Though he was a quick study and an indefatigable reader of briefing papers, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger had no background as a strategic thinker. His reputation had been forged as a manager at President Nixon's Department of Health, Education and Welfare and as a budget-cutter at Nixon's Office of Management and Budget, where he earned the nickname "Cap the Knife."

Reagan trusted Weinberger, and thought he could do anything. Weinberger returned this trust by showing a keen understanding of Reagan. He prided himself on knowledge of his boss, which meant knowing what Reagan wanted -- and giving it to him. Though Weinberger had once been considered rather dovish, his martial anti-communist rhetoric as defense secretary matched Reagan's own.

Weinberger also believed he understood the president's position on the one defense issue where Reagan's bristling rhetoric faded softly into the Nevada sunset -- the vital strategic decision of where and how to base the MX intercontinental ballistic missiles that were supposed to deter the Soviet Union from a nuclear first strike.

As a political issue, the MX provoked great passions. Its supporters considered it the only realistic deterrent to a surprise Soviet attack. Its opponents viewed it as wasteful madness that would gobble up billions of dollars and destroy vast stretches of desert and grazing land. But the MX was a submerged issue during the 1980 campaign when it conflicted with the overall impressions that both candidates were trying to convey.

Reagan's campaign stance was that [Jimmy] Carter was a weak president who had let America's defenses slide and its prestige crumble. Carter portrayed himself as a man of peace and Reagan as a warmonger. Buried beneath these poster images was the MX issue, on which Carter took the sterner view of Soviet intentions and Reagan the more benign one.

Carter proposed to build 200 of the gigantic, super-accurate missiles and shuttle them along 4,600 shelters in the Nevada and Utah desert (in Pentagon nomenclature "MX-MPS" for Missile Experimental-Multiple Protective Shelters). The price tag, estimated at $33 billion by Carter, was by 1981 projected to top $50 billion.

Carter, who had entered office talking about ridding the world of nuclear weapons, had accepted the MX with the greatest reluctance. Early in 1977, Carter rescinded funds for MX development and suggested scrapping the system entirely. But in November, Carter was informed by his respected Pentagon chief, William Perry, and defense secretary Harold Brown, that the Soviets had staged a breakthrough in their missile-guidance system.

Perry was convinced that the Soviets could outfit existing missiles with the new system, giving them a capability by the mid-1980s of destroying nearly all of the 1,000 U.S. Minuteman missiles in a surprise attack.

In 1979, Carter reversed course and proposed funding for the MX-MPS system; he disliked the plan but became convinced it was superior to the known alternatives. Reagan was a persuasive critic of SALT II, which he believed would impose one-sided limitations on the United States without seriously impeding the Soviets. A number of Democratic senators felt the same way.

When Carter in 1980 withdrew the SALT II treaty as an expression of political realism and a response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Reagan's advisers told him that the rationale for race-track deployment of the MX had disappeared with the SALT II treaty. The main purpose of the deployment had been to make the system verifiable, as SALT II would have required.

Reagan's hard-lining chief defense adviser, William R. Van Cleave, didn't like the race-track system anyway. He thought it was wasteful to spend billions of dollars on shelters to hide U.S. missiles and then tell the Russians where they were located. Van Cleave's argument impressed Reagan, who criticized the Carter basing plan without ever specifically rejecting the MX.

Reagan's opposition to the race-track idea was sharpened by Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, who was hearing from Nevada ranchers opposed to giving up their land. With SALT II withdrawn, defense secretary Brown himself abandoned race-track deployment in favor of a linear system, but "MX" and "race track" had been indelibly linked in some cassette within candidate Reagan's mind. And that linkage would remain after he became president.

Weinberger didn't need explicit instructions to scrap the MX. He remembered the campaign dialogue. He knew that Laxalt did not support MX-MPS and that the opinions of the Nevada senator carried weight with the president. He believed that the basing proposal faced years of delays from environmental lawsuits. And he had other issues on his mind and did not want to be bothered with MX.

When Seymour Zeiberg, who had been Perry's top assistant, briefed Weinberger and his deputy, Frank C. Carlucci, in February, 1981, he was appalled by the technical ignorance of the questions put to him. Zeiberg did not conceal his disdainful opinion, and the briefing alienated the top Defense officials rather than enlightening them. Zeiberg soon left the Pentagon. And Weinberger never afterward wanted to hear about the MX from its proponents, however well informed.

