U.S. secretary of defense
President Ronald Reagan appointed Weinberger, a former California and federal official, as secretary of defense in 1981. Weinberger worked to implement Reagan's defense program, stressing armed forces modernization, readiness, and sustainability to counter the threats of the Soviet Union, which Reagan labeled the "evil empire." Weinberger pushed for a broad strategic weapons program, including B-1B bombers, a stealth aircraft, the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile, and the MX "Peacekeeper" ICBM. He backed development of Reagan's space-based system to defend against missile attack the Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars" program.
Weinberger persuaded Congress to approve large increases in the defense budget, which increased from about $176 billion (total obligational authority) in fiscal year 1981 to over $276 billion in fiscal year 1985, the largest peacetime defense buildup in U.S. history. After that, he was less successful in getting his budget requests through Congress. Between 1981 and 1985, there was substantial real growth; after 1985, although the dollar amount of the defense budget continued to increase slowly, there was negative real growth.
Weinberger was cautious about committing military forces in trouble spots around the world, but while he was at the Pentagon, U.S. forces joined an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon (August 1982) and invaded Grenada (October 1983) to oust a Communist-controlled government. Responding to tension in the Persian Gulf, the Department of Defense created the unified Central Command for Southwest Asia. During Weinberger's term, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act (1986), which strengthened the control of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the JCS organization and increased his influence as adviser to the president on military matters. Weinberger showed little enthusiasm for the U.S.-USSR arms control negotiations (START and the INF Treaties), which Reagan accorded high priority during his second term (1985-89). Although within the administration, he opposed the activities leading to the Iran-Contra Affair (1986). Weinberger was later indicted on a charge that he had not disclosed to an independent counsel the existence of notes he kept on the matter; President George Bush pardoned him in 1992 shortly before his trial was to begin.
After serving longer than any secretary of defense except Robert S. McNamara, Weinberger left office in November 1987.