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BY JOHN PRADOS

Leaders of the Pentagon come and go. Of those secretaries of defense who held the top Pentagon job during the Vietnam years, Robert S. McNamara has received the most attention. It is remarkable that his successor, Nixon’s Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird, has received so little.

Much of this has to do with the escalation of the war. McNamara presided over U.S. troop levels in Vietnam that ballooned from 685 in 1961 to 549,500 in 1968. But the U.S. withdrawal deserves equal attention. Laird managed the process in half the time, leaving the Pentagon in early 1973 just as the last American troops departed South Vietnam. Equally significant, Laird played the key role in the transformation of the American military to the shape it retains today, changing the draft to a lottery system, then eliminating it altogether, and then creating the all-volunteer military.

In addition, Laird stood with the Nixon White House through the many important events of that era, including the abortive “Duck Hook” bombing of Hanoi, the Christmas bombing, and passages in between that include the invasions of Cambodia and Laos and the Easter Offensive—not to mention other crises from the Middle East to Watergate, and the plethora of military technology programs that he supervised.

For all his involvement with Vietnam, when Laird published an article in Foreign Affairs in 2005—his first real reflection on the war since leaving government—many had only a dim memory of the man. Largely bypassed in histories of the war, misunderstood at the time, Melvin Laird’s actions are at the heart of much that happened—or did not—during the Nixon years. What follows is a first cut at his story.

Melvin Laird spent sixteen years as a U.S. congressman from Wisconsin before joining the Nixon administration. All along, he cultivated military affairs and health issues as his expertise. Laird was in on the ground floor of Vietnam policy. In 1964, a couple of months before the Tonkin Gulf incident, Rep. Laird accused President Johnson of making secret preparations to attack North Vietnam. At the time, Johnson was heavily engaged in the covert raids carried out under OPLAN 34-A and had a secret committee drafting a congressional resolution to permit the use of force, along with plans for operations. Laird’s charges were close to the truth. When Tonkin Gulf occurred, however, Laird voted with every other member of the House of Representatives to give Johnson the authority he sought.

In the summer of 1965, Laird played a central role in an episode that revealed his views and the Republican party’s consensus on the Vietnam War. With Lyndon Johnson considering dispatching large numbers of American ground forces to fight in the war, Laird joined other Republicans in pressing LBJ to do more, holding out the prospect of ending bipartisan support for Vietnam policy if Johnson did not go far enough. Laird did more himself, leading a small group that wrote a white paper that Republicans published on the necessity for war.

Laird had returned to Marshfield, Wisconsin, after serving in the Navy in World War II. Republican party bosses convinced him to run for the state legislature. He was elected in 1946. In the 1952 election that brought Eisenhower and Richard Nixon to the White House, Laird won a seat in Congress. He and Gerry Ford became companions in social and political affairs. As Ford rose through the House—he became Minority Leader in 1965—Laird was not far behind, serving on the subcommittee of the powerful House Appropriations Committee that dealt with military matters.  

In December 1968, as Richard Nixon prepared for his inauguration as president, his cabinet choices reflected a strong desire to hold the reins of power within the White House. Top selections were men long familiar to Nixon—technicians and lawyers for the most part, except for Henry Kissinger, a specialist in international relations recommended by Laird. Laird had supported Republican liberal Nelson Rockefeller in the early stages of the 1968 presidential campaign, and Kissinger had been a Rockefeller adviser.

Laird subsequently had given loyal service to the Nixon campaign. But given Nixon’s readiness to hold and act on grudges, it is a bit surprising that Laird got the Pentagon job. The story is that Nixon consulted Laird, and the Wisconsin politician recommended conservative Democrat Henry Jackson as secretary of defense. But Jackson turned down the President-elect. At that point, 24 hours remained before Nixon was to announce his cabinet selections. Telling Laird of the rejection, Nixon demanded that he take the post. Nixon also asked Eisenhower about Laird, questioning the man’s reputation for deviousness. Ike advised Nixon, who was plenty devious himself, that this was a good trait in someone who would have to lead the Pentagon and get along with Congress, too.

Nixon needed someone with close ties to Congress. Laird was plugged in there, and he was especially close to House Minority Leader Ford. Nixon saw Laird as strong and shrewd, and he had known him since 1960. Laird had gone nearly everywhere with Eisenhower during his 1956 re-election run, and in 1960 Ike convinced Nixon to accept Laird as deputy chair of the Platform Committee for the Republican National Convention.

