Reflections: Haig in Winter

Alexander M. Haig, West Point, 1946

by Kenneth Weisbrode

CAVEAT: The following story is, strictly speaking, fictional. The conversations as they appear never took place in a literal sense. The Major and one or two other characters are invented. Most of the others, however, are or were real people. Any dialogue ascribed to them has come from published sources, namely Alexander Haig’s two memoirs, which claim to be historical. Additional dialogue comes from the author’s conversations with other people, and are also, strictly speaking, historical.

A few blocks from Lafayette Park, diagonal to the statue of Jackson triumphant on horseback, is a strange building, tall but thin, just about one office thick, and sandwiched between two standard Washington rectangular, concrete blocks. The windows of the building jut out at right angles, giving the impression of a sharp, column of glass emerging from an alley. Seeing it again reminded me of an encounter a few years back…

Passing the concierge, I stepped into the elevator and just as I was about to press the button a hard, firm voice came from the hall, “ Hold it!”

“Thank you…Major.”

“You’re welcome, Sir.”

I immediately recognized the intense blue eyes and the sturdy figure across from me. His face was ruddier and a bit puffier than the photographs, but there was no doubt. This was General Alexander Haig, U.S. Army, retired, former Secretary of State under Reagan, and Nixon’s Chief of Staff. One becomes accustomed to famous faces, especially in this block, with the Oval Room next door and the Bombay Club across the street, those favorite watering holes of the Clintonistas. But being alone in an elevator with a piece of history was more rare. I had a strong feeling that it would lead to something.

“Which floor, Sir?”

“11th, no, 10th, thank you.”

“We must be going to the same meeting — at Matheson & Maglia?”

“Why’s an infantryman going to a meeting with a bunch of oilies and an Iranian trade representative?”

“I was sent, Sir.”

“From where, son?

“Joint Staff.”

“J-2 or J-5?”

“J-2, Sir.”

“You had me worried for a minute — that one of those giddy civilians might be planning a pre-emptive strike on a few Iranian pipelines. I’m trying to build one of them.”

Haig smiled and began to wink but stopped midway.

“No, Sir. I just try to attend as many of these events as I can, to keep up to date on what’s going on.”

Suddenly the walls of the elevator shook, and I heard a sound like grinding gears above my head. Then the elevator fell about six feet and came to a rough halt. Before the lights went out I saw Haig brace himself against one of the walls, his legs bowed and his eyes squinted.

“Sir, are you ok!”

“I’m fine, son. It looks as though we both may miss out on our bit of Persian enlightenment.”

We stood there in the dark, catching our breath. I began to fumble for the emergency phone.

“There now, don’t bother. We’ll just wait until they come get us.”

“I hope they do, Sir.”

“Now tell me, Major, were you Academy or ROTC?”

“Academy, Sir, class of 1989.”

“So you must have served in Desert Storm?”

“Yes, Sir, 24th infantry.”

“Ah, under McCaffrey. Well, son, you must have felt lucky.”

I felt the first pangs of claustrophobia. These questions would not have been necessary if we could see one another (I was in uniform). Haig was moving into one of my least favorite subjects, and no glance or body language could throw him off there in the dark.

“I knew Barry’s father, you know. Bill, a fine Vietnam commander, no match of course for my old regimental commander Davison, but a fine man nonetheless. You know, Bill came very close to resigning, he was so fed up with McNamara, he could barely speak his name.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“I asked him once. He was torn about it. Said the resignation of so senior an army commander would have sent a real signal, though I can tell you it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference on LBJ. But then he thought and said something I’ll never forget: ‘Haig, Vietnam was not worth sticking it to the tradition we have in this country of civilian control over the military.’”

The elevator jerked again, the lights came on and I saw Haig smiling at me. Then they flickered out. We sat there for an hour, and Haig rambled nearly the entire time, mostly about his “good friend” Rafsanjani, the “midgets” in the Clinton administration making a mess of foreign policy, all the sanctimony at Nixon’s funeral last year. When I thought he was finally about to take a rest, the lights flickered back on and we were moving downward. The elevator opened on the ground floor to a motley group of mostly overweight building engineers and a handful of firemen. Haig ignored them, began to strut straight out the door, then paused and turned his head toward me.

