Caspar W. Weinberger

Ronald Reagan Administration

January 21, 1981 – November 23, 1987

Caspar W. Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan's choice to be the fifteenth secretary of defense, was born in San Francisco on 18 August 1917, the son of a lawyer. He received an A.B. degree (1938) and a law degree (1941), both from Harvard. He entered the U.S. Army as a private in 1941, was commissioned, and served in the Pacific theater. At the end of the war he was a captain on General Douglas MacArthur's intelligence staff. Early in life he developed an interest in politics and history and, during the war years, a special admiration for Winston Churchill, whom he would later cite as an important influence.

Between 1945 and 1947 Weinberger worked as a law clerk for a federal judge and then joined a San Francisco law firm. He won election to the California State Assembly in 1952 and reelection in 1954 and 1956. Although unsuccessful in his campaign in 1958 for California attorney general, Weinberger continued to be active in politics, becoming chairman of the California Republican Party in 1962. Governor Ronald Reagan named him chairman of the Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy in 1967 and appointed him state director of finance early in 1968. He moved to Washington in January 1970 to become chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, subsequently serving as deputy director (1970–72) and director (1972–73) of the Office of Management and Budget and as secretary of health, education, and welfare (1973–75). For the next five years, Weinberger was vice president and general counsel of the Bechtel Group of Companies in California.

Although not widely experienced in defense matters, Weinberger had a reputation in Washington as an able administrator; his success as a cost cutter earned him the sobriquet "Cap the Knife." He shared the president's conviction that the Soviet Union posed a serious threat and that the defense establishment needed to be modernized and strengthened. Belying his nickname, at the Pentagon Weinberger became a vigorous advocate of Reagan's plan to increase the DoD budget. Readiness, sustainability, and modernization became the watchwords of the defense program.

Modernization and the perceived need to make up for past funding deficiencies required significant budget increases, for which Weinberger fought successfully in the first half of his tenure. Initially he sought a supplemental Defense appropriation of nearly $7 billion for the FY 1981 budget and an increase of almost $26 billion over President Carter's proposed FY 1982 budget. Congress proved agreeable, providing $175.5 billion (TOA) for FY 1981 and $210.6 billion for FY 1982, the latter amount representing 11.4 percent real growth. For the next three fiscal years positive real growth continued, with increases of $20 billion or more in each successive year. In the last three fiscal years of Weinberger's tenure, 1986 to 1988, the increases were very modest in current dollars, and showed negative real growth (-1.8 percent for FY 1986 and FY 1988, -1.5 percent for FY 1987). In current dollars, the DoD budget increased from $175.5 billion in FY 1981 to $287.8 billion in FY 1988.

Although Weinberger obtained large increases between 1981 and 1985, Congress consistently provided less than requested and became less willing to go along with those requests. Weinberger resisted congressional reductions, contending that he prepared budget submissions carefully according to real needs. In a book on his years in the Pentagon, he wrote of having "acquired a reputation of being stubborn, uncompromising, immoderate and unpragmatic."

The new secretary quickly established a good working relationship with the leaders of the military services, making manifest in words and actions his respect for them and his firm intention to get for them the funds needed for the buildup that the administration thought necessary. The military reciprocated this attitude, which was no doubt furthered by Weinberger's success in securing large appropriations for Defense. Indeed, Weinberger gave the services their head to a greater extent than they had enjoyed for a long time.

With regard to the Joint Chiefs, the secretary stressed their responsibility to do more comprehensive planning of military strategy, objectives, and policies and urged them to assume a more integral role in budget planning. Although he had not supported it, the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act (1986) strengthened the powers of the JCS chairman and made other changes designed to improve the organization and operation of the Joint Chiefs.

Although he functioned more as the outside representative of the Department of Defense and left day-to-day internal management to the deputy secretary (Frank C. Carlucci, 1981–83; Paul Thayer, 1983–84; and William H. Taft IV, 1984–89), Weinberger instituted important management and organizational changes to achieve "a proper balance between centralized policy formulation and decentralized program execution." He strengthened the role of the service secretaries, including seating them on the Defense Resources Board, an advisory group that consulted on major resource decisions. He aimed to ensure that those responsible for development and execution of service programs had authority to manage their program resources. But, according to Weinberger, "there was never any suggestion that policy decisions should be delegated to the service secretaries (or to anyone else), nor that they should have any organization or strategic responsibilities."

