WASHINGTON – A former defense secretary for Ronald Reagan says he implored the president to put Marines serving in Beirut in a safer position before terrorists attacked them in 1983, killing 241 servicemen.
"I was not persuasive enough to persuade the president that the Marines were there on an impossible mission," Caspar Weinberger says in an oral history project capturing the views of former Reagan administration officials.
Recollections of an initial 25 Reagan aides were released this week by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Altogether, scholars interviewed 45 Cabinet members, White House staffers and campaign advisers in a project begun in 2001, when Reagan was secluded with advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. Reagan died in June 2004 at the age of 93.
Transcripts offer largely admiring portraits by Reagan's chief loyalists and Weinberger is no exception, crediting the president with restoring U.S. power and outfoxing the Soviet Union.
But he said one of his greatest regrets was in failing to overcome the arguments that "'Marines don't cut and run,' and 'We can't leave because we're there"' before the devastating suicide attack on the lightly armed force.
"They had no mission but to sit at the airport, which is just like sitting in a bull's-eye," Weinberger said. "I begged the president at least to pull them back and put them back on their transports as a more defensible position."
On another dark corner of Reagan's presidency, the Iran-Contra affair, former Secretary of State George Shultz said Reagan was so moved by meeting the families of U.S. hostages that officials feared the encounters would cloud his judgment, and began keeping the families at bay.
"The president, it just drove him crazy that there were these hostages in Lebanon," Shultz said in his December 2002 interview. Consequently, the "cockeyed dream" took hold of secretly selling arms to Iranians in return for their leverage in freeing the captives.
Weinberger, who often clashed with Shultz on foreign policy, agreed that Reagan's "idea of trying to get the hostages back overweighed almost everything" and arose from meeting the families. "Those meetings destroyed him, absolutely," he said.
Weinberger said Reagan discovered that his description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" twice got lopped out of drafts of his soon-to-be famous 1983 speech. "The third time he didn't put it in the draft, but he gave the speech with that phrase," Weinberger said.
"And you could hear this gasp from the conventional-wisdom people virtually all over the world."
James Kuhn, Reagan's second-term executive assistant, credited Nancy Reagan with much of her husband's success but said she was hard to please. He described her as a first lady who "could ask questions that there were no answers to."
For example, she would demand details of the weather in whatever place the Reagans were going. "And she'd say: 'Rain. Why is it raining? Why is it raining in Cleveland?"' Kuhn related.
"I'd say, 'Well, I guess there's a low pressure system that came in.'
"I'd think, 'Oh God, I'm getting in deeper here."'