General Alexander Haig — thirty-seventh-and-a-half president of the United States

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General Alexander Haig — thirty-seventh-and-a-half president of the United States

Haig’s Coup: How Richard Nixon’s Closest Aide Forced Him from Office by Ray Locker, University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, US $32.95, Pp 352, May 2019, ISBN 978-1640120358

In May 1973, President Nixon appointed his deputy national security adviser General Alexander Haig as his new chief of staff. General Haig replaced H. R. Haldeman, who had left his job along with the domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman only three days ago. President Nixon had been reelected just six months ago in a landslide but now he was engulfed by investigations into what is known as the Watergate scandal. For the last four years, Haldeman and Ehrlichman had done everything at President Nixon’s behest to save him from his political rivals. President Nixon believed that General Haig would save not only his White House but also him as the president of the nation. In Haig’s Coup, Ray Locker argues that, instead of saving the president, General Haig worked hard to remove him from the White House. General Haig’s sole goal was to save his own skin. During the fifteen months from May 1973 to August 1974, when he served as President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, Haig was the de facto president — thirty-seventh-and-a-half president of the United States.

During those final months of the Nixon administration, as the president desperately tried to withstand the onslaught of negative press reports, congressional investigations, and federal prosecutions spurred by the Watergate scandal, Haig controlled the president’s agenda and determined who met with the president and whether even to tell Nixon about many of the decisions made in his name. Ray Locker says that General Haig stacked the deck against Nixon’s legal defense, hiring both Nixon’s main Watergate defender and the special prosecution. He also forced the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, under investigation for bribery and corruption, and engineered the selection of his replacement. With Henry Kissinger, who was first Haig’s boss at the National Security Council and the Secretary of State, Haig coordinated foreign policy. Together, he and Kissinger put the county on nuclear alert while Nixon slept. And as Nixon careened towards resignation, Haig shaped that departure and the pardon Nixon eventually received from his successor, Gerald Ford. Haig knew crisis management because he had managed the White House through an unprecedented political and succession crisis. He was, in the words of Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, the nation’s “thirty-seventh-and-a-half president of the United States.”

Shortly after Nixon’s departure, author and reporter Jules Witcover watched Haig in the VIP section of the Capitol after Ford addressed Congress and observed that Haig was “in a sense applauding his own deft achievement of presidential never contemplated in quite that way by the Founding Fathers.” Witcover witnessed “a bloodless presidential coup engineered by an army general, a man who had gravitated to the very right hand of one president and who, when that president fell, saw to a swift removal of the body.” Ray Locker argues that General Haig eased Nixon out of office only to save himself. By his final year in office, Nixon was often absent during major crises. Haig, in concert with White House lawyer, J. Fred Buzhardt, made it impossible for Nixon to stay, and then both men did everything to protect themselves. Haig needed President Nixon to resign and be pardoned by Ford. A House impeachment and Senate trial would have exposed how Haig had leaked White House secrets, obstructed justice, and abused power. As Nixon’s deputy national security advisor, Haig led the White House campaign to have the FBI wiretap government officials and journalists to identify the leakers of White House secrets. Those wiretaps were part of the surveillance techniques included in the impeachment articles, and both Haig and Kissinger had lied to cover their tracks. Haig had also cooperated with military leaders who were stealing secret documents from the White House and then leaking the details to derail his plans, an act the president had described as “a federal offense of the highest order.” That cooperation would have cost Haig his job and possibly landed him in prison. After jettisoning Nixon, it became possible for Haig to manage his cover-up.

Haig’s Coup is an important addition to the existing scholarly literature on American history. It is nothing less than a bombshell that is packed with new knowledge and new perspectives. Just when you thought we know everything about the Watergate scandal and President Nixon, Ray Locker digs up new knowledge to complete the story. He shows how General Alexander Haig manipulated President Nixon when he was being investigated for the Watergate scandal and ran the government from behind the curtain. Haig’s Coup confirms Ray Locker’s unmatchable credentials as a historian. It is his gift to the readers of American history.

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