Laird shared Eisenhower and Nixon’s conservative values and was a tireless party activist. He rose to head the platform group at the 1964 Convention (which nominated Barry Goldwater), deftly outmaneuvering the Republican liberals. Henry Kissinger first met Laird then and considered him formidable.

THE PRAGMATIST

Like many of his generation—he was born in Omaha in September 1922—Laird fought in World War II where he served, ironically enough, on the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox, the ship that became famous in the Tonkin Gulf incident. In the fleet, Laird first met another young naval reservist, an officer aboard the carrier Hancock: Gerald R. Ford.

In 1967 and 1968, a time of growing American disaffection for the Vietnam War, Laird read the tea leaves better than many. By the time of the Nixon presidential campaign, he knew the old strategies were useless. Nixon had claimed he had a plan to end the war, and moves toward peace were included in the 1968 Republican platform that Laird worked on. Once he became secretary of defense, it fell to Laird to take the promises and convert them into something that could be sold to the American people.

In his Foreign Affairs article, Laird writes that when he arrived at his Pentagon office there were two things that gave him some clarity. One was a copy of the Pentagon Papers—then still secret—that filled much of his walk-in safe. The other was the troop request sent after Tet ’68 by Vietnam field commander Gen. William C. Westmoreland to reinforce MACV by 200,000 men.

Although Westmoreland no longer commanded—he was now Army chief of staff and MACV was under Gen. Creighton V. Abrams—the request had never been dealt with. While the Johnson administration had effectively denied the troop request, it had never been formally rejected. National revulsion at the demand when it had leaked the previous year showed Laird what could not be done. He took great satisfaction from signing a memorandum denying the reinforcements as his first act at the Pentagon.

But there remained the question of what to do. The views at MACV and at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon were fairly optimistic. But on the key question of how long the war would continue, even the most optimistic assessments expected it to go on for more than eight years; the pessimists predicted it would be longer than thirteen. Nixon told his first National Security Council meeting that he expected that under existing conditions the United States could hold on for no more than two.

Laird wanted to change that equation, buying time with a fresh approach. The first talk of an all-volunteer military took place at that NSC meeting. A couple of months later, Secretary Laird formed a blue-ribbon panel to examine the possibility.

The second pillar of the Laird strategy was American withdrawals. In combination with Gen. Abrams’s transformation of MACV tactics to emphasize small-unit operations and support to pacification, withdrawals would reduce American casualties. The reduced numbers of troops also would cut Pentagon manpower requirements and draft calls, presumably helping the administration with the antiwar movement.

On his first visit to Saigon, in March 1969, Laird and Abrams worked out the details, with the secretary of defense explaining to MACV staff why withdrawals were absolutely unavoidable. He reiterated the message later with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Earle Wheeler and drove home the same points from a military budget perspective.

The Laird strategy competed with a Nixon-Kissinger alternative option, something Nixon called his “Madman Theory,” which involved attacking Hanoi. The Joint Chiefs knew this as Operation Pruning Knife, and the NSC staff called it Duck Hook. Kissinger opposed Laird’s approach and argued against de-escalation in a succession of memoranda, phone calls, and talks with the President. At one point he said that withdrawals would be like salted peanuts—the American public would constantly want more.

At the same time, Kissinger extolled the possibilities of military pressure. A secret planning unit of the Joint Staff went to Saigon in late summer 1969 to assemble plans for Operation Pruning Knife. The Chiefs briefed Laird on the plan several times. He could not understand their enthusiasm for it. But with the White House in the final stages of preparing this escalation, at a key meeting with the President the Joint Chiefs objected that Pruning Knife would be too limited and too short to have the effects anticipated by Nixon and Kissinger. The option was shelved until 1972.

Laird had done what he could to retard Pruning Knife and had given the military a little of what they wanted by approving certain cross-border operations. Laird attributes the discovery of hard evidence of Hanoi’s oil pipeline to the South to Pruning Knife activities he had approved. Laird also links to Pruning Knife the “protective reaction” air strikes that were occasionally mounted against North Vietnam.

