although Gen. Haig vigorously defended the president, he realized the direness of the mounting evidence and arranged a series of meetings between Nixon, his attorneys and leading members of Congress to make Nixon understand that his position had become untenable in the summer of 1974.
Gen. Haig said he thought Nixon needed to make the final decision, but he "smoothed the way" by presenting resignation as the only serious option, according to the account of this period in journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's 1976 book "The Final Days." After the president broached the possibility of suicide, the authors noted, Gen. Haig ordered doctors to take away Nixon's tranquilizers and deny his requests for pills.
Then, on Aug. 1, 1974, Gen. Haig told Vice President Ford that he should prepare to assume the presidency. Critics said later that he brokered a deal that got Nixon a pardon in exchange for stepping down. Gen. Haig maintained that he never implicitly or explicitly made such an offer.
Gen. Haig stood on the White House lawn eight days later, on Aug. 9, when Nixon left town. The chief of staff had his arms folded, but he discreetly gave a thumbs-up to his disgraced boss.
Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. was born on Dec. 2, 1924, in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. He was 10 when his father, a lawyer, died of cancer and left the family $5,000 in life insurance money. Gen. Haig was the second of three children, but he assumed an important role in family matters as the oldest male.
From a young age, he aspired to a career in the military. He graduated in 1947 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and graduated 214th in a class of 310. Nevertheless, he advanced far more rapidly than his academic record might have suggested.
After college, he went to Japan to help with the post-World War II occupation. While playing football, he caught the eye of Patricia Fox, the attractive daughter of a general on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff. He married Fox and earned a spot on MacArthur's staff, though not working directly for his father-in-law.
Gen. Haig is survived by his wife and three children, Alexander, Brian and Barbara; and eight grandchildren.
Gen. Haig was working as MacArthur's staff duty officer on Jun. 25, 1950, when the North Koreans surged across the 38th parallel. He later claimed that during the Korean War, he carried MacArthur's sleeping bag ashore during the landing at Inchon. The young officer was in Korea for both the advance to the Yalu River and the withdrawal that followed when the Chinese crossed it.
As his military career progressed, Gen. Haig picked up a master's degree in international relations from Georgetown University in 1962, and he continued to attract a powerful series of mentors. Then-Army Secretary Cyrus Vance chose Gen. Haig as his military assistant. Joseph Califano, a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, then tapped Gen. Haig as his deputy.
Staying on the fast track, Gen. Haig took over a brigade in Vietnam as tensions escalated from 1966 to 1967. Shrapnel from an exploding grenade left a scar on his eyebrow, and he received the Purple Heart. Enemy fire downed his helicopter during the battle of Ap Gu, and he survived a successful crash landing. He returned to West Point from 1967 to 1969, where he was a regimental commander before becoming deputy commandant.
Rapid rise under Nixon
Califano was among those who recommended then-Col. Haig to Kissinger, the incoming national security adviser after Nixon won the presidency in 1968. As military assistant, Gen. Haig prepared daily reports for the new president and acted as a liaison between the Defense and State departments. Long hours and his finely honed skill at bureaucratic infighting helped him make influential friends. In October 1969, after only nine months at the White House, he won a promotion to brigadier general.
From 1969 to 1971, Gen. Haig transmitted 17 requests from the White House to the FBI for wiretaps of reporters and government officials. Among those whose phones he had bugged were the military assistant to the defense secretary and a close personal adviser to the secretary of state.
In January 1972, Gen. Haig led the advance team to China for a top-secret four-day trip that laid the groundwork for Nixon's historic visit to the communist country the next month. Gen. Haig's star kept rising in Nixon's eyes, and his relationship with Kissinger became increasingly fraught with tension. Later that year, Gen. Haig went with Kissinger as the president's personal emissary to Paris for peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Gen. Haig persuaded South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu to agree to the January 1973 cease-fire.
Gen. Haig discreetly told the president and Haldeman about Kissinger's designs for peace when he thought military options hadn't been exhausted, even showing the pair transcripts of Kissinger's private telephone conversations, according to historian Robert Dallek.
