- By Tom Mahnken
Last Friday I was at a meeting with some of the United States’ most respected thinkers and practitioners. As I walked in, I was struck by the solemn mood and the somber conversation that hung over the room. "He was one of our greatest strategic thinkers." "It’s impossible to fill his shoes." "I always appreciated his easy-going style — the way he’d put his shoes up on a chair or a desk." "He was a true gentleman." Not one person mentioned the name of the man to whom they were paying tribute. Not one person needed to.
Last Thursday, with the passing of James Rodney Schlesinger, America lost one of its most significant defense intellectuals. He was an insightful analyst. As head of the RAND Corporation’s strategic studies program in the 1960s, he helped set the think tank’s research agenda at arguably the apex of its influence. No matter the issue, he possessed a refreshing way of getting right to the matter.
He was an able public official, serving in the Nixon and Ford administrations as deputy director of the Bureau of the Budget, director of the Atomic Energy Commission, director of Central Intelligence, and secretary of defense. In the latter capacity, he began moving the U.S. armed forces beyond Vietnam and put in place the intellectual capacity to compete with the Soviet Union over the long term. He established the Office of Net Assessment and brought Andrew W. Marshall to the Pentagon from the White House to lead it. He also approved the Air Force’s A-10 attack aircraft as well as the F-16 fighter.
He epitomized bipartisanship at its best. A Republican, he also served as the nation’s first secretary of energy in the Carter administration.
I first encountered Schlesinger’s work in college when, as a student in the University of Southern California’s Strategic Studies program, I read National Security Decision Memorandum 242. In the wake of the post-Vietnam drawdown, the so-called Schlesinger Doctrine sought to restore credibility to the American nuclear deterrent by formulating a doctrine of limited nuclear options. In later years, I was lucky enough to meet and occasionally work with him on various projects and commissions.
To say merely that he will be missed is to understate both the scope of his contribution to U.S. national security as well as the void that his passing has left. His shoes are indeed impossible to fill.