Kissinger later wrote that Mel Laird “acted on the assumption that he had a Constitutional right to seek to outsmart and outmaneuver anyone.” Laird was capable of coming to a White House meeting, bringing the Joint Chiefs and supporting their position, privately telling Nixon and Kissinger of his objections, and then working out something else altogether with his congressional friends. Maneuvers between Nixon and Laird “were conducted with all the artistry of a Kabuki play,” Kissinger said.

When Laird phoned first thing in the morning to complain about a news story, Kissinger decided, it was because Laird himself was the likely source. Kissinger tried to begin his back-alley fights with the secretary of defense by closing off all his bureaucratic and congressional escape routes. Those were often hard to discern. “Intellectual arguments were only marginally useful,” Kissinger wrote, “and direct orders were suicidal.”

The first wave of American withdrawals, which Nixon announced in June 1969, numbered 25,000 and included two Army brigades and a Marine regiment. In September, the administration ordered the withdrawal of 35,000 additional troops, including the rest of the 3rd Marine Division, plus the Army paratroopers who had gone to South Vietnam as an emergency reinforcement at the time of Tet.

Those were the easy calls—pullbacks from the sector of the Demilitarized Zone, where the South Vietnamese had their best troops, and from the Mekong Delta, where the pacification situation was most favorable. That fall, Laird’s Pentagon also ordered MACV not to fill some 7,000 individual replacement slots. By these means, the Nixon administration was able to cancel draft calls for the last three months of 1969. At that point, too, results were becoming visible as the rate of casualties fell.

Laird’s project for draft reform also had moved to the front burner. The new plan was to eliminate deferments altogether, substituting a lottery system under which birth dates would be picked at random and men born on those days slated for induction first. Gen. Louis Hershey, who headed the Selective Service System, opposed this change. Laird forced Hershey out by enforcing government mandatory retirement rules against the octogenarian general.

The draft was re-authorized by Congress for two additional years, by which time the all-volunteer military would come on line. Laird worked hard to lay a foundation for the volunteer force, enlisting Army Chief of Staff Westmoreland to make a series of speeches to key audiences such as the Reserve Officers Association, and setting up an experiment at Fort Ord in which one Army division was re-organized to incorporate only volunteers. The arrangement proved so successful that the military today continues to use it.

In the spring of 1970, after a further 50,000-man withdrawal that included the 1st Infantry Division, the Nixon administration decided to invade Cambodia. Gen. Abrams was acutely aware that the draw-downs were eliminating his capability for a conventional offensive. He accepted Washington’s plan with some qualms. Laird proved less amenable.

Without going into the arcana of the Cambodia decision, it can be said that one of Nixon’s Kabuki plays was staged to bring Laird around on the incursion. The same was true for the invasion of Laos in 1971 and the mining of Haiphong harbor in 1972. In each case, Laird warned of the political consequences of these moves. He was correct. Political firestorms erupted, and the Nixon administration’s spectrum of options progressively narrowed as further American actions in Cambodia or Laos were prohibited by law, the Tonkin Gulf resolution repealed, and MACV forces became so thin on the ground that operations were almost impossible.

At the end of March 1972 when the Easter Offensive began, the last American combat brigade was leaving the war zone, troop strength was down to 69,000, and only a few maneuver battalions were left. The remaining American troops were used only for base defense. Nixon compensated by relying on air and naval power to confront Hanoi. The Operation Linebacker I air campaign and the Haiphong mining were the implementation of the Pruning Knife plan of 1969, right down to target lists and sortie rates. The bombing affected North Vietnam’s economy, but Hanoi’s offensive ran out of steam by itself.

North Vietnamese documents make clear that Hanoi was aware its attacks would have a limited duration before the offensive ever began. U.S. airpower was crucial in tactical situations in the South, helping to save An Loc, Kontum, and Hue. But the northern campaign was not militarily decisive and not much more effective than Operation Rolling Thunder.

At this point, peace negotiations in Paris began to move rapidly. A ceasefire agreement was signed in January 1973. The remaining 27,000 American troops could quickly be brought out of Vietnam. For U.S. troops, at least, the war was over.

Melvin Laird had had an understanding with Richard Nixon that he would serve only four years at the Pentagon. He left as the last GIs boarded their Freedom Birds for home. In retrospect, Laird reflected, the withdrawal “became the textbook description of how the U.S. military should decamp.” Laird’s legacy is the volunteer military.

 

 

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