"Kissinger's distrust of Haig was well deserved," Dallek wrote in "Nixon and Kissinger," his 2007 book. "As ambitious as anyone in the administration, Haig's hard work and effective manipulation of Nixon, Haldeman, and Kissinger himself had brought him rapid advancement."
Months later, Nixon promoted Gen. Haig to four-star general and made him the Army's vice chief of staff. Doing that required the president to bypass 240 generals with more seniority. The promotion sent Gen. Haig back to the Pentagon, but Haldeman's resignation meant the assignment wouldn't last long. To take the chief of staff job, Gen. Haig reluctantly retired from the military.
Gen. Haig stayed on as White House chief of staff for the first six weeks of Ford's presidency. At his request, the new president recalled him to active duty as commander in chief of U.S. forces in Europe. He became supreme allied commander in Europe in December 1974 and worked to strengthen the Atlantic alliance. After Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, he retained Gen. Haig.
General Alexander Haig discusses the strength of the Warsaw Pact at a Defence Planning Committee meeting in 1976.
In 1979, Gen. Haig retired from the Army and left NATO. The week before he hung up his uniform, a remote-controlled bomb detonated under a bridge in Belgium as his car drove over it. The blast threw Gen. Haig's Mercedes 600 sedan into the air, but he escaped the assassination attempt without injury. Members of the Red Army Faction, a radical leftist group, were convicted in connection with the attack.
Tumult over foreign policy
Gen. Haig was president of United Technologies, one of the county's biggest companies, before being named Ronald Reagan's secretary of state in 1981. He became the most prominent official from the Nixon administration to return to government, partly as a result of aggressive lobbying by Nixon. Polls showed that important blocs of voters remained nervous that the new president would be a saber-rattling militarist, and Gen. Haig supported seeking a stable balance of power through detente with the Soviet Union.
The ties to Nixon dogged Gen. Haig. Democratic critics forced him to answer tough questions during five strenuous days of confirmation hearings, and liberal columnists opined against his selection.
Gen. Haig got into a testy exchange with then-Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), who pressed him for a "value judgment" about Nixon.
"Nobody has a monopoly on virtue, not even you, Senator," Gen. Haig retorted.
He acknowledged to the senators that "improper, illegal and immoral" actions had been taken during the Watergate coverup, but he refused to criticize Nixon.
"I cannot bring myself to render judgment on Richard Nixon or, for that matter, Henry Kissinger," he said. "It is not for me, it is not in me, to render moral judgment on them. I leave that to history, to others and to God."
The full Senate voted 93 to 6 to confirm him as the 59th secretary of state on the day after Reagan's inauguration.
Gen. Haig's 18-month tenure as secretary proved tumultuous, marked by continuing efforts to claim power over foreign policymaking that Reagan and his aides didn't want to give him. A characteristic first news conference created a maelstrom of bad publicity. Gen. Haig declared himself the "vicar" of foreign policy.
"With the dazzling speed that only words possess, it entered the vocabulary of the press and played its part in creating first the impression, and finally the uncomfortable reality, of a struggle for primacy between the president's close aides and myself," Gen. Haig said later.
That narrative frustrated Gen. Haig, but everything he did seemed to strengthen it. He tangled with Vice President George H.W. Bush over which of them should lead a committee on crisis management. Then, on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. nearly assassinated Reagan. Gen. Haig quickly arrived in the White House Situation Room. Bush was flying back from Texas when Haig went to address reporters in the briefing room.
"As of now, I am in control here in the White House," Gen. Haig told the nervous country watching on television, "pending return of the vice president and in close touch with him."
The sound bite symbolized to many a disconcerting hunger for power.
Gen. Haig was the ultimate Cold Warrior, seeing virtually every regional conflict as enmeshed with the larger struggle against the Soviet Union. At the State Department, he elevated the importance of Central America -- pushing to support anti-communists in El Salvador to send a message that the Soviets shouldn't think about interfering in the Western Hemisphere.
Reagan himself grew tired of Gen. Haig, who objected to sending a letter the president personally wrote for Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on the grounds that the State Department staff should draft it.
