General Alexander Haig: White House chief of staff who held the US government together during the Watergate crisis

Alexander Haig was never elected to any office. His one run for the US presidency ended before anyone really noticed. Yet few people were closer, and for longer, to the epicentre of American power. Haig was a prime specimen of that uniquely Washington creature, the political soldier, whose career was a shuttle between the military and the government.

As the right-hand man of Henry Kissinger, he played a key part in the backstage negotiations to extricate the US from Vietnam. As White House chief of staff, he held the American government together almost singlehandedly as the Watergate crisis reached its climax. For five years he served as Supreme Commander of Nato, before being summoned by Ronald Reagan to be his first Secretary of State. Along the way, he was president of the defence contractors United Technologies, head of his own consultancy firm, and board-member of a score of universities, think tanks, and corporations.

At bottom though Al Haig was a soldier, with a soldier's virtues and some of a soldier's limitations. He always saw himself as a commander-in-chief, but he was at his best as a number two: making sure that orders were carried out and that meetings took decisions, and cutting a path through tangled bureaucracies. His presence was authoritative, his style crisp, his dress immaculate. Yet as a pure politician, as Presidential candidate or even as Secretary of State, he seemed too much the soldier, lacking the disarming wiliness of Eisenhower, or the smoothness of Colin Powell, that other soldier statesman of recent times whose career was similar to Haig's own.

From his boyhood in suburban Philadelphia, Haig wanted to join the military and in 1943, after a year at Notre Dame university he secured a place at West Point, the United States Military Academy. He graduated in 1947 with a lieutenant's commission and a prescient note in his class yearbook of his "strong convictions and even stronger ambitions." By 1949 he was in occupied Japan as an aide of General Douglas MacArthur; the following year he went to Korea, where he saw action in five campaigns, took part in the Inchon landings and won three medals. Thereafter, Haig was on a very fast track indeed.

After moving back to West Point as a tactical officer, he was transferred to Europe, before taking a degree at Georgetown University, Washington DC, in international relations. Then came two years in policy planning at the Pentagon and a tour in Vietnam where he won the Distinguished Service Cross for "extraordinary heroism" as a battalion commander in the battle of Ap Gu in 1967. He returned to a third stint at West Point, this time as deputy commander of the Academy.

By now, Haig had come to the notice of Henry Kissinger, who took him to the Nixon White House in 1969 as his military adviser on the National Security Council. Kissinger would later call him indispensable: "He acted as my partner, strong in crises, decisive in judgement, indefatigable in his labours." Typically, Nixon's private view was coarser – "The toughest, most ambitious s.o.b I ever saw" – but was no less admiring for that.

In June 1970, Haig was promoted to deputy national security adviser, and stood in for Kissinger at Presidential briefings. By 1972 he was a major general, and a prime US negotiator in the secret Vietnam talks that culminated with the January 1973 ceasefire, and US Army vice-Chief of Staff designate.

But Watergate intervened. In May 1973 after the resignations of John Dean, Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman, Nixon pressed Haig to return to the White House as temporary chief of staff. In August the temporary became permanent. As Nixon was dragged ever deeper into the mire, Haig once again proved himself indispensable. By mid-summer 1974, he was secretly preparing the inevitable transfer of power to Gerald Ford.

Having listened to the "smoking gun" tape of 23 June, 1972 which the Supreme Court forced Nixon to release, Haig was instrumental in persuading the President he had no choice but to resign. Indeed, it is widely believed that he brokered the deal, persuading Ford to grant Nixon the full pardon that duly materialised a month after Ford took office on 9 August 1974.

Haig himself declined to stay on at the White House. Within six weeks, he was granted his wish to return to the military, as Supreme Commander of Nato in Brussels. The appointment raised eyebrows: Haig, it was said, lacked battle command experience and had been compromised by Watergate. In fact, his four and a half years in Brussels were considered a major success. Under Haig, the then 13-nation alliance became a more cohesive military force than ever before; when he resigned in July 1979, it was because of his disagreement with what he saw as the Carter Administration's weakness towards the Soviet Union.

Once back in the United States, Haig was again quickly in the thick of the action. He was even mooted as a possible White House candidate for 1980, before he became president of United Technologies at the behest of his old friend Harry Gray, UT's chairman. But Haig's strong-minded foreign policy views appealed to Ronald Reagan, and few were greatly surprised when he was nominated Secretary of State in the new Republican Adminstration.

The appointment, however, did not go well. Diplomacy was not the general's calling; a statement that he was "in control here, in the White House," after the assassination attempt on President Reagan on 30 March 1981 was intended to reassure. Instead it was a remark he would never live down, raising fears of an imperious, power-crazed Haig, riding roughshod over the niceties of the Constitution.

Mindful of the feuding between the State Department and the NSC from his days at the latter under Kissinger, Haig proclaimed himself "vicar" of US foreign policy" – only to instantly create tensions with other pretenders to that title, notably Caspar Weinberger at the Defense Department and William Clark, Reagan's national security adviser.

His sterner line towards Moscow was popular, but his attempt to mediate a solution in the Falklands crisis of 1982 failed. Privately Haig fumed at the "duplicitous bastard" Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary who resigned when the conflict with Argentina started. By then, the strains within the Administration were becoming intolerable. On 25 June 1982 Haig resigned, to be succeeded – to intense relief both within the State Department and beyond – by the calmer and less histrionic George Shultz.

But Haig was not done. In 1987, as Reagan reeled from the Iran- Contra scandal and a series of foreign-policy setbacks, he announced he was "throwing his helmet into the ring" in the chase for the White House the following year. But the candidacy never took wing. For too many Americans, Haig was simply too much the domineering, reckless "I'm in control here" general. After a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses, he withdrew from the race before the 1988 New Hampshire primary.

Instead he fell into the comfortable life of the ex-statesman, holding forth on television talk shows, holding well-paid executive and consultancy posts, projecting the English language into new dimensions with "Haigspeak", a military-tinged jargon fond of turning nouns into verbs, full of such phrases as "If I may caveat that." But as a soldier he had already done his duty – above all as White House chief of staff in the tormented final 15 months of Watergate when Haig, often to all intents and purposes the president he never became, helped hold America's political system together.

Rupert Cornwell



Alexander Meigs Haig, soldier, government official and businessman: born Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania 2 December 1924; Deputy National Security adviser 1970-72; White House chief of staff 1973-74; Supreme Commander, Nato 1974-79; Secretary of State 1981-82; married 1950 Patricia Fox (two sons, one daughter); died Baltimore, Maryland 20 February 2010.

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