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Melvin Robert "Bom" Laird[2] (September 1, 1922 – November 16, 2016) was an American politician, writer and statesman.[3] He was a U.S. congressman from Wisconsin from 1953 to 1969 before serving as Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1973 under President Richard Nixon. Laird was instrumental in forming the administration's policy of withdrawing U.S. soldiers from the Vietnam War; he coined the expression "Vietnamization," referring to the process of transferring more responsibility for combat to the South Vietnamese forces. First elected in 1952, Laird was the last surviving Representative elected to the 83rd Congress at the time of his death.[4][failed verification]

Melvin Laird
Melvin Laird official photo.JPEG
White House Domestic Affairs Advisor
In office
May 1, 1973 – January 8, 1974
Acting: May 1, 1973 – June 6, 1973
PresidentRichard Nixon
Preceded byJohn Ehrlichman
Succeeded byKenneth Reese Cole Jr.
10th United States Secretary of Defense
In office
January 22, 1969 – January 29, 1973[1]
PresidentRichard Nixon
Preceded byClark Clifford
Succeeded byElliot Richardson
Chair of the House Republican Conference
In office
January 3, 1965 – January 3, 1969
LeaderGerald Ford
Preceded byGerald Ford
Succeeded byJohn B. Anderson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Wisconsin's 7th district
In office
January 3, 1953 – January 21, 1969
Preceded byReid F. Murray
Succeeded byDave Obey
Personal details
Melvin Robert Laird

(1922-09-01)September 1, 1922
Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.
DiedNovember 16, 2016(2016-11-16) (aged 94)
Fort Myers, Florida, U.S.
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery
Political partyRepublican
Barbara Masters
(m. 1942; died 1992)

Carole Fleishman (m. 1993)
EducationCarleton College (BA)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Navy
Years of service1942–1946
RankJunior Officer
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsPurple Heart

Early lifeEdit

Laird was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Melvin R. Laird Sr., a politician, businessman, and clergyman.[5] He grew up and attended high school in Marshfield, Wisconsin,[5] although in his junior year he attended Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Illinois. He was nicknamed "Bambino" (shortened to "Bom" and pronounced like the word 'bomb') by his mother.[citation needed]

Laird was the grandson of William D. Connor, the Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin from 1907 to 1909, and the great-grandson of Robert Connor, a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly. His niece is Jessica Laird Doyle, wife of former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle.[5]

He graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota in May 1944, having enlisted in the United States Navy a year earlier. Following his commissioning as an ensign, he served on a destroyer, the USS Maddox, in the Pacific during the end of World War II. A recipient of the Purple Heart and several other decorations, Laird left the Navy in April 1946.

Legislative careerEdit

Laird entered the Wisconsin State Senate at age 23, succeeding his deceased father.[6] He represented a legislative district encompassing Stevens Point, Wisconsin. He remained in the Senate until his election in November 1952 to the United States House of Representatives representing Wisconsin's 7th District in central Wisconsin, including the areas of Marshfield, Wausau, Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point. In the 1964 Republican presidential primaries, Laird was an "unannounced" supporter of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, and chaired the Platform Committee at that year's Republican convention, at which Goldwater was nominated.[7]

Laird was re-elected eight consecutive times and he was chairman of the House Republican Conference when Nixon selected him for the cabinet. He was known for his work on both domestic and defense issues, including his service on the Defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. He left Congress reluctantly, making it clear when he became secretary on January 22, 1969, that he intended to serve no more than four years.

As a congressman Laird had supported a strong defense posture and had sometimes been critical of Secretary McNamara. In September 1966, characterizing himself as a member of the loyal opposition, he publicly charged the Johnson administration with deception about Vietnam war costs and for delaying decisions to escalate the ground war until after the 1966 congressional elections. Laird also criticized McNamara's management and decision-making practices.

Laird was reportedly the elder statesman chosen by the Republicans to convince Vice President Spiro Agnew to resign his position after Agnew's personal corruption became a public scandal. He also had a prominent role in the selection of Gerald Ford as Agnew's successor as Vice President.

Secretary of DefenseEdit

Laird with President Richard Nixon, under whom he served as Secretary of Defense.