On June 24, 1982, Gen. Haig visited Reagan in the Oval Office and handed the president a list of complaints about the "cacophony of voices" speaking about the administration's foreign policy. Reagan called him back in the next day and astonished him with a note accepting his resignation.
"The president was accepting a letter of resignation that I had not submitted," Gen. Haig wrote in his 1984 book "Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy."
"Caveat" was a score-settling account aimed at his critics in the White House, which made headlines during Reagan's 1984 campaign for reelection. Gen. Haig, who had been so loyal to Nixon, decried the Reagan foreign policy apparatus as "a ghost ship."
"You heard the creak of the rigging and the groan of the timbers and sometimes even glimpsed the crew on deck," he wrote. "But which of the crew had the helm?"
Bid for presidency
In 1988, as Reagan's second term came to an end, Gen. Haig decided to run for president. He struggled to raise money and build support, deciding to pull out of the Iowa caucuses so he could focus his efforts on the New Hampshire primary. Never having won elected office, observers quickly realized he wasn't cut out for retail campaigning. He scoffed when people didn't seem to know who he was. Those who did questioned his ties to Nixon.
With polls warning of impending humiliation in New Hampshire, Gen. Haig dropped out of the race on the Friday before the critical first primary. He spent much of his campaign attacking Bush, and he quit the race with a final flash of what some viewed as vindictiveness toward the vice president by endorsing Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).
In interviews, Gen. Haig brushed off all those who criticized his manner and at times his methods.
"If you're a guy who just comes in and occupies a position and keeps his head down, of course, life can be rather pleasant," he once told The Washington Post in an interview. "They come and go in all their adulations. But if you have a firm set of ideas, and you want to make a difference, you've got to be controversial."
Photos of Alexander Haig (1924-2010)
Video: Haig: 'I am in control here'
Alexander Haig, My Old Boss
Warm memories of working down the hall from Haig in the early 80s.
by Michael Ledeen
February 20th, 2010 12:22 pm
In many ways he was the opposite of his legend. Yes, he had a temper. But he was a softy in many ways. He got Europeanized at NATO, where he was Supreme Allied Commander. He was a buddy of some German Social Democrats, he somehow learned a great deal about France, and was amazingly well informed about the Italians. Maybe he got some of that from (General Vernon) Walters, who was Ambassador at Large.
My real title was Ambassador at Small (aka Special Advisor to the Secretary of State), and the best way to describe it is to tell you about my first day on the job in 1981, in a little office down the hall from Haig, just past Bud McFarlane and just before Harvey Sicherman, the chief speechwriter and confidant. They assigned me to a career secretary who had worked with Phillip Habib. She was supposed to keep me in line, I think, and mostly she won. Anyway, that first day I was called into Haig’s enormous office and he emoted for about ten minutes. Mostly it had to do with the Soviets, of course, and he was furious at various West European socialists for causing trouble with regard to Central America, Africa, and arms control issues.
Let’s say he had a rich vocabulary. When he finally took a breath he lit a cigarette (most everybody smoked on the 7th floor of State) and growled “you know these people. Do something!”
Back in my cubbyhole I asked my keeper what “do something!” meant, and she said it usually meant writing a memo to him laying out the something I proposed to do. Then he approved it–or not–and then I did it.
Right. So I wrote a memo, she put it in the proper format, and sent it back down the hall. A few hours later his secretary called to say a) I had better get down there pronto, and b) he was really angry. A little heads-up.
In fact he was purple, pacing around with a cigarette in one hand (remember he’d just had a quadruple or quintuple bypass) and my memo in the other.
“WHAT” he snarled, “THE FOWL FILTH IS THIS?”
I confessed that it was my memo, sir.
“Number one,” he was now tearing it up, “DON’T WRITE MEMOS!!!.” The little pieces were now in the burn bag. “I didn’t bring you here to have you WRITE FOWLISH FILTHY MEMOS!”
And then probably the greatest orders anyone ever received: “When I tell you to do something, just go do it. If I don’t like it, you’ll hear from me. And if you don’t hear from me, keep doing it.”
Best boss I ever had. I only heard from him once, when one of our ambassadors called me in to the embassy to say that Haig wanted me to call him on a secure line, and the poor man added that he’d never ever heard language like that, ever.
