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People & Events: Melvin Laird

Melvin Laird and President NixonMelvin Laird served as secretary of defense under President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973, a post that was the culmination of his life-long involvement in the Republican Party. After serving four years in the Navy during the Second World War, Laird served as a Wisconsin representative in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1953 to 1969. There, he became an influential Republican leader, regularly supporting conservative causes such as a large military budget and a strong nuclear defense system.

When President Richard Nixon appointed him, Laird was aware of the congressional desire to cut the rising costs of the Vietnam War as well as the growing public demand to bring American troops home. Laird publicly pushed for a slow, steady withdrawal of U.S. forces in a policy he developed called "Vietnamization."

Under the plan, the U.S. was to expand, equip, and train South Vietnamese forces to replace withdrawing U.S. combat troops. On Laird's watch, U.S. troops in Vietnam dropped from 549,500 in 1969 to 69,000 on May 1, 1972. American casualties from January to May 1972 dropped 95 percent from their peak levels over the same period in 1968. War expenditures over that period also fell about two-thirds.

As defense secretary, Laird publicly supported Nixon's controversial decision to expand the American war involvement into Cambodia in mid-1970 to clear out Communist enclaves. He also supported Nixon's 1972 bombing of the North and mining of harbors to force a peace. However, Laird privately opposed these attacks.

On January 27, 1973, just two days before Laird left office, the combatants in the Vietnam War signed a peace accord. It called for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces within two months, the establishment of an international commission to settle disputes between the signatories, and the release of U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam, a result Laird worked persistently to secure. Laird also suspended the unpopular draft, paving the way for an all-volunteer military force.

In his final report as secretary of defense, Laird spoke of the U.S. withdrawal: "Vietnamization . . . today is virtually completed. As a consequence of the success of the military aspects of Vietnamization, the South Vietnamese people today, in my view, are fully capable of providing for their own in-country security against the North Vietnamese." He was to be proven wrong. Just two years later North Vietnamese troops took control of Saigon and the entirety of what was South Vietnam.

After his resignation as secretary of defense, Laird served briefly as Nixon's counselor for domestic affairs, concerning himself mainly with legislative issues. As the Watergate crisis grew more debilitating to the White House, Laird resigned and took a post as the senior counsel for national and international affairs for Reader's Digest magazine. In the years since, Laird has written widely on defense and other political issues.

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