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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.

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.

Powerful mentors

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.

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."

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