Casper Willard Weinberger

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Casper Willard Weinberger

Casper Willard Weinberger (born 1917) served in the administrations of three U.S. presidents, as director of the Office of Management and Budget, as secretary of health, education and welfare, and as secretary of defense. He was noted for His budget-cutting ability until, as secretary of defense, he pressed for huge annual increases in military spending.

Casper W. Weinberger was born in San Francisco on August 18, 1917. He was the son of Herman Weinberger, an attorney, and Cerise Carpenter Hampson. After attending public schools in San Francisco, Caspar won a scholarship to Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree with honors in 1938 and a law degree in 1941. In his senior year as an undergraduate, he was editor of the Crimson, the Harvard newspaper, and wrote conservative editorials that angered his liberal colleagues.

Weinberger enlisted in the army in 1941. He met his future wife Jane, a nurse, aboard a troop ship carrying them to the Pacific theater, and they married in 1942. He saw action in New Guinea and was promoted to captain under General Douglas MacArthur. He was honorably discharged in 1945. After the war he returned to California to practice law, serving a two-year clerkship with a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and entering private law practice in 1947.

Early Political Career

In 1952 he was elected to the first of three two-year terms in the California State Assembly. During his second term Weinberger was voted the most able member of the state legislature in a poll of newspaper correspondents. During his stint in the legislature he also worked as a freelance journalist, writing book reviews. He lost a race for state attorney general in 1958, but remained active in politics while practicing law. He was vice-chairman of the California Republican State Central Committee from 1960 to 1962 and chairman from 1962 to 1964.

While in private law practice from 1959 to 1968, he moderated a televised public affairs program and wrote a newspaper column. In 1968 California Governor Ronald Reagan appointed him the state's director of finance. As director, Weinberger carried out Reagan's mandate to reduce state expenditures and budget deficits.

" Cap the Knife"

In 1970 President Richard Nixon named Weinberger chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. His mandate was to clean house, and within a year 50 lawyers had left the agency. Besides streamlining the organization, Weinberger adopted an aggressive program of consumer protection.

In 1971 Nixon named Weinberger deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. In 1972 he succeeded George Shultz as director. At OMB he made unprecedented use of impoundment, forbidding federal agencies to spend authorized funds. He was so effective in cutting public spending, impounding $11.2 billion in 1972, that he was labeled "Cap the Knife, " a nickname that stuck throughout his career.

In 1973 Weinberger became secretary of health, education and welfare. He again cut costs and attempted to transfer control of many social programs to state and local governments. He frequently clashed with Congress and lost most of the fights, but his policies of social cuts would become dominant in the 1980s and 1990s under Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

Weinberger returned to the private sector in 1975. He followed his former boss, Shultz, to join the Bechtel Corporation, a San Francisco-based international construction and engineering firm with close ties to the U.S. government. For the next six years he served as its general counsel, vice president, and director, making over $500, 000 a year.

Secretary of Defense

When Reagan became president in 1981 he named Weinberger secretary of defense. Immediately, Weinberger started warning of an increased threat from the Soviet Union and a need to upgrade the U.S. military. He presided over an unprecedented peacetime military spending program. He resurrected the B-1 bomber program, which had been scuttled by President Jimmy Carter. He pushed for more ships, fighter planes, and tanks. Fighting for an increased arsenal of nuclear weapons, he became the leading advocate of the Strategic Defense Initiative, an enormously expensive space-based anti-missile system known popularly as Star Wars. Weinberger's reputation for cutting costs was replaced by a reputation for giving the military everything it wanted, contributing greatly to massive budget deficits which worried the nation and Congress. Critics charged that "Weinberger has often let hardware dictate strategy, with a resulting surfeit of gold-plated weapons systems, " noted William R. Doerner in Time (February 11, 1985). "He became known around the Pentagon as Mr. Yes, " according to Fortune (July 21, 1986). Supporters credited Weinberger with upgrading the quality of America's military personnel, as well as their pay and other personal benefits, and with modernizing the nation's defense system.

Despite his enthuasism for the arms buildup, Weinberger was somewhat cautious about the use of U.S. military force overseas. He supported the U.S. invasion of the Caribbean nation of Grenada and air strikes against Libya, but opposed sending Marines as peacekeeping forces to Lebanon.

Iran-Contra Controversy

Citing his wife's battle with cancer, Weinberger resigned from the cabinet late in 1987. In 1988 Queen Elizabeth made Weinberger a knight of the British Empire for his support of the British 1982 war against Argentine in the Falkland Islands. Also that year Forbes named Weinberger its publisher.

In 1990 Weinberger published his memoirs, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon, which received mixed reviews. Lawrence J. Korb in Washington Monthly noted, "Most memoirs are somewhat self-serving, but Weinberger carries his to the extreme … Throughout the book, he simply dismisses the problems that plagued his tenure in office and undermined support for national defense." In the book Weinberger glossed over his role in the Iran-contra affair, the secret and illegal shipment of arms from the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels, the contras, to the regime of Iran in November 1985 in exchange for the release of hostages. Weinberger initially had opposed the deal, but became involved in an attempt to keep it quiet.

In 1992 Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor investigating the Iran-contra affair, brought a five-count felony indictment against Weinberger, charging him with obstructing justice by concealing more than 1, 700 pages of personal notes about the arms-for-hostages swap and with perjury for lying to Congress and hiding his knowledge of the deal. Later that year a federal judge dismissed the obstruction of justice charge, and on Christmas Eve in 1992 President George Bush, who was about to leave office, pardoned Weinberger, who was awaiting trial in January, and other officials involved in the scandal.

Out of government, Weinberger continued to sound warnings about what he believed was a lack of military preparedness. His strong criticism of military cuts under President Bill Clinton fueled his 1996 book, The Next War, co-written with Peter Schweitzer, which detailed five fictional scenarios of nuclear blackmail and other disasters for the United States in the future. "As the nation weakens [its] military … the numbers of people who feel safe in attacking or seeking revenge or in using terrorism increases exponentially, " Weinberger told journalist Stephen Goode in Insight on the News (October 28, 1996).

Weinberger's hero was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and he quoted Churchill frequently. One of his favorite Churchill quotes, framed on the wall of Weinberger's office, was, "Never give in; never give in; never, never, never, never in nothing great or small, large or petty—never give in."

Further Reading

Weinberger's account of his stint as defense secretary is Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon (1990). Some biographical material is in Ronald Brownstein and Nina Easton, Reagan's Ruling Class (1982). Weinberger's views on the national defense budget can be found in his The Defense Budget (1972), and his warnings about military cuts of the 1990s are in The Next War, co-written with Peter Schweitzer (1996). Background reading about Weinberger's participation in public office is in Gary C. Hamilton and Nicole W. Biggart, Governor Reagan, Governor Brown (1984); A. James Reichley, Conservatives in an Age of Change: The Nixon and Ford Administrations (1981); and Laurence I. Barrett, Gambling With History: Ronald Reagan in the White House (1984). A good short overview of Weinberger's career is William R. Doerner, "Man with a Mission: Seeking Fire and Vision, " Time (February 11, 1985). □