High on Weinberger's agenda to revitalize the armed forces stood the men and women of the services. He felt that the all-volunteer force, adopted in 1973 to replace the draft, was not working. The enlistment and reenlistment rates were too low, only 60 percent of incoming personnel were high school graduates, and the officer and non-commissioned officer attrition rates were too high. Rather than reinstituting the draft, a step both he and Reagan rejected, Weinberger placed high priority on increasing the compensation and support of service members. His initiatives brought about the improvements he sought.

A perceived decline in U.S. strategic capabilities relative to Soviet forces and a fear that U.S. strategic deterrent forces could be vulnerable to an enemy surprise attack in the mid-1980s created great concern in the new administration. Weinberger played a key role in developing a plan to revitalize the strategic deterrent, announced by Reagan in the fall of 1981. The plan included deployment of E-4B aircraft (airborne command posts) to serve the National Command Authorities in wartime; production of 100 B-1B strategic bombers, with initial operational capability in 1986; development of a stealth aircraft, with deployment at the end of the 1980s; development of the Trident II (D-5) missile, a larger and more accurate submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), to be deployed in 1989; production of 100 MX ("Peacekeeper") missiles, about one-third to be deployed in extra-hardened Titan or Minuteman III silos, and studies of other deployment schemes; and enhanced air surveillance with improved radar, deployment of F-15 aircraft (as interceptors) and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes, and development of an antisatellite system.

Some aspects of this strategic modernization plan proved controversial, particularly the proposed deployment of the MX missile, for which several modes were proposed. After much debate, in January 1983 Reagan appointed the Commission on Strategic Forces, headed by retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, to review the purpose, nature, and composition of U.S. strategic forces. The commission recommended placing 100 MX missiles in existing Minuteman silos and designing a new, smaller single-warhead mobile missile, the Midgetman (15 tons compared to the nearly 100-ton MX) that could be ready for deployment in 1987. Weinberger opposed this recommendation as a "typical compromise." However, Reagan endorsed the commission's proposals, and Congress appropriated funds for flight testing and the initial production of the MX. To blunt congressional criticism, the administration promised to pursue arms controls negotiations with the Soviet Union.

The emergence of the Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed "Star Wars" by its critics) created the possibility of a profound change in the balance between the United States and the Soviet Union and in arms control negotiations between them. Much taken by the prospect of a space-based antimissile system that would provide a comprehensive defense against enemy missiles, President Reagan embraced it with enthusiasm. Weinberger saw SDI as an alternative to the mutual assured destruction (MAD) approach that both the United States and the Soviet Union had accepted since the 1960s. He set up the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) in the Pentagon to develop and manage the system, but immediately it faced budgetary and other problems. The formidable research and development task for SDI caused Weinberger to seek large annual appropriations for the program, even as many experts doubted its technical feasibility. For fiscal years 1985 through 1989 Weinberger requested $20.5 billion for SDI; Congress cut each annual request and ultimately appropriated $14.68 billion.

Weinberger also had to meet the argument of some critics, including arms control advocates, that testing and deploying the projected defensive system would violate the ABM Treaty, which limited the United States and the Soviet Union to one antiballistic missile defense system for their capitals and one ICBM launch site each. The United States never built a defense system for Washington. Weinberger and Richard N. Perle, the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, favored a broad interpretation of the treaty, allowing space-based SDI testing. Weinberger also thought that the ABM Treaty would have to be changed or disregarded at the time of deployment. In a March 1987 statement six former secretaries of defense–McNamara, Clifford, Laird, Richardson, Schlesinger, and Brown–urged Reagan to adhere to the traditional interpretation of the treaty. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted in May to prohibit tests that would violate the treaty. An opinion by the State Department legal adviser that month held that the treaty negotiating records allowed for more testing activity than would be permitted by a strict construction, but the Reagan administration did not proceed with the controversial testing plans, leaving the issue open for later negotiations with the Soviet Union.

