Obituary: Caspar Weinberger
American Secretary of Defence who created the military machine with which Ronald Reagan faced down the Soviet Union
AUGUST 18, 1917 - MARCH 28, 2006
CASPAR WEINBERGER was the US Secretary of Defence who built up the huge arsenal with which President Reagan confronted the military might of the Soviet Union in the last decade of its existence.
He was not the only American who believed passionately that the price of safety in the modern world was to sink dollars into arming men and developing ever more complex weapons systems. But he was more intelligent, more sophisticated and genuinely tougher than most of America's hawks.
Moreover, he was in an unprecedented position to sign cheques that had to be honoured by the American taxpayer - and in a sense by the people of the whole free world, who had to pay a price for the American arms budget.
He closed the gap which the American electorate (as it had proved when it voted for Reagan) clearly felt existed between the armed might of the United States and that of the Soviet Union.
And he remedied deficiencies which had become humiliatingly obvious in the inability of the Americans to act when US hostages had been seized by Iran during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
His strategy helped to force the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, where some of Weinberger's colleagues were willing to concede more than he sometimes thought prudent.
But the arms build-up also had a profoundly disturbing effect on the American and the whole Western economic system. It led to the astronomical US 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.
The irony was that Weinberger, the great defence spender, had made his name, at earlier stages of public life, as a rigorous trimmer of public expenditure: his nickname had been "Cap the Knife".
After leaving office as Secretary of Defence, Weinberger found himself mired in the Iran-Contra controversy. He was placed under indictment on several counts of lying to the Iran-Contra independent counsel during its investigation. In the upshot he received a presidential pardon from President Bush Sr on December 24, 1992, only days before his trial was scheduled to begin.
It has been suggested in some quarters that the purpose of the pardon was to prevent Weinberger's diary, which is thought to have contained confirmation of the former President's knowledge of, and involvement in, the Iran-Contra affair, from being introduced as evidence at trial, and thereby entering the public domain.
Caspar Willard Weinberger was born in California in 1917. His father was of Bohemian Jewish stock and his mother English, which explained his notable Anglophilia - he took every opportunity to visit London. He was a devout Episcopalian.
He was educated at Harvard, where, in 1938, he graduated magna cum laude after a successful student career that included editing the college newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, and membership of Phi Beta Kappa.
This was the time of Munich, and his instinct was to volunteer for military service, either in the American or the Canadian forces, but he was persuaded by his father to complete his law training. Then, still before the United States had entered the war, he enlisted as a private. After being commissioned, he served as an infantry officer in New Guinea and then on General Douglas MacArthur's staff. He was awarded the Bronze Star.
He became involved in Republican politics soon after returning to California to practise law, and served in the state legislature. He also practised journalism, writing a column for Californian papers, chairing television discussion programmes and contributing to The Economist in London.
When Ronald Reagan ran for the governorship of California, Weinberger, who shared the same conservative philosophy, was recommended to him as a possible finance director of the state. But he did not find favour with the Governor's entourage: in personality, cultural style and choice of friends, Weinberger contrasted with the brasher kind of Republicans who tended to surround Reagan.
But when the first director of finance proved unsatisfactory, Weinberger was appointed. It was his work in controlling the finances of California that earned him the "Cap the Knife" sobriquet.
He was now in a position to turn his eyes from the state to the federal scene. In 1970 he moved to Washington to work for President Nixon, who gave him two key posts: director of the Office of Management, then Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
After Nixon's resignation in the face of impending impeachment, Weinberger returned to private enterprise - with great financial success - working for Bechtel, the giant Californian engineering firm. (His future colleague as Secretary of State, George Shultz, worked for the same company.) He was also a director of the Pepsi Company and the Quaker Oats Company. Much of Bechtel's work was in the oil industry of the Middle E* Weinberger was now learning about a part of the world where he was destined to take vital military decisions when the Iran-Iraq War exploded into a direct threat to Western interests in the Gulf.
When Reagan became President in 1980 he brought Weinberger into his Cabinet as Defence Secretary. Through the ups and downs of the next seven years the President had few more loyal lieutenants.
Reagan had been elected on a platform which, in retrospect, looked like trying to square a circle. He was pledged to cut taxes, but to balance the budget, and also increase expenditure on the armed forces substantially: a major election issue had been the neglect of the nation's defences under the Democrats.
Weinberger threw himself into schemes to attract better recruits and increase morale by increasing military pay, and to invest in vast ranges of elaborate equipment. Officials at the Budget Office, accustomed to doing sums in billions, blanched as they found they were talking in trillions.
Meanwhile, the President insisted on carrying through tax cuts. The third policy requirement, a balanced budget, could have been achieved only by monumental cuts in domestic expenditure which even the hardest-line Reaganites saw to be politically impossible.
Weinberger - at the top of the policy-making pyramid, and a seasoned politician who had specialised in public finance and, moreover, had the President's ear - had to carry a large measure of responsibility for the resultant multibillion-dollar deficit and its effects on the world economy.
There were critics who questioned whether the vast budget provided the country with significantly better defence on the ground. The number of fighting divisions and tactical air wings increased not at all, and the number of ships only slowly.
Nevertheless when the challenge came in the conflict in the Gulf, Weinberger was able to take a firm line which appeared to pay off. To the American public he was what they probably wanted - a strong Defence Secretary.
Many of those closest to him believed an important article of his private faith was the duty, in the interests of the free world, to bring about an economic crisis in the Soviet Union by stretching its defence capability to the limit.
There is no doubt that when the Soviet Union developed its new glasnost line under Mikhail Gorbachev, an important aim was to reduce the arms budget so as to expand the Soviet Union's domestic market. When the Kremlin began to put forward realistic plans for arms reductions, however, Weinberger felt some of his colleagues were going too far too fast in reaching agreements.
In the last year of the Reagan Administration, Weinberger was to some extent squeezed out of foreign policymaking. He was probably glad not to be associated with the terms that Reagan eventually agreed with the Kremlin, but his resignation at the end of 1987 was on the personal ground that he wished to spend more time with his wife, who was seriously ill.
He was appointed an hon GBE in 1988.
"In American politics," he liked to say, "you must first of all be as tough as hell." But Weinberger's private personality was very different. Witty, correct, cultured and serious, he had a great gift for friendship. He added important solid qualities to Reagan's team.
After leaving the Pentagon he became publisher and then chairman of Forbes magazine, contributing frequently to it on defence and national security issues. His book Fighting for Peace (1996) was an account of his Pentagon years. The Next War (1996, with P. Schweizer) was more controversial. The questions it raised, about the adequacy of US military capabilities after the end of the Cold War, offended many of his former colleagues from the Reagan Administration, and he found himself cold-shouldered by a number of them.
He married, in 1942, Jane Dalton. She and their son and daughter survive him.
Caspar Weinberger, US Secretary of Defence, 1981-87, was born on August 18, 1917. He died on March 28, 2006, aged 88.