Almost two months ago Alexander Haig resigned as U.S. secretary of state, leaving a backwash of unanswered questions. Last week he had the chance to burn off some of the mists enclosing the state department’s complex at Foggy Bottom when, in his first public appearance since quitting, he addressed a San Francisco meeting of the American Bar Association. But, in vintage Haig style, he remained as tight-lipped as ever about the inner workings of the administration. The exsecretary pocketed a handsome $20,000 for 34 minutes of quips and platitudes but he gave no hint of the candor his audience sought. The secret of his success: Haig has never been hired for his candor. And that elusiveness is the key to Haig’s success, according to U.S. author Roger Morris.
Morris has finely traced the veiled and varied career of the ex-secretary of state in his newly published book Haig: The General’s Progress. A member of the National Security Council in the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the author has left no milestone in Haig’s rise unturned in an attempt to show that he skilfully manipulated both the men and machinery of power.
Morris does not stop there. He charts in fascinating detail Haig’s emergence, virtually unscathed, from the pivotal upheavals of Vietnam and Watergate —at times as a see-no-evil witness, an active agent or a conspiratorial Houdini, who, Morris claims, managed to slip the cuffs of justice.
After beginning his military career with a running start at West Point, says Morris, Haig sailed into the White House on wings of raw ambition, shameless self-promotion and political patronage. In 1963 Haig got his first real view of the clutch and grab of Washington bureaucracy when he was plucked from the Pentagon to join the Army Secretary’s Office. There, as a courier to the White House, he was privy to information about covert CIA raids and sabotage against Cuba and Chile. Like a dutiful civil servant, he learned to turn a blind eye, a quality that prepared him for his next posting at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It was there, says Morris, while both the public and Congress were deceived about the U.S. military buildup in Vietnam, that Haig watched “as [did] relatively few others the furtive descent into full-scale war in Southeast Asia.” Contrary to a widely held view, Morris charges, Haig was anything but a passive observer in the final days of the crumbling Nixon administration.
Brought into the inner circle by his patron, Henry Kissinger (then secretary of state), Haig rose to be Nixon’s trusted lieutenant by playing on both men’s sense of isolation and paranoia. While Kissinger courted publicity, Haig worked self-effacingly in the background but was nonetheless one of a select circle who really ran the White House from 1970-’74. During that time,
according to Morris, Haig was a party to the secret bombing of Cambodia and was a liaison with the Watergate plumbers. He also played an active part in the events that led eventually to the overthrow of Chile’s president, Salvador Allende.
Through it all Haig managed to avoid the scent of scandal by standing firmly in Kissinger’s long shadow. Said Haig, explaining his blameless position in the White House: “I never viewed myself as anything but an extension of Dr. Kissinger.”
When H.R. Haldeman resigned after
he was the subject of damning testimony during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, Haig rose to fill the position of Nixon’s chief of staff. Later, Morris recalls, when Kissinger threatened to resign over the appointment, Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, captured the day-care-centre atmosphere of the White House when she said, “For once, Henry, behave like a man.”
In chronicling Haig’s part in the death throes of the Nixon presidency, Morris quotes Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s quip that the chief of staff became “the 37 V2 president” of the United States. But, adds Morris, he was more than that: he actively helped the Nixon coverup and then, with impeachment near, cosied up to Jaworski to save his own career. After Nixon’s departure, Haig stayed on, in an apparent attempt to take charge of the Ford administration, too. But eventually, as in his later incarnation at State, he grew too bold—and was shunted off to NATO as the supreme allied commander. There, says Morris, he honed his conception of the Soviet threat and polished his image in readiness for a tilt at the White House.
The most serious irony, according to Morris, is that when Reagan nominated Haig as secretary of state, his appointment was not seriously challenged. By contrast, in the mid-1970s the media and Congress were highly critical of him. Haig may still tell his story, however. Indeed, many observers believe that the last chapter of Haig’s political autobiography has yet to be acted out. -JANE O’HARA in New York City.
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