After he became Secretary of Defense, Laird and President Nixon appointed a Blue Ribbon Defense Panel that made more than 100 recommendations on DoD's organization and functions in a report on July 1, 1970. The department implemented a number of the panel's proposals while Laird served in the Pentagon.

Managerial styleEdit

Laird did not depart abruptly from the McNamara–Clifford management system, but rather instituted gradual changes. He pursued what he called "participatory management", an approach calculated to gain the cooperation of the military leadership in reducing the Defense budget and the size of the military establishment. While retaining decision-making functions for himself and the deputy secretary of defense, Laird somewhat decentralized policymaking and operations. He accorded the service secretaries and the JCS a more influential role in the development of budgets and force levels. He revised the PPBS, including a return to the use of service budget ceilings and service programming of forces within these ceilings. The previously powerful systems analysis office could no longer initiate planning, only evaluate and review service proposals.

Laird noted this in his FY 1971 report, "Except for the major policy decisions, I am striving to decentralize decisionmaking as much as possible ... So, we are placing primary responsibility for detailed force planning on the Joint Chiefs and the Services, and we are delegating to the Military Departments more responsibility to manage development and procurement programs." The military leadership was enthusiastic about Laird's methods. As the Washington Post reported after his selection as secretary of defense, "Around the military-industrial complex these days they're singing 'Praise the Laird and pass the transformation.'"

Laird did not shrink from centralized management where he found it useful or warranted. His tenure saw the establishment of the Defense Investigative Service, the Defense Mapping Agency, the Office of Net Assessment, and the Defense Security Assistance Agency (to administer all DoD military assistance programs). In October 1972 Congress passed legislation creating a second deputy secretary of defense position, a proposal Laird strongly supported, even though he never filled the position. Laird paid special attention to two important interdepartmental bodies: the Washington Special Action Group (WSAG), composed of senior Defense, State, and CIA officials, which gathered information necessary for presidential decisions on the crisis use of U.S. military forces; and the Defense Program Review Committee (DPRC), which brought together representatives from many agencies, including DoD, State, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Office of Management and Budget, to analyze defense budget issues as a basis for advising the president, placing, as Laird commented, "national security needs in proper relationship to non-defense requirements."

Pentagon budgetEdit

Laird succeeded in improving DoD's standing with Congress. As a highly respected congressional veteran, Laird had a head start in his efforts to gain more legislative support for Defense programs. He maintained close contact with old congressional friends, and he spent many hours testifying before Senate and House committees. Recognizing the congressional determination, with wide public support, to cut defense costs (including winding down the Vietnam War), Laird worked hard to prune budgetary requests before they went to Congress, and acceded to additional cuts when they could be absorbed without serious harm to national security. One approach, which made it possible to proceed with such new strategic weapon systems as the B-1 bomber, the Trident nuclear submarine, and cruise missiles, was agreement to a substantial cut in conventional forces. As a result, total military personnel declined from some 3.5 million in FY 1969 to 2.3 million by the time Laird left office in January 1973. Those weapon platforms, as well as the F-15, F-16, A-10, and Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine were all programs started by the Laird Pentagon.

Other initiatives, including troop withdrawals from Vietnam, phasing out old weapon systems, base closures, and improved procurement practices, enabled the Pentagon to hold the line on spending, even at a time when high inflation affected both weapon and personnel costs. In Laird's years, total obligational authority by fiscal year was as follows: 1969, $77.7 billion; 1970, $75.5 billion; 1971, $72.8 billion; 1972, $76.4 billion; and 1973, $78.9 billion.

Vietnam WarEdit

Secretary Laird (center) before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970

Vietnam preoccupied Laird as it had McNamara and Clifford. Right from the moment he entered office, Laird clashed with the National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger over access to the president.[8] Kissinger as much as possible tried to exclude Laird from the decision-making process, in order to ensure he and he alone was the man advising the president on foreign affairs, which created much tension between him and Laird.[8] Kissinger established a direct channel from the National Security Adviser's office to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in an effort to isolate Laird from the decision-making process, which further increased the tension between the two men.[8]