“You’re a good listener, Major. Let’s have lunch. Come by my office next Wednesday.”

“Thank you, Sir. I shall.”

* * *

Haig’s office was in one of those rectangular concrete cubes on 15th street, a few blocks north of McPherson Square. There was little of the K Street paraphernalia one finds in large lobbyist offices. It was rather plain, a few Civil War illustrations on the wall and only a young receptionist behind a desk. She motioned me toward an inner hall; I noticed she was playing solitaire on her computer. I knocked and entered a medium sized office, poorly lit, and saw Haig gazing out the window, his hands clasped under his chin. He did not get up to greet me, and remained fixed on some invisible object on the other side of the glass.

“Good day, Major. Nice to see you again. Take a seat.”

I turned and noticed a few photographs on the wall, including a couple I’d seen before somewhere: one of Gen. Westmoreland pinning a medal on Haig in some field; another of Haig’s White House promotion ceremony, with a bland Nixon in the middle of the group shot, a goofy looking Kissinger, and a jaunty, smiling Scowcroft off to the side, as if he were trying to lean out of the picture. There was very little on his desk: one or two thin manila folders, and an odd little figurine – an exotic little man with a broad smile, a thin black moustache and very black eyes. He was holding a half melon, inside of which was miniature replica of the royal mosque at Ispahan.

“I hope you’re hungry. I sure as hell am.”

“Yes, Sir.” I was already feeling puzzled.

Haig got up, looked straight at me and smiled. Then he buttoned his blazer, and walked out the door. I followed.

“Charissa, I’m going to lunch. I’ll see you later. Leave any messages on my desk.”

“OK Mr. Haig.”

We walked past the Washington Post complex to 16th street, past the old Soviet embassy, and I noticed that the alley between the two buildings had been recently closed off by a large fence. Haig said very little and walked briskly. We crossed K Street and went up the steps of the Army-Navy club. The doorman looked down and pulled open the door.

“Good day, General.”

“Good to see you, Alphonso.”

We turned right and entered the large dining room, Haig led the way to a corner table; he sat with his back to the wall, every now and then glancing and nodding to someone in the room, but saying hello to few people. A disheveled waiter approached.

“Will you have something to drink, Sir?”

“Oh absolutely. Bring me a gin on the rocks, and for you Major?”

“Um, I’ll have a scotch and soda. Thank you.”

Haig opened his napkin and threw it down on his lap. He looked at me for a couple of seconds and then turned toward the window.

“Now Major, I’ll get right to the point. I like socializing but I need you for something and I want to put it to you.”

“What is that, Sir?”

“I’ve got some things I need to set straight while there’s still time. I plan to set them down on paper and send them to the presidential libraries. I’m not interested in a best seller or anything like that. There are just some things I need to set straight, about a half dozen events I witnessed or took part in that need clearing up and retelling. I owe it to posterity.”

“That’s admirable, Sir.”

“Right. I need somebody to be my factchecker. I don’t have time to do it myself, though I trust my memory and my instincts. I just need to be sure no wrong dates creep in, and you have clearance and apparently plenty of time to wander around town, so I’d like to make you a proposition.”

“I don’t know Sir. I’m no history buff, and it would require a lot of work —”

“History buff my ass. I’m not asking you to write my life story for some library shelf. This is real time. These facts matter. Now I’ll pay you an hourly rate, we’ll meet biweekly, we can do it here, not in my office. I’ll give you each manuscript in advance and an outline of sources, and you fill in the blanks. So do you agree?”

“Well, Sir, I’ll need to talk to my CO, I’m not sure if I can commit to this.”

He turned back from the window and gave me a half-smile. “Goddamn it Major, I’m not giving any deskjock army colonel discretion over this project. You’ll tell nobody about it. Now will you do it? Yes or no?”

