Next to President Ronald Reagan himself, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger was the single most important supporter of missile defenses in the Reagan Administration. He played a key role in establishing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program and then served as its champion in the bureaucratic battles and public debates that SDI engendered throughout his tenure as Secretary of Defense.
In early 1983, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to recommend more emphasis on strategic defense, Secretary Weinberger agreed that the Chiefs personally should present these views to President Reagan. While the President was already favorably disposed toward missile defenses, it was critical at this juncture for the President to know that the Chiefs unanimously supported a similar initiative. Knowing that he now had the support of the Joint Chiefs, President Reagan moved ahead quickly and energetically to launch the consolidated and expanded missile defense program that was the key to his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. When the President announced his initiative on March 23, 1983, Secretary Weinberger was among the few top government officials who knew of the President’s intentions. After the speech, Secretary Weinberger assumed responsibility for implementing the SDI program within the Department of Defense.
In the year following the speech, the defense establishment considered a number of organizational structures for SDI. One popular approach would have continued the management arrangement in effect before the President’s speech—missile defense projects would be divided up between the military services and other government agencies with additional funding going to established projects. Secretary Weinberger rejected this “business as usual” recipe. SDI was the President’s top priority and had to have a managerial structure commensurate with this status. Therefore, he decided to consolidate the scattered missile defense projects into a single, coherent program under the overall guidance of a central agency, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO).
During these early critical years, it was clear to everyone that Secretary Weinberger had the keenest interest and involvement in the success of the SDI program. At the same time, the Secretary’s passionate support for SDI was always coupled with a demand for excellence in the program. There is no better example of his strong support for SDI than a 1985 memorandum he addressed to the Service Secretaries and the heads of all defense agencies.
I have advised all in the Department that the President and I attach the highest priority to the Strategic Defense Initiative. It is vital that we all work as effectively as possible to support . . . [the President’s] Strategic Defense Initiative, which I firmly believe offers more hope to mankind than any other proposal in recent times.
In addition to his strong support for SDI within the government, Secretary Weinberger was a leading advocate of the program in the public arena. After two and a half years of research in the SDI program, Secretary Weinberger was convinced that progress in the program justified submitting a missile defense architecture for review by the Defense Acquisition Board. In December 1986, he briefed President Reagan to this effect, and the President supported this view. As a result, SDIO submitted an architectural concept to the Defense Acquisition Board in June 1987. Acting on the recommendations of this board, on September 18, 1987, Secretary Weinberger approved the first SDI architecture for entry into the acquisition process.
Since his departure from public service, Secretary Weinberger has continued his strong public advocacy of missile defenses in his memoir, Fighting for Peace; in his commentary articles in Forbes Magazine; and elsewhere. The U.S. missile defense program could not have achieved its current advanced status without Caspar W. Weinberger’s passionate dedication to President Reagan’s vision.