In 1968 Nixon campaigned on a platform critical of the Johnson administration's handling of the war and promised to achieve "peace with honor". Nixon's strategy when he came into office in 1969 was to impose an armistice that would preserve South Vietnam, but at the same time owing to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, he planned to reduce American casualties in Vietnam to reduce the appeal of the antiwar movement, whose most potent slogan was that Americans were dying senselessly in Vietnam.[9] The North Vietnamese knew that the war was unpopular with the American people, and to counter the assumption in Hanoi that they merely had to wait until American public opinion forced him to withdraw American forces, Nixon planned a complex strategy of on one hand of maintaining military pressure by keeping the war going while on the other hand of reducing American casualties to counter the antiwar movement.[10] To force the North Vietnamese to agree to American peace terms, Nixon planned a dual approach of the "Madman theory" that he would pose as a fanatical anti-Communist who was eager to use nuclear weapons to scare the North Vietnamese while at the same time he make overtures to the Soviet Union and China to persuade those nations to stop supplying North Vietnam with weapons.[11]

Although not receptive to demands for immediate withdrawal, Laird acknowledged the necessity to disengage U.S. combat forces gradually. In an interview with Stanley Karnow in 1981, Laird stated that he came into the Defense Department in 1969 believing the American people were "fed up with the war".[12] Thus he developed and strongly supported "Vietnamization", a program intended to expand, equip, and train South Vietnam's forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops. The original term was "de-Americanizing" the war, but Laird substituted the term "Vietnamization" as it sounded better.[13] In March 1969, Laird visited South Vietnam and upon his return to Washington told Nixon that the American people would "not be satisfied with less than the eventual disengagement of American men from combat".[13] As such, Laird felt it was "essential to decide now to initiate the removal from Southeast Asia of some U.S. military personnel".[13] Laird strongly pressed Nixon to agree to a timetable to decrease the number of American forces in South Vietnam down from half-million to two hundred and six thousand by the end of 1971.[12] During Nixon's first year in office from January 1969 to January 1970, about 10, 000 Americans were killed fighting in Vietnam.[14] As these losses contributed to the antiwar movement, Laird ordered the U.S. commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, to go on the defensive and cease offensive operations as much as possible.[14]

In February 1969, Nixon first discussed plans to start bombing Cambodia, ostensibly to destroy the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese bases in that country, but in fact to sent a message to Ho Chi Minh that he was prepared to resume of the bombing of North Vietnam that had been halted in the autumn of the previous year.[15] Nixon would had very much liked to resume the bombing of North Vietnam, but he was warned by Laird that this would lead to the North Vietnamese ending the peace talks in Paris, which in turn would lead to Nixon being branded as the man who ruined any chance of peace in Vietnam.[15] Thus, from Nixon's viewpoint, bombing Cambodia was a way of warning the North Vietnamese that he was indeed serious about his threats to resume bombing North Vietnam if no concessions to the American viewpoint were not forthcoming.[15] Laird was opposed to the bombing of Cambodia, telling Nixon that it would upset Congress and the American people as it would appear that Nixon was escalating the war.[15] In a meeting at the White House on 16 March 1969 attended by Nixon, Laird, the Secretary of State William P. Rogers, Kissinger and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Earle Wheeler, Nixon announced that he had decided to start bombing Cambodia while at the same time not telling the American people that Cambodia was being bombed.[15] The next day, Operation Menu as the bombing of Cambodia was code-named, started.[15]

As Cambodia was a neutral nation, the bombing of Cambodia was kept secret and officially denied.[16] Laird created a dual reporting system at the Pentagon so that the reports from bombing raids over Cambodia was not be reported via the normal channels with both the secretary of the air force and Air Force chief of staff being kept out of the loop.[17] As North Vietnam professed to respect Cambodia's neutrality, Hanoi did not protest against the American bombing of the North Vietnamese forces that were violating Cambodia's neutrality. Laird told a few members of Congress that the United States was bombing Cambodia, but to the American people, it was denied in 1969 that Cambodia was being bombed.[17] Several legal and constitutional experts were to subsequently testify that as Nixon did not inform the majority of Congress that he was bombing Cambodia, let alone ask for permission of Congress for the bombing, that this was illegal as the constitution gave Congress, not the president, the power to declare war.[17] The bombing campaign against Cambodia which started in March 1969 and ended in August 1973, is considered by most legal experts to be an act of war which was waged without being sanctioned by Congress, making the bombing campaign to be a matter of questionable legality at best and downright illegal at worst.[17]

