President Bill Clinton's first secretary of defense, Les Aspin (1938-1995) spent 20 years of service in the House of Representatives. Despite his acknowledged intellect, he was a controversial committee chair in Congress and continued in that stance in the Cabinet, being replaced in late 1993. He served as head of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board until his death in 1995.
Les Aspin was born July 21, 1938, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of a Yorkshireman, Leslie Aspin, who had moved to the United States from England via Canada, and Marie Orth. Aspin graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1960 with a degree in history. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University where he earned an M.A. in economics in 1962. He then studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he received a Ph.D. in economics in 1965.
Even before he finished his dissertation at MIT he had landed a position as an aide to William Proxmire, senator from Wisconsin and an ardent foe of government waste and extravagance. Aspin was Proxmire's campaign manager in 1964, thus gaining an education in electoral politics.
In 1963 Aspin served as a staff assistant to Walter Heller, who was head of President John F. Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisers. Three years later, at age 28, he entered the army, but did not leave Washington, serving as an economist at the Pentagon. While there he became part of the team of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, making several trips to Vietnam and learning how to analyze the mysteries of the Pentagon budget.
Released from active duty in 1968 after fulfilling his two-year service obligation, Aspin returned to Wisconsin to manage Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign for reelection in that state. When Johnson withdrew his name from consideration, Aspin ran for the office of state treasurer, his first bid for elective office. He failed to win the primary so he turned to teaching economics at Marquette University. In 1970 he tried politics again, this time running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives from the First Congressional District. He seemed to have lost, but a recount made him the victor by a narrow margin. He campaigned in the general election on a decidedly liberal platform supporting environmental positions, opposing the Vietnam War, and promising to promote full employment. Running at a time when antiwar feeling was high, Aspin soundly defeated his Republican opponent.
Aspin's first terms in Congress showed a maverick streak. He attracted much press attention with his campaigns to expose graft, fraud, and waste in governmental operations, particularly in defense contracts. That, and his questioning of the perks of general officers, made him persona non grata within the military, especially since he was a vocal member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The off-year election of 1974, following the Watergate affair, brought a record crop of freshman lawmakers determined to reform the House's operations. Among the targets was the seniority system in congressional committees. Aspin led the fight to unseat F. Edward Hebert of Louisiana, a staunch friend of the military, as chair of the Armed Services Committee.
By the 1980s Aspin had seemingly become more conservative and more accepted by those supporting President Reagan's defense build-up. His record became more mixed; he was in favor of a nuclear arms freeze, but not for a moratorium on the use of nuclear weapons. He supported a 5 percent growth in defense spending and, most controversially, the MX missile. Indeed, his actions in 1983 and 1984 saved the MX missile when House liberals thought they had defeated the funding for it.
Aspin now began to be given important subcommittee assignments for the Armed Services Committee. He became chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel and Compensation as well as serving as a member of the Subcommittee on Investigations and on the Budget Committee. By 1985 he was able to win the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee, replacing the veteran Melvin Price.
The coalition that had supported Aspin for the chair did not hold together long. Liberals believed that he had promised them the elimination of the MX missile program, but instead he took the position of slowing down the growth of the program. These representatives felt betrayed when Aspin again saved the system at the behest of Reagan. Aspin then became the leader of a group called Defense Democrats who supported portions of Reagan's military program although advocating less resources for them. This group wished to accelerate the midgetman program and reduce, but not eliminate, funding for research on the so-called Star Wars missile program. This only partially assuaged Aspin's foes.
Aspin again became controversial with his position on Reagan's Central American policy. Despite his anti-Vietnam War history, he supported the administration's program of aid to the El Salvadorian government in the face of that government's bad record on human rights and late in 1986 supported the Reagan effort to extend military aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. This angered many congressional Democrats who had fought hard against such aid.
Military conservatives were not happy either. Aspin had continued to attack waste in the Pentagon, to demand more efficiency in the Defense Department, and to reduce what he considered to be bloated retirement pay. The result was that, although he tried to mend fences with both sides and thought that he had succeeded by mid-1986, he almost lost his chairmanship in 1987. A coalition of conservatives and some aggrieved liberals sought to replace him with arch-conservative Marvin Leath of Texas. They succeeded in ousting him in the first vote on his chairmanship; but when the vote for a new chairman was taken two weeks later he won, as his friends widely publicized Leath's record.
Aspin continued to head the Armed Services Committee through 1992. He was as controversial as ever, even as the Bush administration reduced defense growth; and when President-elect Bill Clinton selected him to be Secretary of Defense there was some opposition and grumbling in both Congress and the military.
His tenure as Secretary of Defense was quite short, lasting less than a year. Problems beset him from the start: he seemed to disagree with the president's stance on gays in the military, he refused to send tanks to Somalia when requested by the military commander, and he argued against budget director Leon Panetta's suggested cuts in his department's spending. Critics charged him with being a poor administrator and with giving discursive and unproductive testimony to Congress. Despite his short tenure, Aspin made notable contributions to the nation's military. Rather than cut weapon and troop spending at the top, he provided a detailed "bottom up" review of the Pentagon needs for the future. He also presided over the unpopular closing of many obsolete military bases and reorganized the National Guard and other reserve components into a more streamlined force. Aspin suffered health problems and had a pacemaker installed. He resigned from the cabinet on December 15, 1993. Les Aspin died in May of 1995, following a stroke. He was serving as head of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board at the time of his death.
Further Reading on Les Aspin
Most of the information on Aspin is limited to newspapers and periodicals. See the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (April 1987); the New Republic (February 2, 1987; August 27, 1992); Newsweek (April 1, 1985); New York Times (April 3, 1976; January 6, 1985; December 16, 1993; December 19, 1993); Time (May 29, 1995; June 5, 1995); and the Wall Street Journal (January 5, 1985; December 16, 1993).