The University of Wisconsin Press
Politics / U.S. History / Biography
Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics
Dale Van Atta
“[Laird] exemplifies a blend of principle and pragmatism that is sorely needed in our country today.”—President Gerald R. Ford
In 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, centrist Congressman Melvin Laird (R-WI) agreed to serve as Richard Nixon’s secretary of defense. It was not, Laird knew, a move likely to endear him to the American public—but as he later said, “Nixon couldn’t find anybody else who wanted the damn job.” For the next four years, Laird deftly navigated the morass of the war he had inherited. Lampooned as a “missile head,” but decisive in crafting an exit strategy, he doggedly pursued his program of Vietnamization, initiating the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel and gradually ceding combat responsibilities to South Vietnam. In fighting to bring the troops home faster, pressing for more humane treatment of POWs, and helping to end the draft, Laird employed a powerful blend of disarming midwestern candor and Washington savvy, as he sought a high moral road bent on Nixon’s oft-stated (and politically instrumental) goal of peace with honor.
The first book ever to focus on Laird’s legacy, this authorized biography reveals his central and often unrecognized role in managing the crisis of national identity sparked by the Vietnam War—and the challenges, ethical and political, that confronted him along the way. Drawing on exclusive interviews with Laird, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, and numerous others, author Dale Van Atta offers a sympathetic portrait of a man striving for open government in an atmosphere fraught with secrecy. Van Atta illuminates the inner workings of high politics: Laird’s behind-the-scenes sparring with Kissinger over policy, his decisions to ignore Nixon’s wilder directives, his formative impact on arms control and health care, his key role in the selection of Ford for vice president, his frustration with the country’s abandonment of Vietnamization, and, in later years, his unheeded warning to Donald Rumsfeld that “it’s a helluva lot easier to get into a war than to get out of one.”
“Historians, journalists, and other observers have become so entangled in debates about Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s, and Nixon and Kissinger in the 1970s, that they have neglected the formidable role of Melvin Laird. This clearly written biography will rectify that oversight.”—Jeremi Suri, author of Henry Kissinger and the American Century
“Watching Laird operate, I sometimes wondered if Nixon realized what he had gotten when he picked Laird.”—Bob Schieffer, commentator on CBS’s Face the Nation
Dale Van Atta is the author of Trust Betrayed: Inside the AARP and, with Jack Anderson, Stormin’ Norman: An American Hero. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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LC: 2007040159 E
648 pp. 6 x 9
40 b/w illus.
Cloth $35.00 t
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This photo of Melvin Laird, illustrating the rate of troup withdraws is from the book, and is used with permission, from Melvin Laird's personal collection.
© 2007, private collection of Melvin Laird.
This photo of Melvin Laird with South Vietnamese General Ngo Quang Truong is in the book, and is used with permission, from Melvin Laird's personal collection. © 2007, private collection of Melvin Laird.
This photo of Melvin Laird in conversation with Henry Kissinger is used with permission, from Melvin Laird's personal collection. © 2007, private collection of Melvin Laird.
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Updated December 29, 2012© 2012, The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System