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'Cap the Knife' faces new kind of challenge at Pentagon

By Stephen WebbeStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 1980



Washington

"Cap the Knife" is back in town. And Caspar Weinberger -- who earned that sobriquet as a cost-cutting director of the Office of Management and Budget and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Nixon administration -- will have to call on all his reputed skill and toughness as an administrator in his new assignment with the incoming Republican administration: secretary of defense.

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The former infantry captain whom President-elect Ronald Reagan calls "my Disraeli" is charged with the awesome task of solving the complex problems of the nation's armed forces.

Why would Mr. Weinberger forsake the vice-presidency of the Bechtel Corporation, a multinational engineering company, to take on such a job?

"The President-elect asked me to do so, and I have always found it very difficult to say no to presidents," he declares. "I believe very strongly in Governor Reagan and what he's trying to do -- what he has done in California and what I think he can do for the nation."

Weinberger says he intends "to do my best and to have the defense forces of the United States in a state of full readiness to perform for the maintenance of the peace of the world."

Observers note that the new secretary's first task after moving into his office at the Pentagon will be to resolve a dispute between the President-elect's defense advisers, who are split over the immediate priorities facing the department. On the one hand, William Van Cleave, Mr. Reagan's senior defense adviser, believes that "the highest national priority" should be given to "fixing the weaknesses in our strategic posture as rapidly as possible." But opponents of this view, most notably Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, a one-time contender for the post of defense secretary and soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committe, favors the immediate invigoration of US conventional forces, believing that their Soviet counterparts are a much more immediate threat than any current US strategic inferiority.

Quite apart from helping determine national defense strategy, Mr. Weinberger will inherit a series of troubled weapons systems from the Carter administration , primarily the Trident submarine program, the woes of which are to be investigated by Congress next year, and the Navy's F-18 fighter, which has encountered cost, production, and performance problems.

Weinberger will also have to wrestle with deployment of the controversial MX missile system. Proposals to base it in Nevada and Utah are viewed a unduly costly and complicated by many defense experts, and as anathema by numerous environmentalists and residents of the states concerned.

Caspar Willard Weinberger was born in San Francisco on Aug. 8, 1917. He was graduated magna cum laude with an AB degree from Harvard in 1938, and three years later received an LLB degree from the university's law school. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

During World War II he saw service with the 41st Infantry Division in the Pacific before being transferred to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's intelligence staff. He was discharged from the Army in 1945 with the rank of captain and a bronze star.