January 22, 1969 – January 29, 1973
Chosen by President-elect Richard M. Nixon as secretary of defense, Melvin R. Laird was the first member of Congress to occupy the position. Laird was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on 1 September 1922. In 1942 he graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota, then entered the United States Navy as an enlisted man. He received an ensign's commission in April 1944 and served on a destroyer in the Pacific. The recipient of the Purple Heart and several other decorations, Laird left the Navy in April 1946.
About the same time, at age 23, Laird entered the Wisconsin State Senate, succeeding his recently deceased father. He remained there until his election in November 1952 to the United States House of Representatives. Subsequently reelected eight consecutive times, he was chairman of the House Republican Conference when Nixon selected him for the cabinet. A very active congressman, Laird became known for his work on both domestic and defense issues, including his service on the Defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. He left Congress reluctantly, making it clear when he became secretary on 22 January 1969 that he intended to serve no more than four years.
As a congressman Laird had supported a strong defense posture and had sometimes been critical of Secretary McNamara. In September 1966, characterizing himself as a member of the loyal opposition, he publicly charged the Johnson administration with deception about Vietnam war costs and for delaying decisions to escalate the ground war until after the 1966 congressional elections. Laird also criticized McNamara's management and decisionmaking practices. After he became secretary of defense, Laird and President Nixon appointed a Blue Ribbon Defense Panel that made more than 100 recommendations on DoD's organization and functions in a lengthy report of 1 July 1970. The department implemented a number of the panel's proposals while Laird served in the Pentagon.
Laird did not depart abruptly from the McNamara-Clifford management system, but rather instituted gradual changes. He pursued what he called "participatory management," an approach calculated to gain the cooperation of the military leadership in reducing the Defense budget and the size of the military establishment. While retaining decisionmaking functions for himself and the deputy secretary of defense, Laird somewhat decentralized policymaking and operations. He accorded the service secretaries and the JCS a more influential role in the development of budgets and force levels. He revised the PPBS, including a return to the use of service budget ceilings and service programming of forces within these ceilings. The previously powerful systems analysis office could no longer initiate planning, only evaluate and review service proposals.
As Laird noted in his FY 1971 report, "Except for the major policy decisions, I am striving to decentralize decisionmaking as much as possible. . . . So, we are placing primary responsibility for detailed force planning on the Joint Chiefs and the Services, and we are delegating to the Military Departments more responsibility to manage development and procurement programs." The military leadership was enthusiastic about Laird's methods. As the Washington Post reported after his selection as secretary of defense, "Around the military-industrial complex these days they're singing 'Praise the Laird and pass the transformation.'"
Laird did not shrink from centralized management where he found it useful or warranted. His tenure saw the establishment of the Defense Investigative Service, the Defense Mapping Agency, the Office of Net Assessment, and the Defense Security Assistance Agency (to administer all DoD military assistance programs). In October 1972 Congress passed legislation creating a second deputy secretary of defense position, a proposal Laird strongly supported, even though he never filled the position. Laird paid special attention to two important interdepartmental bodies: the Washington Special Action Group (WSAG), composed of senior Defense, State, and CIA officials, which gathered information necessary for presidential decisions on the crisis use of U.S. military forces; and the Defense Program Review Committee (DPRC), which brought together representatives from many agencies, including DoD, State, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Office of Management and Budget, to analyze defense budget issues as a basis for advising the president, placing, as Laird commented, "national security needs in proper relationship to non-defense requirements." Henry Kissinger, Nixon's presidential assistant for national security, was instrumental in the establishment of the WSAG and the DPRC. He wanted the DPRC to get involved in shaping the defense budget and weapons program. Laird resisted these incursions.
