Rare is the politician in Washington who places honor and service to country over self-serving opportunism and career advancement. The Cold War generation lost perhaps its greatest symbol of honor and service with the death this week of General Alexander M. Haig, Jr.
Surely Haig had career advancement in mind as he achieved success in the many theaters of war and sectors of society through which he traveled: the U.S. Army, Korea, Vietnam, West Point, The White House, NATO, corporate America, TV productions, and more.
The difference between Haig and most politicians today though is that he did not place his own interests above those of his nation. The proof of this is in Haig’s actions as a leader, backed-up by a lifetime of words in books, speeches, and a career dedicated to principles of freedom.
When he counseled a sitting President through his historic resignation and the subsequent pardon by his successor, or when he resigned as the NATO Supreme Allied Commander in protest of President Carter’s mismanagement of the Iranian hostage crisis, Alexander Haig upheld his principles and his devotion to America with integrity and honor.
Perhaps his greatest act of fealty to America was also Haig’s most controversial. In the minutes and hours after the assassination attempt on President Reagan on March 30, 1981, then-Secretary of State Haig, the most experienced in national security in the new White House, was at the heart of the crisis.
The new defense secretary Caspar Weinberger reported in the Situation Room that he had placed our military on a high level of alert: DEFCON 3. Haig knew immediately that this would send a signal to the Soviet Union that we thought they were behind Reagan’s shooting. In the midst of the crisis Weinberger’s order could have inadvertently triggered an international clash, or worse, a nuclear war.
The White House team then witnessed on closed circuit television a disturbing scene in the press briefing room. A bewildered and distraught deputy press secretary, Larry Speakes, had just returned from the scene of the shooting and offered no reasonable response when reporters asked about the line of presidential succession.
In an effort to stave off potential disaster, Haig sprinted upstairs to the briefing room to send the correct signal to the nation, the Soviets, and the world about the crisis – and the news media excoriated him forevermore because of it.
They later portrayed Haig’s words “I am in control here at the White House pending the return of the Vice President…” as a power grab in the midst of a White House in mayhem, even examining presidential succession to tar and feather him. Little did they realize the larger international crisis that Haig was averting.
You could argue that Haig’s own run for the presidency in 1988 to finish the work started by fellow conservative Ronald Reagan was thwarted from the start because of the false image painted by cynical news anchors and commentators of the patriot Haig that day.
It was during this presidential campaign that after viewing Oliver Stone’s 1986 depiction of the Vietnam War in the movie “Platoon,” Haig became enraged at Stone’s portrayal of the men who served their nation on the battlefield with honor and bravery as drugged-up murderers. Physically trembling in reaction to this account of the war, General Haig exclaimed that Stone’s story was “an outrage.”
Twenty years after he received the Army’s second highest medal for valor for saving the lives of two companies of men under his command when they were trapped under a Viet Cong assault, Alexander Haig stood by his principles and his fellow soldiers as though he had just walked off that battlefield.
Years later, Alexander Haig, who railed at Washington’s culture of elitism and false conservatives, unabashedly observed that “if you have a firm set of ideas, and you want to make a difference, you’ve got to be controversial.”
His surviving adversaries, including blood enemies abroad and political competitors at home, will likely remember Alexander Haig with as much respect as those who served under his command in battle -- because this general didn’t just fade away. He left us as a stout warrior for his principles and a defender of our nation, ultimately placing her interests ahead of his own ambitions.