Under the U.S. constitution, Congress has the control of the budget and the president can only ask Congress to appropriate money. Starting in 1969, Laird put the assumption that U.S. forces in Vietnam would be lower in the next fiscal year into the Defense Department's budget request to Congress.[12] Given that Nixon was a Republican and the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, passing a budget required much torturous negotiation. By putting the anticipated lower number of troops in Vietnam into the Pentagon's budget request for the next fiscal year, Laird in effect tied Nixon's hands as not to withdraw these troops would greatly upset relations with Congress and could potentially threaten the entire defense budget.[12] Once Congress passed the budget, Nixon had to withdraw the troops as it would otherwise cause a major constitutional crisis that would as Karnow put it threaten "...the defense establishment's entire financial equilibrium".[12] Karnow wrote that Laird's "...contribution to America's departure from Vietnam has been underestimated".[12]

Laird often clashed with Kissinger in 1969 over the correct policy to follow in Vietnam.[12] Kissinger argued to Nixon that the continued presence of American soldiers in South Vietnam "remains one of our few bargaining weapons" and that to start withdrawing forces from Vietnam would become "like salted peanuts" to the American people as "the more U.S troops come home, the more will be demanded".[13] Kissinger still believed if only North Vietnam was bombed hard enough, then concessions could still be won as he maintained: "I can't believe that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn't have a breaking point".[13] By contrast, Laird argued to Nixon that a steady reduction in U.S. forces from Vietnam was the best way of ensuring his re-election in 1972.[18] Before 1969, Kissigner was a professor of political science at Harvard University whereas Laird had been a Republican Congressman. Owning to these very different backgrounds, Laird was considerably more sensitive to American public opinion while Kissigner belonged more to the traditional Primat der Aussenpolitik school which saw foreign policy as belonging only to a small elite.[8]

In the summer of 1969, Laird told the press that Vietnamization was the Nixon administration's "highest priority" while also stating that the U.S troops in South Vietnam were moving from "maximum pressure" to "protective reaction".[19] In September 1969, when Kissinger drafted Duck Hook, a plan which in his own words called for a "savage, punishing blow" against North Vietnam in form of renewed bombing, Laird persuaded Nixon to reject the plan.[13] Laird argued to the president that Kissinger's "savage" bombing plan would kill a massive number of innocent North Vietnamese civilians and thus increase popular support for the anti-war movement.[13] At the same time, Laird doubted that Kissigner's plans for a "savage" bombing of North Vietnam would yield the desired results and predicated that it would cause the North Vietnamese to break off the peace talks going on in Paris.[13] For all these political reasons, Laird was able to convince Nixon not to go ahead with Kissigner's plans for a "savage" bombing offensive.[13]

During 1969 the new administration cut authorized U.S. troop strength in Vietnam from 549,500 to 484,000, and by May 1, 1972, the number stood at 69,000. During this same period, from January 1969 to May 1972, U.S. combat deaths declined 95 percent from the 1968 peak, and war expenditures fell by about two-thirds. Laird publicized Vietnamization widely; in his final report as secretary of defense in early 1973, he stated: "Vietnamization ... today is virtually completed. As a consequence of the success of the military aspects of Vietnamization, the South Vietnamese people today, in my view, are fully capable of providing for their own in-country security against the North Vietnamese."

In this same report Laird noted that the war had commanded more of his attention than any other concern during his four-year term. Upon becoming secretary he set up a special advisory group of DoD officials, known as the Vietnam Task Force, and he met with them almost every morning he was in the Pentagon. He also visited Vietnam several times for on-the-scene evaluations. Although his program of Vietnamization could be termed a success, if one considers the progress of troop withdrawals, U.S. involvement in the conflict became perhaps even more disruptive at home during Nixon's presidency than during Johnson's. The U.S. incursion into Cambodia in May 1970 to eliminate North Vietnamese sanctuaries, the renewed bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of its harbors in the spring of 1972 in response to a North Vietnamese offensive, and another bombing campaign against the North in December 1972 brought widespread protest. Nixon's Vietnam policy, as well as that of previous administrations, suffered further criticism when, in June 1971, the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified narrative and documentary history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, prepared at Secretary McNamara's order, was leaked and published in part in several major newspapers.

