Melvin Laird, former US defence secretary who oversaw pullout from Vietnam, dies at 94

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 8:34pm

Melvin Laird, the US defence secretary under Richard Nixon who oversaw the withdrawal of more than half a million U.S. troops during the Vietnam War, has died. He was 94.

He died Wednesday in a hospital in Fort Myers, Florida, his grandson, Raymond Dennis Large III, said by telephone. No cause was given.

A former US congressman from Wisconsin, Laird was the architect of “Vietnamisation,” a plan to bolster the South Vietnamese military and draw down the involvement of American soldiers in the war. The number of US combat troops in the Southeast Asian nation dropped from 547,000 in January 1969 to zero after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973. South Vietnam fell under communist rule in 1975 after the US Congress cut funding to its former ally.

During his four years as defence secretary, from 1969 to 1973, Laird sought to accelerate the “peace with honour” exit strategy that the Republican Party had pledged before Nixon’s presidential election victory in 1968. Laird said his efforts were hampered by military hardliners and by Nixon himself, who approved bombing campaigns in Cambodia and North Vietnam when peace talks stalled.

“Even with the tide of public opinion running against the war, withdrawal was not an easy sell inside the Nixon administration,” Laird wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs in 2005. “Even Nixon, who had promised to end the war, accepted each troop-withdrawal request from me grudgingly.”

Laird was also credited with ending the draft of military personnel in 1973, establishing an all-volunteer force that still exists today, and promoting women to senior ranks in the Navy. He also helped forge an agreement with the Soviet Union to limit anti-ballistic missile systems.

As the first member of Congress to become defence secretary, Laird’s experience was appealing to Nixon, who could rely on his defense secretary’s backers on Capitol Hill to win support for the government’s policies. Yet Laird was increasingly excluded from the decision-making process as Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger began to run foreign policy from the White House without informing their colleagues in the state and defence departments.

“Because he had his own constituency, Laird felt he deserved his own direct access to the president,” author and journalist Stanley Karnow wrote in Vietnam: A History (1983). “Kissinger soon fixed that by opening up an indirect channel from the White House to the joint chiefs of staff, thereby circumventing Laird.”

Laird still managed to maintain a working relationship with Kissinger, who described the defence secretary as a man of “buoyancy and rascally good humour.” He was also granted every major fiscal request put before Congress while restoring the responsibility of budgeting to military leaders and cutting the armed forces by 1 million people.

As defence secretary, Laird oversaw the development of the B-1 bomber as well as the Trident ballistic missile.

In later years, Laird publicly drew comparisons between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. While supporting a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, Laird urged George W. Bush’s administration to resist calls to “cut and run” so that the Iraqi government’s position against the insurgents wouldn’t be undermined.

“We need to put our resources and unwavering public support behind a program of ‘Iraqisation’ so that we can get out of Iraq and leave the Iraqis in a position to protect themselves,” Laird said. “The Iraq war should have been focused on Iraqisation even before the first shot was fired. The focus is there now, and Americans should not lose heart.”