On Monday evening, March 27, I spoke to students in my “Modern Civilization” course here at Grove City College. I was lecturing on the origins of the Cold War. I began talking about the Berlin Wall, going through the date of its construction, listing those responsible for the monstrosity, explaining a few details on its size and length.
None of this, however, captured the gravity of the crudeness, the barbarism of that wall—of how it stood erect like a cold, gray tombstone to human freedom. For that, I turned to the blackboard and scribbled these two words: “Cap Weinberger.”
I instructed my students, most of whom were three or four years old when that wall fell, that Cap Weinberger had been Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense—a significant individual that we would discuss later as we got to the end of the Cold War. For now, though, I had to pause to share a piece of timeless Weinberger wisdom.
I had interviewed Weinberger a number of times over the years. In one of our conversations, the Berlin Wall came up: “I want you to do me a favor,” Weinberger told me. “As a professor, as a speaker, as a writer, any time that the Berlin Wall comes up in one of your discussions, I want you to ask the crowd this question: In which direction did those East German guards face?… The answer: East.”
Yes, that said it all. The East German guards that patrolled the Berlin Wall faced East, not West; in other words, they patrolled against their own people, not an outside enemy—the customary reason to erect a wall. That bears repeating: the armed East German soldiers faced their own unarmed citizenry, many of whom they shot and killed. The “threat” came from those looking to escape, not enter. This was the surreal, perverse, contemptible world of communism.
I told this to my students on Monday evening, just as Weinberger would have wanted. Heads nodded, as they always do each time I share the anecdote.
When I awoke the next morning, I got a phone from Bill Clark, a man as close to Weinberger (and Reagan) as anyone, informing me that Weinberger had died that night. He was 88.
I recall a few other things that Weinberger told me, and had hoped future generations would know: He wanted the world to understand that Ronald Reagan had long intended the undermining of the Soviet empire that took place at the end of the 1980s. He told me in October 2002: “Reagan did say that it [the Soviet Union] would have to be destroyed, that it was evil. And that was over the opposition of almost all his advisers. He did feel that very strongly. He felt it had to be ended and kept from prevailing.”
Asked when Reagan came to that conclusion, Weinberger replied: “I think quite early on. He did an awful lot of reading that people didn’t realize. He was very well educated on the whole thing.” “The more he looked,” said Weinberger, “the more he studied, the more he saw, the more he concluded that this was a regime that had to go. And this was certainly his own thinking well before the presidency.”
To Reagan, said Weinberger, “It wasn’t about containment; it was about winning the Cold War.” He said that Reagan insisted that communism was incompatible with freedom and “was ultimately going to have to be destroyed and defeated. He was not content to rest with the assumption that in eighty or ninety years, the USSR might collapse.”
It was really quite simple, said the former secretary of defense, speaking of the goal of Reagan, himself, and indispensable figures like Bill Clark and Bill Casey: “We were going to try to win the Cold War.”
And they did. They dedicated themselves to what Weinberger—born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution—called “a coherent overall strategy to win the Cold War and consign the Soviet system to ‘the ash heap of history.’ Such was the grand strategy and greatest foreign policy accomplishment of the Reagan administration.”
More than any other secretary in the Reagan Cabinet, Weinberger made that collapse possible. In so doing, he helped free millions from Budapest to Bucharest, from Warsaw to Moscow.
Of course, all along, he was pilloried by liberals. One of a thousand examples was provided courtesy of Senator Don Riegle (D-MI) in a February 3, 1983 budget hearing: “Mr. Weinberger, I have served in the Congress now for 17 years under five Presidents, as both a Republican and a Democrat, and for the first time, I think we have a Secretary of Defense whose basic judgment is dangerous to our country,” judged Riegle. “You give every appearance of being an inflexible ideologue who has lost any sense of rational proportion…. By your really fanatical insistence on defense increases that are larger than needed, larger than we can afford, I believe that you are damaging are national security.”
Liberals could find common ground in the Soviet Union, where Weinberger was daily portrayed by Pravda as a war-mongering nut who fantasized about blowing up the world.
Eastern Europeans, however, appreciated him. In 1996, one of them, Marian Krzaklewski, Lech Walesa’s successor as head of Solidarity, had a chance to thank Weinberger in person. Seated for breakfast on the top floor of the 40-story Warsaw Marriott, which provided a sweeping vista of the rebuilt post-communist capital, the Pole looked at Weinberger and said with a tear: “You and Mr. Reagan saved my country.” Weinberger responded: “I was just doing my job—the job the President asked me to do.”
He did. And now, Cap Weinberger has left us, and left the world a better place.