“All right, Sir, I would be honored to do it.” This just came out.

* * *

Over the next six weeks Haig and I met at the Army-Navy Club and plowed through his recollections. We had taken over a small room on the second floor, where we had food delivered. Old memos, tapes and assorted files were spread over the large table in the middle of the room. During this time we never once discussed why we were doing the project. I gave up trying to guess the reasons, but I suspected there was more to it than providing useful snippets to the presidential libraries. We were writing, or rather re-writing, whole episodes in the form of mini-essays. It was more work than I thought. The more revision I did, the more I noticed that the standard accounts of the events were second, third or even fourth hand repetitions of tiny pieces of declassified material. There seemed to be a great deal ignored, and much of it corresponded to things Haig would tell me — once he told me where to look.

“Cienfuegos, August 1970, where did that file go?”

“I’ve got it somewhere, Sir. Oh here, what do you need?”

“When did CIA first notify us that the Soviets had begun to beef up the harbor facilities?”

“September 15th

“Are you sure? They had been tracking these developments since the beginning of August. Why did they wait until mid-September?”

“Sir, I believe that’s when the first U2 photos of the harbor construction first came in. Plus the White House had its hands full with the Syrian invasion of Jordan. Perhaps everyone was a bit distracted.”

“No, that can’t be right. We knew about this Cuba business well before that. Nixon certainly knew about it. Alex Johnson knew about it. There were more agency guys sitting in Miami than anywhere else, and they all knew about it. Something is missing here.”

“Well, Sir, the record is consistent. The U2 photos came in on the 15th and suggested that the Soviets were beefing up Cienfuegos to serve as a permanent base for their Y-class subs. Kissinger told this to Cy Sulzberger the next day, and the news was published in the Times on the 25th. Then all hell broke loose, according to the DoD spokesman. Congress began to get itchy, and in October, Kissinger confronted Ambassador Dobrynin about the matter, then took off with the president to Europe on the 27th. Upon his return, and a series of protests, the Soviets agreed to hold back, which they did, despite a few delays and minor instigations that lasted until January.”

“There you are, you forgot my meeting with Dobrynin.”

“I’m sorry, Sir, that is missing from the NSC file.”

“Of course it is, Major. That’s because Henry purged it. Now when he, Nixon, Laird and Rogers all took off for Europe, he instructed me to go see Dobrynin to keep up the pressure. Now you may think it odd for a mere NSC staffer, as I then was, to be instructed to read the riot act to the Soviet ambassador. But that’s the way we did things in those days, and we rarely left a memo trail, though I’m sure I did in this case. I asked Henry if I had to be gentle with Dobrynin. He said, no, ratchet it up a little. So I told him, you cut it out in Cienfuegos or we will do it for you. Now Henry flipped when he heard that, accusing me of starting World War III, of betraying the president, whom we all know was highly allergic to anything having to do with Cuba, and so forth and so on. Well the Russians backed down, didn’t they?”

“But Sir, if I may, this flow of events somewhat contradicts the NSC record which has the president adamant about playing tough with the Russians and Kissinger toning things down, playing for time, playing nice with Vorontsov, while egging the Pentagon and CIA on to produce more details.”

“That’s precisely it,” Haig interrupted, another half-smile appearing on the left side of his mouth. “Nixon did not want a hullabaloo. He often said how disgusted he was with Kennedy’s cowboy talk in 1962, but he wanted us to quietly make it clear to the Russians to think twice before they began dicking around, especially in Cuba. He would often say, ‘Al, you know the Russians never would’ve dared pull a stunt like ’62 with Ike. They knew who they were dealing with.’ Henry, on the other hand, loved to play games with them, he was particularly fond of Dobrynin. I often thought the two had some shared gene. Meanwhile Henry got the press involved, and the Hill…Dick Helms and I tried to control the damage, but the ‘crisis’ was concocted by Henry so he could get credit for putting it down. That’s what we famously called a ‘tactical misrepresentation.’ We knew all summer that nothing serious was going on. It was a damn good thing the Russians weren’t keen on the whole Cuba business, which is why Dobrynin winked when I did my tough messenger routine. The fact is that they enjoyed playing Henry off himself as much as he did.”

