Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig is now posthumously being recast as the quintessential soldier-patriot. The truth is, he had a dark side: wiretapping for Richard Nixon, facilitating the operations of a military spy ring that stole classified documents from the White House, sabotaging peace negotiations over Vietnam and détente with the USSR, and unduly hastening Nixon’s exit from office. Haig is most lauded as the man who, according to conventional wisdom, held the presidency together during the depths of Watergate. But that evaluation obscures Haig’s true role in the Nixon White House.
He began to come to prominence in 1968 when Fritz Kraemer, who had helped Haig rise within the Pentagon, recommended him to another protégé, Henry Kissinger, as Kissinger’s military advisor on the Nixon National Security Council. Haig shared Kraemer’s militarist, simplistic, anti-Communist, anti-diplomacy view of the world and of America’s place in it.
At the NSC, even before Haig finished elbowing rivals out of the way to become Kissinger’s deputy, he was up to his eyeballs in questionable activities, submitting the names of targets for the wiretapping of newsmen and NSC and Pentagon staffers, and reading the resulting wiretap logs, though he later denied involvement or said he had done everything at Nixon’s request. Nixon had no reason to think of tapping Secretary of Defense aide Robert Pursley, but Haig had been butting heads with Pursley.
Haig quickly learned how to curry favor with Nixon: by feeding the president’s need to be bellicose. The White House tapes reveal Haig as the ultimate sycophant, urging Nixon to smite the enemy in Vietnam, unleash the bombs, stand tough against the Soviets, and, not incidentally, to keep Kissinger in his place — all in the violent, pusillanimous language that philosopher Lionel Rubinoff so aptly labeled “the pornography of power.” Nixon rewarded Haig with one star, two stars, four stars.
What has not been generally understood until the recent publication of The Forty Years War, by Len Colodny and me, is that despite Nixon’s attention and assistance, Haig consistently undermined the president, primarily because of his antagonism toward what he saw as Nixon’s radical foreign policies. Haig channeled Kraemer’s views that diplomacy was useless and détente a farce, that the Russians could never be trusted, that the Chinese were playing us, and that the war in Vietnam could be won on the battlefield if only Nixon would stop withdrawing 10,000 troops a month.
Furthering the militarist agenda, Haig facilitated the operations of a military spy ring that stole classified national security documents from Kissinger and from the National Security Council, and therefore from the president, and conveyed them to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the purpose of slowing the détente express. The JCS leaked some classified information to the press, embarrassing Nixon and coming close to capsizing U.S. policy toward the India and Pakistan, then at war with each other. On December 21, 1971, when the stunned Nixon learned of the existence of the spy ring, he labeled it “a federal offense of the highest order.” For political reasons, he decided not to prosecute anyone for it; and, oblivious to Haig’s involvement because of a bureaucratic slip-up, gave him more and more responsibilities.
Haig, for his part, fought successfully through the remaining years of the Nixon Administration to keep secret his involvement in that espionage.
Dispatched to Phnom Penh, Haig exceeded Nixon’s instructions and told Lon Nol that the U.S. would continue to fight in Cambodia even after Congress had expressly forbidden further American incursions there and Nixon had agreed to that restriction. Visiting Vietnam to bring back honest reports of the war’s progress, Haig returned with rosy ones that belied what soldiers in the field said to him. Jumped over hundreds of generals so that Nixon could appoint him Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army, Haig was in that job only a few months before being brought back to the White House in May 1973 as chief of staff. Thus began what Colodny and I call “The Haig Administration.”
As we document in our book, Haig returned to the White House with a secret to protect and an agenda to pursue. “Al controlled everything, everybody and everything,” former White House aide Larry Higby told us about this era. That control was far from benevolent. For instance, during this period he worked closely with another Kraemer friend, Democratic Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, to allow Jackson to effectively block progress on détente. Haig and his long-term friend J. Fred Buzhardt had been brought into the White House primarily to protect the president from the mounting mess of Watergate. But at every turn they worked to hasten Nixon’s exit from office.
We reveal for the first time, based on a close reading of White House documents and tapes, that within days of taking the reins at the White House, Haig maneuvered Nixon into not claiming executive privilege to prevent Lt.-General Vernon Walters — an old friend of the president’s — from testifying to Congress and turning over a crucial “memcon.” The memcon contained Walters’ account of the June 23, 1972 meeting at the White House of himself, CIA Director Richard Helms, and Nixon aides John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman, in which the Nixon aides conveyed the need to have the CIA block the FBI’s investigation into Watergate. That memcon, and Walters’ testimony, would lead investigators directly to the “smoking gun” tape that eventually sealed Nixon’s fate.
A month after the Walters memcon affair, Haig assured that Alexander Butterfield would reveal the White House taping system in testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee by concealing from Nixon the fact that Butterfield was about to testify, thus preventing the president from forbidding that testimony on the grounds of executive privilege, which Nixon later wrote that he would have done.
In October 1973, according to then-attorney general Elliot Richardson, Haig’s duplicity exacerbated a bad situation with Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox until it mushroomed into the Saturday Night Massacre — the resignations of Richardson and his deputy, and the firing of Cox — which spurred the first calls for Nixon’s impeachment.
During this period, Haig frequently usurped the president’s power, telling a delegation from a high-level security panel who insisted on seeing Nixon, “I am the president” and sending them away.
Some have said that Haig acted imperially and hastened Nixon’s exit to protect the country. But as the evidence we have found makes clear, Haig’s aims in the Nixon White House in 1973-74 were always to protect himself and aggrandize his own power.
In 1981, when President Reagan was shot, Haig told the Cabinet and the press, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House,” and by this obvious mis-stating of the correct chain of succession forever disqualified himself from further high office. In retrospect he claimed his outburst had been no more than a “poor choice of words;” rather, the statement was symptomatic of Haig’s lifelong attitude toward democratically elected public officials and presidential power.