Ex-Pentagon chief Laird dies, advocated
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[November 17, 2016]
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Melvin Laird, who as
defense secretary under President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973 helped
extricate U.S. forces from the morass of the Vietnam War in a policy he
dubbed "Vietnamization," has died at age 94.
His death was confirmed by the Richard Nixon Foundation on Wednesday.
Laird, a Republican from Wisconsin who once served in the U.S. House of
Representatives, also maneuvered to get Nixon to pick Gerald Ford as
vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned, was instrumental in creating
the all-volunteer U.S. military and privately opposed Nixon's incursion
The current U.S. defense secretary, Ash Carter, said Laird throughout
out his career "demonstrated an unfailing commitment to protecting our
country, strengthening our military, and making a better world."
"As secretary of defense, I've often benefited from his counsel, his
encouragement, and his friendship," Carter added in a statement.
Laird served as defense secretary at a time when the Vietnam War,
escalated by Republican Nixon's Democratic predecessor, Lyndon Johnson,
was provoking huge domestic protests in the United States, sapping
American financial resources and killing tens of thousands of U.S.
Laird coined the term "Vietnamization" in 1969 to describe a policy of
enlarging, equipping and training the forces of U.S. ally South Vietnam
to fight the forces of Communist North Vietnam. At the same time, the
policy continuously reduced the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam.
There were more than half a million U.S. troops there when Laird became
defense chief in 1969. By May 1972, that number had dwindled to 69,000.
Some 58,000 U.S. troops died in the war.
Two days before Laird ended his tenure at the Pentagon in January 1973,
U.S. and North Vietnamese negotiators signed a deal in Paris that
included a full withdrawal of U.S. forces.
In his last report as defense secretary, Laird said: "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."
But in the end, the U.S.-backed forces of South Vietnam were not capable
of holding off the North Vietnamese, who took the South Vietnamese
capital, Saigon, in 1975, ending the war. As the city fell, Americans
desperately fled aboard helicopters in scenes emblematic of the U.S.
failure in Vietnam.
Laird long defended the "Vietnamization" policy, one that a later
Republican president, George W. Bush, seemed to embrace in his program
of building up Iraqi forces to take over from U.S. combat troops in the
Iraq war he launched in 2003.
"Vietnamization did work. I mean, the forces of the South Vietnamese
were doing very well but they had to have U.S. support to carry on the
war and we promised them that," Laird said in a 2005 interview with
National Public Radio.
Supporters of the "Vietnamization" policy faulted the U.S. Congress for
failing to continue to back the South Vietnamese in the aftermath of the
1973 withdrawal of American troops.
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File Photo - Former Nixon U.S. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird is
surrounded by reporters as he departs the White House in Washington,
January 5, 2006. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Laird publicly supported Nixon's Vietnam policies but privately
opposed the president's 1970 incursion into Cambodia against North
Vietnamese sanctuaries and the 1972 resumption of U.S. bombing of
North Vietnam and mining of its harbors.
After the signing of the U.S.-North Vietnamese accord in Paris and
shortly before leaving the Pentagon, Laird suspended the draft five
months earlier than planned. That led to the creation of the
Laird came back to the Nixon administration later in 1973 as
counselor to the president for domestic affairs but left in 1974 as
the Watergate scandal engulfed Nixon's presidency.
Laird was later a behind-the-scenes adviser to Ford, who became
president when Nixon resigned in August 1974.
"More than almost anyone I've known, Mel has the political
equivalent of perfect pitch; he has a long-range view of what's
going to happen and he knows what to do about it," Ford wrote
shortly before his 2006 death in a forward to author Dale Van Atta's
biography of Laird. "He's a prodigious worker. He was abrasive at
times and enjoyed scheming - not for any sinister reason but to keep
the pot boiling."
Ford said Laird had the right qualities "to get us out of the morass
of Vietnam honorably," noting that he unilaterally began withdrawing
troops more quickly than Nixon and national security adviser Henry
Donald Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary under both Ford and
Bush, said on Twitter on Wednesday that Laird was a friend and
talented public servant over many decades.
Laird was born in 1922 in Omaha, Nebraska, and served in the Pacific
aboard a U.S. destroyer during World War Two. He entered the
Wisconsin state Senate at age 23 and was elected in 1952 to the U.S.
After his government service, Laird served in various corporate
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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