- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 20, 2010

UPDATED:

Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., a one-time NATO commander and White House chief of staff under President Richard M. Nixon, died on Saturday. He was 85.

Mr. Haig’s military and civilian career spanned the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Watergate scandal and included his misstatement from the State Department podium following the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan that he, and not the vice president or speaker of the house, was “in control.”

In post-government life, Mr. Haig also was a successful businessman and became one of the world’s first Internet millionaires.

A veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, Mr. Haig was known as a conservative anti-communist on many foreign policy issues, but also advocated closer ties with China, having played a key role in the secret preparations for Mr. Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing. Much later, he defended China’s military after it launched the June 1989 military operation against unarmed protesters in Beijing’s main square, an action that became known as the Tiananmen Square massacre.

RELATED STORY: DE BORCHGRAVE: Al Haig RIP

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Secretary of State Alexander Haig,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this afternoon. “He served his country in many capacities for many years, earning honor on the battlefield, the confidence of Presidents and Prime Ministers, and the thanks of a grateful nation. On behalf of the men and women of the State Department, I extend my sincerest condolences to Secretary Haig’s family and friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with all of them today.”

Born in Philadelphia on Dec. 2, 1924, Mr. Haig graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1947, and later earned degrees in business administration from Columbia University and international relations from Georgetown University.

Following service in Korea on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the early 1950s, as well as his graduate studies, he became a military aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, in 1964. About a year later, he took command of a battalion on the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam and was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

After his return from the war, he received his first White House appointment in 1969 — as military assistant to Mr. Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, who would later become secretary of state.

“Energetic, intelligent and dedicated, Haig soon became indispensable, and I appointed him deputy after one year,” Mr. Kissinger wrote in one of his memoirs, “Years of Renewal.”

However, Roger Morris, a colleague of Mr. Haig’s at the National Security Council, disagreed with Mr. Kissinger’s assessment. In his 1982 book “Haig: The General’s Progress,” he expressed outrage that a man like Mr. Haig could rise so quickly in Washington’s power hierarchy despite a mediocre mind, thanks mainly to a blatant overreaching ambition.

Mr. Haig remained Mr. Kissinger’s deputy until 1973, when he was appointed the Army’s vice chief of staff. Mr. Nixon “was so taken by Haig that he jumped him over 240 more senior officers to the rank of four-star general,” recalled Arnaud de Borchgrave, a veteran journalist who is The Washington Times’ editor-at-large and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Returning to the White House as Mr. Nixon’s chief of staff during the height of the Watergate affair, Mr. Haig has been credited with persuading the president to resign and ensuring a smooth transfer of power to Gerald Ford.

Mr. Ford kept Mr. Haig on as chief of staff during the first months of his administration and later in 1974 sent him to Brussels as NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe — a post traditionally held by an American, where he remained for four years, two of them under the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

In 1979, Mr. Haig barely escaped assassination after a Belgian terrorist group tried to blow up his car on his way to the NATO military headquarters. “No sooner back at [his office] than the word had already reached Defense Secretary Harold Brown at the Pentagon. He called Haig and deadpanned, ‘Al, I just wanted you to know we didn’t do it,’ ” Mr. de Borchgrave said.

Mr. Brown may have been joking, but Mr. Haig did not hide his distaste for Mr. Carter’s foreign policy, which in private he called “namby-pamby appeasement” of the Soviet Union, Mr. de Borchgrave said.

“He was the first to blow the whistle [in an interview with Mr. de Borchgrave for Newsweek] on the [then] 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,” said Mr. de Borchgrave, who was a correspondent for the news magazine at the time. “Haig’s forceful views prevailed, and the Soviet SS-20 ploy was checkmated.”

After retiring from the Army in 1979, Mr. Haig entered the private sector as president and chief operating officer of United Technologies Inc., a major defense firm that produces the Sikorsky helicopter family, according to John Moran, the company’s public relations manager. While there, he underwent a quintuple heart bypass surgery.

Less than two years later, government called again, and Mr. Haig became Mr. Reagan’s first secretary of state. His short 18 months in office were marked by frequent battles with the National Security Adviser Richard C. Allen and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Perhaps his biggest political mistake was his famous pronouncement “I’m in control here,” after the 1981 assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan. “Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state — in that order,” he said in the White House briefing room, according to a 1984 Time Magazine profile.

Vice President George H.W. Bush was traveling at the time, but both the House speaker and the president of the Senate precede the secretary of state in the line of succession.

In a 2001 CBS interview, Mr. Haig said he “wasn’t talking about transition,” but “about the executive branch — who is running the government.”

George P. Shultz, who succeeded Mr. Haig at the State Department, recalled that he did not agree to the appointment until Mr. Reagan assured him he had accepted Mr. Haig’s resignation to avoid the impression that he was forcing Mr. Haig out.

“He did everything he could to ensure a good transition,” Mr. Shultz said. “He had put in place policies I could build on.”

During the 1980s, Mr. Haig considered a presidential run but eventually returned to United Technologies as a consultant. Later, he “became one of the founding investors in AOL,” the Internet company, making “several hundred million dollars from the gradual sale of his shares and stock options,” Mr. de Borchgrave said.

“His least-known accomplishment was a close working relationship with Irving Brown, the AFL-CIO’s roving ambassador abroad,” Mr. de Borchgrave added. “They got together to assist Poland’s Lech Walesa as he led the Lenin shipyard workers in Gdansk against their Communist overlords.”