Relations between the White House and U.S. Department of Defense

QUESTION: Dr. Schlesinger, you've observed that along with the profound contempt that he had for the Department of State, President Nixon had a similar feeling towards the CIA. What about the Defense Department?

DR. SCHLESINGER: President Nixon, to some extent, met his match in the Department of Defense. (Laughter.) As did Henry Kissinger. (Laughter.) I refer not to my tenure but the existence of one Mel Laird. Mel Laird was quite capable of taking a different view on issues from those of the White House and he would reveal these things in his intimate conversation with his old buddies down there on Capitol Hill. And what do you know? As a result of that, you would find at the end that Capitol Hill seemed to insist that we not do something that the White House was inclined to do, but indeed followed the preferred route of Mel Laird.

I might add to that, Mel Laird liked to have a drink in the evening. This, I hope, is not a surprise to anyone here.

DR. KISSINGER: He liked to have what?

DR. SCHLESINGER: A drink, with his friends. And one evening, he was sitting there in his office at the Pentagon and he observed with regard to his Deputy Secretary, he said, "The trouble with David Packard is that he thinks that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." That tells you something about David Packard, but it tells you a lot more about Mel Laird. (Laughter.)

DR. KISSINGER: Of course, I do not think that among the qualifications of a cabinet member should be necessarily his ability to sabotage the preferences of the President. (Laughter.) And while it's important to have cabinet members who are prepared to challenge the President, at the end of the day an administration has to be coherent. And I had--actually, I had high regard for Laird. The disagreements between Schlesinger and Laird had often to do with the rate of withdrawal from Vietnam, not about the total numbers but who would get credit for what increment of withdrawal. And some student of political science will study it someday.

And Nixon was no slouch in maneuvering either, so the question was who would get--the rate of withdrawal was not usually--was not--there was no disagreement about the rate so much but about who would make the announcement and in what increments. And when an increment was announced, for example, if 150,000 were announced, do you frontload it, take most of them out at the beginning, or take most of them out at the end? And on those things Mel got his share of the credit. It was not of, I think, historic significance but it was for a student of bureaucratic maneuvering it showed that Mel would have been a proud member of the Harvard faculty to participate in its maneuvering. (Laughter.)

DR. SCHLESINGER: On that particular point, Mel had strong inclinations going back to his Wisconsin roots that we nearly ought to draw in our horns, and particularly with regard to Vietnam. By the summer of '72 when General Abrams left Vietnam, we had essentially destroyed the Vietcong in South Vietnam and we had neutralized the North Vietnamese. One could argue, I have argued, that we had by that time won the war and then we subsequently threw it away.

But the constraints that were placed by the Pentagon on General Abrams were substantial and, in my view, debilitating with regard to the speed of withdrawal. And General Abrams was the good soldier; he took all of these orders and carried them out, but he was not happy to do so.

DR. KISSINGER: On the whole, Nixon was for the slower rate.