James R. Schlesinger

Richard Nixon / Gerald Ford Administration

PRINT | E-MAIL

July 2, 1973 – November 19, 1975

James R. Schlesinger was born on 15 February 1929 in New York City and educated at Harvard University, where he earned a B.A. (1950), M.A. (1952), and Ph.D. (1956) in economics. Between 1955 and 1963 he taught economics at the University of Virginia and in 1960 published The Political Economy of National Security. In 1963 he moved to the Rand Corporation, where he worked until 1969, in the later years as director of strategic studies.

In 1969 Schlesinger joined the Nixon administration as assistant director of the Bureau of the Budget, devoting most of his time to Defense matters. In 1971 President Nixon appointed Schlesinger a member of the Atomic Energy Commission(AEC) and designated him as chairman. Serving in this position for about a year and a half, Schlesinger instituted extensive organizational and management changes in an effort to improve the AEC's regulatory performance. In February 1973 he became director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Although his CIA service was short, he again undertook comprehensive organizational and personnel changes. By this time he had a reputation as a tough, forthright, and outspoken administrator.

Nominated by Nixon on 10 May 1973, Schlesinger became secretary of defense on 2 July at age 44. Despite his relative youth, given his academic and government credentials he appeared exceptionally well-qualified for the post. As a university professor, researcher at Rand, and government official in three agencies, he had acquired an impressive background in national security affairs.

Shortly after assuming office, Schlesinger outlined the basic objectives that would guide his administration: maintain a "strong defense establishment"; "assure the military balance so necessary to deterrence and a more enduring peace"; obtain for members of the military "the respect, dignity and support that are their due"; assume "an . . . obligation to use our citizens' resources wisely"; and "become increasingly competitive with potential adversaries. . . . We must not be forced out of the market on land, at sea, or in the air. Eli Whitney belongs to us, not to our competitors." In particular, Schlesinger saw a need in the post-Vietnam era to restore the morale and prestige of the military services; modernize strategic doctrine and programs; step up research and development; and shore up a DoD budget that had been declining since 1968.

Analyzing strategy, Schlesinger maintained that the theory and practice of the 1950s and 1960s had been overtaken by events, particularly the rise of the Soviet Union to virtual nuclear parity with the United States and the effect this development had on the concept of deterrence. Schlesinger believed that "deterrence is not a substitute for defense; defense capabilities, representing the potential for effective counteraction, are the essential condition of deterrence.'' He had grave doubts about the assured destruction strategy, which relied on massive nuclear attacks against an enemy's urban-industrial areas. Credible strategic nuclear deterrence, the secretary felt, depended on fulfilling several conditions: maintaining essential equivalence with the Soviet Union in force effectiveness; maintaining a highly survivable force that could be withheld or targeted against an enemy's economic base in order to deter coercive or desperation attacks against U.S. population or economic targets; establishing a fast-response force that could act to deter additional enemy attacks; and establishing a range of capabilities sufficient to convince all nations that the United States was equal to its strongest competitors.

To meet these needs, Schlesinger built on existing ideas in developing a flexible response nuclear strategy, which, with the president's approval, he made public by early 1974. The United States, Schlesinger said, needed the ability, in the event of a nuclear attack, to respond so as to "limit the chances of uncontrolled escalation" and "hit meaningful targets'' without causing widespread collateral damage. The nation's assured destruction force would be withheld in the hope that the enemy would not attack U.S. cities. In rejecting assured destruction, Schlesinger quoted President Nixon: "Should a President, in the event of a nuclear attack, be left with the single option of ordering the mass destruction of enemy civilians, in the face of the certainty that it would be followed by the mass slaughter of Americans?"

With this approach Schlesinger moved to a partial counterforce policy, emphasizing Soviet military targets such as ICBM missile installations, avoiding initial attacks on population centers, and minimizing unintended collateral damage. He explicitly disavowed any intention to acquire a destabilizing first-strike capability against the USSR. But he wanted "an offensive capability of such size and composition that all will perceive it as in overall balance with the strategic forces of any potential opponent.''

Because he regarded conventional forces as an equally essential element in the deterrence posture of the United States, Schlesinger wanted to reverse what he perceived as a gradual downward trend in conventional force strength. He pointed out that because Soviet nuclear capabilities had reached approximate parity with the United States, the relative contribution to deterrence made by U.S. strategic forces had inevitably declined. One of the missions of conventional forces, he noted, was to deter or defeat limited threats.

In this vein Schlesinger devoted much attention to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, citing the need to strengthen its conventional capabilities. He rejected the old assumption that NATO did not need a direct counter to Warsaw Pact conventional forces because it could rely on tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, noting that the approximate nuclear parity between the United States and the Soviets in the 1970s made this stand inappropriate. He also rejected the argument that NATO could not afford a conventional counterweight to Warsaw Pact forces. In his discussions with NATO leaders, Schlesinger promoted the concept of burden-sharing, stressing the troubles that the United States faced in the mid-1970s because of an unfavorable balance of international payments. He urged qualitative improvements in NATO forces, including equipment standardization, and an increase in defense spending by NATO governments of up to 5 percent of their gross national product.

Schlesinger had an abiding interest in strategic theory, but he also had to deal with a succession of immediate crises that tested his administrative and political skills. In October 1973, three months after he took office, Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War with a sudden attack on Israel. A few days after the war started, with Israel not faring well militarily and the Soviets resupplying the Arab belligerents, the United States began airlifting supplies to Israel. As Schlesinger explained, the initial U.S. policy to avoid direct involvement rested on the assumption that Israel would win quickly. But when it became clear that the Israelis faced formidable military forces and could not make their own resupply arrangements, the United States took up the burden. Schlesinger rejected charges that the Defense Department delayed the resupply effort to avoid irritating the Arab states and that he had had a serious disagreement over this matter with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. Eventually the combatants agreed to a cease-fire, but not before the Soviet Union threatened to intervene on the Arab side and the United States declared a worldwide alert of its forces. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur conflict, partly because of U.S. assistance to the Israelis, the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cut off oil shipments to the United States for several months.

