MOUNT DESERT – Caspar W. Weinberger, 88, who held high positions under three Republican presidents and oversaw the biggest and costliest military buildup in peacetime history as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, died yesterday in Bangor after a brief illness. Mr. Weinberger was a resident of nearby Mount Desert. His son, Caspar Jr., also of Mount Desert, said his father had been undergoing kidney dialysis for two years and succumbed to pneumonia. His wife of 63 years, Jane, was by his side when he died, his son said. Until his death, Mr. Weinberger was chairman of Forbes Inc. He had continued to travel around the world until recently and had written a regular column for Forbes magazine, his son said. The elder Mr. Weinberger’s book, “Home of the Brave: A Tribute to Unsung Heroes in the War on Terror,” co-written with Wynton C. Hall, will be published in June by Forge Press. A self-assured man and a tenacious debater, Mr. Weinberger served in Washington off and on for almost two decades and was a key backer of President Ronald Reagan’s missile-based Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars. He was also an implacable foe of the Soviet Union, a posture that put him increasingly at odds with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who leaned more toward arms-control negotiations with Moscow. By the time Mr. Weinberger left the Pentagon in 1987, President Reagan had been persuaded by Mr. Shultz (who had the president’s wife, Nancy, in his corner). The president, who had once derided the Soviet Union as “an evil empire,” got along well with the Russian leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who seemed cut from different cloth than his drab but ruthless predecessors. Mr. Weinberger never lost his bone-deep suspicion of the Russians, and his comments after the collapse of the Soviet Union suggested that he still had more faith in arms than diplomacy, at least in dealing with the Kremlin. Many felt Mr. Weinberger’s record was marred late in life by questions about his role in the Iran-Contra affair – questions a presidential pardon left unresolved – but his resume was impressive by any standard. Under President Richard M. Nixon, he was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission; deputy director and later director of the Office of Management and Budget, where he earned the nickname Cap the Knife by smilingly arguing against requests for more money; and secretary of health, education and welfare. He remained as secretary of the H.E.W. under President Gerald R. Ford until 1975, when he left Washington for his native California. He said his wife could better cope with her arthritis there. It was after he returned to the capital as defense secretary for Mr. Reagan in 1981 that Mr. Weinberger made his real mark. His mission, he said early on, was “to rearm America.” Previous efforts to get along with the Russians without demanding good behavior in return had reinforced “the Soviet prison wall,” which Mr. Weinberger said, “stretches all the way from the Balkans to the Baltic. “Nor was vigilance against Moscow enough. “If we value our freedom, we must be able to defend ourselves in wars of any size and shape and in any region where we have vital interests,” he said in a speech in Chicago in 1981. And the rise of the charismatic Gorbachev in the mid-1980s did not soften those views. “I don’t think just because he wears Gucci shoes and smiles occasionally that the Soviet Union has changed its basic doctrines,” Mr. Weinberger said in 1987, as he was leaving office. So while other parts of the federal government were cringing under the cut-to-the-bone philosophy of the Reagan White House (as the old Cap the Knife might have desired), Mr. Weinberger demanded billions more for long-range nuclear arms, ships, planes and tanks. “This is not a one-year program for summer soldiers,” he warned in 1981. He was true to his word. Year after year, he fought for — and usually won — big increases in Pentagon spending. In April 1982, he conceded that the United States had more long-range missiles than did the Soviet Union. But, he warned, the Soviet missiles were more accurate than America’s. Mr. Weinberger also tried to alleviate the ancient problem of rivalries among the services. He ordered the branches to find more roles for women. He delegated more planning authority to the chiefs of staff and the service secretaries so he could devote more time to policy. The only blemish in his 35 years of public service came in 1992, five years after he left the cabinet. That year, he was indicted on felony charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the covert sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of some of the proceeds to the Nicaraguan rebels, or Contras. The tangled transactions, which came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair, were against the declared policy of the United States. Subsequent investigations depicted President Reagan as determined to win the release of American hostages held in the Middle East and eager to obtain the help of Iranian “moderates” to do so. Mr. Weinberger told a special committee of Congress in 1987 that he was aghast when he first heard White House aides talk about cultivating Iranian moderates. He testified that he had considered the idea “almost too absurd to comment on,” and he said as much in a staff memorandum at the time. He told Congress that he thought, erroneously, that he had killed the proposal. A special commission headed by John Tower, a former Republican senator from Texas, criticized Mr. Weinberger for not advising the president more vigorously. Mr. Weinberger rejected the criticism as unfair. The special Iran-Contra prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, obtained an indictment accusing Mr. Weinberger of concealing voluminous notes that would have cast more light on the roles of President Reagan and Vice President George Bush in the scandal. The notes were scrawled in his almost illegible handwriting in some 5-by-7-inch notebooks that he had donated to the Library of Congress after leaving office. The notebooks, some 1,700 of them, lay undisturbed until prosecutors learned of them. To Mr. Weinberger and his backers, the little books were personal diaries with jottings about the family dog as well as policy. To prosecutors, they were evidence the former secretary had tried to bury. Mr. Weinberger furiously denied the charges, declaring that the prosecutor had pressured him to plead guilty to a lesser count in return for giving damaging testimony against Mr. Reagan, testimony that Mr. Weinberger said would have been false. Mr. Weinberger was to have stood trial in 1993. But on Christmas Eve 1992, President George Bush ended Mr. Weinberger’s legal troubles, pardoning him and several other officials caught up in the scandal. Early in his tenure as defense secretary, Mr. Weinberger learned that the sprawling military bureaucracy sometimes had a life of its own and that he could not change an entrenched culture overnight. In 1981, David A. Stockman, the Reagan budget director who ought to have been a Weinberger soulmate, pronounced the Pentagon “a swamp” of waste and inefficiency. “Maybe he was talking about the Pentagon of a few years ago,” Mr. Weinberger bristled. “The Pentagon is not a swamp. It is very dry land.” But two years later, Mr. Weinberger acknowledged that some fiscal absurdities had sprung up under his watch as well as under previous Democratic ones. A common metal bolt that cost 80 cents in 1980 had somehow become worth $17.59 in 1982, for instance. Though he oversaw the spending of astronomical sums as Pentagon chief, Mr. Weinberger sometimes unleashed the budget-cutter in his political personality. Shortly after asking for $30 billion more in military spending for the first two years of the Reagan administration, he announced $1.7 billion in spending cuts through elimination of some projects and postponement of others. In 1985, he canceled the development of an antiaircraft gun that had already cost $1.8 billion and was expected to cost $3 billion more. It just did not work very well, and there was no use thr
owing good money after bad,