“I see, Sir. And what did the Cubans have to say about that?”

“The Cubans? They never gave a shit. They were the direct beneficiaries and were doing well all the while, submarines or no submarines. That’s the thing that was so curious about Nixon. On some issues the guy was damn principled. Cuba was one of them. He’d say, ‘I have much to be grateful for down south.’ You know, the press always talked up his buddy Rebozo, making it appear that the two ran their own private anti-Castro crusade, but the fact was that old Bebe was as connected to the Trafficante clan as anyone, and those people benefited a whole lot more with Fidel in power. Don’t be fooled by orthodoxy. Castro is a gangster, he always was. A damn good one. Bobby Kennedy thought he was boss of these people, the power went to his head. He got his means and ends mixed up and wound up pissing off too many of the wrong guys.”

“I’m sorry, Sir, who is this Trafficante? Was he in the Cuban government?”

“Major, you will need to do your homework a little better. After today, please read all the press digests for the periods we’re covering, crosscheck them with the cables and other files. It will save us a lot of time.”

“Yes, Sir. Oh wait, I vaguely remember an interview, on one of those late night ‘unsolved mystery’ shows, with a lawyer for some mafia guy named Trafficante. He said that Trafficante’s dying words were, ‘We got the wrong brother.’”

“Something like that.”

“Something like what, Sir?”

“Cuba is not the point here, Major. The point is the cartwheel way our government functions. You see, hotshot civilians in positions of authority are always highly insecure. Power to them is inseparable from personal ambition. They don’t understand responsibility and the serenity that comes from having it. That is why Johnson, Nixon and yes, Reagan, were all good presidents — they knew their place. They had the right instincts. Carter, Kennedy, they never understood their office. For them it was one-third popularity contest, one-third school debate and one-third moral crusade. The failures of Johnson, Nixon and Reagan were all the result of following the stupid advice of insecure advisers. By contrast, the successes of Carter and Kennedy were largely due to luck and good advice.”

“But –”

“Now I’m telling you this for a reason. I’ve gone down in history as a ‘political general,’ a boy on the make like Max Taylor, Colin Powell or Ike. That’s a load of crap. I never wanted to rule civilians, or anyone for that matter. My life’s mission was always to lead soldiers. By chance I was thrust into the political septic tank and once I got there I had to do my best. MacArthur taught me to speak my mind and get things done on my own. Councils of war, he always said, ‘breed timidity and defeatism.’ I did my duty. I never asked for any of it. It all came from being usable.”

“Usable, Sir?”

“Yes, Major, being usable is one of those calculated ambiguities that is easily understood. Everyone in government needs a tough guy, a bad cop, a right flank, or whatever you want to call it. For obvious reasons I filled that role. I didn’t seek it. But I knew, early on, that unless I played it right, we might all go down the drain. That’s the way civilians in our system understand the military. We are tools who can’t think for ourselves. Henry’s first question to me when Fritz Kraemer told me to see him, was ‘Are you an intellectual soldier?’ Military men with brains could see right through Kissinger, and he knew it. His obsession with control was a function of his need for being recognized as powerful. But he never grasped the essence of power – like so many of his race, he could analyze it backwards and forwards, but he could never exercise it. Which reminds me of the old story of McNamara and the hill –”

“The hill, Sir?”

