Alexander Haig, the Problem of Character, and the Danger of History by Analogy

haig- greentree

Past performance is not indicative of future results, true. Nevertheless, Alexandra Evans and Evan McCormick’s recent comparison of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with his unfortunate predecessor Alexander Haig asks for a closer look. Their intent is to “enrich our understanding of the political and strategic consequences of a chief diplomat being maligned and marginalized.” How such a situation could possibly have an upside leads the authors inevitably to consider their presidents – Donald Trump and his predecessor Ronald Reagan.

Analysis by historical analogy can be compelling. However, fallacies abound, and apparent parallels can camouflage more illuminating distinctions. The reasons why Haig and Tillerson both found themselves “maligned and marginalized” are very different. Likewise, the consequences are known in Haig’s case, but still unfolding for Tillerson. Being at odds with their presidents over matters of foreign policy is part of the explanation, but not the fundamental issue. Perversely, Tillerson is actually in sync with his president, with whom he shares a narrow vision of American greatness, if not entirely his disdainful animus toward diplomacy. Tillerson’s unexplained predations on the State Department and foreign service he putatively leads make him an agent of the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” and thereby of his own alienation. Haig alienated himself, but his problem was his bellicose and possibly irrational behavior. Further, Evans and McCormick accuse Reagan of downplaying diplomacy, but this is not the case. The administration harnessed it as an instrument of power alongside the renewal of American military strength and thus ensured U.S. global leadership at the peaceful end of the Cold War. The deeper issue we are contending with, of course, is character. One question is key: Will the discontent of a flawed leader become a danger to the nation he leads?

It is important to begin by getting the story of Haig’s undoing right. First, his benighted avowal to the press that “I am in control” occurred in the fraught hours after John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan on the afternoon of Mar. 30, 1981. The new president had been in office for only 70 days when he was shot and his leadership team was just beginning what would turn out to be a protracted struggle to get their house in order. When Reagan was shot, they found themselves separated into three groups and in poor communications. Vice President George H.W. Bush was en route from Texas on Air Force Two. Reagan’s closest advisors, the troika of Chief of Staff James Baker, Counselor Ed Meese, and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, were holding vigil at George Washington Hospital. Much of the cabinet had assembled solemnly in the White House Situation Room where Secretary Haig, the senior member, was the only one who had not known Reagan before the election. At that moment, he was also the only insider at the White House. He was also a former four-star general who had commanded NATO and kept order at the White House as chief of staff during Watergate and Nixon’s ignominious resignation.

For several dreadful hours, as White House lawyers provisionally drafted documents to transfer power under the 25th Amendment, no one who remembered Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 knew whether the nation had plunged again into darkness. Instead, history repeated itself with elements of farce, and it is not in poor taste to say so, because the president himself was the source of comedic relief. That evening, along with the official announcement that Reagan would survive, came the anecdotes, endlessly recounted, of how in the emergency room he told his beloved Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” and, as the surgeons were about to remove the bullet they would find lodged a near-fatal inch from the president’s heart, he quipped, “I hope you are all Republicans.” Reagan did not merely survive. He emerged a hero, and, in the opinion of many, his aplomb leavened with slightly corny humor became the signature of his presidency.

Crisis can bring out the best in our leaders when we need them the most, but it can also reveal the worst. The wound to Haig’s reputation was more severe than his president’s physical injury. Tapes of the immediate reaction in the Situation Room reveal Haig arguing with Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger over whether to raise or lower the Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) and bickering with his fellow cabinet members when he incorrectly insisted he was next in the line of succession after the vice president. When Haig saw Deputy Press Spokesman Larry Speakes uninformed and floundering on television, he rushed to the White House briefing room. Taking over in front of the press corps and on live television, he attempted to reassure the nation. Hunched over the podium, sweating, eyes bulging, and breathing hard, his effect was the opposite. He usually talked like a blustering general, but trying here to sound soothing like a diplomat, Haig’s timbre instead was shaky. Asked who was running the government, Haig – notoriously obtuse without a script – responded that he was temporarily in charge while waiting for the arrival of the vice president, but again misstated the constitution by placing himself ahead of the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate. In his oddly-named memoir Caveat, Haig averred the discomfiture was due to his sprint to the press podium. Later, White House officials deferentially insisted that he had legitimately taken command at the White House and acted correctly. However, Haig’s performance belied belief that he had demonstrated leadership. His assertion that “I am in control here” immediately became a cynical Washington joke for “no one is in control.” Worse, Haig’s behavior evoked for many an untrustworthy and possibly irrational usurper.

Even though he was brought in to offset Reagan’s lack of international experience, Haig had already raised hackles and sparked unease. By calling himself “the vicar” of foreign policy, before the new president was inaugurated, Haig sparked a jurisdictional feud with presumptive allies in the administration and Congress, leading the president on March 31 to delegate National Security Council crisis management to the vice president instead of the secretary of state, a demotion that prompted rumors of his pending resignation. Haig’s first press conference on Jan. 28 attracted controversy when, without any indication of prior policy review, he declared, among other things, that terrorism would replace human rights as the administration’s first priority. Haig had served with distinction as a politically astute senior military officer, but as Reagan’s first secretary of state, not only was he ill-suited, he turned out to be extremely self-righteous, thin-skinned, egotistical, and belligerent.

The foreign policy issue that far outweighed all others in this drama – and ignored in Evans’ and McCormick’s analysis – was Central America. Poland mattered, Lebanon mattered, but it was in Central America where the Reagan administration chose to draw the geopolitical and ideological line against the Soviet Union. This was largely Haig’s doing, although he would have early support from others, notably U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and CIA Director Bill Casey, controversial characters in their own right. Reagan’s own infatuation and tribulations would come later. The evidence is abundant. Central America may come to mind as little more than a side show today, but in 1981, the two-year-old Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the battle between Marxist-Leninist insurgents and the death squads raging in neighboring El Salvador were contentious front-page news in the United States. Reagan had named his National Security Council not long after the election, and it was in their introductory meeting at Blair House before the inauguration that Haig surprised the group by arguing passionately to elevate halting Soviet-backed Cuban aggression in Central America and the Caribbean to their number-one priority. Central America was the main topic of the first four formal National Security Council meetings in February and in fully half of the next 22 meetings between then and Nov. 16, 1981, when the president finally confirmed major policy decisions on the region. Reagan’s first extended television interview took place on March 6. Walter Cronkite’s first question was whether El Salvador would become another Vietnam. Quagmire jitters made the question a press standard, and Reagan consistently tried to calm them by stating that he had no intention of sending U.S. troops to Central America.

The problem was that Haig kept banging the drum. He went further, threatening that the United States would “go to the source” by attacking Cuba. Instead of chief diplomat, he was seen increasingly as warmonger in chief. White House staff feared Haig’s militaristic ranting would distract from their effort to build bipartisan support in Congress for tax reform and increased defense spending. His belligerence repelled Nancy Reagan, ever-protective of Ronnie’s image. Michael Deaver, who was among those closest to the president, told an interviewer that Haig once said about Cuba, “give me the word and I’ll turn that island into a fucking parking lot,” and that the remark “scared the shit out of Ronald Reagan.”

Ultimately, character was Haig’s undoing and he resigned in June 1982. His replacement, George Shultz, quickly restored equilibrium as a pragmatic and prudent secretary of state. This is not to say that Reagan’s team sailed along in harmony. Far from it, and no issue remained more tumultuous than Central America, which left Shultz, as he wrote, “at the end of my rope.”

So, what is the right cautionary tale that we should draw from Haig’s tenure as secretary of state? Institutionally flawed by design, the conduct of foreign policy and national security in the American system is always messy, with divided authorities often poorly managed, mired in dysfunctional bureaucratic politics, and plagued with feuds among ambitious and unruly rivals. Even so, Alexander Haig was exceptional, because he crossed a line of divisive and alienating hostility to the extent that others questioned whether he was rational. Haig’s case suggests an even more consequential issue: What happens when the character in question is the president?

Pursuing the historical analogy, many leaders behave as performers on the world stage. In the subtitle of Lou Cannon’s exemplary biography, Ronald Reagan as president rose to “the role of a lifetime.” Reagan’s connection to reality may at times have been dubious. Getting the White House in order was certainly not his priority. He was reluctant to fire people, even when he was being poorly served. But he never threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on an adversary, and although he harbored an anti-communist dark side, he was far from a trigger-happy cowboy. He never sullied his office, although those who perpetrated the Iran-Contra scandal in his name nearly derailed his second term (Central America again). Reagan was an authentic patriot who held his convictions deeply, whatever you may think of them. Nor did he betray the responsibility and decorum that goes with the office of president.

By contrast, today, evidence that bombast is spawning folly accumulates. Character is obviously the heart of the problem. A leader who corrodes what we value most leaves those who serve and lamenting bystanders equally conflicted. The choices seem limited to hoping for a 180-degree reversal or wishing for catastrophic failure before the flaws of ambition and arrogance deliver enduring misfortune. In either case, the unraveling of America the Great is a matter of vital interest.


Todd Greentree is a former Foreign Service Officer who has served in five conflicts. A Research Associate with the Oxford Changing Character of War Centre, he is currently writing a book titled “Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth,” about the wars at the end of the Cold War in Angola, Central America, and Afghanistan.

Image: Reagan Presidential Library