Here's How to Fix U.S. Defense Policy

It is January 2017. Welcome to the White House, Mr. (or Ms.) President. Your military is shrunk and worn out by war. The nation’s stature in the world stands diminished after years of lackluster statecraft. Americans are grumpy. The economy is not so hot. Plan on righting all that? Get yourself a defense secretary like Melvin Laird.

This isn’t the first time America’s been in a sorry state. It was pretty much a shambles when Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968. Never a man of modest ambitions, Nixon planned to fix all that. He wanted to reassert American power, winding down the Vietnam War while putting on a brave face with Moscow. He also wanted to steady a shaky economy, tackling rampant inflation and anemic growth. He knew it would be struggle to address both at the same time.

Nevertheless, Nixon intended to pursue both goals. And while he planned to do most of the heavy lifting himself, he made sure to surround himself with top-tier talent. To assist on the economic front, he brought in Arthur Burns as counselor to the president. For Secretary of State, he picked a shrewd one: Henry Kissinger, a campaign advisor on foreign policy.

But, then there was the question of who to have as Secretary of Defense.

Nixon’s first choice was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a staunch Cold War anti-communist Democrat. Jackson turned him down. The president-elect then turned back to his own party and pressed Wisconsin Congressman Melvin Laird to take over the Pentagon.

The story of how Laird ran the puzzle palace while constantly sparring in a power play with Nixon and Kissinger is told superbly in a new book, Melvin Laird and the Foundation of the Post-Vietnam Military, 1969-1973 (2015) by the historian Richard A. Hunt.

This is not entirely new ground. In 2008 Dale Van Atta delivered a well-regarded biography, With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics. But in covering Laird’s years as secretary, Van Atta can’t compete with Hunt, whose account of four years at Defense Department weighs in at over 700 pages.

Hunt also had much more access to government documents. The Nixon administration had a reputation for anything but transparency. Yet, the president and his officials were a ferocious note-taking, conversation-recording, memo-generating lot, and Hunt gleaned much of this material from these sources.

Hunt’s heroic research has resulted in a near encyclopedic treatment of how Laird ran his lair.

Here is what’s important about that.

Laird tackled a lot of tough issues that ought to resonate with our current crop of defense policymakers. He was forced to deliver a “peace dividend” when there were no prospects for peace. He had to struggle with acquisition reform. And of course, there were the inevitable crises—such as the 1969 shoot-down of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft by North Korea. During his tenure as secretary, Laird tasted just about every kind of big problem the Pentagon faces today.

What is most remarkable Laird’s tenancy on the Potomac is how he so often got his way. And Hunt’s book reminds us of what gave the secretary a competitive advantage in the Washington cage fights.

As a condition for taking the job, Laird insisted that the president give him the authority to pick his own people. That was huge. It allowed the Laird to build a talented team with which he shared trust, confidence and a common vision. It also helped manage the department’s relationship with Kissinger, who had a habit of bypassing Laird’s office—skipping echelons and reaching directly into the Pentagon staff. Because Laird’s team was loyal to him, however, the Defense Secretary rarely got blind-sided by the Secretary of State.    

Another advantage that Laird brought to the office was that he knew his business. In his eight terms in the Congress, he had concentrated on defense affairs. Moreover, having toiled under the Capitol dome, Laird knew how to work the Congress—perhaps better than anyone in the administration. “He was very good with people,” Hunt remarked in a recent talk about his book. People liked Laird. And they liked working with him.

There is a strong argument that competence, character and critical thinking are key attributes of strategic leadership. Mel Laird’s career affirms that thesis.

Because of his stature, Laird could approach Kissinger and Nixon as a policy equal. And he was savvy enough could thwart Kissinger’s effort to pull all security decision-making—including defense affairs—into the National Security Council (NSC).

Not that the secretary’s talents made for a harmonious triangle. As Ivan Selin, an assistant secretary of defense, told Van Atta for his book: “The guys from the White House staff used to think Laird’s first name was, ‘Son of a Bitch!’ because [with Kissinger] it was ‘Son of a bitch Laird did this!,’ or ‘Son of a bitch Laird did that!’”

Still, squabbles aside, there is debate to be had over whether the Reagan defense renaissance would have been possible without Laird’s legacy at the Pentagon.

The next president would do well to have a Mel Laird 2.0 standing by his or her side.

 - A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on national security and foreign policy issues.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Originally appeared in The National Interest