“Oh, I reckon they stopped teaching that one. For us it used to be a mantra. McNamara during one of his endless academic exercises during the war got into a pissing match with a three-star about taking a hill. The three-star gave him offensive tactics 101, à la Nathan Bedford Forrest: you got two enemy platoons on the hill, you can probably take it with three. But with six you can take it in half the time with half the casualties. McNamara said bullshit, if you have twice the number of troops, you’ll have twice the number of casualties. That alone confirms my view that nobody should put an economist in charge of anything important. Whatever the bastards say about our ambition, for us power is a means, not an end. Control is necessary to get the job done, pure and simple. So we go on playing the tough guy. Take the whole Thieu saga…”

“Sir, we’ve set aside the massive Vietnam file until next week.”

“Don’t give me that, Major, I need to convey a few things to you.”

“Sir, I still haven’t –”

“As the world knows I was sent in October 1972 to give Thieu the cane. Nixon had worked all these complicated stratagems out in his head; not even Henry had mastered the whole thing. Of course I had to be the hardass, and everyone knew that I was the only one of the bunch trusted by Thieu. Henry kept arguing for soft touches, to butter up his interlocutors in Paris, reserving all his insults and tough talk for Thieu. Nixon had other things in mind. He took my advice and stepped up the bombing and then ordered me to Saigon again in January.”

“It was a foregone conclusion, then?”

“Not at all. Thieu could have made our life much more difficult, which would have forced a military solution. I favored this, even Thieu knew that, but I did my job. He would get no Korean solution, no neat partition, and no 40,000 American boys guarding the border. He had to agree to a different solution — his own abject defeat — not because it was inevitable; not because it was all part of some masterful calculation with the Russians; and not because Nixon had decided to throw Thieu to the dogs. It all looked that way, I know, but this was because Nixon was afraid of the Congress. Perhaps he had some foreboding of what was to plague him, but he was totally obscure. You know, he used to remind me of Hemingway’s marlin: ‘like some wounded creature of the deep, he would fight ferociously, dragging his enemies great distances in his wake, then sound to brood a while in solitude and silence before rising to the surface to fight again.’ With Henry denouncing the bombing to his friends in the press and making all sorts of promises to the North Vietnamese, we had little choice but to go with the flow. That, in my view, has always been the biggest obstacle to greatness.”

“Sorry, Sir, didn’t Bryce Harlow use that fish analogy?”

“Well, contrary to popular belief, Bryce Harlow didn’t know everything, but yeah, I guess I did steal it from him, thanks to the guy who ghost-wrote my memoir. I’ll get to that in a minute. But you need to understand the larger point here, son. If Nixon hadn’t listened to me and gone ahead with the Christmas bombing, we would have been set back years because of Henry’s maneuverings. The Vietnamese in Paris and Thieu in Saigon did not think in Henry’s complicated logic. Nor did the Russians for that matter. Nor did the Congress. He conveyed these connections, linkages, and so forth, but they were imaginary, or invented after the fact. For Thieu there was nothing strategic about Vietnamization. It meant being hung out to dry. Now I know Henry has gone out of his way to pin the policy on Laird and Nixon, but he supported it with equal ardor. Worse, Henry, more than anyone, blurred the distinction between equipping the South to fight the Viet Cong and taking on the North. It was up to me to make sure the president saw the urgency of standing by our ally – Thieu’s strength more than anything else would have led to peace, or at least some kind of stalemate and the ‘honor’ that Henry blabbed on about.”

“Sir, pardon me, but wasn’t that the same logic used in ‘69 to defend the secret Cambodia bombings? We neglected to cover any of that, and there’s a ton of material in the DIA files with your name written all over it.”

Haig suddenly glared. “I am not talking about Cambodia, Major.”

He was silent for about twenty seconds. Then he resumed with a relaxed, reflective tone. “I think we can be more efficient if we stick to one subject at a time along the lines I’ve set out. Now, as I was saying, it was my view then, and remains so today, that the Russians would have backed us on a tougher approach, since by now they cared far more about détente than we gave them credit for. Shit, they knew appeasement when they saw it. Henry, on the other hand, kept up a sham with them, especially during his secret Moscow trip in April ‘72, when he promoted the canard that the Soviets weren’t calling the shots in Hanoi. In the end our withdrawal was not at all honorable, and the heralded May Moscow summit was a farce.”

