Janet Watkins told The Washington Post her husband, who was 85, had congestive heart failure. He died Thursday at his home in Alexandria, Va.
Watkins, who had served on the joint chiefs of staff earlier in the Reagan administration, was named head of the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1987. His wife said he told President Ronald Reagan he had no medical experience and Reagan responded that he was the kind of man he was looking for.
Moved especially by the plight of children with AIDS, Watkins recommended laws banning discrimination.
"All you have to do is walk into the pediatric ward of Harlem Hospital and see those children," Watkins said. "Nobody wants them. They have no place to go. That gets you."
Watkins later served as energy secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
A native Californian, Watkins graduated from the Naval Academy in 1949. He was a protege of Adm. Hyman Rickover and spent much of his career on nuclear-powered ships.