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Weinberger, Caspar

defense reagan soviet secretary

Born Caspar Willard Weinberger, August 18, 1917, in San Francisco, CA; died of pneumonia, March 28, 2006, in Bangor, ME. U.S. Secretary of Defense. Caspar Weinberger was one of the major figures of the Cold War’s final decade. From 1981 to 1987, when he served as U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, he presided over a massive buildup of the United States military, part of the country’s worldwide competition with the Soviet Union. He opposed arms control agreements with the Soviets and left his post soon after Reagan began negotiations for arms reduction. Critics said the huge defense budgets of the 1980s were wasteful, caused the United States deficit to balloon, and eventually hurt the national and world economies, but Weinberger defended them as necessary in the struggle against Communism.

Weinberger was born on August 18, 1917, in San Francisco, California, to Herman Weinberger, a lawyer, and his wife, Cerise. He graduated from Harvard University in 1938 and Harvard Law School in 1941, then enlisted in the Army. He went through the officers’ training school at Fort Benning, Georgia, served in the infantry in the Pacific theater of World War II, and became a member of General Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence staff. After the war, he clerked for a federal judge, then practiced law.

In 1952, Weinberger was elected as a California assemblyman. He was named the state’s most able lawmaker in 1955 in a poll of state government reporters. However, when he ran for state attorney general in 1958, he lost. In the early 1960s, he served as vice-chairman, then chairman, of California’s Republican State Central Committee, then chaired a commission that suggested ways to reorganize the state government. He also worked as a newspaper columnist and host of a television show about politics.

Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, brought Weinberger into his cabinet in early 1968, making him the state finance director. Before Weinberger, the finance office had been considered weak. But he did an impressive job controlling the state’s budget, earning the nickname “Cap the Knife.” That work impressed President Richard Nixon, another California Republican, and Nixon brought Weinberger to Washington, D.C. in 1970. Weinberger served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, deputy director and then director of the Office of Management and Budget, then secretary of health, education, and welfare. Nixon had declared that the health budget was bloated, and he expected Weinberger to impose discipline on it. Some Democrats feared Weinberger would cut programs they considered important. Instead, Weinberger compiled a mixed, moderate record as the health secretary. He did try to end some programs and trim several others, such as federal aid to schools and hospital construction. On the other hand, he supported a government role in encouraging Americans to eat a healthy diet, fought against the once-common practice of sterilizing the mentally disabled, and lobbied Congress to regulate the amount of tar and nicotine in cigarettes.

After Nixon resigned, Weinberger stayed in the cabinet under new president Gerald Ford for a short while, then returned to California in 1975. He worked as a special counsel for the Bechtel engineering companies. When Reagan was elected president in 1980, he asked Weinberger for economic advice, then decided to make him secretary of defense.

One of Reagan’s campaign pledges had been to increase defense spending, which he claimed had fallen to dangerously low levels during the administration of Jimmy Carter. Weinberger asserted that his job was “to rearm America” and that past efforts at detente with the Soviet Union had reinforced “the Soviet prison wall” across Eastern Europe, according to David Stout of the New York Times . The failure of the U.S. military’s 1980 attempt to rescue the American hostages held in Iran added to the belief that the armed forces needed more resources and attention.

So, year after year in the 1980s, while Reagan enforced tough budget cuts on social programs, Weinberger argued for, and usually got, huge increases in the defense budget. He increased the pay of troops and commissioned elaborate new weapons systems and equipment, including the MX missile and the Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based missile defense program that critics nicknamed the “Star Wars” system. He also brought back the B-1 bomber, a program set aside under Carter. However, Weinberger was cautious about deploying troops abroad, mindful of the lessons of the Vietnam War. The major military offensives he oversaw, in Grenada in 1983 and against Libya in 1986, were limited in size. Reagan sent peacekeeping troops to Lebanon despite Weinberger’s cautionary advice; when a bombing killed 241 U.S. soldiers, the defense secretary successfully pushed for withdrawal. “I did not arm to attack,” he wrote in his memoir, In the Arena , as quoted by Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post . “We armed so that we could negotiate from strength, defend freedom, and make war less likely.”

The wisdom of the defense buildup is still debated. Purchasing scandals revealed that the Pentagon had paid outrageous prices for everyday items such as screws and hammers, embarrassing Weinberger. During his tenure, the defense department spent $2 trillion, and the effects were felt worldwide. “His strategy helped to force the Soviet Union to the bargaining table,” the Times of London declared, but also “led to the astronomical U.S. budget deficit which was a major factor in the stock market collapse of 1987 and a cause of high interest rates which, internationally, slowed down industrial growth.” Weinberger did not accept such criticism. In 1993, after Congress’ General Accounting Office declared that Weinberger’s department of defense had exaggerated the Soviet threat and the effectiveness of some American weapons systems, Weinberger said the study’s authors did not understand the Cold War. “You should always use a worst-case analysis in this business,” he declared, as quoted by Stout of the New York Times . “In the end, we won the Cold War, and if we won by too much, if it was overkill, so be it.”

When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 and began the policy of glasnost, or openness, Weinberger did not trust him. He advised Reagan not to negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviets. But by 1987, Reagan, influenced instead by his secretary of state, George Shultz, decided to make deals with Gorbachev. Late that year, Weinberger resigned. Some thought he left after losing the argument over arms control, but he said he wanted to spend time with his wife, who had been treated for cancer. “I don’t think just because [Gorbachev] wears Gucci shoes and smiles occasionally that the Soviet Union has changed its basic doctrines,” Weinberger declared as he left office, as quoted by Stout of the New York Times . That judgment was proven wrong four years later, when Gorbachev’s reforms led to the end of Soviet Communism.

After his resignation, Weinberger became caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal. Members of the Reagan Administration had made a secret deal to sell arms to Iran in order to get Iranian leaders to pressure terrorist groups to free several American hostages they held. Some proceeds from the sale were passed on to the Contras, a rebel group in Nicaragua, in violation of an act of Congress. Weinberger told a congressional committee in 1987 that he had advised against reaching out to Iran, and had mistakenly thought he had killed the idea by sending out a memo opposing it. A commission investigating the affair claimed that Weinberger had not advised Reagan aggressively enough on the matter, a criticism Weinberger rejected. Next, the special prosecutor investigating the scandal accused Weinberger of concealing his diaries, which the prosecutor thought could reveal more information on the affair. Weinberger was indicted in 1992 on charges of lying to the prosecutor. He claimed the charges were an attempt to coerce him into testifying against Reagan. Weinberger was to face trial in 1993, but outgoing president George H. W. Bush pardoned him on Christmas Eve in 1992.

After retiring, Weinberger wrote several books, include Fighting For Peace , about his time as secretary, and a book on defense strategy, The Next War . He became chairman of Forbes, Inc., and wrote a column for Forbes magazine. In his last years, he co-wrote a novel, Chain of Command , published in 2005, and the non-fiction book Home of the Brave: A Tribute to Unsung Heroes in the War on Terror , published posthumously in 2006.

Weinberger died of pneumonia on March 28, 2006, at age 88, in Bangor, Maine, not far from his home in Mount Desert, Maine. He is survived by his wife, Jane; his son, Caspar Jr.; his daughter, Arlin; three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

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