Another crisis flared in July 1974 when Turkish forces, concerned about the safety of the Turkish minority community, invaded Cyprus after the Cypriot National Guard, supported by the government of Greece, overthrew President Archbishop Makarios. When the fighting stopped, the Turks held the northern section of the island, about 40 percent of the total area. Turkey's military action caused controversy in the United States, because of protests by supporters of the Greek Cypriots and because Turkish forces used some U.S.-supplied military equipment intended solely for NATO purposes. Schlesinger felt the Turks had overstepped the bounds of legitimate interests in Cyprus and opposed measures that might damage U.S. security interests with Turkey. During this time President Nixon resigned and Gerald R. Ford succeeded him; eventually Ford and Secretary Kissinger made it clear that they favored continued military assistance to Turkey as a valued NATO ally, but Congress in December 1974 prohibited such aid, instituting an embargo that was not fully lifted for five years.

The last phase of the Indochina conflict occurred during Schlesinger's tenure. Although all U.S. combat forces had left South Vietnam in the spring of 1973, the United States continued to maintain a military presence in other areas of Southeast Asia. Some senators criticized Schlesinger and questioned him sharply during his confirmation hearings in June 1973 after he stated that he would recommend resumption of U.S. bombing in North Vietnam and Laos if North Vietnam launched a major offensive against South Vietnam. However, when the North Vietnamese did begin an offensive early in 1975, the United States could do little to help the South Vietnamese, who collapsed completely as the North Vietnamese entered Saigon in late April. Schlesinger announced early in the morning of 29 April 1975 the evacuation from Saigon by helicopter of the last U.S. diplomatic, military, and civilian personnel.

Only one other notable event remained in the Indochina drama. In May 1975 forces of the Communist Cambodian government boarded and captured the crew of the Mayaguez, an unarmed U.S.-registered freighter. The United States bombed military and fuel installations on the Cambodian mainland and launched a heliborne attack on an offshore island to rescue the crew. The 39 captives were retrieved, but the attack cost the lives of 41 U.S. military personnel. Nevertheless, the majority of the American people seemed to approve of the administration's decisive action.

Unsurprisingly, given his determination to build up U.S. strategic and conventional forces, Schlesinger devoted much time and effort to the Defense budget. Even before becoming secretary, in a speech in San Francisco in September 1972, he warned that it was time "to call a halt to the self-defeating game of cutting defense outlays–this process, that seems to have become addicting, of chopping away year after year." Shortly after he took office, he complained about "the post-war follies" of Defense budget-cutting. Later he outlined the facts about the DoD budget: In real terms it had been reduced by one-third since FY 1968; it was one-eighth below the pre-Vietnam War FY 1964 budget; purchases of equipment, consumables, and R&D were down 45 percent from the wartime peak and about $10 billion in constant dollars below the prewar level; Defense now absorbed about 6 percent of the gross national product, the lowest percentage since before the Korean War; military manpower was at the lowest point since before the Korean War; and Defense spending amounted to about 17 percent of total budget expenditures, the lowest since before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Armed with these statistics, and alarmed by continuing Soviet weapon advances, Schlesinger became a vigorous advocate of larger DoD budgets. But he had little success. For FY 1975, Congress provided TOA of $86.1 billion, compared with $81.6 billion in FY 1974; for FY 1976, the amount was $95.6 billion, an increase of 3.4 percent, but in real terms slightly less than it had been in FY 1955.

Schlesinger's increasingly strained relations with President Ford, key members of Congress, and Secretary of State Kissinger all contributed to his dismissal from office by President Ford in November 1975. Kissinger strongly supported the SALT process, while Schlesinger wanted assurances that arms control agreements would not put the United States in a strategic position inferior to the Soviet Union. The secretary's harsh criticism of some congressional leaders dismayed President Ford, who was more willing than Schlesinger to compromise on the Defense budget. On 2 November 1975 the president dismissed Schlesinger and made other important personnel changes. Kissinger lost his position as special assistant to the president for national security affairs but remained as secretary of state. Schlesinger left office on 19 November 1975, explaining his departure in terms of his budgetary differences with the White House.

In spite of the controversy surrounding both his tenure and dismissal, Schlesinger was by most accounts an able secretary of defense. A serious and perceptive thinker on nuclear strategy, he was determined that the United States not fall seriously behind the Soviet Union in conventional and nuclear forces and devoted himself to modernization of defense policies and programs. He got along well with the military leadership because he proposed to give them more resources, consulted with them regularly, and shared many of their views. Because he could be blunt in his opinions and did not enjoy the personal rapport with legislators that Laird had, his relations with Congress were often strained. A majority of its members may have approved Schlesinger's strategic plans, but they kept a tight rein on the money for his programs. As for the Pentagon bureaucracy, Schlesinger generally left its management to Deputy Secretary of Defense William P. Clements.

After leaving the Pentagon, Schlesinger wrote and spoke forcefully about national security issues, especially the Soviet threat and the need for the United States to maintain adequate defenses. When Jimmy Carter became president in January 1977 he appointed Schlesinger, a Republican, as his special adviser on energy and subsequently as the first head of the new Department of Energy in October 1977. Schlesinger held this position until July 1979 when Carter replaced him. Thereafter he resumed his writing and speaking career and was employed as a senior adviser to Lehman Brothers, Kuhn Loeb Inc., of New York City.