“It seems that much of your career Sir, was spent shadow boxing with Henry Kissinger.” I immediately regretted saying that, but Haig’s candor was contagious.

“Listen, son, I did a whole hell of a lot down the road before Henry showed up and long after he retired to Park Avenue. My war isn’t with him. He was a piece of cake. It’s with all the sanctimonious assholes who sell this country out time and time again. Acheson nearly did us in with Korea, the Bundys and that maniac McNamara in Cuba and ‘Nam, all the self-appointed superpatriots in the Reagan White House. As soon as the real bullets start flying these boys all put on grave faces while shitting in their pants. But we’re still supposed to take orders from them. It’s the price we pay for living in a plutocracy that calls itself democratic. The Bryce Harlows of this world are called wise men, but their wisdom comes from devious careerism, not from integrity or love of country. They snicker about ambition but their sanctimonious appetites are the biggest of all. Those in the Democratic Party, like Clark Clifford, or even my old pal Califano, are easier to write off because theirs are so transparent. But the Republicans are harder, and therefore more dangerous. They brought down Nixon, not the liberals. He embarrassed them because he had so much contempt for their power. Reagan was too damn popular for them to destroy, so they co-opted him, made him feel like one of the gang. Those pricks at the Alibi Club, they still run this town, more than anyone knows. And they get away with it because those who know their names are fooled into believing them to be pillars of the community.”

Haig’s face was redder and puffier than usual by this point. I said nothing, hoping that he would wind down, and I managed to sneak a few furtive glances at my watch. Haig noticed and took a breath.

“Well, Major, you’ll do well to steer clear of politics. Politics, journalists and the vertical pronoun. I hope they still teach that at the Academy.”

“Yessir, no doubt.”

* * *

Haig didn’t call for several weeks; we missed a few sessions, and I began to lose interest. His receptionist said he was traveling in the Middle East and expected him back soon, but she could not specify when. It was now the middle of June and Washington was beginning to empty, the Congress tiring of its latest sparring match with Big Bill and eager for the July recess. Then one Sunday morning, my phone rang at home; Haig was on the line.

“Sorry to have been out of touch. Got to make a living. Can you meet me in two hours, I’ve got some loose ends to tie up.”

“Well Sir —”

“Good. See you at the regular spot.” He hung up.

Alphonso was nowhere to be seen when I arrived at the Army-Navy Club. A Hispanic kid in a blue maintenance jumpsuit let me in and locked the door behind me. I found Haig in our room already nursing a gin. He arose, and welcomed me with a wide smile. “Very good to see you, Major. Here’s the key to the bar downstairs, go fix yourself something.”

“Thank you, General, I’ll pass for now.”

“Suit yourself. Now where we? Oh, yeah, this is Malvinas week. The Jimmy and Jeane show. Did you bring the Belgrano files?”

“Yes.”

“Oh hell, I’m no longer in the mood. How about a walk?”

“A walk, Sir?”

“You do walk, Major?”

“I —”

“Come on, let’s go” He tossed down the rest of the gin and flew out the door; I followed, throwing the files into my gym bag and hurrying after him, down the stairs. He had his own key to the door and out we went. Down Eye street, east toward 16th, then 15th, past Vermont avenue and north a block. We were back in McPherson Square. Haig stopped and sat down on a bench.

“Have a seat, Major.” Haig looked toward a group of street people gathered at the north side of the park. “Tell me, what do you remember about General McPherson over there?”

“Hmm…was it the Battle of Atlanta, Sir? He was killed there I believe.”

“Good show, Major. I see those soldiers taught you something. Now as you no doubt recall, McPherson’s troops were attacked by General Hood, who was missing half an arm and a leg and a great deal of discipline, thanks to the jealousies of his subordinate Hardee. Now, Hardee threw the battle to the Union but Hood’s troops survived and gave Sherman hell for another six weeks. The people of Atlanta have him to thank for the respite.”

