Melvin Laird: A Declassified History

11.17.16 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Melvin R. Laird, who served as Secretary of Defense during the Nixon Administration, passed away on November 16. His tenure as Secretary was described in an official history published last year by the Department of Defense that is based in part on classified government archives.

“Although the text has been declassified, some of the official sources cited in the volume may remain classified,” wrote DoD historian Erin R. Mahan in a Foreword. The 732-page volume was authored by historian Richard A. Hunt. See Melvin Laird and the Foundation of the Post-Vietnam Military, 1969-1973, Volume 7 of the Secretaries of Defense Historical Series, 2015.

“Laird’s tenure as secretary coincided with significant changes in national security policy,” Dr. Mahan wrote. “Faced with an NSC system that consolidated policymaking in the White House, Laird used his political canniness and bureaucratic skill to stymie the attempts of Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger to assert greater control over the defense program.”

“Laird was fully involved in planning the Breakfast bombing [of Cambodia in 1969] but disagreed with Nixon and Kissinger about doing it clandestinely,” Dr. Hunt wrote. “He later explained, ‘I told Nixon you couldn’t keep the bombing in Cambodia secret. . . . It was going to come out anyway and it would build distrust. . . . I was all for hitting those targets in Cambodia, but I wanted it public, because I could justify before Congress and the American people that these were occupied territories of the North Vietnamese, no longer Cambodian territory. I could have made that case, but they [Nixon and Kissinger] thought it was important to keep it secret’.”