Gen. Alexander M. Haig’s name evoked martial memories of a famous namesake in World War I – Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who commanded Allied troops in the bloodiest battle of the war to end all wars. Twenty thousand Allied troops were killed and 40,000 wounded in the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In six months there were more than 1 million casualties (420,000 Brits, 200,000 French and 500,000 Germans).
Haig missed World War II, graduating from West Point in 1947, and then saw action in both the Korean War (including action at the Inchon landing that turned the tide against North Korea) and the Vietnam War where, as a battalion commander in the bloody battle of An Loc, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.
Haig’s citation said his battalion (1st Infantry Division) was pinned down by a Vietcong force that outnumbered it three to one. To get an overall view of the terrain, Haig took off by helicopter and landed in a hail of bullets. No sooner off the ground than the helicopter was shot down. Two days of hand-to-hand combat ensued. The enemy launched repeated human wave assaults on the camp.
The Army citation for Haig reads: “Heedless of the danger himself, Col. Haig repeatedly braved hostile fire to survey the battlefield. His personal courage and determination, and his skillful employment of every defense and support tactic possible, inspired his men with previously unimagined power. Although outnumbered three to one, Col. Haig succeeded in inflicting 592 casualties on the Vietcong.”
Haig also was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart during his Vietnam tour.
He first rose to national prominence as chief military aide to national security adviser Henry Kissinger in the Nixon White House. He quickly became President Richard Nixon’s principal military adviser, not an official position, but the president liked him and they talked frequently informally. Promoted to brigadier general, he rose quickly to major general.
Kissinger also liked the handsome, brilliant young general, and made him his de facto chief of staff. He became a key player in organizing Kissinger’s secret trip to China to prepare for Nixon-Mao summit, and the Vietnam peace initiative.
Nixon was so taken by Haig that he jumped him over 240 more senior officers to the rank of four-star general as the Army’s vice chief of staff. He was soon back at the White House where Nixon wanted him close by as the Watergate scandal grew legs.
Haig then played a key role in the negotiations that led to Nixon’s resignation and to Gerald Ford’s acension to the presidency. Haig was soon rewarded for his efforts by his elevation to SACEUR – Supreme Allied Commander Europe – or NATO’s top military commander, as well as EUCOM, the commander of all U.S. forces in the European theater.
A fierce anti-Soviet and staunch conservative, he was the target of an assassination plot by Belgium’s terrorist group Fighting Communist Cells (CCC in French). An early IED blew a small bridge near his SHAPE HQ in Belgium as his official car and two security vehicles were passing. The explosion missed Haig’s car by a few feet. No sooner back at SHAPE than the word had already reached Harold Brown, President Jimmy Carter’s defense secretary, at the Pentagon. He called Haig and deadpanned, “Al, I just wanted you to know we didn’t do it.”
In private conversations, Haig never hid his contempt for what he called the namby-pamby appeasement of Carter. He was the first to blow the whistle (in an interview with this reporter) on the still secret, one-per-week deployment of the Soviet SS-20, a medium range nuclear missile designed to change the balance of power in Europe in Moscow’s favor.
The NATO counter became known as “Euromissiles,” and communist-controlled or influenced unions pulled out all the stops against their deployment. Haig’s forceful views prevailed and the Soviet SS-20 ploy was checkmated.
In 1979, he retired from the army to become chief operating officer of United Technologies, a major defense firm that produced the Sikorsky helicopter family. While there, he underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery.
Upon recovery, he also tested the waters for a run for the White House and soon concluded he would rather back Ronald Reagan, who also took a shine to Haig’s strong conservative views, tough anti-communist and anti-Soviet positions, links to the Republican establishment, and made him his first secretary of state. His confirmation hearings were stormy.
The “namby-pamby” liberals once denounced by Haig seized the opportunity to retaliate. Haig lasted only 18 months at the State Department. An equally strong personality with strong views and an intense dislike for the four-star general as secretary of state was Richard C. Allen, the new national security adviser, also a hawk, but not a super hawk. Their turf battles were the stuff of countless news articles.
Haig didn’t do himself any favors when Reagan barely escaped assassination as John Hinckley shot and wounded him as he emerged from the Washington Hilton. While in the emergency meeting summoned by Haig in the White House situation room, Haig noticed a deputy press secretary waffling on the television screen about the succession problem should Reagan not survive the operation. He raced upstairs, and without pausing for breath, the former heart patient grabbed the microphone and uttered the famous, controversial line, “I’m in charge.”
The media savagely attacked the ultra conservative they clearly disliked by accusing him of not knowing the constitutional line of succession. Haig, of course, did not mean to suggest that he was in the immediate line of succession.
Their running feud over turf with Allen led to Haig submitting his resignation to Reagan once too often. Reagan finally said, “Al, I accept your resignation,” which stunned Haig, according to Allen.
After resigning as secretary of state June 25, 1982, Haig penned his memoirs – “Caveat: Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy,” published two years later. He returned to politics briefly to test the waters for a run at the White House in 1988, but quickly concluded the support wasn’t there.
As a consultant for United Technologies, he lobbied for helicopter sales in many countries. He became one of the founding investors in AOL, and made several hundred million dollars from the gradual sale of his shares and stock options. As a founding member of Sky Station International, he pushed the idea of 250 small, inexpensive platforms suspended by Hindenburg-like airships to beat competitors who were planning to launch satellites in low orbit. His idea would have cost only $800 million vs. the billions that would be spent on satellites. Haig’s venture never made it off the ground.
Haig became a passionate promoter of closer Sino-U.S. relations. So much so that he immediately berated anyone who spoke ill of Beijing. Like Kissinger, his old boss, who did much consulting work in China, Haig traveled frequently to China where he enjoyed a close relationship with China’s principal leaders.
In the United States, he commuted between Washington and his home in Palm Beach, Fla. Recognized wherever he went, Haig hardened his views as he grew older.
Almost all public figures since they left office were assessed severely. His least known accomplishment was a close working relationship with Irving Brown, the AFL-CIO’s roving ambassador abroad. Together, at SHAPE HQ, Brown and Haig got together to assist Poland’s Lech Walesa as he led the Lenin shipyard workers in Gdansk against their communist overlords.
It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. Brown received the Medal of Freedom for his efforts. Haig’s contribution to the same endeavor that changed the world and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union was critical.
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