All that business about Haig-the-war-monger was disinformation, by the way, carefully cultivated (as it had been with Nixon, from whom Haig probably learned it). My main problems with him came when he listened too attentively to the likes of Schmidt. I tried to resign when I thought he was insufficiently tough with the Soviets over Poland, and he asked me to stay. For two reasons. First, nobody else was giving him that kind of criticism, and he wanted to hear it. And second, “don’t be in such a hurry; I’ll be gone in a few months.”
And he was.
Al Haig's Charge
By Paul Kengor on 2.22.10 @ 6:08AM
The American Spectator
Alexander Haig passed away over the weekend at the age of 85. A military man, a war veteran, no less than a four-star general, a chief of staff to two Republicans presidents (Nixon and Ford), a secretary of state to a third Republican president (Ronald Reagan), and once widely (but wrongly) suspected as the "Deep Throat" Watergate figure who gave the dirty laundry to Woodward and Bernstein, Haig was often controversial, often egotistical, often mercurial, and always interesting and entertaining.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig with President Ronald Reagan
I never knew Al Haig, though I did interview him for books I wrote on Ronald Reagan and on Reagan's closest adviser, Bill Clark, who had the thrill of serving as Haig's deputy at the State Department in that critical first year of the Reagan administration. I learned plenty about Haig from others. What I grasped about Haig -- from a policy perspective -- was not the conventional wisdom among pundits and historians: though Haig was the prototypical tough-talking, take-no-prisoners military general, he more often assumed the role of dove in the early Reagan administration. He at times sided with the Western Europeans who refused to join Reagan, Cap Weinberger, Bill Clark (once Clark had left State for the National Security Council in January 1982), Ed Meese, and Bill Casey in turning the screws on the Soviets.
A case in point was Reagan's remarkable strategy to detonate Soviet hard-currency earnings by blocking the construction of the Siberian gas pipeline. Haig took the side of the French. He was wrong on that one. Indeed, here was one of innumerable moments when Haig, upon learning that the Clark-Cap-Casey coterie had prevailed, yet again blew a gasket.
Specifically, Haig had been absent from the decisive meeting where Reagan gave the go-ahead to obstruct the Soviet pipeline. He was in New York, chatting with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. When he learned what had happened in his absence, Haig was fit to be tied. He believed that Bill Clark -- again, head of the NSC at this point -- had scheduled the meeting because Haig was out of town.
Clark had not, but Haig was, characteristically, still smoldering when he later arrived for a briefing session in the Situation Room. Clark was there, as was Secretary of Labor William Brock. Brock had just returned from Western Europe. During the session, Brock was debriefed on the Western European reaction to Reagan's pipeline decision -- which was hardly euphoric. Brock described being "lambasted, savaged" by the Western Europeans on the decision.
Already incensed, Haig was now purple with rage. Veins protruded from his neck and forehead. He blew up. He pointed at Clark and raised his voice, accusing Clark of sandbagging him, of waiting until he left for New York to call the meeting. "YOU did this!" snapped Haig at Clark.
It was the kind of behavior that would eventually prompt Reagan to accept Haig's resignation. More than that, it was the kind behavior -- so antithetical to a successful chief executive -- that probably prevented Haig from rising to the next level; that is, from being elected president himself one day. General Haig lacked the cool-head needed for the job. When it came to the basic but utterly essential skill of dealing with people -- a crucial intangible of the presidency -- Haig simply didn't seem to have the patience for the presidency, nor for the singular project of governing the globe; a much larger ambition which he seemed to think he alone could do.
A classic insight in this respect is provided by Richard Pipes, the terrific longtime Harvard Sovietologist who served on the Reagan NSC. Pipes recorded: "Although I have said that he liked everyone, I believe Reagan from the outset did not like Alexander Haig…. Haig's aggressive bearing, his mocking expression, his superior airs visibly annoyed Reagan." At NSC meetings, said Pipes, "Haig would roll his eyes to express scorn for the foreign policy pronouncements of various people around the table, as if imploring heaven to witness his suffering."