Laird succeeded in improving DoD's standing with Congress. As a highly respected congressional veteran, Laird had a head start in his efforts to gain more legislative support for Defense programs. He maintained close contact with old congressional friends, and he spent many hours testifying before Senate and House committees. Recognizing the congressional determination, with wide public support, to cut defense costs (including winding down the Vietnam War), Laird and his deputy David Packard worked hard to prune budgetary requests before they went to Congress, and acceded to additional cuts when they could be absorbed without serious harm to national security. One approach, which made it possible to proceed with such new strategic weapon systems as the B-1 bomber, the Trident nuclear submarine, and cruise missiles, was agreement to a substantial cut in conventional forces. As a result, total military personnel declined from some 3.5 million in FY 1969 to 2.3 million by the time Laird left office in January 1973.
Other initiatives, including troop withdrawals from Vietnam, phasing out old weapon systems, base closures, and improved procurement practices, enabled the Pentagon to hold the line on spending, even at a time when high inflation affected both weapon and personnel costs. Despite strong political opposition to defense programs because of Vietnam, and OMB efforts to pare defense spending, Laird gained defense budget increases in FY 1972 and FY 1973 after two years of declining budgets. In Laird's years, total obligational authority by fiscal year was as follows: 1969, $77.7 billion; 1970, $75.5 billion; 1971, $72.8 billion; 1972, $76.4 billion; and 1973, $78.9 billion.
Vietnam preoccupied Laird as it had McNamara and Clifford. In 1968 Nixon campaigned on a platform critical of the Johnson administration's handling of the war and promised to achieve "peace with honor." Although not receptive to demands for immediate withdrawal, Laird acknowledged the necessity to disengage U.S. combat forces gradually. Thus he developed and strongly supported "Vietnamization," a program intended to expand, equip, and train South Vietnam's forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops. During 1969 the new administration cut authorized U.S. troop strength in Vietnam from 549,500 to 484,000, and by 1 May 1972 the number stood at 69,000. During this same period, from January 1969 to May 1972, U.S. combat deaths declined 95 percent from the 1968 peak, and war expenditures fell by about two-thirds. Laird publicized Vietnamization widely; in his final report as secretary of defense in early 1973, he stated: "Vietnamization . . . today is virtually completed. As a consequence of the success of the military aspects of Vietnamization, the South Vietnamese people today, in my view, are fully capable of providing for their own in-country security against the North Vietnamese."
In this same report Laird noted that the war had commanded more of his attention than any other concern during his four-year term. Upon becoming secretary he set up a special advisory group of DoD officials, known as the Vietnam Task Force, and he met with them almost every morning he was in the Pentagon. He also visited Vietnam several times for on-the-scene evaluations. Although his program of Vietnamization could be termed a success, if one considers the progress of troop withdrawals, U.S. involvement in the conflict became perhaps even more disruptive at home during Nixon's presidency than during Johnson's. The U.S. incursion into Cambodia in May 1970 to eliminate North Vietnamese sanctuaries, the renewed bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of its harbors in the spring of 1972 in response to a North Vietnamese offensive, and another bombing campaign against the North in December 1972 brought widespread protest. Nixon's Vietnam policy, as well as that of previous administrations, suffered further criticism when, in June 1971, the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified narrative and documentary history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, prepared at Secretary McNamara's order, was leaked and published in part in several major newspapers. Laird felt that Nixon had made a crucial mistake in seeking a restraining order to halt publication of the Papers. Nixon's efforts, in Laird's opinion, shifted the focus of public attention away from revelations in the Papers concerning the Vietnam policies of Lyndon Johnson and transformed the story into one about government attempts to cover up the history of the war.
While publicly supporting Nixon's Vietnam course, Laird privately opposed the Cambodian invasion and the 1972 spring bombing and mining operations. He counted on the success of Vietnamization, peace talks that had begun in 1968 in Paris, and the secret negotiations in Paris between Henry Kissinger, the president's assistant for national security affairs, and North Vietnamese representatives to end the conflict. On 27 January 1973, two days before Laird left office, the negotiators signed a Vietnam settlement in Paris. They agreed to an in-place cease-fire to begin on 28 January 1973, complete withdrawal of U.S. forces within 60 days, the concurrent phased release of U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam, and establishment of an international control commission to handle disagreements among the signatories. Although, as time was to demonstrate, South Vietnam was not really capable of defending its independence, Laird retired from office satisfied that he had accomplished his major objective, the disengagement of United States combat forces from Vietnam.
