Secretaries of State at ANC: Alexander Haig, Four-Star Diplomat

By TIMOTHY JAMES LAWSON on 7/26/2020

By Jenifer Van Vleck, Arlington National Cemetery  

On July 27, 1789, the United States Congress passed an act to establish a Department of Foreign Affairs. A subsequent act, passed on September 15, 1789, renamed this executive branch agency the Department of State, due to the fact that it had certain domestic as well as diplomatic responsibilities. The nation’s first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, was appointed the following week. Since 1789, the United States has had 70 secretaries of state.

Eight secretaries of state are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Along with the dates of their tenure and the presidents under whom they served, they are as follows. Click on their names for their gravesite locations. 

•  Walter Gresham: 1893-1895 (President Grover Cleveland)
•  George Marshall: 1947-1949 (President Harry Truman)  
•  John Foster Dulles: 1953-1959 (President Dwight Eisenhower)
•  William P. Rogers: 1969-1973 (President Richard Nixon)
•  Cyrus Vance: 1977-1980 (President Jimmy Carter)
•  Edmund Muskie: 1980-1981 (President Jimmy Carter)
•  Alexander Haig: 1981-1982 (President Ronald Reagan)
•  Lawrence Eagleburger: 1992-1993 (President George H.W. Bush)

alexander haigIn honor of the State Department’s birthday, today we examine the life and legacy of Alexander Haig (1924-2010), a four-star general who served as President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state, from January 22, 1981 to July 5, 1982. In retrospect, however, Haig’s legacy is defined less by his 18 months as secretary of state than by his longer career in military and government service, which included important behind-the-scenes accomplishments as well as more publicized missteps.  

Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. was born on December 2, 1924 in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. He attended the University of Notre Dame for two years and then transferred to West Point and graduated in 1947. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he began his military career on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur during the post-World War II U.S. occupation of Japan and during the Korean War. While stationed in Japan, he also met his future wife, Patricia Fox, the daughter of MacArthur’s deputy. They married in Tokyo in 1950. In Korea, he participated in four campaigns, as an aide to MacArthur’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Edward “Ned” Almond, including the landing at Inchon.

During the next two decades, Haig steadily ascended in the military and in the Washington, D.C. foreign policy establishment. He began working at the Pentagon in 1962 after earning a master’s in international relations from Georgetown. In 1966 and 1967, Haig served in Vietnam as a battalion and brigade commander of the First Infantry Division, receiving a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1969, he became a senior military adviser to Henry Kissinger and was appointed in 1971 as President Richard Nixon’s deputy assistant for national security. In these positions, Haig played a key role in negotiations to end the Vietnam War and made 14 trips to Southeast Asia between 1970 and 1973. He also led the top-secret advance team for Nixon’s famous trip to China in February 1972. In early 1973, President Nixon promoted Haig to four-star general and appointed him as Army vice chief of staff. Promoted over 240 other officers, he had advanced from colonel to full general in four years, despite never having commanded a division—an “extraordinary rise,” according to the New York Times, with “few if any precedents in American military history.”

Haig’s professional achievements continued when he became President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff in May 1973, following the resignation of H.R. Haldeman. One of the few senior White House leaders to remain untainted by the Watergate scandal, Haig continued as chief of staff through Nixon’s own resignation, on August 9, 1974, and into the first month of Gerald Ford’s presidency. During the final weeks of the Nixon administration, Haig was widely credited, by Kissinger and others, with holding the executive branch together as it reeled from Watergate—earning him the nickname “the 37 ½ president.” Rumors also circulated that Haig was “Deep Throat,” the legendary informant for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting. (Haig always denied such rumors, and FBI agent Mark Felt was revealed as Deep Throat in 2005.) 

From 1974 to 1979, Haig served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and survived an attempted assassination by members of the Red Army Faction, a radical West German leftist group. After retiring from the military in 1979, he briefly worked in the private sector before accepting an appointment as President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state.

When Haig took office on January 22, 1981, he seemed poised for great success, based on his previous military and diplomatic experience. Yet the four-star general’s brash demeanor—which his critics saw as arrogance—quickly alienated other Reagan administration leaders. Haig infamously began his tenure as secretary of state by declaring himself “the vicar of American foreign affairs,” but the “vicar” struggled to find acolytes. Often described as a loner, he failed to establish strong working relationships with colleagues in the Cabinet, the State Department, and Congress. Thus, Haig often seemed to play only a supporting role during major international crises: the Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina, Israel’s June 1982 invasion of Lebanon, violent political turmoil in Central America, and a resurgence of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Reagan turned to others, notably George Shultz (who succeeded Haig as secretary of state) and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, for foreign policy advice. 

Indeed, Haig’s most notorious moment as secretary of state had nothing to do with foreign policy. In the confused hours after President Reagan was shot in an attempted assassination on March 30, 1981, Haig appeared at the White House press podium and, in response to a question about who was running the government, breathlessly declared, “As of now, I am in control here.” He further stated, erroneously, that the secretary of state was third in the line of presidential succession, behind the vice president. (The Constitution designates the secretary of state as fifth in the line of succession, after the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate.) Broadcast live, Haig’s blurted blunder became a “classic Washington moment”—which, as another Reagan-era official predicted, comprised the third paragraph of his obituary. It was also the beginning of a much-publicized downfall, although antipathy toward Haig within the Cabinet and the White House had been building long before his on-camera misstep. On June 24, 1982, Reagan handed Haig a note stating that he would accept his resignation, which the secretary offered the following day. Haig’s public service career was largely over, except for a brief run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.

When Alexander Haig passed away, at age 85, on February 20, 2010, President Barack Obama stated that he “exemplified our finest warrior-diplomatic tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service.” The New York Times’ obituary described him as “a rare American breed: a political general.” Yet Haig’s most important legacy, arguably, was not his 18-month tenure as secretary of state, but his less visible public service as a “four-star diplomat” during the final years of the Vietnam War and the final days of the Nixon presidency. “By sheer willpower, dedication and self-discipline, he held the government together,” wrote Henry Kissinger, Haig’s former boss and mentor.

At Arlington National Cemetery, we commemorate all honorable service, including that which never makes headlines. Alexander Haig’s life and work is a case in point. As secretary of state and as commander of NATO, Haig was frequently in the news. Yet his behind-the-scenes contributions, throughout a long career in military and government service, also merit commemoration.  

Haig is buried in Section 30, Grave 418-LH