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February 20, 2010 [LINK / comment]

R.I.P. Gen. Alexander Haig

The man who kept the government functioning during the Watergate nightmare passed away earlier today. Gen. Alexander Haig, who served as supreme military commander of NATO forces, chief of staff in the Nixon White House, and Secretary of State under President Reagan, and few leaders of the 20th Century attained such heights of power and influence as he did. According to his family he succumbed to an infection while at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 85. Sunday's Washington Post has a full article on his exemplary career as a soldier and a diplomat.

Haig was tapped by President Richard Nixon to help restore order in the White House after chief of staff Bob Haldeman was forced to resign as the Watergate scandal unfolded. In October 1973, as the Yom Kippur War was threatening to escalate into World War III, Nixon ordered Haig to instruct acting Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire special prosecutor Arhibald Cox, but Ruckelshaus refused and quit instead. This was the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre."

As a general, Haig was saddled with daunting challenges. In the years immediately following the Vietnam war, U.S. influence was waning around the world, and the Soviet Union was building alliances in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World. Western European countries were virtually paralyzed by economic stagnation in the wake of the surge in petroleum prices, and many people that that capitalist democracy was doomed. As commander of NATO forces during that time, Haig had to make extreme exertions to make sure that U.S. forces (under-equipped at that time) would be ready to face any sudden Soviet attack, in order to reassure our NATO allies that the United States would fulfill its treaty commitment. In this task, his abilities as a military commander and as a diplomat -- reminiscent of the role played by Gen. George C. Marshall during and after World War II -- proved invaluable to the United States.

As Secretary of State, Haig became a victim of political maneuvering and lack of firm central control in the Reagan White House. This tension came to a head in May 1982, when U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick resigned after siding with Great Britain in the dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. This made Haig's job more difficult, and after he complained about the "cacophony of voices" in the administration's foreign policy, Reagan informed Haig that he was accepting his resignation -- even though Haig had not resigned!

I think it's a shame that Haig caught so much flak for that one ill-phrased statement in 1981, after President Reagan was shot and no one knew whether he would live. "I'm in control here." became a derisive catch-phrase that dogged him for the rest of his life. I think it is safe to say that every single obituary written about him will include that phrase.

Haig was a perfect example of the old Eastern Establishment Republican, and would probably have a hard time fitting in to the GOP today. He was a poised, well-rounded leader whose self-assuredness sometimes rubbed other people the wrong way. When he was chosen as secretary of state, he said that he would serve as the "vicar" of foreign policy, an odd choice of words implying a privileged, custodial decision-making role. (A "vicar" is what Anglicans call their ordained priests.) His run for president in 1988 was anachronistic in style and probably doomed from the beginning. Haig was simply out of touch with the emerging political currents, especially the Christian Right.

One of the curious aspects of Haig's career was the Moorer/Radford affair, brought to my attention by Kevin Gutzman. U.S. military leaders were suspicious of President Nixon for making secret deals with the Chinese while the Vietnam war was still going on. They enlisted Haig, then serving as deputy to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, to snoop through Kissinger's papers and pass along the latest news about what was being negotiated. This fascinating episode, which took place in December 1971, is described in Forty Years War, by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman. They regard Haig as one of the original Neoconservatives, who have played a controversial role in U.S. foreign policy since the late 1970s. See

I had the pleasure to meet Gen. Haig in the mid-1990s when I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, after he spoke at the Miller Center, where I worked. Haig was kind enough to answer my questions about what really happened with Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, in which the government of Peru tried to play a mediating role. (After the effort broke down, Peru sent a squadron of Mirage fighter jets to help their Argentine allies fight back against the British forces.) Haig rejected the assertion made by many critics in Latin America that Prime Minister Thatcher was determined to teach the Argentines a lesson, no matter how the negotiations went. He also praised the good-faith peace-making efforts of Peru's President Fernando Belaunde, who passed away in June 2002. (See the obituary I wrote for him.)

While it is true that Haig was involved in some intrigues that may never see the light of day, he was a highly competent, patriotic, steadying influence in the corridors of power in Washington during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. I hope he gets proper recognition some day for his great service to the country.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 21 Feb 2010, 12: 44 AM

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