Rounding It Out
By Tim Krenz
April 7, 2016
Atta, Dale van. With Honor: Melvin
Laird, in War, Peace and Politics.
Madison, UW Press, 2008.
People in D.C.
knew Melvin Laird as “the Man from Marshfied.” Growing up in that
small Wisconsin city, Laird became a young state senator, a nine-time
elected U.S. Congressman, and the reluctant Secretary of Defense from
January 1969 to January 1973, who shrewdly comprehended that the
United States needed to disengage from the divisive Vietnam War.
experience as a key member of the U.S. House Defense Appropriations
Sub-Committee, Melvin Laird spent years learning the issues and
politics, and the personalities and bureaucracies, of the nation's
military affairs. Receiving a severe wounding by kamikaze air attack
in 1945 while a serving officer in the United States Naval Reserve,
Laird carried that moral courage needed to make hard, life and death
As a senior
member of Nixon's cabinet, and friend of the President's, Laird held
strong cards in how and when the pace of American redeployment from
Indochina would occur. As the third ranking member his party's U.S.
House of Representatives caucus, Laird ascended to the cabinet from
his modest Middle American roots, and with a moderate Republican
viewpoint, Laird felt the political hurricanes affecting U.S. policy
like a feather-wane, and he persisted in guiding the United States
out of the protracted stalemate versus the Vietnamese communists.
of these attributes, according to biographer Dale van Atta, in his
book, With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace and Politics,
came to focus as he outmaneuvered the stalwarts inside the U.S.
Government, military and civilian, against disengagement. Countless
times, it seems in the biography, Laird played strong cards, bet big,
bluffed the bureaucracies and the White House (including the paragon
opponent and friend, Henry A. Kissinger) and won the pot every time.
In the bottom sum, in a democracy, where voting matters, Laird knew
how to find votes, and knew the margins of support he had—and he
counted votes very, very well.
the term “Vietnamization,” whereby the U.S. allies in the
Republic of (South) Vietnam would carry the burden of their own war
against communist insurgents and against the communist Democratic
Republic of (North) Vietnam. To complement that strategy, the White
House offered its own “Nixon Doctrine,” which told Asian nations
that they needed to supply the majority of armed forces to defend
themselves against aggressors, and that the United States would only
provide military aid, and supporting air and naval assistance in
As the policy of
Vietnamization took its precarious hold, Laird, with much force of
politics, and a firm civilian control over the military and civilian
policymakers, redesigned the armed forces of the U.S. Many consider
Laird the “Father” of the “All-Volunteer Force,” as he
determined early in his tenure to end the draft, which has not
existed since 1973 when the last draft authorization law lapsed.
redirected and reinvented much of the military planning and
investment into new forms, including the “Total Force Concept,”
which integrates the Army and Air National Guards and the organized
armed forces Reserves into any active deployment, as seen fit by the
National Command Authority (i.e. the President and the Secretary of
Defense). In his policies concerning Vietnam escalation,
then-President Johnson from 1965 to 1969 had (with very limited
exceptions) not used these vital components for the goals of U.S.
policy, hoping to avoid domestic schism.
With his wrong
and half-stupid commitment to intervention, Johnson had condemned his
policy and the country to the very division in the country he sought
to avoid. With Laird's system, during the 1990-91 Desert
Shield/Desert Storm conflict, and during the present and ongoing,
15-year war, the guards and reserves have found themselves active and
deployed, which might explain some of the overwhelming political
commitment and public support for the enduring current conflicts.
Other Laird-directed investments continue to this day, including the
Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, the KEY wild card in the
United State's nuclear deterrent since its conception.
Aside from these
important contributions to U.S. military history and policy, Laird
during his terms in Congress supported and mentored many of the
nation's leaders who have since guided the nation, including former
Secretary of State General Colin Powell. Laird also did a great deal
to further the health care and public health systems. As an untainted
White House aide after serving in the Defense Department, according
to author Atta, Laird proved instrumental in the nomination of Gerald
Ford as Vice President. And when Nixon's presidency disintegrated
over the Watergate investigations, Laird emerged with his Middle
America integrity intact, and his friend, Gerald Ford, assumed the
Office of President. For all these reasons alone, Laird has his place
in American history, as “the Man from Marshfield.”