Of course, this is not to say that no one liked Al Haig. Bill Clark, who liked everyone, especially liked the man. "He was very kind, very gracious," said Clark of Haig. "I got along with him well."
Clark was referring particularly to the year he and Haig spent together at the State Department. "We worked wonderfully together," said Clark, remembering Haig as always smiling and always smoking a cigarette. "[We were] soon addressing each other, when alone, as 'Uncle Al' and 'Uncle Bill.'"
Clark recalls his first meeting with Haig, which was extremely revealing of Haig's complex personality. Like all of their subsequent meetings, it was cordial. And it began, as did so most introductions to Al Haig, with a bang rather than a whimper; it still makes Clark grin. "I'll tell you what your job is," the general informed an attentive Clark, keenly interested. "You, Bill, are going to run the building. I'm going to run the world."
Says Clark today: "He was serious."
He certainly was. Al Haig informed the wider world that he would be the Reagan administration's "vicar" of foreign policy -- or so he thought. It was a marriage that did not last two full years, with Haig departing the scene in June 1982, replaced by an infinitely milder George Shultz.
"No one tried to talk Al out of resigning," a senior Reagan administration official told the Washington Post.
As a parting observation, I'll end on a charitable note, which is not only in order at the time of anyone's death, but especially given the most notable component of the Haig record -- the one area where Haig is most vulnerable, and which, predictably, has led every obituary. It is another necessary clarification, if not correction, on the life of Al Haig, again courtesy of Bill Clark.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom is welcomed by Secretary of State Alexander Haig upon arrival for a visit to the United States (6/28/1982).
Of course, I'm referring to the events of March 30, 1981. At 2:25 PM that afternoon, President Ronald Reagan was struck by a bullet as he exited the Washington Hilton after a speech. For decades, Haig's subsequent reaction has been portrayed in the press as petulant and dictatorial. Bill Clark, however, as Haig's deputy at State, was there to observe each and every Haig step. He retraced those steps for me a few years ago:
Clark was at the State Department when he got word that Reagan had been shot. He was with Secretary Haig, who said to him, "I'll go over there," meaning the White House, "and you man the ship here." Haig steadily ordered: "Bill, stand by. We'll have to get out a proper statement for the benefit of our allies and 'non-friends,' assuring them that all is well."
Haig raced to the White House to the center of activity in the Situation Room. He and Clark remained in direct communication by secure phone.
The common wisdom is that Haig then over-asserted himself by trying to seize the reins of government. "I'm in charge!" he reportedly declared as he stomped into the Situation Room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Clark here interjects: He says it is unfair to characterize Haig's infamous words as reflective of a desire to take over the presidency, to leapfrog the Constitutional process requiring Vice President Bush to fill the gap. Importantly, the vice president was not present at that moment, meaning that someone needed to take command, and right away. Rather, says Clark, Haig was merely seeking order in the Situation Room and wanted to quickly issue statements making it clear to the world that all was operating smoothly atop the world's greatest power. This was, after all, a tense Cold War period, and one never knew how the Soviets might react.
"That place was in great confusion and the vice president was in the air," says Clark. "Al reminded people that as the primary cabinet member he was going to take charge of the meeting, not of the White House. So some of his detractors I think overplayed the meaning of what he said…. What he said was correct -- that he heads the national security interest, that he's the primary cabinet member. So, he did take charge in attempting to get a statement written and in trying to calm the others who were present."
Moreover, Al Haig knew what to do because of his difficult experiences in the tumultuous Nixon administration. "He had been through a lot in the Nixon years," adds Clark. There had been low periods for Nixon during which Haig effectively served as president. So, on March 30, 1981, Haig knew what to do better than anyone in that room. "He was not trying to take over the government," says Clark. "That is inaccurate."
Establishing order was Al Haig's charge that day. He did the right thing.
Overall, Clark summed up Al Haig nicely: "Haig would drive us nuts," said Clark. "He always felt he could do a better job than Ronald Reagan. But I loved the guy anyway."
Alexander Haig was far from perfect, but aren't we all? He left the world a more interesting place, and one not as black-and-white as his critics suggest.
- Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.