Behind Al Haig’s 1981 ‘I’m in control here’ statement

Special to

By Greg Davis, Global Information System / Defense & Foreign Affairs

Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. — onetime U.S. Secretary of State, National Security Advisor to the U.S. President, Supreme Allied Commander-Europe (SACEUR), and more — died three years ago, but his legacy remains. An action he took on March 30, 1981, ended World War III before it started.

That was the day that U.S. President Ronald Reagan addressed the AFL-CIO union gathering at the Washington Hilton hotel, and was shot upon exiting the hotel by John Hinkley. While President Reagan was rushed to the hospital, the news and video of the assassination attempt flashed around the world, and stopped at the Kremlin.

Secretary of State Al Haig on March 30, 1981.
Secretary of State Al Haig on March 30, 1981.

Within minutes of the news, the Soviet military had decided that the U.S. was leaderless, since Vice President George H. W. Bush was in flight, hours away from Washington, and the succession process would be time-consuming and a bureaucratic imbroglio.

Given that situation, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — and therefore Soviet leader — Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet military leadership decided this was an exploitable moment.

They knew the U.S. military was in a chaotic state following former President Jimmy Carter’s slash and burn policies, and they firmly believed they could over-run NATO if the Washington leadership was in turmoil. The Commander of NATO at that moment was Gen. Bernard Rogers, a pleasant, political general without the forceful personality of Haig. The Soviets felt comfortable they could intimidate Rogers.

Soon after President Reagan was in the ambulance and headed for surgery, the Soviet Warsaw Pact ground and air forces were mobilized, along with the strategic rocket forces, and last, but not least, their nuclear submarine forces were alerted to take up attack positions off the U.S. coasts.

Most notable was the activation of the Soviet Command Train [their mobile command center] which was activated only during times of military crisis: an aggressive action; when the Soviet Command train started rolling, intelligence analysts around the world took note and the world’s military establishment immediately went on the highest alert status.

At the Pentagon, the National Military Command Center [NMCC], responding to the Soviet actions, immediately went to its highest level of alert, activating NATO forces as well as the Strategic Air Command.

Haig, having served as NATO commander under Jimmy Carter — and who had been a periodic assassination target of Soviet Spetsnaz operatives — was Reagan’s Secretary of State and probably the most informed man in Washington when it came to the Soviet military threat; the Soviets also feared Haig more than any U.S. general and were convinced he would annihilate the Soviet Union if given the opportunity; payback, perhaps for their foiled assassination attempts.

At the time Reagan was shot, Haig was at the White House Situation Room, along with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and National Security Advisor Richard Allen, neither of whom grasped the gravity of the situation with regard to Soviet intentions, and both of whom would attack Haig’s actions later.

Haig recognized from all the indicators that the Soviets were in the process of launching World War III, while neither Weinberger (a politician) nor Allen (an academic) recognized the threat. In horror, Haig watched a live television monitor as Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speaks fumbled in the Press Room; in answer to journalist Leslie Stahl’s question of “who was running the government in the absence of President Reagan?”, Speaks responded that “I cannot answer that question at this time”, a clear signal to the Soviets that the U.S. Government was then incapable of responding to a Soviet attack.

Haig dashed a note to Speaks telling him to step away from the dais and to stop answering questions. Haig then dashed into the Press Room and announced he would answer the question, and stated:

“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State, in that order, and should the President decide he wants to transfer the helm to the Vice President, he will do so. … As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the Vice President and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.”

The immediate result of Haig’s appearance in the White House Press Room, announcing on international television that he was “in control” had the desired effect. The last thing the Soviets expected was to see Gen. Haig at the head of the U.S. Government, with his finger on the trigger and ready to exercise this opportunity to even the score with the Soviets for their failed assassination attempt on him in Europe.

Although Haig knew full well what the legal Presidential succession process was, the Soviets did not. All they knew was that Al Haig appeared to now be running the U.S., and he was the last man in the world they wanted in that position.

Brezhnev and his generals immediately recognized that a face-off with Haig would surely bring about the destruction of the Soviet Union, and they ordered the stand-down of the Soviet/Warsaw Pact military forces. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. sheathed their swords, and calm settled in; as Brezhnev wiped his brow, cursing his generals for their bad advice; and Haig prepared his report for the President.

The media and the Left immediately seized on only one part of Haig’s statement, ie: “I am in control here” and began the debate of legal Presidential succession, and attacked Haig as a “power- hungry war-monger”.

What they failed to recognize, or ever acknowledge, was that Haig had averted World War III; they now had a new target to ridicule, and, of course, Weinberger and Allen were only too happy to add fuel to the fire to diminish Haig’s relationship with Reagan and Bush and to increase their own political base.

In Washington, it matters not who is right, but who has the friendship and support of the Media.