Alexander Haig, Ex-U.S. Secretary of State, Dies at 85
By TIM WEINER
Published: February 20, 2010
Alexander M. Haig Jr., the mercurial four-star general who served as a confrontational secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan and a commanding White House chief of staff as President Richard M. Nixon’s administration crumbled, died Saturday in Baltimore. He was 85.
He had been admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital on Jan. 28, said Gary Stephenson, a hospital spokesman, and died there at approximately 1:30 a.m.
Mr. Haig was a rare American breed: a political general. His bids for the presidency quickly came undone. But his ambition to be president was thinly veiled, and that was his undoing. He knew, Reagan’s aide Lyn Nofziger once said, that “the third paragraph of his obit” would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot, on March 30, 1981.
That day, Secretary of State Haig wrongly declared himself the acting president. “The helm is right here,” he told members of the Reagan cabinet in the White House Situation Room, “and that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.” His words were tape-recorded by Richard V. Allen, then the national security adviser. His colleagues knew better. “There were three others ahead of Haig in the constitutional succession,” Mr. Allen wrote in 2001. “But Haig’s demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one.”
Mr. Haig then asked, “How do you get to the press room?” He raced upstairs and went directly to the lectern before a television audience of millions. His knuckles whitening, his arms shaking, his knees wobbling, Mr. Haig declared to the world, “I am in control here, in the White House.” He did not give that appearance.
Seven years before, Mr. Haig really had been in control. He was widely perceived as the acting president during the final months of the Nixon administration.
He kept the White House running as the distraught and despondent commander in chief was driven from power by the threat of impeachment in 1974. “He was the president toward the end,” William Saxbe, the United States attorney general in 1974, told the authors of “Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency,” (HarperCollins, 1994). “He held that office together.”
Henry Kissinger, his mentor and master in the Nixon White House, also said the nation owed Mr. Haig its gratitude for steering the ship of state through dangerous waters in the final days of the Nixon era. “By sheer willpower, dedication and self-discipline, he held the government together,” Mr. Kissinger wrote in his memoir, “Years of Upheaval.”
He took pride in his cool handling of a constitutional crisis without precedent. “There were no tanks,” he said during his confirmation as secretary of state in 1981. “There were not any sandbags outside the White House.”
Serving the Nixon White House from 1969 to 1974, Mr. Haig went from colonel to four-star general without holding a major battlefield command, an extraordinary rise with few if any precedents in American military history. But the White House was its own battlefield in those years. He won his stars through his tireless service to the president and his national security adviser, Mr. Kissinger.
Mr. Haig never lost his will. But he frequently lost his composure as President Reagan’s secretary of state. As a consequence, he lost both his job and his standing in the American government.
Mr. Nixon had privately suggested to the Reagan transition team that Mr. Haig would make a great secretary of state. Upon his appointment, Mr. Haig declared himself “the vicar of foreign policy” — in the Roman Catholic Church, to which he belonged, the Pope is the “vicar of Christ” — but he soon became an apostate in the new administration. He alienated his affable commander-in-chief and Vice President George H. W. Bush, whose national security aide, Donald P. Gregg, described Mr. Haig as “a cobra among garter snakes.”
He served for 17 months before the president dismissed him with a one-page letter on June 24, 1982. Those months were marked by a largely covert paramilitary campaign against Central American leftists, a dramatic heightening of nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union, and dismay among American allies about the lurching course of American foreign policy. In the immediate aftermath of his departure came the deaths of 241 American soldiers in a terrorist bombing in Beirut and, two days later, the American invasion of Grenada.
“His tenure as secretary of state was very traumatic,” recalled John M. Poindexter, later President Reagan’s national security adviser, in the oral history book “Reagan: The Man and His Presidency” (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). “As a result of this constant tension that existed between the White House and the State Department about who was going to be responsible for national security and foreign policy, we got very little done.”
Mr. Haig said the president had assured him that “I would be the spokesman for the U.S. government.” But he came to believe — with reason — that the White House staff had banded against him. He blamed in particular the so-called troika of James A. Baker III, Edwin Meese, and Michael Deaver.
“Reagan was a cipher,” he said with evident bitterness. “These men were running the government.”
“Having been a White House chief of staff, and having lived in the White House under great tension, you know that the White House attracts extremely ambitious people,” he reflected. “Those who get to the top are usually prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get there.”
Mr. Haig briefly considered running for president in 1980 — a committee to support him was formed, but it fizzled — and then began a full-fledged campaign for the Republican nomination. But he won next to no popular support. He would never make it to the top.
Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 2, 1924, the son of a lawyer and a homemaker. At 22, he was graduated from West Point, ranking 214th of 310 members of the class of 1947. As a young lieutenant, he went to Japan to serve as an aide to Gen. Alonzo Fox, deputy chief of staff to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme allied commander and American viceroy of the Far East.
In 1950 he married Patricia Fox, the daughter of his superior, the general. They had three children, Alexander, Brian and Barbara, and eight grandchildren.