“This is all very interesting, Sir.”

“Damn right it is. If Hood hadn’t had to deal with Hardee and the physical problems, he might have defeated McPherson and Logan, and have kept Sherman from completing his sacking of Atlanta. Now you may think all that’s insignificant in light of all that happened elsewhere, but then you’re forgetting Haig’s malleability rule.”

“Uh —”

“Right, you say: Sir, what is malleability, Sir? I’ll tell you, Major. In military history — and as far as I’m concerned war is all there is, just in different disguises — there is no such thing as the inevitable. We don’t live in a world of forces, trends, systems, functional priority areas. Those fictions of pointy-headed experts have plagued our thinking and our leadership.  Nothing is preordained. There is only struggle and will. Any WWII commander will tell you that we were never sure we’d win until the end. Normandy, the Leyte Gulf, Sicily, none were guaranteed successes. One slight detail could have thrown the whole thing off. MacArthur knew this. For all that people talked about his sixth sense, his direct line to destiny, and all the rest, that man understood contingency. His underlings were sycophants, but the next level down they were all hard-nosed, talented men who worked the details. Every detail mattered. Malleability means that nothing is predetermined.”

“I see, Sir. No doubt that applies to careers as well.” The firmer Haig became, the braver I got. If he were twenty years younger I never would have dared.

“Well, son, you’ve learned a thing or two haven’t you?”  Haig stretched his legs from the bench, crossed his arms and began to smile. “That reminds me of something old Califano told me. He said I was crazy to accept the appointment as chief of staff. Said I would go down with Nixon. Joe thought the business about duty to my commander-in-chief was a load of crap. Well, he may have been right. We all know what happened to the marlin. The guy had a hardon for me, but he was a repulsive drunk, even to those of us who shared the same enemies. But none of that mattered. I missed my chance with Johnson, I was tired of playing second fiddle to Abe, and the old guy was happy to be rid of me since Laird had him convinced I was a commissar.”

“That can’t be true…Gen. Abrams?”

“Nixon hated him and wanted me to run the army, but Laird and his Hill buddies wouldn’t hear of it. So they made me into some kind of remora. It made no sense. I’d been giving Abe orders for months. Finally the president listened to reason once Haldeman had to go.” Haig shuffled a bit when he said the word ‘reason.’ “But this had nothing to with me, goddamit, I’ve said that a thousand times. It just had to happen. If I were really as ambitious as people say, I would’ve accepted the vice presidency when Nixon offered it in October ‘73. Shit, I could have taken over everything in a matter of months. Try to imagine if they’d offered that to Henry. The Constitution would’ve been changed in no time!”

“Pardon me, Sir, but the widespread view at the time was that you already were running the country.”

Haig pulled in his legs and leaned forward, “Did you read that in some library? What were you, three years’ old at the time? Have you been screwing Walter Cronkite? Now come on, cut out the liberal bullshit. Henry may have thought he was running the world, I, the country, but in reality neither of us were in control of anything. Congress had the ball the minute Nixon decided to preserve the tapes. I told him not to. Buzhardt told him not to; we all did. Both he and Garment tried to quit over those damn tapes until I told both of them to get the hell out of my office. But Nixon he was sure they would exonerate him. Despite his sense of power, in the end he was still trapped by a small town lawyer’s mind. I told him that we had even more dirt on Johnson and we never used it, but he took the wrong meaning. What sort of mob cares about evidence anyway?”

“Congress is the branch of government most tied to the law, Sir.”

“The Congress thinks it is the law. It makes the law, it changes the law, and nine times out of ten it breaks the law. Don’t tell me about law, son, nobody respects the law more than me. That was the whole point of my time in the White House — I wasn’t protecting Nixon, I was protecting the office, and I was the only one in that whole goddamn White House who did. Surely you’ve heard this before, Major.”

