Richard Nixon's chief of staff 'who kept America together' during Watergate before leading Nato
Published 28/02/2010 | 05:00
Alexander Haig, who has died aged 85, commanded an infantry division in Vietnam, became a four-star general and later helped to bring about a final ceasefire; he served as White House Chief of Staff under Richard Nixon and played a leading crisis management role during Watergate; he became Supreme Allied Commander of Nato before serving for a year as Secretary of State to Ronald Reagan.
Long before comedians began poking fun at George W Bush's inventive neologisms and syntax, they were mocking Haig's frequent "Haigisms". He was famous for reviving Winston Churchill's phrase "terminological inexactitude". On another occasion he remarked: "The warning message we sent the Russians was a calculated ambiguity that would be clearly understood."
In 1981, when President Reagan was in hospital after a failed assassination attempt, Haig famously appeared to blunder on television, claiming, "I am in control here," when, in fact, the order of succession places the secretary of state below the vice-president and the speaker of the House. The quotation became seen as an attempt by Haig to exceed his authority, although the full text acknowledged the constitutional niceties ("As for now, I'm in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice-president").
However, it was Haig's perceived mishandling of the Falkland negotiations in 1982 which added to concerns over his judgement and effectively put paid to his political career. He resigned in July 1982. When he ran, unsuccessfully, for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, he remarked: "I probably carry more scar tissue on my derriere than any other candidate" -- quickly adding: "That's political scar tissue."
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.
From Lower Merion High School at Ardmore, Pennsylvania, he went on to Notre Dame University. He 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. Later, 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. 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 heroism.
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. 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 and was promoted major-general in March 1972. A year later it was Haig who persuaded the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, to agree to a final ceasefire.
In May 1973, 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 that year, 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. He remained with Nixon until his resignation in 1974 and prepared the ground for the transfer of power to Gerald Ford.
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.
In 1979 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.
A year later, 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).
Alexander Haig married, in 1950, Patricia Fox, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.