Melvin R. Laird in 1973. He served as President Richard M. Nixon’s defense secretary at the height of the Vietnam War and designed policies that eventually led to the American withdrawal from combat operations. (Charles Del Vecchio/The Washington Post)

Melvin R. Laird, a former congressman who served as President Richard M. Nixon’s defense secretary at the height of the Vietnam War and designed policies that eventually led to the American withdrawal from combat operations, died Nov. 16 at a hospital in Fort Myers, Fla. He was 94.

The cause was complications from congestive heart failure, said a son, David Laird.

A shrewd and influential Wisconsin Republican, Mr. Laird became his party’s leading expert on military affairs during his 16 years in the House of Representatives.

Out of party loyalty, he reluctantly agreed to leave Congress and become defense secretary in January 1969, at a moment when U.S. troop strength in Vietnam — around 550,000 — was nearing its peak. During his four years at the Pentagon, Mr. Laird dramatically reduced U.S. troop involvement in the conflict, supported the cause of bringing home U.S. prisoners of war held under horrible conditions in North Vietnam and worked to end the deeply unpopular draft.

“Laird was not a revolutionary, seeking to change the Pentagon in fundamental ways,” military historian Charles A. Stevenson wrote in “SecDef” (2006), a history of the secretaries of defense. “Nor was he merely a manager, fulfilling his legal responsibilities and leading the Defense Department. Instead, Laird was the quintessential firefighter, preoccupied with the crises and controversies of his tenure.”

Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, right, greets former Navy Secretary John W. Warner, who escorted Rep. Lindy Boggs, left, and presidential counselor Anne Armstrong. (The Washington Post/Linda Wheeler)

According to journalist Dale Van Atta’s 2008 biography of Mr. Laird, “With Honor,” he took over a department whose self-confidence was diminished after the seven-year tenure of Robert McNamara, who was briefly succeeded by presidential adviser Clark Clifford. The joint chiefs, micromanaged by McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson, were weary and bitter.

Congress had grown to distrust the Pentagon after McNamara painted a misleadingly optimistic picture of U.S. military success in Vietnam. In contrast, Van Atta wrote, Mr. Laird developed a reputation for being far more open with lawmakers and giving the joint chiefs more autonomy to run their respective branches.

As secretary of defense, Mr. Laird said he understood that public support for the war was waning. His goal, supported by the president, was to reduce American involvement in a conflict that was causing major divisions at home.

He oversaw the effort to withdraw U.S. troops gradually while building South Vietnam’s military into a force that could support itself, a policy he called Vietnamization. While several people, including analysts, academics and military officials, helped design the policy, it was Mr. Laird who kept the Nixon administration committed.

Vietnamization was a success on many levels, said Scott Sigmund Gartner, director of the Penn State School of International Affairs and an authority on the war. He said the policy decreased the danger U.S. troops faced because the South Vietnamese military was in the field more often.

Vietnamization also brought home American troops, and it bought time for South Vietnam’s forces to stave off North Vietnam and rebuild themselves. Ultimately, though, communist forces prevailed in 1975 because the South could not overcome internal divisions and government corruption.

During the war, Mr. Laird was a rare public voice for American military personnel held prisoner by the North Vietnamese. During the Paris peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were muted on the subject of POWs. According to Van Atta’s biography of Mr. Laird, the State Department, which was handling negotiations with the North, did not want prisoners to become bargaining chips and thus scuttle progress.

In May 1969, after meeting the wives of POWs, Mr. Laird held a nationally televised news conference to reveal the atrocities that American prisoners faced.

“The North Vietnamese have claimed that they are treating our men humanely,” Mr. Laird said. “I am distressed by the fact that there is clear evidence that this is not the case.”

He showed photographs of beaten and emaciated military personnel, including John McCain, later a U.S. senator from Arizona and Republican presidential candidate. Mr. Laird called for North Vietnam to release the names of prisoners and immediately free the sick and injured.

After Mr. Laird’s news conference, POWs saw improvements. The changes started slowly; a few prisoners were released, torture decreased, and many were grouped in community cells rather than placed in solitary confinement. By 1973, all the POWs were home.

“There are many of us who believe that perhaps we wouldn’t have returned from the war if [it] had not been for Secretary Laird publicizing the plight of the POWs,” McCain said later. “Conditions changed dramatically afterwards. Those of us who fought in Vietnam, and those of us who were held prisoner, will always have a special place in our hearts for this marvelous man, Mel Laird.”

