They didn't call him "Tricky Dick" for nothing -- and Melvin Laird knew it. The Wisconsin congressman knew what he was getting into when President Nixon tabbed him as secretary of defense. Laird would have to wind down an unpopular war and thread the needle among a paranoid White House, a restive Congress and a powerhouse personality known as Henry Kissinger.
Despite these obstacles, Laird excelled during his tenure at the Pentagon. Few have proved a better steward of our men and women in uniform during difficult conditions.
President Reagan and his defense secretary, Cap Weinberger, are rightly credited for resurrecting a demoralized and "hollow" military in the 1980s. But it was Laird who laid the foundation for that renaissance.
It was Laird who introduced the idea of the "total force." Previously, the National Guard and the reserves had been mere afterthoughts in the Pentagon -- underfunded, underequipped, and ill-prepared to do much more than gather on weekends for parades and barbecues.
Shortly after taking office, Laird, embarked on an initiative to kill the draft and establish an all-volunteer military. For that to be workable, Laird knew that all the military forces -- active and reserve alike -- would have to be ready to serve the nation when needed.
From now on, he told the services, "a total force concept will be applied to all aspects of programming, planning, manning, equipping and employing National Guard and Reserve forces." They were to be considered equally vital parts of the armed forces.
Laird's total force policy has proved itself during the Long War. U.S. troops have been deployed and fighting without quarter since 9/11 -- a feat possible only because the Pentagon could rely on the Guard and Reserve.
Today, the military faces an uncertain future, much like the days following the fall of Saigon. The American economy is sick, and some want to cure it by cutting defense.
But after a decade of war and two decades of severely underfunding equipment replacement and modernization programs, cutting the Pentagon's budget now will just leave us a military ill-equipped to meet future challenges. That raises the odds our troops will have to pay a steeper, unnecessarily higher butcher's bill down the road.
Nor can we afford to focus on preparing only active-duty troops. If we don't take care of the Guard and Reserve, we'll have no "safety net" for the next fight.
Before slashing the Pentagon's budget, Congress and the White House should read "The Independent Panel Review of Reserve Component Employment in an Era of Persistent Conflict." Written by three former senior army officers, including former Army Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer, the report makes the case that, in the future, the Reserves will be more important to maintaining military readiness than ever before.
Reserve forces, they argue, must be "consistent and sustained over time instead of the past paradigm of fight-win-demobilize-return to garrison and subsequently mobilize for another conflict -- at huge cost in people and money."
The Reimer report includes many common-sense ideas for maintaining what is arguably the most cost-effective part of the military. Congress should be reading this type of informed, well-reasoned report rather than empty-headed "penny-wise, pound-foolish" proposals to slash the defense budget.
The department responsible for national defense is not just any agency. Protecting a nation of 300 million requires a large budget.
Politicians looking to burnish their cost-cutting credentials should look elsewhere. The way to shrink big government is not to put the nation at greater risk, but to cut programs that enrich a few while doing little to give us greater security or liberty.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner