WASHINGTON - The man who spent World War II in Hollywood, wearing an Army uniform and acting in training films, went on to become the commander in chief responsible for rebuilding America's military might and boosting the morale of troops dispirited by the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
As president from 1981 to 1989, Ronald Reagan persuaded an often wary Congress to fund many of the weapons systems later used in both Persian Gulf wars, either initiating the arms programs or accelerating work on those already in development.
He pushed for the Air Force's stealth technology and precision weaponry that forced Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait in 1991, and the Army's Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M-1 Abrams tanks that swept into Baghdad 12 years later to bring down Hussein's regime.
Reagan presided over the biggest peacetime defense buildup in history, from high-tech weapons systems to larger training ranges and military pay increases. It was his steady focus on the military, said supporters and analysts, that helped bring down the Soviet Union and expunge the malaise and hollowness that infected the American military during the 1970s.
Still, some critics said Reagan's focus on building up the military's nuclear force and a missile defense system needlessly imperiled world peace and produced huge Pentagon budgets and federal deficits.
Reagan took over a military afflicted with racial, drug and alcohol problems and an inability to recruit even the marginally qualified. The number of high school graduates inducted into the Army in 1979 was the lowest since the all-volunteer force began six years earlier.
"The military had been knocked around by Vietnam and needed to be told by the top person that they were honored and appreciated," said retired Gen. Edward "Shy" Meyer, Army chief of staff under Reagan.
Meyer had warned President Jimmy Carter a year before Reagan's 1980 election victory that the Army was losing its best and most well-trained soldiers and becoming "hollow."
Reagan was at ease with soldiers and senior officers alike, charming Meyer by knowing the words to the Army's anthem ("The Caissons Go Rolling Along"). And he was supportive of military needs, said the general: "He put his money where his mouth was."
Caspar W. Weinberger, who served as Reagan's defense secretary, said Reagan "restored the military and turned around the morale almost overnight." The military was in such abysmal shape that some suggested a return of the draft, said Weinberger. But before long, "we had more volunteers than we could enlist," he recalled in a phone interview.
At the heart of the buildup in armaments, said Weinberger, was Reagan's belief that the United States trailed Russia militarily - he called it a "window of vulnerability" - and that the long-term U.S. policy of trying to contain Moscow's ambitions was not the right one.
"He said this is a Cold War that needs to be won. It was a matter of demonstrating to them that they couldn't win a war. In order to do that we had to regain our strength," said Weinberger.
Between 1980 and 1985, the number of dollars devoted each year to defense more than doubled, from $142.6 billion to $286.8 billion. The Navy increased its force from 479 combat ships to 525, while the Army bought thousands of the new Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. An Army attack helicopter called the Apache, a key weapon in both gulf wars, made its debut.
Hundreds of attack aircraft, from the Navy's F-14 Tomcat to the Air Force's F-15 Eagle, took to the skies, while the Pentagon rapidly modernized its nuclear force with the Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile, the Trident submarine and the B-1B bomber, wrote James Kitfield in his book Prodigal Soldiers, which chronicled the military's buildup in the 1980s.
There were complaints that the Pentagon was spending too much money, but Reagan pressed the buildup "regardless of the political consequences," said Weinberger: "They bought us what we needed. You can see it today."
The Army became faster and more lethal. Swift M-1 tanks, which could shoot on the run, replaced the lumbering Vietnam-era M-60 tank, which had to stop to fire. "The jeeps start going away and the Humvees start coming into the motor pool," one officer recalled.
Training for Iraq
Reagan also expanded training opportunities for soldiers. He helped turn the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert of California, an installation the size of Rhode Island, into the Army's premier site for vast war games that included mock tank-on-tank battles.
That Army training center "made [officers] more competent. You could see it in the first gulf war," said retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, who was director of the National Security Agency, the Maryland-based center of eavesdropping spies.
Retired Air Force Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak, who was a budget officer during the Reagan buildup, recalled the enormous amounts of money flooding into the Pentagon. Later, as Air Force chief of staff during the first gulf war, McPeak saw first-hand the effects of the spending.
Such warplanes as the F-117 stealth fighter, with its two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, came on line during this time. Although only 36 stealth fighters were deployed in the first gulf war and accounted for 2.5 percent of the total force of 1,900 fighters and bombers, they flew more than a third of the bombing runs on the first day.
"Our performance in Desert Storm, which was mostly an air show, directly resulted from Reagan's buildup," said McPeak.
In the midst of the spending, there were embarrassments, with reports of $700 hammers and $400 toilet seats, which some lawmakers used to bludgeon a Reagan White House that was cutting back on spending for the poor.
Weinberger said these overcharges were uncovered in Pentagon audits: "We stopped doing business with people like that."
Odom argued that some of the money in the Reagan military buildup was "squandered" on too many Navy ships and too much research and development on stealth technology. And he faulted the Air Force for taking over ballistic missile defense and cutting back on some of the Army's promising missile defense programs.
Marcus Corbin, a defense analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a think tank in Washington, acknowledged Reagan's role in rebuilding the military and its morale, but he faulted his confrontational approach toward the Soviet Union, which he said led to some moments of "high peril."
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said that while he supported Reagan's boosting tanks and aircraft, the nuclear arms increases and missile defense programs "had an insanity element to it."
Weinberger argued that it was Reagan's military increases, his advocacy of a defense against nuclear missiles and his tough stance against the Kremlin that helped bring down the Soviet Union soon after he left office.
Though others vehemently dispute that view, Weinberger said of Reagan, "He was the cause of the fall of the Soviet Union."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times