Melvin R. Laird (born 1922) was a U.S. Congressman and later secretary of defense during the first Nixon administration. As secretary of defense he forged a good working relationship with Congress. Laird also played an important role in orchestrating the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
Melvin R. Laird was born in Omaha, Nebraska, September 1, 1922. After graduation from Carleton College in 1942 he served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific campaigns of World War II and was twice wounded, once in a Japanese Kamikaze attack.
In 1946, at the age of 24, Laird won the Wisconsin state senate seat vacated by his deceased father, making him the youngest state senator in Wisconsin history. He served in the senate until 1952, concentrating on taxation and veterans affairs, and he was a delegate to the 1948 and 1952 Republican conventions.
Laird was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, and he served there for the next 16 years. A conservative Republican, he was a frequent critic of foreign aid and wasteful military spending, and he promoted tax reduction and fiscal responsibility. In 1962 he authored a book, A House Divided, dealing with foreign and defense policy, and in 1964 he received the Albert Lasker Award for promotion of medical research. He was chairman of the Republican platform committee in 1964, engineering a compromise on the explosive civil rights issue that helped hold the party together. In the aftermath of the Goldwater debacle of 1964, he helped organize efforts to rebuild the shattered party.
In the first Nixon administration, Laird served capably as secretary of defense. The knowledge of military affairs gained from long service on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee stood him in good stead, and his connections in Congress gave him a power base independent of the administration. Described by Henry Kissinger as a man of "buoyancy and rascally good humor," Laird was also an effective bureaucratic in-fighter, and he successfully defended his turf against Kissinger and other would-be encroachers.
Laird did much to repair the damage left by his predecessor, Robert S. McNamara. McNamara had sometimes been arrogant and abrasive in dealing with Congress; Laird went out of his way to earn the trust and confidence of Congress, using his numerous ties there and spending hours before congressional committees. In his tenure no major Department of Defense request was rejected by Congress, an accomplishment unique among the various secretaries of defense.
Although he often disagreed with American military leaders on policy, Laird developed a close and effective working relationship with them. Unlike McNamara, he had a basic trust in the military. He dismantled the apparatus McNamara had created to keep military leaders on a tight rein. Where McNamara had drawn up his budgets and presented them to the military. Laird restored to the military the initiative on budgeting, allowing them to draft budget figures which he and his civilian advisers then subjected to close scrutiny.
Laird effectively defended the military against the anti-military sentiment that swept the country in the wake of the Vietnam War. He helped change the draft to a lottery system in 1969, easing the unpopularity of that institution. He also devised plans for conversion to an all-volunteer army and presided over a one million man cut in the armed forces. By initiating change himself, he helped fend off pressures from Congress for more radical change.
Laird played an important role in getting the United States out of Vietnam. Recognizing that the war was a political albatross that could destroy the Republicans as it had the Democrats, he pushed hard for extricating the United States, coining the word "Vietnamization" to signify the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces and the shift of responsibility to the Vietnamese and relentlessly pushing to accomplish it. Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger often disagreed with Laird on the pace of American troop withdrawals, but the policy itself prevailed, and with the peace agreement of January 1973, shortly after Laird left office, final U.S. military withdrawal was completed.
In other areas Laird was less successful in influencing policy. Along with Secretary of State William Rogers, he strongly and unsuccessfully opposed expansion of the war into Cambodia in 1970 and the mining of Haiphong Harbor in 1972.
Laird left the Defense Department at the end of Nixon's first term, but he returned to Washington in June 1973 to become counsellor to President Nixon for domestic affairs in the wake of the widening Watergate scandal. After 1974, he was a senior counsellor for the Readers Digest, where he contributed articles dealing with defense and foreign policy. Laird continued to be active in the latter field: in 1983 he was one of five former foreign policy leaders who urged the Reagan administration make an agreement with the Soviets to put off development of any space weapons systems for ten years and continue to comply with the unratified 1979 treaty between America and the Soviet Union on strategic arms. In 1993 he testified before a Senate Committee that he had had reason to believe American P.O.W's were left in Vietnam and Laos after U.S. troops were withdrawn, as reported by Barbara Crossette in The New York Times (September 22, 1993). These claims were strongly criticized by his former rival for power, Kissinger. Laird was on the board of directions of Martin Marietta, an aircraft-building company, from 1981 to 1992. In the latter year he became chairman of the board of the Communications Satellite Corporation, serving until his retirement in 1997.
Laird's important role as secretary of defense in the first Nixon administration is analyzed in Douglas Kinnard, The Secretary of Defense (1980). The internal struggle for power is recounted in great detail in Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years (1979). Laird's recommendations to the Reagan administration concerning defense policy can be found in "Ex-Defense Secretaries Back Strict View of '72 ABM Pact," by Michael Gordon The New York Times (March 10th, 1987). His testimony before a Senate Committee on the possibilities of POW's remaining in Vietnam is available in "POW's Were Left, Top Aides Believe," by Barbara Crossette, The New York Times (September 22nd, 1993).