Accessibility links

Breaking News

Former US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger Dies at 88

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has died at the age of 88. Mr. Weinberger died at a hospital in the northeastern state of Maine after a week-long illness. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon on Mr. Weinberger's life and career.

Caspar Weinberger was a major force in the U.S. government during two administrations, but his resignation more than 18 years ago took him out of public life before the major changes that followed, including the fall of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the war on terrorism.

Secretary Weinberger managed a major buildup of the U.S. military under President Ronald Reagan, a buildup that was credited with helping to convince Soviet leaders to end their decades-long confrontation with the United States. Some found the military spending spree surprising, coming from a man who during the Nixon administration in the 1970s earned the nickname "Cap the Knife" for his cost-cutting as head of the Office of Management and Budget and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

But for all the defense buildup that he supervised, he was reluctant to use U.S. military force, except if it had been required in a major war. In a speech in 1984 he said the United States should only commit forces when its vital national interests were at stake, and even then only as a last resort. He also listed several other "tests" for sending the U.S. military into action that became known as the Weinberger Principles.

Donald Daniel, a former Navy officer and now Visiting Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, says the "Principles" will be part of Mr. Weinberger's legacy.

"Don't use the military unless you have the support of the American people," he said. "Don't use the military unless you have the continuing support of the Congress. Don't use the military unless you absolutely know what your objectives are. Don't use the military unless you are ready to go for victory. Don't change your objectives in the middle of whatever operations or things that you're involved with. And to some extent these principles were a reaction, I think they were still a reflection of what is called the Vietnam Syndrome."

The "Vietnam Syndrome" made many Americans reluctant to commit troops to any conflict for decades after the United States failed to defeat communist forces in that country.

Years later, in 2003, Mr. Weinberger appeared to still reflect some of that reluctance in an interview with CBS television, even as he expressed support for the invasion of Iraq, which had begun just a few days earlier.

"Anybody who has been in combat or in war, as I have, knows that it's not going to be easy no matter where it is, with people shooting at you, no matter how few there are or how many there are, it still is a war, and you can't expect it to go completely free of any problems," he said.

A young Caspar Weinberger joined the U.S. Army in 1941 as a private, the lowest rank. He was later commissioned as an officer and served in the Pacific, including a stint as an intelligence officer on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur. He began his public career in the 1950s, when he was elected to three terms in the California state legislature. He became chairman of the state's Republican Party in the early 1960s, and during that decade held several senior posts when Ronald Reagan was the California governor. He moved to Washington in 1970 to begin a series of jobs in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and when Republicans were out of power during the Carter administration, he became president of the Bechtel Corporation, a major defense contractor,

Mr. Weinberger returned to government service when Mr. Reagan became president in 1981, and was one of the country's longest serving defense secretaries when he resigned late in 1987. His time in office included the U.S. invasion of Grenada, conflict with Libya including a U.S. airstrike in retaliation for alleged Libyan support for a bombing in Berlin, and the decision to put Kuwaiti oil tankers under U.S. flags to ensure their safe passage of the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. He was also a major architect of the unsuccessful space-based anti-missile system that became known as "Star Wars."

His tenure was marred to some extent by the Iran-Contra scandal, in which senior officials implemented a scheme to illegally sell weapons to Iran in order to raise money to fund the "Contra" rebels in Nicaragua, which Congress had refused to do. Although he was not directly involved in the scheme, he was indicted for concealing thousands of pages of his personal notes from prosecutors and congressional investigators. In late 1992, shortly before leaving office, the first President Bush pardoned Mr. Weinberger and five other men involved in the scandal. The Weinberger trial was scheduled to begin just two weeks later.

After that, already 75 years old, Mr. Weinberger largely retired from public life, although he worked as publisher of Forbes, a leading business magazine, and later became chariman of Forbes Incorporated. On Tuesday, just a few hours after he died, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid tribute to him at a news conference.

"Cap Weinberger was a friend," he said. "His extensive career in public service, his support for the men and women in uniform, and his central role in helping to win the Cold War leave a lasting legacy."

Among Caspar Weinberger's survivors is his widow Jane, to whom he was married for 63 years. The family says she was at his side when he died.