This reaction shut out the Air Force, the lead agency in past studies of the MX and a proponent of MX-MPS, from the decision-making process. Air Force attempts to get an audience with the defense secretary for a full-scale presentation of the department's views were repeatedly rebuffed, and the Air Force leadership did not insist as forcefully as it should have on a hearing.

Instead of consulting Pentagon experts, Weinberger, on March 16, 1981, did what White House ally Edwin Meese III would have done under similar circumstances -- he appointed his own panel of experts to make recommendations on the missile and its basing system. Meese was kept informed.

The 15-member panel elicited no enthusiasm from MX supporters, some of whom believed the committee was stacked against it. More neutral observers had a different worry: they feared that the committee encompassed so many different views it would have difficulty reaching any consensus. This also could be fatal to MX.

In any case, there was little doubt about where Weinberger stood on the basing issue. Charles Townes, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the University of California at Berkeley, whom Weinberger had named chairman of the panel, began his work with an admonition about lawsuits ringing in his ears:

"The one thing that the secretary was insistent on was his view of the environmental law. As he foresaw it, it would be a very long time getting the MX in place in view of the environmental problems."

While the Townes panel deliberated, Mormons declared that the MX-MPS system was "a denial of the very essence" of the church's gospel of "peace to the peoples of the earth."

In the summer of 1981, alternatives to MX-MPS came climbing out of the woodwork at the Pentagon and think tanks across the country. Weinberger's initial favorite was an air-mobile MX that had been tested and found wanting in both the Ford and Carter administrations.

The proposal Carter rejected called for conversion of C5A transports into MX missile carriers. Air Force tests found many deficiencies in this proposal, one being that the wings of the planes were likely to fall off if the missiles were actually fired.

An advanced version of this idea, dubbed Big Bird, made its way to Weinberger's desk. This variation required development of a fleet of new, fuel-efficient, large-winged planes. It was the brainchild of "two little guys from nowhere," according to one of them, Maryland physicist Ira F. Kuhn Jr., who said he named the proposal Big Bird from the character on television's "Sesame Street."

Meanwhile, the Townes panel was gradually drifting in the direction that presidents Ford and Carter had followed, finding that MX-MPS looked best when compared to the alternatives.

"It's one of those problems where there are no pretty, pleasing, happy alternatives," said a pro-MX official familiar with the panel's deliberations. "There's a set of alternatives, each of which has undesirable features, and instead of looking for Miss America, you just have to pick the one with the least warts. . . . We never argued that it was pretty, just less homely than those other things."

But to Weinberger, MX-MPS was too homely for words. When Townes told him the direction in which the committee was moving, Weinberger asked him to consider the air-mobile idea. Other Cabinet officers disagreed.

Then Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., budget director David A. Stockman, Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey and U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick all supported basing the MX in deceptive shelters.

The secretary of state pointed out that European countries had agreed to accept 572 new American medium-range, land-based missiles beginning in 1983. If the United States wasn't willing to put the MX on its own soil, Haig said, the Europeans were likely to cancel the agreements. But Weinberger and Meese, not Haig, were guiding the policy.

On July 30, in a meeting with the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, Meese strongly indicated that the administration would scrap the MX-MPS plan. He called it "a bad idea . . . dictated only because of the Carter administration's slavish adherence to SALT II, and that was the only reason for 4,600 holes in the ground."

Meese had left the technical details, and much more, to Weinberger. The president's counselor did not know what "MPS" stood for, incorrectly calling it the "multiple positioning system."

The Townes panel finally reported to Weinberger in late July. He kept the report secret and told Townes not to discuss it with the Air Force, which was still pushing to present its case for MX-MPS. Townes had given Weinberger some of what he wanted, but not enough.

The committee observed in an opening section that any land-based system was not survivable if the other side committed sufficient missiles to destroy it. Then, by a "significant majority," it recommended building 100 MX missiles and putting them into 100 shelters with the option to add additional shelters later.

Weinberger and the other opponents of MX-MPS by now realized that the airborne-missile idea would never fly. Without announcing anything, the defense secretary focused on another alternative -- a so-called "common missile" which could be employed both in land-based shelters and on missile-carrying submarines.

Past Pentagon studies had taken a dim view of this proposal, which in reality was not a "common missile" at all but a plan for converting the D5 Trident II missiles -- the next generation of submarine-launched missiles -- for use in silos.

