Alexander Haig, RIP

Tim Weiner's obituary in the New York Times for the former Secretary of State -- the self-proclaimed "vicar of foreign policy" -- is a metatextual masterpiece (though you couldn't call it a Haig-iography).

He knew, Reagans aide Lyn Nofziger once said, that the third paragraph of his obit would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot, on March 30, 1981.That day, Secretary of State Haig wrongly declared himself the acting president. The helm is right here, he told members of the Reagan cabinet in the White House Situation Room, and that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here. His words were tape-recorded by Richard V. Allen, then the national security adviser. His colleagues knew better. There were three others ahead of Haig in the constitutional succession, Mr. Allen wrote in 2001. But Haigs demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one.

The NYT sees to it that he's proven wrong one more time -- the third paragraph mentions his prediction about his legacy, but it's the fourth paragraph that goes into the details. [Update: I swear I counted the graf breaks, but by the time this story appeared in print on Sunday, they'd run grafs 2 and 3 together so that Haig's prediction was accurate. Oh well.] (A historian friend of mine saw the news this morning and asked on Facebook: "If Alexander Haig is dead, who is in control?")In the Commonweal archives, Haig's legacy has little to do with the events of March, 30, 1981, and much more to do with the policies he pursued in South America during that time. The September 25, 1981 editorial struck me as particularly relevant, and so I'll quote it in full after the jump:

While Menachem Begin rounded out his trip to the U.S. and David Stockman sparred with Caspar Weinberger over the size of the military budget, Alexander Haig was off to West Berlin to begin what aides called a vigorous campaign to strengthen the resolve and unity of the Western alliance. Evidence of the problem the secretary had come to address was ready at hand: his visit was the occasion for the biggest anti-American demonstration in Berlin since the war in Vietnam.Part of Secretary Haig's Berlin message was a paean to democracy and a plea that the West be ready to defend it. With that, we can only agree. Another part was the secretary's charges about Soviet or Vietnamese use of toxins in Southeast Asia, charges which should dismay but not surprise anyone already aware of the ruthlessness of Moscow's and Hanoi's interventions in Afghanistan, Laos, and Kampuchea. We simply hope, for the credibility of the U.S., that these accusations prove to be better documented than previous statements issuing from the State Department. The heart of Haig's speech, however, was his analysis of the sources of tension within the Western alliance. Here he dwelt upon all those psychological tendencies that have become the stock-in-trade for American diagnosticians of the "post-Vietnam syndrome." He spoke of a lack of hope, an indecisiveness, a soul-searching that has become "compulsive" and "an end in itself." He warned of pessimism and -- twice -- of "excessive introspection." And finally he complained of "a growing double standard" in judging Western and Soviet-bloc foreign policy.No doubt these charges aptly fit a number of those marching that day in WestBerlin's streets. But they are terribly self-deceptive when offered as an explanation of the widespread and well-considered nervousness in Europe about Washington's notions of defending democracy. That nervousness exists far beyond those entertaining a residual anti-Americanism or relying on apparently endless streams of wishful thinking in their views of the Soviets. It is based on real doubts about Washington's intentions and level-headedness. Specific arguments about Pershing missiles and neutron bombs cannot be detached from their context of increasing U.S. assertiveness, increasing emphasis on arms and deemphasis of negotiations, increasing impatience with hearing out European views, increasing dismissal of restless public opinion as naively pacifist or crypto-Communist. Clarion calls for the defense of democracy are apt to sound false when they are linked to identification with repressive regimes in Central and Latin America, support at the UN of South Africa and Pol Pot, and a diminished interest in the economic plight of third-world nations and their hungry populations. Secretary Haig was thinking of Afghanistan when he said, in Berlin, "Can a nation be free when its independence is subordinate to the will of a foreign power? Can a people be uplifted when innocent civilians are the targets of terror?" But others might well have thought of El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, South Africa. This double-standard business may be more complicated than Haig realizes.The administration's foreign policy-makers seem to believe that sheer willpower can substitute for an international outlook that is politically sensitive and morally consistent. They ignore what the historian Fritz Stern, a longtime defender of liberal democracy, recently wrote: "We must learn again that the alliance ultimately rests on a moral consensus. Power is not enough and toughness is not enough."

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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