Washington — Assuming that Gen. Alexander M. Haig (USA, ret.), Ronald Reagan's nominee to be secretary of state, is confirmed by the US Senate, he will be only the second professional soldier to serve as America's top diplomat. Gen. George C. Marshall was Harry Truman's secretary of state, and by most accounts he set a high standard for General Haig to follow.
In the view of a number of people who knew him when he served in previous administrations and as NATO commander, Haig is a tough and competent bureaucratic infighter who will adapt easily to the job of secretary of state.
Haig's appointment as secretary of state symbolizes a shift in priorities under the incoming Reagan administration away from a primary emphasis on Army control to a greater emphasis on strengthening American defenses.
Because of Reagan's inexperience in foreign affairs and advocacy of policymaking by Cabinet members rather than by the White House staff, Haig will be in a position to play a strong leadership role. His past experience at coordinating bureaucratic actions may prove invaluable. And his leadership may be all the more required in the national security field, because the defense secretary-designate, Caspar Weinberger, is known largely for his budget and management skills rather than for an ability to think strategically.
"Haig is a superb organizer and a good administrator, and he is very, very tough," said Les Janka, an international consultant in Washington who worked with the general on the staff of the National Security Council during the Nixon years.
"He's tough in that he can make tough decisions, and he'll see to it that he's surrounded by tough-minded people to carry them out," said Mr. Janka.
In the 1960s, Haig served as a battalion and brigade commander in Vietnam and was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze and Silver stars.
As assistant to Henry A. Kissinger on the National Security Council staff, Haig had to deal with problems around the world -- from Chile to the Soviet Union and from the Middle East to Vietnam.
As commander of the NATO forces, he was credited with awakening the US and Western European governments to the steady buildup of Soviets forces in Central Europe. He laid the foundation for agreement by the NATO heads of state to the Carter administration's proposal to increase allied defense budgets by 3 percent a year in real terms. He was popular with Western European defense ministers. And while in Europe, he clearly developed the ambition to become president of the United States some day.
Ambition was a Haig characteristic from the earliest days. The yearbook at the United States Military Academy (West Point) spoke of his "strong convictions and even stronger ambitions."
Loyalty, too, has been a Haig characteristic. He has been criticized for referring in moments of crisis to President Nixon as his "commander in chief."
Some people dislike the idea of having a military man as secretary of state. But it was done once before (1947-49), when George C. Marshall served in that capacity.
For Haig, sympathy for the President has gone along with loyalty. Ending a stint in the White House as deputy assistant for national security affairs in 1973, he remarked that he had a "deep awareness of the essential loneliness of the presidential task" and felt "a great deal of sympathy for any president."