Beginning as an aide to General Douglas MacArthur, up to and even beyond, his Reagan era involvement in the defeat of communism, General Alexander Haig’s life was a record of American history similar to that which you could find in the history that is recorded in the rings of tree’s trunk.
As a graduate of West Point, Alexander Haig’s military career took him from waking up General McArthur one morning to inform him that the communists of North Korea had penetrated past the 38th parallel and started a war, to joining with Ronald Reagan and setting the table for a strong anti-communist foreign policy agenda that would remain in place throughout the entire Reagan Presidency and help tear down the Berlin Wall and free Europe from the grip of the Soviet union.
In Viet Nam Al Haig eventually served as a battalion and brigade commander where his bravery and brilliance won him the Distinguished Service Cross during battle at An Loc. As described in his Distinguished Service Cross citation Haig’s “personal courage and determination, and his skillful employment of every defense and support tactic possible, inspired his men to fight with previously unimagined power. It continues; “Although his force was outnumbered three to one, Colonel Haig succeeded in inflicting 592 casualties on the Viet Cong.”
For many, this may have been the height and limit to such dedicated sacrifice in the service of his nation but for Al Haig, it was just the beginning.
His knowledge and strategic mind would earn him a call to serve as aide to President Nixon’s, then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. His stellar abilities in this post eventually caught the eye of the President, who in turn scooped up the masterful military and political strategist for himself as Nixon made Haig his Chief of Staff.
It was in this roll that Al Haig would end up becoming a major figure in one of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history…..the negotiations that would end up convincing President Nixon to resign from office before he was officially impeached by Congress. In this, Haig was instrumental in negotiating the resignation and setting up the smooth transition from the presidency of Richard Nixon to the presidency of Gerald Ford.
For his part, President Ford would end up having Al Haig answer another call to military service as he made Haig NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. But this was a position that Haig would resign from when in July of 1979, President Jimmy Carter helped the Iranian Revolution remove the Shah of Iran from power. Haig felt that the decision would throw the region in to unprecedented turmoil and he considered Carter’s decision a stab in the back of an important regional ally of the United States.
Shortly after all hell broke loss in the region and American hostages became the center of attention in the Iranian Revolution, the election of President Ronald Reagan meant that Al Haig would again serve his country. This time as Secretary of State.
In the first 18 months of the Reagan Administration, Secretary of State Haig was a brash and unavoidable influence on the Administration and in foreign policy. His hard line against communism would remain a staple of foreign policy throughout the entire 8 years of the Reagan Presidency.
But on March 31st of 1981, Haig’s influence met a bump in the road.
On that day, an assassination attempt on President Reagan sent the President to the hospital with what would later be describes as wounds much more potentially fatal than was originally disclosed.
At the time of the shooting, all that was known was that the President was hit. The severity of the wound was not immediately clear. But a shocked nation sat in fear, not knowing if President Ronald Reagan would survive or if the assassination attempt was part of an unfolding and continuing conspiracy. Possible even one conspired by a Soviet Union that was rattled by Reagan’s vehement anti-communist foreign policy. At the time the Pentagon had long understood that in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack on the US, the Soviet Union would first attempt a “decapitation” operation that would sever channels of communications and the American chain through assassinations of our leaders.
During all the urgency and fear, Vice President George H. W. Bush was in flight, somewhere over the country. White House attorney’s were preparing for the legal transfer of power from the possibly dying President to the flying Vice President and back in the White House, the Administration’s voice, White House Press Secretary James Brady was being reported as dead, after receiving a bullet to his head during the assassination attempt on the President. The report of Brady’s death ended up to be errneous. Brady did survive the shooting but suffered neurological damage and lives life in a wheelchair.
In the midst of all the chaos, in an attempt to insure the nation and the world that the government was running smoothly, Secretary of State Haig rushed to a briefing room where he addresses the nation and throngs of anxious and rattled reporters. It was here that Al Haig said the words that would ultimately help force him out of the Administration. He stated;
“As for now, I’m in control here, in the White House”
That was all that anyone really listened to.
Word that Al Haig was in charge of the nation immediately ran out.
The actual quote however was;
“Constitutionally gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so. As for now, I’m in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.”
Haig did later try to clarify that he was simply communicating that he was controlling the flow of information and was insuring to send all the right messages out to the right people, and being available to speak should if anything needed to said or done, pending return of the vice president. He also expressly stated that he was not referring to any transition of power.
But it was too late. Haig’s enemies used the authoritarian sounding comment to bury him as a brash, power hungry zealot who was out of control.
Such was not the case, but in politics perception is reality and during this time of crisis, Haig’s enemies would define the perception that they wanted to convey. However history did in the end show Al Haig to be an important figure during the hours that followed the assassination attempt.
Audio tapes of meetings in the Situation Room indicated that during the crisis, the US was dangerously close to sparking an unimaginable confrontation with the Soviet Union.
During the assasination crisis, Haig had repeatedly stated both publicly and privately that there was no increase in the American military alert status. However, unbeknownst to Al Haig, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger raised the US alert to Defcon 2. This meant that Air force pilots were readying nuclear bombers in preparation for a Soviet attack. When Haig found this out, he quickly told Weinberger that he will not alow himself to be seen as a liar and if he assured the world that we were not at a raised level of alert, than there must not and would be no rased level of alert. Haig knew that if Soviet intelligence discovered that while we declared that there was no hieghtened level of military activity, we secretly were raising the alert and arming nuclear weapons, they would believe that we were readying for a surprise attack against them which in turn could lead them to possibly try to launch a preemptive attack of their own on us.
It was Al Haig who calmed and corrected the potentially dangerous situation.
Nevertheless, accepting of how perception often trumps reality in politics, Haig exited the Reagan Administration, unapologetically and proud.
In the years to follow he would embark on different private sector ventures and do so quite successfully but in 1988 he decided to reenter public service
He ran for the Republican presidential nomination.
Haig was a strong figure and his campaign took aim at Vice President George H. W. Bush and criticized the Vice President on his leadership and competence and even pressed the Vice President on the Iran-Contra issue.
It was during this time that I met Al Haig. I was in New Hampshire working for Jack Kemp’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
I found Al Haig to be a commanding figure, but ironically, when face to face with him, I was surprised to find him to be a very gentle person. Most startling to me was his size. This leader, this mighty warrior and stoic historic figure who had wielded such power and attention seemed larger than life on television, but in person he was actually much shorter than his TV persona depicted him to be on screen.
Ultimately, Haig did not get very far in the 1988 Republican presidential primaries and shortly after New Hampshire he withdrew from the contest, but only after endorsing Senator Robert Dole…..not Vice President Bush.
Al Haig was one of our nation’s most colorful figures. His military and political service are matched by few and surpassed by even fewer. And the same goes for his accomplishments. Al Haig’s fingerprints are allover some of the most dramatic events of contemporary history. From fighting and defeating communism to opening up Sino-American relations, preventing nuclear Armageddon and adding ideas and perspectives to the American political debate, Alexander Haig is a true American hero and he leaves behind a legacy of commitment to freedom and justice and service and integrity.
May he rest forevermore in pride and peace.