An interview with Alexander Haig, a true Cold Warrior

By James Rosen
Sunday, February 28, 2010; B04

After eight years of refusing my requests for an interview about the Nixon presidency, retired Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., accosted in the Fox News green room, finally relented. Our tape-recorded session -- held in Haig's downtown office on July 27, 2000 -- lasted nearly three hours. I published some portions in a book I wrote on Watergate but decided to keep the vast majority private until Haig's death.

Haig, who served as secretary of state under Reagan and chief of staff in Nixon's White House, died Feb. 20 at age 85. In the interview, he was in rare form: sharp of memory, combative in tone, unsparing in recounting the famous and obscure, civilian and military. Below are excerpts from the conversation:

On his worldview:

I started out as a Cold Warrior, even my last years in grade school. I used to read everything I could get on communism. In fact, the first paper I wrote as a plebe at West Point caused a major upheaval in the faculty, because I predicted that our next enemy was the Soviet Union. . . . It was during the war [World War II], when we were allies. . . . I was viewed with some suspicion by the social sciences department. And I'd always been that way. And I stayed that way, rather consistently. I had a great interest in the subject and I really did have a concern about it. . . .

But I don't make any bones about being still quite concerned about it. To declare the Cold War over, and declare democracy has won out over totalitarianism, is a measure of arrogance and wrong-headedness. And if you look back at a lot of our problems today, it's the direct product of that baloney about the new world order and why Marxism collapsed. It wasn't that their values were defeated by our values; it was our system that defeated theirs, the market economy. But to keep pumping that out -- now you see why, even in the Bush camp, there's a hyper-fear of calling a spade a spade, when there's genocide taking place in Chechnya, and every one of our friends and enemies is being weaned away from us. The United States is isolated today in the world. . . .

If you look back at all of our troubles today, they didn't start with Richard Nixon. They didn't start with Ronald Reagan. They started with George [H.W.] Bush. . . . Total misreading of what was happening in the Soviet Union. Totally misreading the realities in Eastern Europe. Kosovo, Bosnia -- mayhem. . . . Totally misreading the termination of the Gulf War. Remember he told the American people if he got rid of Saddam Hussein, the coalition would be shattered? Shattered? The shattering took place precisely because we didn't get rid of Saddam Hussein!

On the Pentagon Papers:

[Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense] Mort Halperin wanted to hire me to be the Army guy on the preparation of what later became the Pentagon Papers. And I told him, I remember, at the time, I said, "What's the purpose of such a study?" And I said, "I don't want any part of it." And he said, "I'm sorry, this is your -- you're ordered to do this." And I said: "Well, I'm not going to be ordered to do anything. I'm a free man." So I went up to [Deputy Defense Secretary] Cy Vance, for whom I had worked more closely than I did [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara -- but I worked closely with McNamara, too -- and I said: "Look, I'm not going to do this. This study is for no good purpose. And the only reason I can see that it's being done is to cover the rear ends of people who made bad judgments."

On the Vietnam War:

I wasn't happy with the outcome in Vietnam. Now, I've never said that, but, you know, I'm getting to an age where I think I'd better start saying it! . . . And I don't mean that to sound that I'm being critical of somebody or blaming somebody. . . .

But I was running around making trips to Saigon, and making assessments, and doing my best to get [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu to accept what I myself feared was a flawed solution. . . . It was not a comfortable position for me. . . . Never in our history have we signed a treaty that didn't impose on us a national burden to be sure that the provisions of that treaty were going to be carried out. And if they weren't, then it was a flawed treaty. Now that, unfortunately, is what really happened at the Paris Peace Accords.

On Richard Nixon and Watergate:

Nixon knew a lot more than he admitted he did. And by inference, probably influenced more than he would ever admit he did, or recognize he did, as an individual. . . . He used to, in his lowest and highest moments with me, ruminate about how stupid it all was, and how badly [it] was handled. And: "Why, now, does it have to get up here? A second-rate burglary!" as he called it. And of course, he came from a school where those things were routinely done by both parties. . . .