On the night of 21 February 1970, as a secret counterpart to the official peace talks in Paris, Kissinger met the North Vietnamese diplomat Lê Đức Thọ in a modest house located in an undistinguished industrial suburb of Paris, largely as a way of excluding the South Vietnamese from the peace talks as Kissinger had discovered that the South Vietnamese president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu had a vested interest in ensuring the peace talks failed and that the United States should not withdraw from Vietnam.[20] Reflecting his disdain for both Laird and Rogers, Kissinger did not see fit until a year later in February 1971 to first inform the Defense Secretary and the Secretary of State that he had been talking with Thọ in Paris off and on for the last year.[21] Laird publicly supported Nixon's Vietnam course, although Laird privately opposed the deception used to mask the Cambodian bombing from the American populace.

In the spring of 1970, Laird was opposed to Nixon's plans to invade Cambodia.[22] Nixon as part of his "madman theory" believed if he behaved as a rash leader capable of any action such as invading Cambodia that would show North Vietnam that "we were still serious about our commitment in Vietnam", and thus intimidate the North Vietnamese into a making peace on American terms.[23] Additionally, General Abrams was arguing to Washington that the troop withdrawals of 1969 had undermined the American position in South Vietnam, and to regain control of the situation required destroying the COSVN (Central Office for South Vietnam), the supposed headquarters of the Viet Cong, said to be located just over the border in Cambodia.[23] Once he learned that the president was determined to go ahead, he reconciled himself to invading Cambodia, through he tried to minimize the operation by having it limited to the South Vietnamese forces with their American advisers invade the Parrot's Beak area of Cambodia.[24] Nixon rejected Laird's recommendation as he later put it as "the most pusillanimous little nitpicker I ever saw".[24] Nixon decided instead on the evening of 26 April 1970 to "go for broke" with the "entire package" by having U.S. troops invade both the Parrot's Beak and the Fish Hook areas of Cambodia that bordered South Vietnam.[24] On 28 April 1970, South Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia starting the Cambodian Campaign and on the evening of 30 April 1970, Nixon went on national television to announce that the "incursion" into Cambodia had started with 20, 000 American and South Vietnamese troops entering Cambodia.[25] The operation was successful in the sense that the Americans and South Vietnamese occupied the Fish Hook and Parrot's Beak areas, but the majority of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces had withdrawn in the previous weeks, and were to return after the Americans and South Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia in June 1970.[26]

The new Cambodian leader Lon Nol had supported the Cambodian "incursion" through he had not been consulted in advance, and as a result, the North Vietnamese increased their support for the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who were fighting to overthrow him. As Laird had warned, the United States now had the responsibility of supporting not only the South Vietnamese government, but also the Cambodian government as well in their struggle against Communist guerrillas.[27] The Cambodian "incursion" set off massive protests in the United States, as Karnow wrote that the "biggest protests to date" against the war took place all across the nation in May 1970 as it seemed to many Americans that Nixon was recklessly escalating the war by invading Cambodia.[27] Nixon as part of his "madman theory" liked to portray himself to the world as a reckless, dangerous leader capable of anything, but as Laird noted most of the American people wanted their president to be a statesman, not a "madman". Many Republican politicians complained to Nixon all through the spring, summer and fall of 1970 that his policies on Vietnam would hurt their chances for the congressional elections in November 1970, leading Nixon to comment to Kissinger "when the Right starts wanting go get out, for whatever reason, that's our problem".[28] In an address on national television aired on 7 October 1970, Nixon changed tactics as he toned down his rhetoric as he stressed his interest in peace, saying he would pull out 90,000 American soldiers from South Vietnam by the spring of 1971 and wanted an immediate ceasefire.[29] The speech on 7 October was the beginning of a remodeling of Nixon's image from being Nixon the "madman" president over to Nixon the statesman president.[30]

Laird counted on the success of Vietnamization, peace talks that had begun in 1968 in Paris and the secret negotiations in Paris between Kissinger and North Vietnamese representatives to end the conflict. On January 27, 1973, two days before Laird left office, the negotiators signed a Vietnam settlement in Paris. They agreed to an in-place cease-fire to begin on January 28, 1973, complete withdrawal of U.S. forces within 60 days, the concurrent phased release of U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam, and establishment of an international control commission to handle disagreements among the signatories. Although, as time was to demonstrate, South Vietnam was not really capable of defending its independence, Laird retired from office satisfied that he had accomplished his major objective, the disengagement of United States combat forces from Vietnam.