Reagan was by now on his month-long vacation in California, and pressure was beginning to build for an MX-basing decision. On Aug. 17, at an expanded National Security Council meeting in Reagan's top-floor suite at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles , Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lew Allen Jr. made his case against the airborne missile to Reagan.

On Aug. 21, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John G. Tower (R) of Texas and Rep. William L. Dickinson of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, followed up with their support of MX-MPS and a critique of the airborne missile.

Dickinson came away from the meeting with, he said later, " . . . the distinct impression that one or both Weinberger and Reagan were against MPS and they were studying to look for alternatives. Reagan had a deep-seated bias, and Weinberger was affected by Reagan's feelings."

Weinberger prudently retreated. When he briefed Reagan at Rancho del Cielo on Aug. 26, he discussed options -- including the common missile -- but made no recommendation. The briefing disappointed some White House aides who had expected Weinberger to prospose a specific course of action.

Weinberger needed time. The alternatives to MX-MPS he had proposed had proved unacceptable to Congress. Haig also was insisting on some sort of land-based missile. The defense secretary and Pentagon research chief Richard DeLauer came up with a unique solution. The MX would be produced, but the major basing decision would be postponed until 1984, afterward amended by Congress to 1983.

In order to enable the president to claim that he had closed the "window of vulnerability" which was supposed to exist in the mid-1980s, Weinberger proposed placing 36 later changed to 40 MX missiles in existing Minuteman silos. These silos would be "super hardened" for protection, even though there was no existing research which supported the idea that any hardening would protect them from a Soviet attack.

While the MX missiles were being produced, research would continue on "three promising long-term basing options for MX," one of them Weinberger's pet proposal for an airborne missile patrol.

The plan left orthodox nuclear strategists gasping and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in opposition, but it was a stunning political solution, meeting the needs of the western senators and the Mormon Church and enabling Al Haig to tell the Europeans that the United States, after all, was willing to base new missiles on its own soil.

The president put his seal of approval on the Weinberger plan at a meeting in the second-floor sitting room of the White House on Sept. 28. Reagan had just returned from a speaking trip to New Orleans and was tired. Weinberger, who had touched base with Meese before the meeting, pushed for his proposal despite the fact it contradicted the recommendations of the Townes panel. Meese supported him.

Haig, relieved that Weinberger was at least proposing a land-based missile system, favored the Townes plan but did not push for it. Others in the meeting--Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver, then national security adviser Richard V. Allen and Vice President George Bush--deferred to Weinberger. Cleverly, the defense secretary used what Meese called "the weak recommendation" of the Townes committee against itself, pointing out that the panel had said that no missile was survivable.

Weinberger did not tell Reagan that the Soviets would have to use 9,200 one-megaton missiles to knock out MX-MPS and only 200 to destroy the Reagan administration's option.

Instead, Weinberger hauled out a cartoon drawn by Mike Keefe of The Denver Post which showed Uncle Sam playing a shell game with a Russian, inviting him to guess which shell concealed the MX missile. The Russian in the cartoon takes out his hammer and destroys all the shells. Reagan chuckled and approved the Weinberger plan.

When President Reagan announced this decision four days later, on Oct. 2, The Great Communicator was nowhere in evidence. Reagan read a statement saying that he had decided "not to deploy the MX in the race-track shelters proposed by the previous administration," without mentioning that the race-track shelters also had been discarded by the previous administration. He claimed, ironically, that his decision came "after one of the most complex, thorough and carefully conducted processes in memory."

What Reagan did not know was that his delegated decision had in fact been made after a one-sided scrutiny which had frustrated and dismayed the administration experts most knowledgeable about the MX. He did not care to know. He tried to leave the podium as quickly as possible, saying, "for all the technical matters, I am going to turn you over to Secretary Cap Weinberger."

And then unwisely agreeing to answer a few questions himself, Reagan demonstrated that he knew practically nothing about the decision Weinberger had reached in his name.

Asked why the MX would be less vulnerable to Soviet attack in fixed silos, Reagan said haltingly: "I don't know but what maybe you haven't gotten into the area that I'm going to turn over to the secretary of defense."

Weinberger, standing beside the President, said softly to him that the silos would be hardened. Reagan then repeated Weinberger's words. "I could say this," he said. "The plan also includes the hardening of silos so that they are protected against nuclear attack."