I mean, he wasn't naive in this; he had an election stolen from him -- and he knew it. And everybody knew it! They all knew Chicago [in the 1960 presidential election] was fixed; but he didn't do anything about it. He knew what was going on with Alger Hiss. I mean, Alger Hiss is now proven in the history books to have been a goddamn spy, right? . . . All of those things, I mean, that shapes a man. So, you know, it was his environment. It was also core values, too.

On Henry Kissinger:

I think he was too soft on the Russians. And I thought he was naive on Vietnam. . . . Henry and I almost came to fisticuffs, only I would have been the puncher, on a number of occasions. . . . He was difficult to work for. . . . Henry had an ego; Henry was duplicitous. But you know, Henry Kissinger, the country's better for having had him than if they hadn't had him.

On Ronald Reagan and the 1982 Lebanon war:

The appalling part of it was that you assemble people around you to be on a team, and yet you tolerate it when they don't play on that team. . . . Let me tell you now: There ain't anybody else in America that I know that has quit three presidents -- but I have. And I quit Ronald Reagan for exactly that reason. He's sitting there, not knowing what the hell was going on, and he had [Deputy Chief of Staff Mike] Deaver and [Chief of Staff James] Baker and Mrs. Reagan running the government! And when it came to national security, there was a bit of [CIA Director] Bill Casey as well.

When we get into the Middle East war, in Lebanon, we could have settled that war, on terms in which we wouldn't be confronted with what we were confronted with today. We would have returned Lebanon to the sovereign control of their people. . . . I went to the president and I said: "Hey, you're going to have big, big problems. And I don't want to be a part of it. Now you either are going to let me do what you hired me to do, or get another guy." "Well," he said, "well, Al, please stay here and settle this Middle East thing."

I settled it twice. The first time I got it settled was before the funeral of [Saudi Arabia's] King Khalid. We had a withdrawal schedule [for Israeli troops in Lebanon]. That's why I created a multinational force to go into Beirut. Not to keep the Israelis from brutalizing the PLO, but to supervise the withdrawal of Syria, the PLO and Israel. Now, what happened? [Vice President] Bush, [Defense Secretary] Cap Weinberger, designated by Jim Baker to go to Khalid's funeral. And do you know what they had -- went in, in a meeting, a secret meeting, and said, "Boys, Haig doesn't speak for the U.S. -- United States government." And therefore, they immediately jumped off that agreement, which I had to twist their arms to accept.

Rosen: How did you learn about that?

A secret message. Came right in to me. And I showed it to the president. I said: "You can't run a government this way. People are getting killed." He said, "Please stay on."

I stayed on. I rebuilt the whole thing by brutalizing the Saudis. And the next thing I know, I tell the president, I said: "Mr. President, I think we've got it now. But it's very delicate. And it's got to be handled very carefully." I went down to Greenbrier for the weekend. I got a call from [Reagan aide] George Shultz. He said, "Al, the president has said now's the time." And I said: "George, you're not going to tell me that. You tell the president to tell me that." So the president called me 30 minutes later. He said, "What George told you is so." And I said, "Well, let me tell ya . . . I can't tell you how sensitive this agreement is and how fragile it is." So what happened? Poor George Shultz -- who didn't know [expletive] from shinola, had just come in from London -- is now secretary of state, and he's an economist! [Shultz] comes in, and [national security adviser] Bill Clark says, "Hey, Cap says let's get that multinational force in there to keep these [expletive] Israelis from brutalizing the PLO." The minute they went in, you know what happened? The Russians, who had withdrawn from Damascus, said, "Ah! Here's NATO, Europe, right in there." Boom! They go right back into Damascus, and that's the end of it.

Rosen: And that goes back how many, 20 years now?

Twenty years. And let me tell you: That's the truth of it, and you know, history will never observe that, because he who has the power writes the history.

James Rosen is a Washington correspondent for Fox News and the author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company