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Gray Matter

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Honoring Two Americans

Recently, in the space of under two weeks, West Point honored two distinguished and accomplished Americans, one a graduate and one not. The first event was the presentation of the Sylvanus Thayer West Point Award to former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry on 16 October 2008. The second was the formal dedication of the Haig Room on the sixth floor of the new Jefferson Hall Library in honor of GEN (Ret.) Alexander Meigs Haig, Jr., Class of 1947, and his wife Patricia, on 27 October.

As the 19th Secretary of Defense, 1994-97, William J. Perry oversaw nuclear arms reductions between the United States and Russia and directed operations in Korea, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, while at the same time downsizing our forces by more than 85,000. He also was the first Secretary of Defense to make an extended series of visits to military installations around the world to see, firsthand, the status of our forces and to solicit comments from military personnel of all ranks. During his presentation in Washington Hall, he told the cadets that initially he thought that the soldiers would be reluctant to speak candidly to him, but he was wrong. Instead, he received insights that he never could have obtained from his office in the Pentagon and suggested that, as new platoon leaders, the cadets do the same, employing the tactic of Management By Walking Around. He admitted that some of the best advice he ever received was from “Grunts on the ground.”

He emphasized that the primary responsibility of leaders is to take care of their soldiers, “and they will take care of you.” Taking care of one’s soldiers, however, often requires a relentless dedication to challenging training. He related an incident from December 1995, when he visited a training area in Germany where troops were preparing for deployment to Bosnia. At the end of his tour of the training area, Perry was freezing in the bitter cold as he asked the commander how he felt the training had gone. This commander certainly understood the importance of realistic and challenging training. He replied that the training had gone fine, but he only wished the weather had been colder, like it would be in the mountains of Bosnia when these men deployed.

The service of former Secretary of State GEN (Ret.) Alexander M. Haig, Jr., predated that of Secretary of Defense Perry but was equally illustrious. As an aide de camp in the Korean War, he was awarded two Silver Stars and a Bronze Star for Valor. During 1962-65, he served initially as the Military Assistant to the Secretary of the Army, Cyrus Vance, and subsequently as the Special Assistant to both the Deputy Secretary and the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. As G3 of the 1st Infantry Division and commander of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry in Viet Nam, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart, to name only two. After time as a regimental tactical officer and assistant commandant at West Point, in January 1969, he was selected as the Senior Military Advisor to the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and later became Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. He served as the personal emissary of President Nixon to negotiate the Viet Nam ceasefire and the return of U.S. prisoners of war and also coordinated the President’s historic visit to China. While Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, the President named him White House Chief of Staff, at which time he retired from the Army.

In October 1974, President Ford recalled him to active duty as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. European Command. Two months later, he also became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Retiring from the Army again in 1979, in January 1981, he was sworn in as the 59th U.S. Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan. During his introduction of GEN Haig, the Superintendent, LTG Buster Hagenbeck ’71, mentioned some meetings that GEN Haig had earlier with cadets. In reaction to some questioning looks, the Superintendent had to explain to the cadets that, when GEN Haig referred to discussions with “Henry, Jerry and Ron,” he meant former Secretary of State Kissinger and Presidents Ford and Reagan. At his presentation at the dedication of the Haig Room, GEN Haig joked about not standing at the top of his class or being able to do everything “perfect” like MacArthur, but he became serious when he spoke of the primary responsibility of military leaders being to the American people. This responsibility required them to speak out when they did not agree with policies, and he admitted that he had been required to do so on three significant occasions. The dedication, which opened with a prayer from Reverend Joseph Easterbrook, representing the Archdiocese of the Military Services, ended with a prayer by GEN Haig’s brother Frank, a Jesuit priest.

Following the dedication and before lunch in the cadet mess, GEN and Mrs. Haig and other members of their party stood on the steps of Washington Hall to observe the Monday Lunch Review. In a practice inaugurated last year, the entire Corps of Cadets marches out of the sallyports onto the Plain, proceeds to the reviewing stand and then returns in two columns to enter the mess hall. Because this is the week leading up to the Air Force game, the cadets marched in Army Combat Uniform. Beat Air Force!

Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire

Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to mailto:JPhoenix@wpaog.org

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