Vietnam preoccupied Laird, but not to the exclusion of other pressing matters. Although not intimately involved in the development of strategic nuclear policy as McNamara had been, Laird subscribed to the Nixon administration's program of "Strategic Sufficiency"–that the United States should have the capability to deter nuclear attacks against its home territory and that of its allies by convincing a potential aggressor that he would suffer an unacceptable level of retaliatory damage; it should also have enough nuclear forces to eliminate possible coercion of its allies. The policy, not much different from McNamara's except in name and phrasing, embraced the need both to avoid mass destruction of civilians and to seek mechanisms to prevent escalation of a nuclear conflict. The administration further refined its strategic ideas in July 1969 when the president issued a statement that came to be known as the "Nixon Doctrine," stressing "pursuit of peace through partnership with our allies.'' Instead of the previous administration's "2 and – war" concept–readiness to fight simultaneous wars on two major fronts and one minor front–the Nixon Doctrine cut back to the "1 and – war" level. The Nixon Administration concluded after a 1969 review of security policy that it lacked the forces and financial resources to carry out a 2 and – war strategy. Through military aid and credit-assisted sales of military equipment abroad, the United States would prepare its allies to take up a greater share of the defense burden, especially manpower needs, in case of war. U.S. military forces would be "smaller, more mobile, and more efficient general purpose forces that . . . [would] neither cast the United States in the role of world policeman nor force the nation into a new isolationism."
Laird supported the strategic arms talks leading to the SALT I agreements with the Soviet Union in 1972: a five-year moratorium against expansion of strategic nuclear delivery systems, and an antiballistic missile treaty limiting each side to two sites (later cut to one) for deployed ABM systems. As Laird put it, "In terms of United States strategic objectives, SALT I improved our deterrent posture, braked the rapid buildup of Soviet strategic forces, and permitted us to continue those programs which are essential to maintaining the sufficiency of our long-term strategic nuclear deterrent."
Other important Laird goals were ending the draft by 30 June 1973 and the creation of an All Volunteer Force (AVF). Strong opposition to selective service mounted during the Vietnam War and draft calls declined progressively during Laird's years at the Pentagon–from 300,000 in his first year, to 200,000 in the second, 100,000 in the third, and 50,000 in the fourth. On 27 January 1973, after the signing of the Vietnam agreement in Paris, Laird suspended the draft, five months ahead of schedule.
Laird completed his term of office as secretary of defense on 29 January 1973. Because he had stated repeatedly that he would serve only four years (only Wilson and McNamara among his predecessors served longer), it came as no surprise when President Nixon on 28 November 1972 nominated Elliot L. Richardson to succeed him. In his final report in January 1973 Laird listed what he considered to be the major accomplishments of his tenure: Vietnamization; achieving the goal of strategic sufficiency; effective burden-sharing between the United States and its friends and allies; adequate security assistance; maintenance of U.S. technological superiority through development of systems such as the B-1, Trident, and cruise missiles; improved procurement; "People Programs'' such as ending the draft and creating the AVF; improved National Guard and Reserve forces; enhanced operational readiness; and participatory management. One of Laird's most active initiatives was his persistent effort to secure the release of the American captives held by the enemy in Vietnam.
In spite of the Vietnam quagmire and the unfolding Watergate affair, which threatened to discredit the entire Nixon administration, Laird retired with his reputation intact. Although not a close confidant of the president and not the dominant presence that McNamara was, Laird had been an influential secretary. He achieved a smooth association with the military leadership by restoring some of the responsibilities they had lost during the 1960s. His excellent relations with Congress enabled him to gain approval for many of his programs and budget requests.
After a brief absence Laird returned to the Nixon administration in June 1973 as counselor to the president for domestic affairs, concerning himself mainly with legislative issues. In February 1974, as the Watergate crisis in the White House deepened, Laird resigned to become senior counselor for national and international affairs for Reader's Digest. During the 1970s, he wrote widely, in Reader's Digest and other publications, on national and international topics. He died on 16 November 2016 at the age of 94.