Aspin, Les(lie), Jr.

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Aspin, Les(lie), Jr.

(b. 21 July 1938 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; d. 21 May 1995 in Washington, D.C.), congressman and noted expert on defense matters who became secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton.

Aspin was the son of Leslie and Marie (Orth) Aspin, immigrants from Yorkshire, England. He attended public schools in Milwaukee, then went to Yale University, graduating with a B.A. degree in 1960. A Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford University, where he received his M.A. in 1962, and he earned his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965. Meanwhile, he had already begun to pursue his interest in politics, working as a staff member to Senator William Proxmirc in 1960 and managing his reelection campaign in 1964. He also served as staff assistant to Walter Heller, chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (1963).

Having joined the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), Aspin became one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids” during the Vietnam War, rising to the rank of captain and working as a systems analyst for the Pentagon (1966–1968). He then taught economics at Marquette University (1969–1970). He married Maureen Shea in 1969; they had no children and divorced in 1979.

In 1970, Aspin ran for and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. He transformed Wisconsin’s First Congressional District from a safe Republican seat into a Democrat stronghold through twelve consecutive victories (1970–1992). Aspin focused on defense, intelligence, and environmental issues and served on several House committees: Government Operations, Budget, District of Columbia, and Armed Services.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee for twenty-two years, he earned a reputation as a muckraking gadfly, attacking waste, fraud, and mismanagement at the Pentagon. Aspin’s colleagues recognized his expertise on Pentagon policy when they disregarded the seniority system to elect him committee chair (1985–1992). His non-partisan approach on defense matters did not please House Democrats, however. He nearly lost his chair because of his support for the Reagan administration’s military buildup in the 1980s, particularly its development of the MX missile and policy of aiding the Nicaraguan Contras. Aspin took advantage of the end of the cold war and a bold prediction of a quick victory with limited casualties in the Gulf War to solidify his leadership of the committee and defense policymaking process in the House.

In selecting Aspin as his first secretary of defense (20 January 1993-3 February 1994), President Bill Clinton hoped that Aspin would apply his knowledge of the budget process at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill to achieve substantial savings on defense spending. The president also saw Aspin’s commitment to military reform as essential for reshaping U.S. military strategy in the post—cold war era. Aspin, however, failed to live up to his billing. His “bottom-up” review of the military structure and limited cuts in his defense budget for 1994 fell far short of congressional and White House demands. His recommendations for reductions in overall personnel strength caused Pentagon officials to doubt whether the military could fight and win two regional conflicts simultaneously.

Aspin’s handling of volatile social issues produced further criticism of his leadership at the Pentagon. He awkwardly mediated a highly divisive public debate between Clinton and the military brass over ending discrimination against homosexuals in the military. The final compromise, a policy dubbed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” satisfied no one. Under pressure from the Tailhook scandal, in which male naval officers at a Las Vegas convention sexually harassed many female officers, Aspin allowed women to compete for combat roles and appointed the first female service secretary in the U.S. armed forces.

Aspin’s inability to determine how to project U.S. power in Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia contributed to his failure as secretary of defense. After witnessing the dangers of military intervention in Vietnam, Aspin opposed deploying military force in areas that the United States did not understand or on terrain that nullified its firepower; he also was aware that no military operation should be undertaken without broad domestic and international support. Yet he could not distill these lessons into strategy. While he believed that American force could be used effectively to buttress diplomacy, he was never sure of when or where to apply it. He opposed the use of force to help President Jean-Bertrand Aristide assume power in Haiti after local mobs resisted the landing of U.S. troops assigned to restore order at Port-au-Prince. He also opposed the use of ground troops to separate Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats but favored using high-technology weapons as a feasible option. In Somalia, Aspin’s greatest headache, he defended the Clinton administration’s decision to change the scope of Operation Restore Hope from humanitarian assistance to nation building. This necessitated disarming rival clans, notably that led by the Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed. In October 1993, eighteen U.S. troops were killed, seventy-eight wounded, and one helicopter pilot captured in a fire-fight with Aideed’s forces. This might have been avoided had Aspin agreed to a request to send armored reinforcements to Somalia a month earlier. As members of Congress called for Aspin’s resignation, the beleaguered secretary sparred with the Office of Management and Budget over defense spending cuts. Under the strain of these pressures and health problems, Aspin resigned his post in mid-December 1993.

Aspin left his post on 4 February 1994 and joined the faculty of Marquette University’s international studies program in Washington, D.C. In 1994 he served on the Commission on Roles and Missions and chaired the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The following year Aspin presided over another commission, Roles and Capabilities of the Intelligence Community. He died in Washington, D.C, from a stroke, a month before his fifty-seventh birthday. He is buried at Wisconsin Memorial Park in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Aspin’s inability to translate his knowledge of defense matters into military strategy and manage the Pentagon can be attributed to three key factors. He lacked the discipline and management skills necessary to control the Pentagon bureaucracy. His overanalysis in rationalizing defense policy, focusing on ambiguities and contractions of policy-making rather than making decisions, undermined his relationship with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who favored policy formulation and execution based on clear objectives and endgame strategies (Powell Doctrine). No doubt, Aspin’s appearance—his stooped shoulders, ill-fitting clothes, thinning hair, and glasses constantly slipping from his nose—reinforced his image as an indecisive university professor unable to satisfy the needs of the nation’s top brass. Lastly, Aspin’s failure to develop close relationships with President Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake limited his clout in the White House and thus cost him the respect of the military. Consequently Aspin, once considered a “thoughtful and prescient” defense expert, left the Pentagon with a reputation as perhaps the worst secretary of defense since James Forrestal.

Aspin’s papers concentrating on his work in Congress and at the Pentagon are collected at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at Madison. This compilation, combined with committee reports and articles on defense policy penned by Aspin as well as the Congressional Quarterly Almanac and the Congressional Record, is extremely helpful in studying Aspin’s public career but offers few insights into his private life. For Aspin’s thoughts on reshaping American military strategy in the post—cold war era see The Aspin Papers: Sanctions, Diplomacy, and the War in the Persian Gulf (1991) and Defense for a New Era: Lessons on the Gulf War (1992). Studies that address the confusion and perils regarding military intervention in Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia during the first year of the Clinton administration include Les Aspin, Challenges to Values-Based Military Intervention (1995); Richard N. Haass, Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post—Cold War World (1994); Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst, “Somalia and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention,” Foreign Affairs 75 (Mar.-Apr. 1996): 70-85; and John R. Bolton, “Wrong Turn in Somalia,” Foreign Affairs 73 (Jan.-Feb. 1994): 56-66. Michael Masiello Curtis, “Phoenix: The House Armed Services Committee Under Les Aspin (1985–1992)” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1995), examines Aspin’s leadership in the defense policymaking process in the House during the Reagan and Bush administrations. An obituary is in the New York Times (22 May 1995).

Dean Fafoutis