Cold War and nuclear war planningEdit

Vietnam preoccupied Laird, but not to the exclusion of other pressing matters. Although not intimately involved in the development of strategic nuclear policy as McNamara had been, Laird subscribed to the Nixon administration's program of "Strategic Sufficiency" - that the United States should have the capability to deter nuclear attacks against its home territory and that of its allies by convincing a potential aggressor that he would suffer an unacceptable level of retaliatory damage; it should also have enough nuclear forces to eliminate possible coercion of its allies. The policy, not much different from McNamara's except in name and phrasing, embraced the need both to avoid mass destruction of civilians and to seek mechanisms to prevent escalation of a nuclear conflict. The administration further refined its strategic ideas in July 1969 when the president issued a statement that came to be known as the "Nixon Doctrine", stressing "pursuit of peace through partnership with our allies." Instead of the previous administration's "2½ war" concept - readiness to fight simultaneous wars on two major fronts and one minor front - the Nixon Doctrine cut back to the "1½ war" level. Through military aid and credit-assisted sales of military equipment abroad, the United States would prepare its allies to take up a greater share of the defense burden, especially manpower needs, in case of war. U.S. military forces would be "smaller, more mobile, and more efficient general purpose forces that ... [would] neither cast the United States in the role of world policeman nor force the nation into a new isolationism." Laird supported the strategic arms talks leading to the SALT I agreements with the Soviet Union in 1972: a five-year moratorium against expansion of strategic nuclear delivery systems, and an antiballistic missile treaty limiting each side to two sites (later cut to one) for deployed ABM systems. As Laird put it, "In terms of United States strategic objectives, SALT I improved our deterrent posture, braked the rapid buildup of Soviet strategic forces, and permitted us to continue those programs which are essential to maintaining the sufficiency of our long-term strategic nuclear deterrent."

Conscription suspendedEdit

Other important Laird goals were ending conscription by June 30, 1973, and the creation of an All Volunteer Force (AVF). Strong opposition to selective service mounted during the Vietnam War and draft calls declined progressively during Laird's years at the Pentagon; from 300,000 in his first year, to 200,000 in the second, 100,000 in the third, and 50,000 in the fourth. On January 27, 1973, after the signing of the Vietnam agreement in Paris, Laird suspended the draft, five months ahead of schedule.

Later careerEdit

Laird completed his term of office as secretary of defense on January 29, 1973. Because he had stated repeatedly that he would serve only four years (only Charles Erwin Wilson and Robert McNamara among his predecessors served longer), it came as no surprise when President Nixon on November 28, 1972, nominated Elliot Richardson to succeed him. In his final report in January 1973, Laird listed what he considered to be the major accomplishments of his tenure: Vietnamization; achieving the goal of strategic sufficiency; effective burden-sharing between the United States and its friends and allies; adequate security assistance; maintenance of U.S. technological superiority through development of systems such as the B-1, Trident, and cruise missiles; improved procurement; "People Programs" such as ending the draft and creating the AVF; improved National Guard and Reserve forces; enhanced operational readiness; and participatory management. One of Laird's most active initiatives was his persistent effort to secure the release of the American captives held by the enemy in Vietnam.

During his tenure as Defense Secretary, Laird did not share President Nixon's lingering timetable for withdrawal from Vietnam. He publicly contradicted the administrations policy, which upset the White House. Laird wished to return to the political arena, and was said to be planning a run for president in 1976. After Watergate, this proved implausible. There was also talk of a Senate run and perhaps a return to his old House seat in hopes of becoming Speaker.

Laird (left) with one of his successors, Donald Rumsfeld, and biographer Dale Van Atta, 2001

In spite of Vietnam and the unfolding Watergate affair, which threatened to discredit the entire Nixon administration, Laird retired with his reputation intact. Although not a close confidant of the president and not the dominant presence that McNamara was, Laird had been an influential secretary. He achieved a smooth association with the military leadership by restoring some of the responsibilities they had lost during the 1960s. His excellent relations with Congress enabled him to gain approval for many of his programs and budget requests.

