Melvin Robert Laird, who as President Nixon’s secretary of defense ended the draft, created the all-volunteer armed forces and ordered the Pentagon’s drawdown of military personnel from the Vietnam War, died Wednesday. He was 94.
The first former congressman to serve as Defense secretary, Laird died in Florida, according to Laird’s grandson, Raymond Dennis Large III.
Laird, a Republican, served nine terms in the House of Representatives from Wisconsin at a time when camaraderie marked the chamber. At the Pentagon, he helped improve the Defense Department’s relationship with Congress by pruning budget requests without any real harm to national security.
After Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, Laird lobbied him to appoint Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.) as secretary of Defense. But Jackson, under pressure from fellow Democrats not to give Nixon a bipartisan Cabinet during the Vietnam War, declined the offer, so Nixon insisted Laird take it. But Laird knew that White House interference could make his life at the Pentagon miserable. In a remarkable maneuver, he got Nixon to agree that Laird, not the president, would have final say on all appointments and decisions.
“To my surprise, he not only agreed, he actually put it in writing,” Laird recalled. “I was trapped, so I accepted.” The hands-off memo — coupled with Laird’s iron-fisted instruction to his generals and staffers that they were to report all contacts with the White House to him — meant the Pentagon was spared involvement in the Watergate scandal that shadowed many other agencies. White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and top aide John D. Ehrlichman — the twosome were nicknamed the Berlin Wall in reference to their protection of the president — tried to get the National Security Agency to help the White House spy on political foes. Laird made sure they could not.
“I was always proud of that,” Laird told CBS newsman Bob Schieffer. “And it wasn’t because the White House didn’t try to draw some of our people into it.”
Bob Froehlke, a friend from grade school whom Laird brought to Washington to be his secretary of the Army, said that from the day he began work at the Pentagon, Laird devised how to “get out with honor” from Vietnam. “From then on, we were slowly winding down.”
In early 1969, U.S. troop strength in Vietnam was at 549,500. By May 1972, the number stood at 69,000. U.S. combat deaths also declined dramatically for the peak year of 1968.
In 2005, 30 years after the Vietnam War ended, Laird penned an article for Foreign Affairs, comparing the quagmire of Vietnam to the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The publication, the voice of the Council of Foreign Relations, reported that Laird’s piece garnered a record number of hits on its website.
When he became Defense secretary, Laird wrote, he changed the Pentagon’s goal from “applying maximum pressure against the enemy to one of giving maximum assistance to South Vietnam to fight its own battles.” He argued that U.S. policy in Iraq should have made that essential calculation “even before the first shot was fired.”
During his four years at the Pentagon, Laird instituted a lottery for the draft, which had been in existence since 1939, to even out the odds among all eligible males. In 1973, he ended the draft altogether in favor of an all-volunteer military. He was credited with Vietnamization — a program to expand, equip and train South Vietnam’s forces and give them a larger combat role — and in his article defended the cause of seeking democracy for Southeast Asia.
Born in Omaha on Sept. 1, 1922, Laird graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in 1942 and entered the U.S. Navy as an enlisted man. He received an ensign’s commission in April 1944 and served on the destroyer Maddox in the Pacific. He received shrapnel wounds during a kamikaze attack.
Laird left the service in April 1946 and soon entered the Wisconsin state Senate, succeeding his recently deceased father.
“He was a professional politician and very proud of it,” said Froehlke. “He felt politics was honorable.”
Laird was elected to the House of Representatives in 1952 and was reelected eight consecutive times.
Those were the days when civility reigned in Washington. Republican Laird and Democrat Gaylord Nelson campaigned for each other in Wisconsin. “He proved you could be very partisan and have friends on the other side of the aisle,” said Froehlke.
Laird became a favorite of the Washington press corps at the Pentagon by inviting them into the process and delighting them when he outwitted the president he served. When he left the post, reporters gave him a football that said, “Laird, 194, Press, 0.”
And he was as much an expert on health policy — he turned down a chance to be Nixon’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (the Department of Health and Human Services since 1980) — as military affairs.
In an interview in 2006, Laird cited some of his accomplishments in the health field. In tandem with Rep. John Fogarty (D-R.I.) — they were both ranking members on the House appropriations subcommittee on health — Laird helped establish and give muscular support to some of the nation’s most important health institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the National Environmental Center in North Carolina and eight National Cancer Centers.
“During the 1950s and 1960s we went to the floor of the House in agreement,” Laird recalled. “We’d stand there together in bipartisan agreement. We would never let anyone amend the bills one way or another.”
He returned to government briefly in June 1973 as Nixon’s counselor to the president for domestic affairs. With his reputation and integrity intact, he resigned in February 1974 as the Watergate crisis deepened around Nixon. Laird became a senior counselor for national and international affairs for Reader’s Digest magazine.
In retirement he helped raise money for the Melvin R. Laird Center for Medical Research in Marshfield, Wis. When the center was dedicated in 1997, former President Ford spoke, saying few public figures “have been tested by events or have so confirmed the confidence of their admirers as Mel Laird in those days of tumult and challenge,” he said. Nelson spoke too, recalling that when they served together in the Wisconsin state Senate, Laird often provided the required fifth vote that would allow the four Democrats in attendance to start a roll call vote. “I was grateful for his statesman-like generosity,” he said.
Froehlke, who headed the capital campaign that raised $12.5 million for the Laird Center, said that “$5 million came from people, many of whom didn’t know there was a Marshfield clinic. But they knew Mel Laird. They knew he would not back anything that wasn’t important for the city, his state and his country.