Opposed to secrecy

In 1969, Nixon proposed secret bombings to flush out North Vietnamese sanctuaries in neutral Cambodia, which the communists were using to circumvent U.S. forces.

Mr. Laird supported the bombings but opposed secrecy, which he thought would exacerbate public opposition to the war when the Cambodia incursion was inevitably uncovered. The bombings expanded the conflict in Southeast Asia and, amid the destabilization, led to a takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.

When the bombings were less successful than hoped, Nixon ordered an invasion of Cambodia, something Mr. Laird opposed. On April 30, 1970, the president announced the incursion on national television. The news caused protests, some of which turned deadly. On May 4, members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students during antiwar demonstrations at Kent State University.

Mr. Laird was often the focus of protests. One protester threw a brick through his den window, and antiwar beat poet Allen Ginsberg once urinated on his house. Despite the harassment, Mr. Laird staunchly refused to move his family from their suburban Maryland home to a military post.

In 1972, the Weather Underground, a radical antiwar group, detonated a bomb inside the Pentagon. No one was injured, and Mr. Laird “put in a call to his public affairs chief directing him to treat the incident as a minor one,” Van Atta wrote.

Mr. Laird set the groundwork for the all-volunteer military. In late 1969, he instituted a draft lottery because of criticism that conscription was biased against the poor. Then he called up reserves and National Guard units, rather than draftees. On Jan. 27, 1973, just days before he left the Pentagon, Mr. Laird announced the end of the draft.

“The volunteer Army was a huge achievement by Laird,” diplomat Richard Holbrooke told Van Atta. “Ending the draft was one of the most important pieces of social legislation that the United States has had.”

Former president Gerald Ford told Van Atta that Mr. Laird should be considered the father of the all-volunteer military.

After the 1972 election, Mr. Laird left the Pentagon — he was succeeded by Elliot L. Richardson — and returned to Nixon’s White House as a domestic policy adviser. In March 1974, he received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award that a president can bestow.

A Purple Heart in WWII

Melvin Robert Laird Jr. was born in Omaha on Sept. 1, 1922, and grew up in Marshfield, Wis., where his mother’s family had deep ties to the lumber and sawmill industry. His father, a Presbyterian minister, won a seat in the Wisconsin state Senate in 1939.

The younger Laird was class president of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he graduated in 1942 with a political science degree. Afterward, he served in the Pacific during World War II and survived a massive typhoon and a kamikaze attack against the destroyer on which he was serving. His decorations included the Purple Heart.

In 1945, he married Barbara Masters, a former Carleton classmate. A year after her death in 1992, he married Carole Howard. Besides his wife, of Fort Myers, survivors include three children from his first marriage, John Laird of River Falls, Wis., David Laird of Bethesda, Md., and Alison Laird-Large of Sylva, N.C.; a stepdaughter, Kimberly Dalgleish of Avon Lake, Ohio; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Laird was on shore leave in 1946 when his father died; he campaigned for his father’s state Senate seat and won. In 1952, he was elected to Congress. He sat on Appropriations subcommittees for health and defense, where he had influence over two-thirds of the federal budget. He wrote a book on military and foreign policy, “A House Divided” (1962).

Although he was a defense expert, his passion was health care. He earmarked millions for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. In 1964, he received the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for promotion of medical research.

That same year, he chaired the Republican National Convention. The party was divided by the platforms of the relatively liberal Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York and the conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. By attacking Democrats and focusing on principles rather than programs, Mr. Laird drafted a platform that seemingly pleased everyone.

After leaving the Nixon administration, Mr. Laird spent more than 30 years as a counselor for Reader’s Digest magazine, where he also wrote on the policies of the Ford and Carter administrations. He sat on the boards of Reader’s Digest and the defense contractor Martin Marietta, and was a past board chairman of the Communications Satellite Corp., a provider of satellite telecommunications.

According to Stevenson, the historian, Mr. Laird’s legacy at the Pentagon was overshadowed in large part by the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 and the loss of the Vietnam War the next year. In the aftermath, Mr. Laird was largely forgotten by the public.

Nevertheless, Stevenson said in an interview, “he was one of the most effective secretaries of defense, and he’s probably an unsung hero in that regard.”