`Fighter for peace through strength'

Reagan defense chief oversaw big defense spending increase

Caspar W. Weinberger 1917-2006

March 29, 2006|By CLAUDIA LUTHER | CLAUDIA LUTHER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Caspar W. Weinberger, the anti-Soviet hawk who oversaw the nation's huge peacetime military buildup as the defense secretary during most of President Ronald Reagan's two terms, died yesterday of pneumonia. He was 88.

Mr. Weinberger, who also had prominent roles in the Nixon and Ford administrations, died in a hospital in Bangor, Maine, with wife Jane, son Caspar Jr. and daughter Arlin by his side, according to Forbes magazine, where he served as chairman.

"I was deeply disturbed to learn of the death of a great American and a dear friend," former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a statement. "Cap Weinberger was an indefatigable fighter for peace through strength. He served his nation in war and peace in so many ways."

As the nation's 15th defense secretary, Mr. Weinberger doggedly opposed reducing nuclear weapons, although he was eventually overruled when Mr. Reagan sought a partnership in arms control with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Still, the Defense Department under Mr. Weinberger increased overall defense spending by 50 percent, adding 90 ships to the Navy and two divisions to the Army as well as the B-1 bomber and other new weapons systems to the Air Force.

A native Californian, Mr. Weinberger's long career in public service began with a stint in the State Assembly in the 1950s and culminated when Mr. Reagan named him defense secretary in 1981. He had the second-longest tenure in the post, after Robert S. McNamara, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement that she was "extremely saddened" by Mr. Weinberger's death. "When Cap was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom with distinction in 1987, Ronnie said, `His legacy is a strong and free America - and for this, and for a lifetime of selfless service, a grateful nation thanks him.' I cannot think of higher praise."

A complex figure, Mr. Weinberger faced indictment several years after leaving Washington in the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal that had dogged the Reagan administration's second term. He received a Christmas Eve pardon from President George Bush in 1992.

Throughout his career at the Pentagon, Mr. Weinberger was a hawk who also opposed excessive use of military force, earning him such high-level opponents in the Reagan administration as Secretary of State George P. Shultz, with whom Mr. Weinberger often tangled on defense issues.

"To Weinberger, as I heard him, our forces were to be constantly built up but not used," Mr. Shultz wrote in his memoirs.

Mr. Weinberger developed and put into use the "Weinberger Doctrine," a set of six tests for when U.S. troops should be deployed. Among the tests were the support of the American people, the willingness to employ overwhelming force and the use of forces as "a last resort."

He said he had formulated the policy on the uses of military power because of his strong disapproval of U.S. policy in Vietnam.

"Some thought it was incongruous that I did so much to build up our defenses but was reluctant to commit forces abroad," Mr. Weinberger wrote in In the Arena: A Memoir of the 20th Century (with Gretchen Roberts, 2001). But, he added, "I did not arm to attack. ... We armed so that we could negotiate from strength, defend freedom and make war less likely."

While Mr. Weinberger's doctrine was widely endorsed by political conservatives and many in the defense establishment, Mr. Shultz dismissed it as "a counsel of inaction bordering on paralysis."

The doctrine was later reformulated by Mr. Powell - who had been a military adviser to Mr. Weinberger in the Pentagon and later was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Mr. Bush and secretary of state during the current President Bush's first term.

During Mr. Weinberger's time in the Pentagon, defense spending reached $300 billion a year before leveling out. By some estimates, this peacetime defense buildup exceeded the financial cost for the Vietnam War.

Among the major items pushed by Mr. Weinberger were the MX missile and the B-1 bomber - costly initiatives that Mr. Reagan considered essential to the development and delivery of the Pentagon's nuclear force.

Although initially a skeptic, Mr. Weinberger also strongly defended another of Mr. Reagan's proposals, the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative.

The initiative, commonly known as "star wars," soaked up what one defense expert estimated as $17 billion of the defense budget.

In 1992, Mr. Weinberger faced a federal indictment charging him with lying during congressional and criminal investigations of Iran-contra - the Reagan administration's sale of arms to Iran in the hope that such a deal would help win the release of American hostages. The complicated scandal also involved the diversion of profits from the sale to support rebels fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Negotiating with terrorists was against U.S. policy, and aid to the rebels was banned by Congress.

Mr. Weinberger, who ironically had strongly opposed the Iranian arms sale, maintained in his memoir that he "did not lie to investigators about the state of my recollection" about plans for the arms sales, but he was scheduled for trial in early 1993. Before the court could convene, the president granted pardons to Mr. Weinberger and several others in the Reagan administration who had been indicted by Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh.

After leaving the federal government, Mr. Weinberger concentrated on writing.

Finally, he joined Forbes as publisher and then chairman. He also wrote a column.

"He was a man of infinite energy," said editor in chief Steve Forbes, who credited Mr. Weinberger with helping the magazine's expansion in Asia.

Claudia Luther writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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