He was right. Haig almost self-consciously had begun to parody the stereotype of himself. One of the dark figures across the park then knocked over a trash can, prompting a fight between two rag women over an obscure object. Haig sighed, then continued:

“I don’t see how you can talk about law when everyone from that cocksucker Richardson on down threw it out the window in their inquisition of Nixon. The whole establishment hated him for winning the election, for ending the war, above all for ending it on their ignominious terms, basically for marginalizing all the sons of bitches. They couldn’t handle it. I was the one object in the way of their coup, and I was nearly too damn strong for them. That’s the story in a nutshell, Major. They spread all that crap about Haig wanting a military coup. That pig Schlesinger and his ridiculous order to the Joint Staff, as if I had my own private army ready to surround the Pentagon. I mean, what sort of person converts to Lutheranism? I always thought Schlesinger was a strange bird, all that gravitas. He’s another economist who should’ve been locked in some academic cage. Now Schlesinger has said many times that he worried about the president’s sanity, worried about his drinking, worried about all manner of dire consequences, but in truth, he was just worried about me and what I would do to his arrogant ass once the crisis passed. Lord knows he’s laughed the whole thing off enough times except to add that the real reason for his order came from my calls to those bosses of yours across the river that everything was ok, that the president would do what was right, despite Kissinger’s begging him to fight it out. Talk about Schadenfreude!”

“Everything I’ve read Sir, says that Kissinger led the pack in urging the president to resign.”

“There you go again, Major, with your backassward truth. Henry did lead the pack in urging me to urge the president to resign, all the while screaming to him to hang on. He even bought Bebe some presents, figuring he’d whisper the same in Nixon’s ear. I might add that several senatorial big shots joined in the fun. ‘Dick, you can beat this. Just give it time. We’ll stand by you.’ Now, that’s exactly the opposite of what’s in all the history books. In truth, they wanted him to suffer, but behind his back they gave him no choice. He knew that weeks before he got the marching orders; the man wasn’t stupid. Harlow’s boys, they came back in force, putting me on a plane to Brussels, and then they brought in Rumsfeld and tossed out everybody, even Schlesinger, even Henry, who kept his big office but shut up once he got the flattery and toys he wanted. They took the Pentagon, the White House and every other post that mattered. And do you know what, Major? They’re back. All of them. Just wait — come the next election they’ll launch another one of their silent coups. All in the name of sensible and dignified government. And they’ll win, you’ll see. Nixon was wrong. We should stop fighting them. The only way to beat them is to infiltrate their ranks and ease their self-destruction from the inside. For that we must keep our own counsel. To know the truth and to keep track of it, all of it. Because they still hold the real power, and we, the tools, must play by their rules. But the time will come when they will overplay their hand, they always do, in every regime. Don’t forget, son, this is still a very young country. We’ve got a whole lot of history left to live. And when that time comes, we’ll need to be ready to tell it like it is.” Haig then stood up and began to walk away. I looked at him, puzzled. He then turned, smiled and sat back down, stretched his legs and extended his arm across the back of the bench.

“Major, I need you to do me a favor?”

“Sir?”

“I need for you to listen to me for a moment.” I looked at him seriously.

“There’s one man in this town who knows more than anyone about what took place then. He is an earnest man, about my age. His office is directly parallel to where we’re sitting, just a few blocks from here. Now I want you to go see him. He’s a good soldier and won’t tell a soul. You give him all our files and our essays and anything else you have. He’ll know what to do with it.” He handed me a slip of paper with an address.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, General” This was a lie, but I wanted to hear it. “We’ve only gone through half the list, we still have all the NATO documents on the Portuguese collapse, the Lebanon fiasco, it is important to set the record straight here, Sir, don’t you agree? And who is this keeper of secrets? What do I tell him? What use can he have for all this material anyway? I thought we were doing this for the presidential libraries?”

Haig then stood up, gave me an almost facetious half salute and then walked away, past the crowd of rag people, across K Street, and north toward his office. I did as he instructed, and never heard from him again.


About the Author:

Kenneth Weisbrode is a writer, historian and former defense analyst. His latest book is On Ambivalence.