Caspar Weinberger

Cerebral Secretary of Defense to Ronald Reagan and the steely face of his Cold Warriors


Caspar Willard Weinberger, politician and government official: born San Francisco 18 August 1917; California state representative 1952-58; Chairman, Californian Republican Party 1962-64; Director, Office of Management of the Budget 1972-73; US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare 1973-75; Secretary of Defense 1981-87; Hon GBE 1988; publisher, Forbes Magazine 1989-93, chairman 1993-2006; married 1942 Jane Dalton (one son, one daughter); died Bangor, Maine 28 March 2006.

The victory of course will be forever identified with Ronald Reagan. He after all was President when the Soviet Union blinked and started to buckle. But if America's triumphant Cold Warriors had a single face, it could well belong to Caspar Weinberger, the cerebral yet engagingly straightforward Californian at the Pentagon who managed perhaps the greatest peacetime defence build-up in US history.

"Cap" Weinberger's instinctive, visceral anti-Communism may well have been in his blood. His father, Herman, was Jewish, a Czech lawyer who had emigrated to San Francisco. His mother, Cerise, was of English origin, and to the end of his days Weinberger was an unabashed Anglophile. He devoured English history and the novels of Thackeray, Trollope and Scott, and one of his heroes was Winston Churchill.

During the 1982 Falklands War he sided instantly and unequivocally with Britain. Six years later, after he had left the Pentagon, the Queen made him an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the British Empire in recognition of his "outstanding and invaluable contribution" to military co-operation between Britain and the United States.

It was obvious early on that Caspar Weinberger would make a considerable mark. At Harvard, he achieved high academic distinction; during the Second World War he served as a captain with General Douglas MacArthur's intelligence staff in the Pacific. But his rise to prominence truly began when he returned home to enter Californian politics.

In 1952 he won a seat in the state's legislature. A decade later he was chairman of its Republican party, and came to know well a certain former actor and emerging politician. Ronald Reagan became California's governor in 1967 and appointed Weinberger his finance director. Such was his success in solving the state's budget crisis that Weinberger attracted the attention of another Californian - this one bound for the presidency.

The self-described "fiscal Puritan" became Richard Nixon's first White House budget director - and thus was born the legend of "Cap the Knife", the hard-nosed bureaucrat who had no qualms in taking the axe to some of Lyndon Johnson's "great society" programmes to bring some order to a national treasury strained to breaking point by the Vietnam War.

Another Cabinet post followed at Health, Education and Welfare, where Weinberger's budget-cutting instincts were less in evidence. When Jimmy Carter regained the presidency for the Democrats, Weinberger retreated to his home state and a senior job at the giant Californian engineering group Bechtel. But his absence from Washington lasted only four years. In January 1981 he returned to one of the most powerful posts in the land, Secretary of Defense, for his old friend, now President, Ronald Reagan.

As he admitted at the outset, Weinberger was no military expert. He was however a very fast learner. Small and slightly stooped of stature, he had an unassuming and courteous manner. But even casual acquaintances could not miss the intensity and steel. As for "Cap the Knife", all that belonged to the past. During his six and a half years at the Pentagon - a stint exceeded only by Robert McNamara - he persuaded Congress to spend more than $2trn (£1.15trn) on defence. A host of new weapons programmes - long-range nuclear arms, ships, planes and tanks - strengthened the US arsenal at a rate Moscow could match only at the risk of economic ruin.

Weinberger became an enthusiastic advocate of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or "star wars") which he saw as a more hopeful option than the old Cold War doctrine of MAD, or mutual assured destruction. He also shared his President's anti-Communist convictions. Within weeks, he was lecturing friend and foe alike about the "the moral and political failure of Soviet Communism".

Many complained that the spending was excessive, that the military threat from Moscow was over-hyped. But Weinberger, an unremitting hard-liner on arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, was unrepentant. "Yes, we used a worst-case analysis," he said later:

But you should always use a worst-case analysis in this business, you can't afford to be wrong. In the end, we won the Cold War, and, if we won by too much, if it was overkill, so be it.

Under Weinberger, even more than under McNamara and his successors, the Pentagon became today's bureaucratic behemoth. There were also constant clashes with his opposite numbers at the State Department - first Alexander Haig, then George Shultz - that prefigured more recent battles between Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, during the first term of George W. Bush.

By today's standards at least, Weinberger was a careful warrior. He even formulated a so-called "Weinberger Doctrine", later to become the Powell Doctrine during the first Gulf War that drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. "You have to have a mission," Weinberger would explain:

You use force as a last resort after everything else has failed. When you use it, you have to use overwhelming strength in your object, and then get out.

Weinberger left government in November 1987 - some would say in protest at the intermediate nuclear forces deal that Reagan signed the following month with Mikhail Gorbachev, for him a figure of enduring suspicion. By then, however, he had become entangled in the Iran Contra scandal that bedevilled Reagan's second term.

In 1992, he was indicted on charges of lying to the independent counsel investigating the administration's secret sales of missiles to Iran, the proceeds of which were channelled to right-wing Contra forces fighting the then socialist government in Nicaragua. After rejecting a deal offered by prosecutors to testify against his former colleagues (among them Reagan) and escape with a misdemeanour offence, Weinberger faced trial in early 1993. Ultimately, he was pardoned by the first President Bush, days before the latter left office.

Weinberger devoted much of the rest of his life to writing. Already in 1990 he had published Fighting for Peace, an account of his Pentagon years. In 1989 he became publisher, and in 1993 chairman, of Forbes Magazine, contributing articles on defence and foreign policy. Then came The Next War (1996), essentially a tirade against Bill Clinton's defence cuts. In 2001 he published his memoirs, In the Arena, a title inspired by a work by Theodore Roosevelt, another of his heroes.

But his most tantalising literary venture was the last, a co-authored 2005 political thriller, Chain of Command. It conjured up a Washington in which a president is assassinated so that his successor can use a supposed terrorist threat to impose a police state, underpinned by a splendidly named Freedom from Fear act. Had the author been anyone but Caspar Weinberger, it would have been seen as a parable against the current Bush administration, its infamous Patriot Act, and its exploitation of the terror issue for political ends.

Rupert Cornwell

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