His first taste of war was brutal. In the first months of the Korean War he served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Edward Almond, chief of staff of the Far Eastern Command. Official Army histories depict General Almond as a terror to his underlings and one of General MacArthur’s most uncompromising disciples. Following orders, General Almond sent thousands of American soldiers north toward the Chinese border in November 1950. They met a ferocious surprise counterattack from a far larger Chinese force.
General Almond and First Lt. Haig flew to the forward outpost of an American task force on Nov. 28, where the general pinned a medal on a lieutenant colonel’s parka, told him the Chinese were only stragglers, and then flew off. Of that task force, once 2,500 strong, some 1,000 were killed, wounded, captured or left to die. In all, within a fortnight, American forces in Korea took 12,975 casualties. It was one of the worst routs in American military history.
After the Korean War the young soldier commanded desks for a decade, serving in the Pentagon and becoming a deputy special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. He served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 as a battalion and brigade commander of the First Infantry Division, and received the Distinguished Service Cross.
In 1969, Colonel Haig became a military assistant on Mr. Kissinger’s National Security Council staff. He distinguished himself as the hardest-working man among an ambitious and talented cohort. Soon he was a brigadier general and Mr. Kissinger’s deputy.
Vietnam consumed him. He made 14 trips to Southeast Asia between 1970 and 1973. He later said that Mr. Kissinger “got snookered” in negotiations with the enemy, and that he would have chosen to be more forceful. “That is how Eisenhower settled Korea,” he said. “He told them he was going to nuke them. In Vietnam, we didn’t have to use nuclear weapons; all we had to do was to act like a nation.”
Then Watergate consumed the White House. In 1973, after a brief stint as the Army’s vice chief of staff, General Haig was summoned back to serve his president. He replaced H. R. Haldeman, who later went to prison, as the White House chief of staff.
All this, in the course of a few weeks in the fall of 1973, fell on Mr. Haig’s head:
Vice President Spiro T. Agnew pleaded no contest to taking bribes. The next man in line under the Constitution, House Speaker Carl Albert, was being treated for alcoholism. The president, by some accounts, was drinking to excess. War broke out in the Middle East. When the president tried to fire the Watergate special prosecutor rather than surrender his secret White House tapes, the attorney general and his deputy resigned. Impeachment loomed.
What began with the arrest of White House aides breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington in June 1972 had quickly poisoned the presidency. Days after the break-in, the president and his closest aides had discussed how to cover up their role and how to obtain hush money for the burglars. The discussions, secretly taped by the president, were evidence of obstruction of justice.
General Haig was one of the first people, if not the very first, to read transcripts of the tapes the president had withheld from the special prosecutor. “When I finished reading it,” he told the authors of “Nixon: An Oral History,” “I knew that Nixon would never survive — no way.”
On Aug. 1, 1974, the general went to Vice President Gerald R. Ford and discussed the possibility of a pardon for the president. Mr. Nixon left office a week later; the pardon came the next month. The outrage was so deep that Mr. Haig departed.
After leaving the White House in October 1974, he became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, the overseer of NATO. In 1979, he resigned and retired from the Army.
A “Haig for President” committee was formed and dissolved in 1980. Mr. Haig made a full-fledged run for the Republican nomination in 1988. But he placed last among the six Republican candidates in Iowa, where he barely campaigned, and he withdrew before the New Hampshire primary. He campaigned hard but drew next to no support. He had been, he said, “the darkest of the dark horses.”
In his 80s, Mr. Haig ran Worldwide Associates, a firm offering “strategic advice” on global commerce. He also appeared on Fox News as a military and political analyst.
He had a unique way with words. In a 1981 “On Language” column, William Safire of The New York Times, a veteran of the Nixon White House, called it “haigravation.”
Nouns became verbs or adverbs: “I’ll have to caveat my response, Senator.” (Caveat is Latin for “let him beware.” In English, it means “warning.” In Mr. Haig’s lexicon, it meant to say something with a warning that it might or might not be so.)
Haigspeak could be subtle: “there are nuance-al differences between Henry Kissinger and me on that.” It could be dramatic: “Some sinister force” had erased one of President Nixon’s subpoenaed Watergate tapes, creating an 18½-minute gap. Sometimes it was an emblem of the never-ending battle between politics and the English language: “careful caution,” “epistemologically-wise,” “saddle myself with a statistical fence.”
But he could also speak with clarity and conviction about the presidents he served, and about his own role in government. President Nixon would always be remembered for Watergate, he said, “because the event had such major historic consequences for the country: a fundamental discrediting of respect for the office; a new skepticism about politics in general, which every American feels.”
President Reagan, he said, would be remembered for having had “the good fortune of having been president when the Evil Empire began to unravel.” But, he went on, “to consider that standing tall in Grenada, or building Star Wars, brought the Russians to their knees is a distortion of historic reality. The internal contradictions of Marxism brought it to its knees.”
He was brutally candid about his own run for office and his subsequent distaste for political life. “Not being a politician, I think I can say this: The life of a politician in America is sleaze,” he told the authors of “Nixon: An Oral History.”
“I didn’t realize it until I started to run for office,” he said. “But there is hardly a straight guy in the business. As Nixon always said to me — and he took great pride in it — ‘Al, I never took a dollar. I had somebody else do it.”