Alexander Haig, Former SACEUR and Atlantic Council Director, Dead at 85

Alexander Haig SACEUR Official Photo

General Alexander Haig, a long-time friend of the Atlantic Council who served as Supreme Allied Commander from 1974-1979  and as Secretary of State from 1981-1982, has died.  He was 85.

His Telegraph obituary sums up an extraordinary life:

Of Scottish and Irish ancestry, Alexander Meigs Haig was born into a Roman Catholic family on December 2 1924 at Balacynwyd, Pennsylvania. His father, a lawyer, died when he was 10 years old.

From Lower Merion High School at Ardmore, Pennsylvania, he went on to Notre Dame University, then obtained an appointment at West Point Military Academy in 1943. He was not a brilliant student — he graduated 214th out of 310 in his year — but was notable for his burning ambition. Later he pursued graduate studies in Business Administration at Columbia University and a degree in international relations from Georgetown University.

After graduating, Haig served as a rifle platoon commander in Japan and Korea, seeing combat in the early stages of the Korean War. A bout of hepatitis resulted in his being sent home and he served, successively, as a tank commander at Fort Knox, tactical officer at West Point, and then exchange company officer at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. From 1956 to 1959 he was assigned to the 899th Tank Battalion then to US Army Headquarters in Europe.

After a series of desk jobs, in 1964 he was appointed deputy secretary of defence under Cyrus Vance and later Robert S MacNamara. Two years later he was assigned to Vietnam, where he won a Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism while commanding a battalion of the 1st Infantry Division at the battle of Ag Pu. On his return to America in 1967 he was appointed a regimental commander with the corps of cadets at the US Military Academy and, a year later, deputy commander at West Point in the rank of colonel.

In late 1968, Henry Kissinger, then Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, appointed Haig his military adviser on the National Security Council, where, as Kissinger recalled, he soon made himself indispensable: “He disciplined my anarchic tendencies and established coherence and procedure in a National Security Council staff of talented prima donnas”. Though he had little formal authority, Haig’s effectiveness and Kissinger’s high regard made him one of the key men in Washington. In 1969 he was promoted to brigadier-general.

The following year President Nixon sent Haig on the first of several trips to Vietnam to report on developments, and appointed him deputy assistant on national security affairs, authorised to conduct presidential briefings when Kissinger was abroad. In 1972 he travelled to China to smooth the way for Nixon’s historic visit to the country later that year. He was promoted major-general in March 1972.

 12 April 1982: Margaret Thatcher greets US Secretary of State Alexander Haig as he arrives at 10 Downing Street for talks on the Falklands crisis  Photo: PA  In September that year Nixon promoted him from two-star to four-star general rank and named him to succeed General Bruce Palmer as army vice-chief of staff under General Creighton Abrams. Haig’s transfer to the Pentagon was, however, delayed until January 1973 since he was in the middle of negotiations to end the Vietnam conflict. It was Haig who persuaded the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, to agree to a final ceasefire.

Haig’s return to the Pentagon was short-lived. In May that year, as Nixon sunk into the mire of Watergate, he asked Haig to return to the White House as chief of staff following the resignation of HR Haldeman. In August 1973 Haig retired from the military to devote himself full time to White House administration.

As the regime disintegrated, Haig helped to bolster morale and ensure that vital administrative tasks were carried out. By Kissinger’s later account, when the Soviet-backed Arab attack on Israel threatened to become a full-scale military crisis, with President Brezhnev threatening unilateral action, Nixon was incapacitated and incapable of action. It was Haig and Kissinger who called a meeting of intelligence and military chiefs who sent a letter to the Soviet president in Nixon’s name, persuading them to back off. “Al Haig is keeping the country together, and I am keeping the world together,” Kissinger remarked.

Characteristically, Haig put a loyalist spin on events, claiming that he had taken Brezhnev’s threatening message to Nixon, who had called it “the most serious thing since the Cuban missile crisis” and called for action. Later, told of the decision to hold an emergency meeting, Nixon “expressed no enthusiasm for attending… As usual, he preferred to let others set the options… With a wave of the hand, he said, ‘You know what I want, Al, you handle the meeting.’”

Haig remained with Nixon until his resignation in 1974 and prepared the ground for the transfer of power to Gerald Ford. In their book Silent Coup (1991), Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin suggested Haig as a leading candidate for the part of “Deep Throat”, the inside source for the Washington Post as the paper exposed the cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

Haig’s vehement denials were generally believed, even before Mark Felt, the former associate director of the FBI, owned up in 2005. Except where the interests of the President were at stake, Haig was not one of nature’s dissemblers.

In September 1974 Haig returned to the armed forces as commander-in-chief of the US forces in Europe and, in December, as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, in charge of Nato’s forces. During his four years at Nato, Haig devoted his energies to modernising the Western military to counteract the Soviet build-up in eastern Europe and won universal praise for his sensitive handling of Nato members.

In 1979, though, he resigned and later retired from the army because of disagreements with the Carter administration over what he regarded as its excessively accommodating approach to the Soviets.

After a short period pursuing various outside interests, in 1980 the incoming President Ronald Reagan named Haig his Secretary of State, a decision warmly endorsed by his old boss Richard Nixon, who described him, approvingly, as “the meanest, toughest, most ambitious s.o.b.” he had ever known. Haig promoted a tough posture against the Soviet Union and a pro- Israel policy in the Middle East, but often found himself at odds with the more emollient Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger.

After leaving the State Department in 1982, Haig established his own consulting firm, Worldwide Associates, and served as director of various major financial and manufacturing firms; he was a founding board member of America Online (AOL). He was the author of Caveat: Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy (1984) and an autobiographical memoir, Inner Circles, How America Changed the World (1992).

General Haig served this Council as an Honorary Director for a number of years.  We wish to express our sincere appreciation for his lifetime of distinguished service and our heartfelt condolences to his family for their loss.

Photo credits:  NATO and Telegraph.

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