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Caspar W. Weinberger ’38, a former Crimson president who served as secretary of defense to President Reagan and oversaw the nation’s massive peacetime defense buildup in the Cold War’s twilight years, died Tuesday of pneumonia and kidney ailments. He was 88.
Weinberger, who died at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor with his wife of 63 years, Jane, by his side, had served as chairman of Forbes Inc. until his death.
A major force in California’s Republican Party during the 1960s, Weinberger held three major posts in Washington the following decade under Presidents Nixon and Ford. In his first stint in the executive branch, he served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, then as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and finally as secretary of the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Weinberger returned to the nation’s capitol in 1981 to head up the Pentagon and stayed in the job until 1987, serving longer than any secretary of defense except Robert S. McNamara.
Administering the largest peacetime defense buildup in history, which totaled $2 trillion, Weinberger saw his nickname change from “Cap the Knife”—an unflattering moniker he had earned for cutting public spending during the 1970s—to “Cap the Shovel.”
Renowned as an anti-Soviet hawk, Weinberger explained in his 2001 memoirs, “In the Arena: A Memoir of the 20th Century,” that he believed that the military buildup was consistent with his reluctance to commit forces abroad.
“I did not arm to attack,” he wrote. “We armed so that we could negotiate from strength, defend freedom, and make war less likely.”
Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein ’61, who served as chairman of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1982 to 1984, praised Weinberger’s defense policies, calling him “a powerful intellectual and political force in the Reagan administration.”
“With his close relation to President Reagan—whom he had served in California during the Reagan governorship—he was able to achieve strong growth of defense spending. That defense buildup contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the successful end to the cold war,” Feldstein wrote in an e-mail. Feldstein teaches Economics 2490, “The Economics of National Security,” and taught Social Analysis 10, “Principles of Economics,” for more than two decades. Weinberger received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 1987, the year he left the Defense Department.
In 1992, Weinberger faced a federal indictment for lying to investigators in the Iran-Contra scandal under Reagan, but received a presidential pardon from President George H. W. Bush before his trial began.
Born Aug. 18, 1917, in San Francisco, Weinberger arrived in Harvard Yard in the fall of 1934.
Morris E. Lasker ’38, who lived on the third floor of Matthews Hall with Weinberger in their freshman year, said that it was clear even in Weinberger’s college days that the future defense secretary was clearly “very bright” and “very capable.”
“He was highly intelligent, extremely well organized, and persistent, and he was highly engaged with The Crimson,” Lasker said of his classmate. Lasker, who later became a federal judge, noted that he remained close to Weinberger after their undergraduate years, as both pursued careers in public service.
While working for The Crimson, Weinberger became well known for his conservative editorials criticizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904. He was also reportedly proud of securing a backstage interview with actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Graduating magna cum laude from the College in 1938 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Weinberger went on to earn a JD from Harvard Law School in 1941.
In the six-and-a-half decades after he left Cambridge, Weinberger’s Harvard ties continued to run deep, top alumni development officials said.
Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) Executive Director Jack P. Reardon Jr. ’60 enthusiastically lauded the commitment that Weinberger, a former HAA director, showed to Harvard.
“Caspar Weinberger ‘bled’ crimson!” Reardon wrote in an e-mail, adding that he was “endlessly interested in and supportive of Harvard and more especially Harvard students.”
Weinberger is survived by his wife, his son and daughter, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
—Staff writer Daniel J. T. Schuker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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