Although he did not regard arms control as a high priority when he took office in 1981, it increasingly claimed Weinberger's attention, especially after SDI entered the picture. Moreover, Reagan's decision to pursue arms negotiations with the Soviet Union could not help but put the subject higher on Weinberger's agenda. Richard Perle, Weinberger's key assistant in arms control matters, had long had a reputation as an outspoken opponent of arms control but was not unwilling to negotiate. Both Weinberger and Perle approached the subject cautiously, intent on ensuring that the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) talks in Geneva during the 1980s resulted in agreements clearly in the national interest of the United States. At issue early in the Reagan administration was the 1979 NATO "dual track" decision to begin deploying Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) in Europe in 1983 while seeking arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union.

In 1981, both Weinberger and Reagan embraced the "zero option" approach: If the Soviets would withdraw their SS-20 missiles (a mobile IRBM with three warheads, first deployed in 1977), as well as their SS-4, SS-5, and SS-23 missiles, NATO would not deploy the Pershing IIs and GLCMs. After initially rejecting the proposal, the Soviets later said they would withdraw some SS-20s if the United States would not deploy the Pershing IIs. Both Weinberger and the president opposed this plan. When the United States began to deploy Pershing IIs and GLCMs in November 1983, the Soviets walked out of the INF negotiations. Meeting in a summit at Geneva in November 1985, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to pursue an INF treaty. At the Reykjavik summit a year later, Gorbachev offered to eliminate all nuclear weapons. The United States put forward a plan to eliminate offensive ballistic missiles within 10 years, coupled with a pledge to respect the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (1972) for the same period. Gorbachev insisted that the United States limit SDI testing to the laboratory, a proposal Reagan rejected. After further negotiations, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on an INF treaty, which Reagan and Gorbachev signed in Washington in December 1987. By this time both Weinberger and Perle had left the Pentagon.

International problems engaged much of Weinberger's time and attention, involving him in necessarily close relationships with other agencies that did not always go smoothly. Differences in policy on some issues between Defense and other organizations, especially State, sometimes led to friction and personality clashes. Weinberger did not get along well with the secretaries of state during his term–Alexander M. Haig (1981–82) and George Shultz (1982–89)–and he objected to the influence exercised by some National Security Council officials, including NSC adviser Robert McFarlane. His relationship with Reagan was close and cordial; the president usually took his advice. Occasionally, however, the president had to mediate disagreements between State and Defense.

When Weinberger took office, he had as one of his principal international goals improvement of relations with Japan and China. He hoped that Japan, which traditionally limited its annual expenditure on defense to 1 percent of its budget, would increase its investment. Although the State Department resisted Defense involvement, Weinberger suggested to Japan's ambassador that his country assume responsibility for defense of its home territory, the surrounding air space, and the sea lanes of the North Pacific. In May 1981, Japan accepted these proposals and agreed to work toward easing the U.S. cost of maintaining forces in Japan. Japan's defense budget increased annually in subsequent years; in 1987 the Japanese cabinet formally discarded the 1 percent limitation. Weinberger's effort to persuade Japan to buy a fighter aircraft rather than build its own paid off when Japan announced in September 1987 that it would buy the U.S.-built F-16 Falcon and agreed to provide the United States with technology derived from U.S. data on modifying the F-16 to meet Japan's needs.

Efforts by the Carter administration to improve relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) did not have a military side. The Reagan administration, and Weinberger himself, favored developing military contacts. The Taiwan Relations Act (1974) required the United States to continue arms sales to Taiwan. Reagan, in a joint communiqu– with the PRC in August 1982, stated that the United States would continue to provide defensive weapons to Taiwan but would not upgrade U.S. arms sales to that nation, thus helping smooth the path to improved military relations with the People's Republic. On Weinberger's visit to China in September 1983 he made arrangements for China's premier and defense minister to visit the United States and for Reagan to travel to China, which he did in June 1984. Weinberger and the Chinese defense minister in 1984 signed a military technology cooperation agreement, and Reagan declared China eligible for Foreign Military Sales cash purchases.

Elsewhere in the world Weinberger paid close attention to crises that might require the use of U.S. military forces. While the number of active duty military personnel increased during the 1980s, and weapon systems were upgraded and new ones brought on line, Weinberger urged the exercise of much caution in committing troops to military action. In a notable speech in November 1984, entitled "The Uses of Military Power," he listed six major tests that ought to be applied when the United States considered the use of combat forces abroad:

(1) The United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies. (2) If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all. (3) If we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. (4) The relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed–their size, composition and disposition–must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary. (5) Before the U.S. commits forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress. (6) The commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort.

