Fort McCoy News Nov. 25, 2016

Former defense secretary, congressman Laird dies

Department of Defense News

WASHINGTON — Melvin R. Laird, who coined the term "Vietnamization" to describe the shift of U.S. combat responsibility to South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War and ended the U.S. military draft while serving as the nation's 10th defense secretary under President Richard M. Nixon, died Nov. 16. He was 94.

Laird was born Sept. 1, 1922, in Omaha, Neb., and grew up and attended high school in Marshfield, Wis. In 1945, he married Barbara Masters Laird, who died in 1992. Laird married Carole Fleishman, who survives him, in 1993.

Laird received his bachelor's degree from Carleton College, Northfield, Minn., in 1944. He joined the Navy as an ensign, serving in the Pacific Fleet with Task Forces 38 and 58, and was awarded the Purple Heart.

In his early 20s, Laird entered politics as a member of the Wisconsin Senate from 1946 to 1952 and was elected to the 83rd U.S. Congress as a Republican. He was re-elected eight times before taking the helm at the Pentagon.

Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird shakes hands with members of the Army Reserve on his visit to then-Camp McCoy, Wis., July 11, 1970.
Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird shakes hands with
members of the Army Reserve on his visit to then-Camp McCoy, Wis.,
July 11, 1970. Melvin Robert Laird (Sept. 1, 1922 – Nov. 16, 2016)
was a U.S. congressman from Wisconsin from 1953 to 1969 before
serving as secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973 under President
Richard Nixon.
Fort McCoy History Center file photo

Because of his congressional roots, Defense Secretary Laird enjoyed a good relationship with House and Senate members on defense matters and had substantial legislative support on the defense budget and other programs.

Laird's contributions to the Department of Defense (DOD) were vast and varied during a time of social and political turmoil. The Vietnam War consumed much of Laird's attention during his four years as secretary.

He believed troop withdrawal should be gradual rather than immediate, and he developed a "Vietnamization" policy to hand the war's growing combat role to the South Vietnamese while reducing the number of U.S. troops there.

To effect Vietnamization, Laird's plan was to expand, equip, and train South Vietnam's combat forces. As the South Vietnamese were trained, Laird oversaw the gradual decline of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Strength was cut in 1969 from 549,500 U.S. troops to 484,000, and a further decline brought the number of troops to 69,000 by 1972.

Also during that timeframe, U.S. combat deaths decreased by 95 percent between January 1969 and May 1972 in comparison to the fatalities during the war's pinnacle in 1968.

In his last statement as defense secretary in 1973, Laird said, "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."

Further challenging Laird were the so-called "Pentagon Papers," a classified DOD study of the Vietnam War that was leaked to some major daily newspapers, and the May 1970 U.S. invasion of Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese sanctuaries. That action also renewed bombing in North Vietnam and mining its harbors in 1972 following a North Vietnamese offensive.

Aside from the controversies and challenges in Southeast Asia, defense spending dropped dramatically by about two-thirds under Laird's Pentagon stewardship through budgetary tactics such as troop withdrawals, phase-out of old weapons, better procurement policies, and base closures.

To advise the president on defense matters, Laird organized and met with a team of representatives from various agencies to analyze defense budget issues before he went to the White House. His Defense Program Review Committee included members of DOD, the State Department, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Office of Management and Budget. Laird formed the committee for "national security needs in proper relationship to nondefense requirements," he said.

Laird gave the service secretaries and the joint chiefs of staff more influence than his predecessors did in devising troop levels and budgets. The military welcomed the shift in responsibility.

The Laird Pentagon also was responsible for development of the F-15, F-16, and A-10 aircrafts and the Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine. Additionally, through an agreement to significantly cut conventional forces, Laird made new strategic weapons systems possible: the B-1 bomber, the Trident nuclear submarine, and cruise missiles.

Laird used participatory management style to encourage cooperation from military leadership in trimming the defense budget and the size of the military. Although he kept decision-making authority for himself and his deputy secretary, Laird made an effort to decentralize policy making and operations.

But, when necessary, Laird brought a centralized management approach to the table, and during his tenure brought several organizations to fruition: the Defense Investigative Service, the Defense Mapping Agency, the Office of Net Assessment, and the Defense Security Assistance Agency.

He also succeeded in ending conscripted military service. Following the Vietnam peace agreement, the U.S. draft ended Jan. 27, 1973, five months ahead of Laird's projected deadline. The all-volunteer force took its place and remains national policy today.
When Laird left the Pentagon at the end of Nixon's first term, he was content with the disengagement of U.S. combat forces from Vietnam, which he said was his most important objective while in office.

He said some of his other major accomplishments as defense secretary included the end of the draft, reaching strategic sufficiency, effective burden-sharing between the United States and its allies, security assistance, maintenance of U.S. technological superiority through development of weapons systems, a better procurement process, better National Guard and reserve forces, up-to-date operational readiness, and his "participatory management" style. Another of his large-scale initiatives was the release of American captives in Vietnam.

Laird returned to the Nixon administration in June 1973 as counselor to the president for domestic affairs in the wake of the deepening Watergate scandal.

Following his second presidential appointment and his many years in public service, Laird became a senior counselor for Readers Digest, writing articles on defense and foreign policy.

Laird's interest and involvement in defense matters continued, and he was one of five former foreign policy leaders in 1983 who urged President Ronald Reagan's administration to form an agreement with the former Soviet Union to delay space weapons-systems development for 10 years.

The leaders also encouraged Reagan to continue compliance with the unratified 1979 strategic arms treaty between the United States and the Soviets.

In his later years, Laird served on many boards of directors, including Martin Marietta, IDS Mutual Fund Group, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., Science Applications International Corp., The Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds, and as chairman of the board of the Communications Satellite Corp., until he retired in 1997. Laird was a strident health care advocate, and the Laird Center for Medical Research in Marshfield, Wis., is named for him.

He became an honorary trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a trustee emeritus of George Washington University, and director emeritus of Northwest Airlines Corp. until October 2008.

The former defense secretary was involved in more than 25 nonprofit organizations and received more than 300 awards and honorary degrees, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1974.