After a brief absence, Laird returned to the Nixon administration in June 1973 as counselor to the president for domestic affairs, concerning himself mainly with legislative issues. In February 1974, as the Watergate crisis in the White House deepened, Laird resigned to become senior counselor for national and international affairs for Reader's Digest. Following Richard Nixon's resignation as President, Laird was reported to be the first choice of successor Gerald Ford to be nominated Vice President, a position ultimately filled by Nelson Rockefeller.

In 1974, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Since 1974, he has written widely for Reader's Digest and other publications on national and international topics.

On January 5, 2006, he participated in a meeting at the White House of former Secretaries of Defense and State to discuss United States foreign policy with Bush administration officials.

Journalist Dale Van Atta has written a biography of Laird entitled, "With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics," published by the University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.[31]

Role in health care researchEdit

Laird played a key role in advancing medical research, although this part of his biography is often overshadowed by his political achievements. "Laird's position on the House Appropriations subcommittee handling health matters allowed him to play a key congressional role on many medical and health issues. He often teamed up with liberal Democrat John Fogarty of Rhode Island to pass key legislation on education or health matters. Their impact on the National Institutes of Health was pivotal in a vast expansion of health research programs and facilities. They also sponsored the buildup of the National Library of Medicine, the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, the National Environmental Center in North Carolina, and the nation's eight National Cancer Centers, later part of the National Institutes of Health. Laird received many awards for his work on health matters, including the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award (1964) and the American Public Health Association award for leadership." This account of his role is noted in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library biography.[32]

Between 1956 and 1967, Laird was appointed a member of the U.S. Delegation to the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, by three U.S. Presidents – Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In fact, President Eisenhower so admired Laird's work in Congress for world health and national security that he described Congressman Laird as "one of the 10 men best qualified to become President of the United States."

Laird's interest in medical research is documented by his co-authoring legislation to finance the construction of the National Library of Medicine, and important centers for medical research on many university campuses (among them the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research and the University of Wisconsin Cancer Center in Madison) and the major institutes of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Laird, Congressman Fogarty and Senator Lister Hill (D-Alabama) also authorized legislation which funded the building of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) in Atlanta, GA.[33]

Death and legacyEdit

Following the death of Clarence Clifton Young on April 3, 2016, Laird became the last surviving member of the 83rd Congress, as well as the last surviving member elected in either the 1952 or 1954 elections.[34] Laird died of congestive heart failure in Fort Myers, Florida on November 16, 2016, at the age of 94.[35][36]

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in a statement: "Secretary Laird led the Defense Department through a time of great change in the world and within our department. Through it all, he demonstrated an unfailing commitment to protecting our country, strengthening our military, and making a better world."[37]

"Those of us who fought and those of us held prisoner in Vietnam will always have a special place in our hearts for Sec Melvin Laird," tweeted Senator John McCain, after learning of Laird's death.[37]

The Laird Center for Medical Research (dedicated in 1997), located in Marshfield, Wisconsin is named after him.[5] It is a medical research and education facility on the campus of Marshfield Clinic.


Laird was buried in Arlington National Cemetery (Section 34) after a 3 PM service in the Post Chapel.[38]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Melvin R. Laird - Richard Nixon Administration". Office of the Secretary of Defense - Historical Office.
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ "404 Error: File Not Found - Wisconsin Historical Society".
  4. ^ Stein, Jason (November 16, 2016). "Former defense secretary Melvin Laird dies". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Archived from the original on November 17, 2016. Retrieved October 27, 2017.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  5. ^ a b c d "Melvin Laird, Defense Secretary under Nixon, dead at age 94".
  6. ^ 'Wisconsin Blue Book 1948,' Biographical Sketch of Melvin R. Laird, Jr., p. 36.
  7. ^ Nation: What the Platform Says, Time Magazine (July 24, 1964).
  8. ^ a b c d Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.587.
  9. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.593.
  10. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.593-594.
  11. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.582-583.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.595.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.596.
  14. ^ a b Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.601.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.591.
  16. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.591-592.
  17. ^ a b c d Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.592.
  18. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.594.
  19. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.599.
  20. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.623-624.
  21. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.624.
  22. ^ Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.607.
  23. ^ a b Karnow, Stanley Vietnam: A History, London: Penguin, 1983 p.607.
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