A moment later a reporter asked Reagan whether the B1 bomber, which Weinberger had revived at the same time he was doing away with MX-MPS, could penetrate Soviet defenses. "I think that my few minutes are up, and I'm going to turn that question over to Cap," Reagan said. He had turned the decision over to him long ago.

Weinberger was a civilian among warriors at the Pentagon. At State, Haig a warrior among diplomats and one who was willing to challenge anyone who crossed his path. Before the Cancun summit in October, 1981, Deaver had played devil's advocate, asking why the United States couldn't, in effect, go tell the complaining underdeveloped nations to go fly a kite.

"That's the most Neanderthal idea I ever heard," Haig said. "It's easy to sit here and take a macho position, but we can't afford that." He then proceeded to lecture the president and Deaver on U.S. responsibilities in the Third World.

Haig did a lot of lecturing. He knew far more about foreign affairs than Reagan and his Californians and he did not wear this knowledge easily. Haig broke the mold of the Reagan Cabinet rather than fit it.

Reagan likes quiet, easygoing, collegial people who can submerge themselves in a harmonic whole. Haig, who had worked for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, was a workaholic and battler with a flair for infighting. He was never submerged and rarely quiet or collegial. His life in the Reagan administration was a constant struggle -- with Weinberger, with the State Department bureaucracy, with "guerrillas" in the White House.

When Reagan, at Meese's urging, put Vice President Bush in charge of crisis management in March, 1981, Haig had a tantrum. Pointing his finger at his then-deputy, Bill Clark, Haig angrily accused the president of misleading him into thinking that he would be in charge of crisis management.

"He lied to me today, not only once but twice," Haig said. "He lied to me." Clark pointed his finger back at his superior. "Al, he hasn't lied to me once in 15 years," he said. "Had he done so, I wouldn't be here."

Later, Clark calmed Haig down and convinced him that Reagan had not lied to him. But the secretary of state was certain he had been misled by someone, in this case placing the blame on Baker.

Someone, it seems, was always trying to do in Al Haig. Sometimes it was Meese. Sometimes it was Allen, who really did undercut him. Sometimes it was Weinberger, who upstaged Haig a lot. Sometimes it was Kirkpatrick, the only Reagan Cabinet member besides Haig with a substantive grasp of foreign affairs.

Stopping off in New Zealand on June 22, 1981, after a successful visit to the People's Republic of China, Haig became obsessed with the credit Kirkpatrick was getting for successfully steering a compromise resolution through the United Nations that deplored the Israeli bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor while avoiding the imposition of sanctions.

Reagan considered the resolution a triumph. Haig tried to take long-distance credit for what Kirkpatrick had done and belittled her performance at the United Nations. Reagan was furious. He telephoned Kirkpatrick to tell her how much he thought of her, then complained to his aides that Haig kept straying "off the reservation."

But by the time Haig's plane reached Los Angeles, where Reagan was vacationing, the president was in a forgiving mood. He accepted Haig's apology, hoping that such incidents would not happen again. They kept happening, however.

Soon after Haig returned to Washington, in an incident that failed to come to press attention, he attended a diplomatic reception where a visiting Japanese dignitary said politely to him, "You've been all over the world like a swallow."

Without preliminary, Haig responded, "I've tried to keep out of the way of the buckshot from the White House." An interpreter said that the dignitary did not understand the metaphor. Haig repeated it for him. "I've been going around the world like a swallow to avoid buckshot from the White House," he said.

It was this outspokenness -- and this attitude -- which ultimately did Haig in. For a year and a half he successfully avoided the White House "buckshot," but he did not dodge the deeper impulses of confrontation he brought with him from the Nixon White House. On the president's 10-day trip to Europe in June, 1982, Haig battled constantly with Clark, who had replaced Allen as national security adviser.

Haig complained that Clark and Bush and the White House troika were running foreign policy. He complained about special envoy Philip Habib's efforts in the Middle East, which Haig thought he could surpass. And he complained, trivially, that he had been slighted on the European trip by being assigned to the third helicopter while top members of the White House staff rode in the lead chopper with the president.

Clark, who had tried to save Haig's job a year earlier, by now had had enough. When Haig submitted his resignation to the president on June 24, no one tried to dissuade him. The next day, Reagan accepted it and replaced Haig with George P. Shultz, whose reputation for getting along with others was the ability the president had come to value most in a secretary of state.