WASHINGTON - Melvin Laird, who as defense secretary under President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973 helped extricate US forces from the morass of the Vietnam War in a policy he dubbed "Vietnamization," has died at age 94.
His death was confirmed by the Richard Nixon Foundation on Wednesday.
Laird, a Republican from Wisconsin who once served in the US House of Representatives, also maneuvered to get Nixon to pick Gerald Ford as vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned, was instrumental in creating the all-volunteer US military and privately opposed Nixon's incursion into Cambodia.
Laird served as defense secretary at a time when the Vietnam War, escalated by Republican Nixon's Democratic predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was provoking huge domestic protests in the United States, sapping American financial resources and killing tens of thousands of US troops.
Laird coined the term "Vietnamization" in 1969 to describe a policy of enlarging, equipping and training the forces of US ally South Vietnam to fight the forces of Communist North Vietnam. At the same time, the policy continuously reduced the number of US troops in Vietnam.
There were more than half a million US troops there when Laird became defense chief in 1969. By May 1972, that number had dwindled to 69,000. Some 58,000 U.S. troops died in the war.
Two days before Laird ended his tenure at the Pentagon in January 1973, US and North Vietnamese negotiators signed a deal in Paris that included a full withdrawal of US forces.
In his last report as defense secretary, Laird said: "As a consequence of the success of the military aspects of Vietnamization, the South Vietnamese people today, in my view, are fully capable of providing for their own in-country security against the North Vietnamese."
But in the end, the US-backed forces of South Vietnam were not capable of holding off the North Vietnamese, who took the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, in 1975, ending the war. As the city fell, Americans desperately fled aboard helicopters in scenes emblematic of the US failure in Vietnam.
Laird long defended the "Vietnamization" policy, one that a later Republican president, George W. Bush, seemed to embrace in his program of building up Iraqi forces to take over from US combat troops in the Iraq war he launched in 2003.
"Vietnamization did work. I mean, the forces of the South Vietnamese were doing very well but they had to have US support to carry on the war and we promised them that," Laird said in a 2005 interview with National Public Radio.
Supporters of the "Vietnamization" policy faulted the US Congress for failing to continue to back the South Vietnamese in the aftermath of the 1973 withdrawal of American troops.
Laird publicly supported Nixon's Vietnam policies but privately opposed the president's 1970 incursion into Cambodia against North Vietnamese sanctuaries and the 1972 resumption of US bombing of North Vietnam and mining of its harbors.
After the signing of the US-North Vietnamese accord in Paris and shortly before leaving the Pentagon, Laird suspended the draft five months earlier than planned. That led to the creation of the all-volunteer military.