NSDD 238, a basic national security decision directive in 1986, adopted the last of these principles.

When Great Britain and Argentina clashed over the Falkland Islands, off the southern coast of Argentina, Weinberger early on involved himself strongly on the British side. Great Britain had seized the Falklands, or Malvinas Islands as the Argentines knew them, in the 1830s, and the two nations had been at odds over them ever since. On 2 April 1982 Argentine forces invaded and occupied the Falklands. The British had no military units there to resist, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government decided to retake the islands. Weinberger supported Thatcher's decision–he saw Argentina as the aggressor, and Great Britain as a principal U.S. ally. He privately criticized Secretary of State Haig for his use of shuttle diplomacy between England and Argentina in an effort to settle the controversy peacefully. Reagan agreed with Weinberger on the need to assist Britain; the United States provided missiles, aircraft fuel, military equipment, and intelligence information to the British government. In a little over two months, British forces defeated the Argentines, who surrendered on 14 June 1982. A new Argentine government, not hostile to the United States, came to power. Proud of U.S. aid to Great Britain in this crisis, Weinberger felt it brought beneficial results.

In the Middle East, a crisis developed in 1982 when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), strongly entrenched in Lebanon, became involved in fighting with Israeli forces on the Lebanon-Israel border. Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, fought the PLO, and tried to establish a friendly government in the country. In July the United States, Italy, and France contributed troops to a Multinational Force (MNF) to supervise the PLO's departure from Beirut and help stabilize internal politics in Lebanon. Weinberger had not favored U.S. participation, consistent with his view that troops should be committed only when vital to U.S. interests and with clearly defined objectives, but he acknowledged that it had been a success when the force withdrew in September.

As soon as the MNF left, the situation deteriorated. Lebanon's president-elect was assassinated, Israeli forces returned to Beirut, and Lebanese Christian Phalangists massacred Palestinians in Israeli-run refugee camps in West Beirut. Reagan agreed to U.S. participation in a second MNF that entered Lebanon in late September 1982. The U.S. contingent took up position at the Beirut airport to keep the facility open. In the meantime, Christian and Muslim factions clashed, the Israelis and Syrians did not withdraw, and the Lebanese factions began attacking the MNF. On 18 April 1983 a bomb wrecked the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 17 U.S. citizens. In the following months the U.S. force at the Beirut airport endured frequent shelling. Weinberger urged withdrawal of the MNF, but Reagan, with the support of the State Department and the NSC staff, left it in place. On 23 October 1983, terrorists blew up the barracks housing U.S. Marines at the Beirut airport, killing 241 of them. In December, an investigating commission appointed by Weinberger issued a report that criticized the laxity of the second MNF, its operational chain of command, and its poor training. After attacks against U.S. aircraft in Lebanon by Syria, Reagan decided to withdraw the U.S. MNF contingent, which departed late in February 1984.

In 1983, turmoil broke out on the Caribbean island of Grenada, caused by opposition to a government that had come to power in 1979 and had invited greater Cuban and Soviet influence and presence. A large new airport, suspected of being for purposes other than tourism, was under construction. After urgings from some of Grenada's neighboring nations, the United States decided to intervene following the overthrow of the Grenadian government by a still more radical group that appeared to threaten nearly 600 U.S. medical students on the island. Weinberger took a leading part in the extensive military planning preceding the invasion. At its peak the U.S. force, which took several days to accomplish its mission, numbered 6,000. Although they encountered logistical problems and unexpected armed opposition from 700 Cuban engineers on the island, the U.S. forces prevailed.

Weinberger also had to deal with the challenge to U.S. interests by Libya. In 1981 Moammar al-Qadhafi, the Libyan ruler, claimed that the entire Gulf of Sidra, in the Mediterranean off Libya's north central coast, belonged to his country. He warned that he would attack U.S. aircraft and naval units that came south of 32–30' in the Gulf. The United States decided to follow through with its plans for naval maneuvers and aircraft operations in the Gulf in spite of Qadhafi's warning. On 18 August 1981, two U.S. Navy planes shot down two Libyan fighters that had threatened them south of 32–30'.

