Melvin R. LairdMelvin R. Laird
Melvin R. Laird in 2005
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Melvin R. Laird

Laird’s Contributions As A Wisconsin Politician Will Live On for Many Years . . .

The following excerpts are from a letter recently written to Dr. John Bibby, Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee by John Dressendorfer, one of Dr. Bibby’s graduate students. John served on Mel Laird’s staff in the Congress after college, and continued to be a member of Secretary Laird’s staff in the Pentagon. He presently serves as a member of the Marshfield Clinic’s National Advisory Board. Dressendorfer points out that Laird’s contributions in the fields of health and defense will live on forever (selected excerpts from John’s letter follow):

During Laird’s service as Secretary of Defense, his major accomplishments included:

  • First made the draft fair by going to a lottery system as he prepared the military for the end of the draft,
  • Ending the draft (which had been continually used for conscript military manpower for our armed forces since 1939),
  • Establishing the All-Volunteer Force,
  • Honorably withdrawing all combat personnel from Vietnam, only to see the Congress two years after he left office, refuse to meet our commitments of the 1973 Paris Peace Accord and the Vietnamization Plan. This action by the Congress refused any ammunition, equipment replacements, or spare parts for the South, while the Russians poured billions of dollars of support for the North to overrun the South. This broke the back of the South and reneged on our commitment negotiated by Henry Kissinger in January 1973; thus making a negotiated settlement an impossibility between North and South Vietnam,
  • Establishing Total Force Concept that made the National Guard and Reserve Forces an integral part of our total military manpower planning.

These are just a few of the accomplishments of the Laird-Packard team from January 1969 to January 1973. One must remember that when Laird took over as Secretary of Defense, there were 547,000 US military personnel on the ground in Vietnam and over 1,450,000 Navy, Air Force and support facilities stationed in close proximity. For the previous seven years, our commitment of young men and women had gone up and up each year, with no plan to withdraw a single military person from the overall force in the area. Under Laird, our end strength went down every month until our ground combat force was zero when the Paris Peace Accord was signed in late January 1973.

The point is, Laird favorably ended US involvement in a very unpopular war that was dividing our country. The Washington Press Corp, covering National Security and Defense Affairs, voted Laird the best Secretary of Defense in the history of the Department several years after he left office. They also cited Laird’s leadership in arms control, improved procurement policy, promotion of women (for the first time) to flag rank, and the fact that Laird never lost a vote on Capitol Hill.

His nine terms in Congress provide some of his proudest accomplishments. Not only did the American Political Science Association present him with the “Outstanding Member of the House” award, at the same time Senator Ed Muskie (D-Maine) received this award for the Senate, but Laird was recognized by many medical research groups, educational associations, colleges and universities for contributions he and his friend and colleague John Fogarty (D-Rhode Island) made to health and education as ranking members of the House Appropriations Committee on HEW. Among the over 100 awards were the Lasker award for Medical Research and the American Public Health Association award for Leadership. Their sponsorship of the buildup of NIH, many living institutions such as the National Library of Medicine, the CDC in Atlanta, the National Environmental Center in North Carolina; say nothing of the eight National Cancer Centers in the United States (one in Madison), plus such research facilities as the McArdle Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was truly remarkable. The Laird-Fogarty team’s contribution to these projects has made, and will continue to have, a major impact on the health of our nation and the world. Both he and Fogarty, his Democratic counterpart, were appointed by three sitting Presidents to the US Delegation to WHO.

These are some of Laird’s living accomplishments in the area of health and education. When combined with his ranking position on the House Appropriations Committee for Defense and his Chairmanship of the House Republicans, these endeavors set him aside from any Wisconsin politician since statehood in 1846. Laird’s contribution to the revenue sharing approach, and his pioneering of automatic cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security have been praised by many, including the former Commissioner of Social Security Robert Ball as well as former Secretary of HEW John Gardner. I have only named a few of his major contributions. I might add that John Gardner, Secretary of HEW, while serving in a Democratic Administration, even went so far as to come to Laird’s Seventh Congressional District to campaign for Laird’s re-election.

As you can see, John, I have not tried to even touch on his outstanding career as State Senator beginning in the ‘40s. At the young age of 23, Laird was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate while still on terminal leave from Naval service in the Pacific. He authored many successful pieces of legislation and served as Chairman of the Joint Legislative Council and Veterans Affairs Committee, re-writing Wisconsin’s educational support program as well as modernizing the revenue and tax-sharing approach to government. He successfully fought against the Wisconsin World War II military one-time bonus; but instead helped establish a permanent Department of Veterans Affairs with many programs, continuing until this day, to assist Wisconsin veterans in need. The Laird-Lenroot Veterans Housing Bill for low interest second mortgages was a splendid example of his foresightedness.

Melvin R. Laird was secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973 and represented Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District for nine terms.

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