Melvin Laird, Vietnam War defense secretary, dies at 94

FILE - In this Sept. 1992 file photo, former Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Laird, Defense Secretary under Richard Nixon who helped engineer withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, has died. (AP Photo/John Duricka, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 1992 file photo, former Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Laird, Defense Secretary under Richard Nixon who helped engineer withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, has died. (AP Photo/John Duricka, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Melvin Laird, a former Wisconsin congressman and U.S. defense secretary during years when President Nixon struggled to find a way to withdraw troops from an unpopular war in Vietnam, died on Wednesday, his family said. He was 94.

His grandson, Raymond Dennis Large III, said that Laird died in Florida.

Laird left a legacy that included a telephone call that eventually played a role in one of the biggest political stories of the century — the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon from office.

Laird was Nixon’s counselor on domestic affairs in October 1973 when Nixon had to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in scandal. Laird called his good friend, Michigan Rep. Gerald Ford, to ask if he would be interested in replacing Agnew.

“Frankly, the question came like a bolt out of the blue,” Ford said in 1997, recalling his conversation with the “can-do conservative” from Wisconsin.

Ford accepted. About a year later, Nixon resigned because of Watergate and Ford became president. Ford pardoned Nixon, and two years later, Ford lost the presidential election to Jimmy Carter.

“I thought Ford was the right person to bring the country together after the Watergate fiasco,” Laird once said, taking credit with Bryce Harlow for persuading Nixon to pick Ford.

Ford once praised Laird as a patriot before a partisan.

His grandson Large, who is the son of Alison Laird Large, called his grandfather “one of the lions of our republic.”

“He truly was someone that worked across party lines,” Large said. “He was a very dedicated Republican but he was able to see the human in everyone. His work speaks for itself.”

Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, is married to Laird’s niece Jessica. He said that Laird remained engaged with public issues until the end of his life.

“Even at the end Jessica would get two, sometimes more, letters a week from him, handwritten letters. I think last week she had one discussing the election, public issues, his views of things.”

Laird, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was 30 when he was elected to the U.S. House in 1952. He represented Wisconsin’s 7th District — mostly dairy-farming or lumber-producing counties in central Wisconsin — for nine terms, and was credited with helping spearhead the vast expansion of medical research and health facilities in the U.S.

Nixon appointed Laird as the nation’s 10th defense secretary in 1969 and the first to come from Congress. The Vietnam War raged, with no end in sight for the 550,000 troops stationed in the Southeast Asian country as America lost its resolve for the fighting.

Laird coined the term “Vietnamization” to describe Nixon’s policy of assigning an ever-increasing combat role to South Vietnamese troops, allowing the pullout of U.S. forces.

When Laird stepped down as defense secretary in January 1973, there were about 69,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam.

“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,” he said at the time.

However, Saigon fell under communist control in 1975. But the problem, Laird wrote later, was not Vietnamization but the United States’ failure to provide continued financial support while the Soviet Union was sending Hanoi far more than the limit it had agreed to.

“We grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory … when Congress cut off the funding for South Vietnam that had allowed it to continue to fight on its own,” he wrote in 2005 in the publication Foreign Affairs.

While at the Pentagon, Laird ended the military draft and established the all-volunteer force. “It’s been a very successful program,” he said in 1997. “I am very proud that I was there as secretary of defense to start it.”

Doyle said Laird will be viewed “through the crucible of Vietnam” but it shouldn’t be lost on people that he ended the draft. He was also proud to be a politician and viewed it as an honorable profession, Doyle said.

“He was a Republican that really believed government was a worthy cause, that politics was a worthy effort,” he said.

In 1973, Nixon brought Laird to the White House as counselor on domestic affairs. Several months later, the Watergate crisis deepening, Laird resigned.

The Laird Center, a complex for medical research at Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wisconsin, is named after Laird, who grew up in Marshfield.

Laird often said Marshfield Clinic doctors encouraged him to get involved in health issues after he was elected to Congress, including his involvement in legislation that made health maintenance organizations possible.

Laird was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on Sept. 1, 1922, and the family moved to Marshfield when he was a young child. He graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota in 1942 and served aboard the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Maddox in the Pacific during World War II.

Laird was elected to his first political office in 1946, when he succeeded his late father, Melvin Sr., as a state senator in the Wisconsin Legislature. At the time, Laird, only 23, was the youngest state senator in the United States.

When the Laird Center was dedicated, Henry Kissinger recalled the many power struggles he had, as Nixon’s national security adviser, with Secretary of Defense Laird, needling him on a day when political nostalgia and good humor filled the air.

“I always sent deputies to deal with him, and I would give them several pieces of advice,” Kissinger said in his deadpan voice. “First, you must remember Mel Laird is extremely smart. Second, he knows he is extremely smart. Third, he will let you know he is extremely smart. Fourth, it is much less painful to let him do what he wants. Fifth, when he says, ‘You know what I mean,’ there is no conceivable way you could know what he means. And sixth, when he calls to complain about a newspaper story, you know he has put it out himself.”

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