Relations between Libya and the United States remained tense in the ensuing years. In March 1986 Qadhafi again declared closed the Gulf of Sidra, which he named the "Zone of Death." President Reagan decided that U.S. military exercises, including those south of the 32–30' line, should proceed as planned. In late March the Libyans fired missiles at U.S. planes in the Gulf but missed. Then, on 5 April, a terrorist bomb exploded in a discotheque in West Berlin, killing two persons, including a U.S. serviceman, and injuring 230 others, among them 50 U.S. military personnel. The United States blamed Qadhafi for the incident and decided to take action. Weinberger and his staff joined in the detailed planning for an air attack on Libyan terrorist training installations, command and control headquarters, airfields, and aircraft on the ground. On 15 April, U.S. F-111s flying from bases in England hit pre-selected targets successfully.

In the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, both combatants offered threats to U.S. interests in southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf area. In seeking to block access through the Gulf to each other's ports, the two countries threatened U.S. activities in the area as well. Iran seized several U.S. hostages, and Iraq in May 1987 launched a missile attack against the destroyer USS Stark, killing 37 Americans. Iraq labeled the attack an accident and apologized, but the incident sharpened criticism of the Reagan administration's Gulf policy.

In January 1987 Kuwait had asked the United States to protect its oil tankers in the Persian Gulf from Iranian attacks by convoying them. Weinberger favored a positive response to this request, both to ensure that the Soviet Union could not take advantage of the situation by stepping in to assist Kuwait and to guarantee the free movement of Kuwaiti tankers in the Gulf. Reagan agreed with Weinberger; the convoying and reflagging of the tankers to the U.S. flag began in the summer of 1987.

During the 1980s the Reagan administration became involved in activities that led to disclosure late in 1986 of the Iran/Contra affair. During this decade, the administration supported the Contras in Nicaragua in their efforts to unseat the leftist Sandinistas, who in 1979 had driven out a long-standing dictatorship that the United States had supported. The reformist Sandinistas accepted aid and advisers from Cuba and the Soviet Union, contributing to Reagan's determination to give military assistance to the Contras. Reagan held to his policy even after 1984, when Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega became president of Nicaragua in a fair election. In the same year, Congress officially cut off U.S. military aid to the Contras.

In 1985, persuaded by NSC officials including Robert McFarlane and Lt. Col. Oliver North, Reagan secretly agreed to send antitank missiles and other military equipment to Iran in the hope of securing the release of the U.S. hostages held there. When these activities became public knowledge in November 1986, together with the disclosure that money obtained from the arms sales to Iran had been sent to the Contras in Nicaragua, the Iran/Contra affair exploded.

Weinberger and his counterpart, Secretary of State Shultz, had opposed providing military equipment to Iran. Weinberger, according to his own account, did not know that proceeds from the Iranian arms sales were going to the Contras. He played an unwilling role in the arms transfer to Iran by agreeing to a sale by DoD to the CIA of 4,000 TOW missiles, which the CIA transferred to Iran through Israel. Weinberger later stated that at the time he had warned the administration that the direct transfer of arms from DoD to Iran would be a violation of the Arms Control Export Act. Some years after, in spite of the extenuating circumstances, Weinberger was indicted on the recommendation of a special counsel for the Iran/Contra affair. President George Bush pardoned him in December 1992.

By 1987, the disclosure of the Iran/Contra venture and increasing difficulties with Defense budgets weighed on Weinberger. When he resigned on 23 November 1987, Weinberger cited his wife's declining health as the reason, but the press speculated that he was unhappy with the prospect of a successful conclusion of a U.S.-Soviet INF arms control agreement. He specifically denied that he was opposed to the INF treaty, scheduled to be signed in Washington in December 1987. In fact, he took credit for proposing the substance of the treaty early in his term at the Pentagon.

Weinberger had been secretary of defense for six years and ten months, longer than any of his predecessors but Robert McNamara. After he left the Pentagon, he became publisher and chairman of Forbes magazine, where over the next decade he wrote frequently on defense and national security issues. In 1990 he wrote Fighting for Peace, an account of his Pentagon years; in 1996, Weinberger co-authored a book entitled The Next War, which raised questions about the adequacy of U.S. military capabilities following the end of the Cold War. He died on 28 March 2009 at the age of 88 in Bangor, Maine.