Schlesinger, who’d helmed CIA, Pentagon, dies at age 85

WASHINGTON, March 27, 2014 – Former CIA director and defense secretary James R. Schlesinger died from complications from pneumonia today in a Baltimore hospital at age 85.


Schlesinger was considered a tough, forthright and outspoken leader throughout his career.

Schlesinger toured American military units in South Korea. (DOD photo)
Schlesinger toured American military units in South Korea. His pipe was always present.(DOD photo)

Schlesinger was considered an exceptional candidate for the top Pentagon job. His career history included university economics professor, the Rand Corp. director of strategic studies, and other senior government appointments as the former Atomic Energy Commission chairman, CIA director, and Bureau of the Budget assistant director, where he spent time on defense issues.

By the time he was nominated as defense secretary, Schlesinger had a formidable background in security affairs. President Richard Nixon tapped Schlesinger to become defense secretary in May 1973, the position for which he became best known. He took office July 2 at the young age of 44.

James Rodney Schlesinger was born Feb. 15, 1929, in New York City to a middle-class family. He married Rachel Line Mellinger in 1954, and the couple had eight children.

Schlesinger graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in 1950, a master’s in 1952 and his doctorate in economics in 1956. Schlesinger was described as an intelligent and strong-willed conservative, whose professorial expertise led to controversy in his career in the federal government.

Serving as defense secretary until Nov. 19, 1975, Schlesinger was dismissed by President Gerald R. Ford, reportedly for insubordination over his demands for increased defense budgets, and disagreements with the administration, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the Congress.


Throughout his government career and into retirement, a large part of Schlesinger’s legacy was his goal to make certain that arms control agreements would never put the United States in an inferior strategic defense position against the then-Soviet Union.

Schlesinger enjoyed a rapport with U.S. military leadership, because he fought to give them more resources, consulted with them regularly, and agreed with many of their views. Schlesinger also opposed amnesty for draft resisters, and pressed for development of more sophisticated nuclear weapon systems. His support for the A-10 and the lightweight fighter program — later the F-16 — helped carry them to completion.

Schlesinger also realized the importance in the post-Vietnam era of reinstituting the morale and prestige of the military services, to modernize strategic doctrine and programs to increase research and development, and to jumpstart a defense budget that had declined since 1968.

Because he regarded conventional forces as an equally essential element in the deterrence posture of the United States, Schlesinger wanted to reverse what he saw as a downward trend in conventional force strength. He said because Soviet nuclear capabilities were nearly at parity with the United States, the contribution to deterrence made by U.S. strategic forces had declined. He emphasized that one of the missions of conventional forces was to deter or defeat limited threats.


Schlesinger therefore dedicated much of his attention to NATO, noting that its conventional capabilities must be strengthened. He didn’t agree that NATO did not need a direct counter to Warsaw Pact conventional forces because it could rely on tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, and said nuclear near parity between the United States and the USSR in the 1970s made that stand inappropriate.

In his discussions with NATO leaders, Schlesinger favored qualitative improvements in NATO forces, including equipment standardization, and an increase in defense spending by NATO governments by up to 5 percent of their gross national product.

Schlesinger had a succession of crises in the Pentagon that challenged his administrative and political prowess. In October 1973, three months into his tenure as defense secretary, Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War with a sudden attack on Israel. Israel’s military was not performing well, and the USSR’s efforts to restock the Arab antagonists complicated the situation for Israel.

Schlesinger said U.S. policy to avert direct involvement depended on Israel winning quickly. But as the Israelis faced large-scale military forces, the United States became involved by resupplying the Israeli forces. A cease-fire soon was declared, but after the USSR threatened to get involved to aid the Arab forces, the United States declared a worldwide forces alert.


The final chapter of the Indochina conflict also took place on Schlesinger’s watch. While U.S. combat forces were out of South Vietnam in spring 1973, the United States kept a military presence in parts of Southeast Asia.

During Schlesinger’s defense secretary confirmation hearings, a handful of senators heatedly questioned him when he said he would favor resuming U.S. bombing in North Vietnam and Laos if the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive against South Vietnam.

When North Vietnam did so in early 1975, however, the United States had few resources there to help South Vietnam, and it collapsed when the North overtook Saigon in late April of that year. It was then that Schlesinger announced the last helicopter evacuation of U.S. diplomatic, military and civilian personnel from Saigon.

In Schlesinger’s quest to strengthen conventional and strategic U.S. military forces, he devoted much of his time to increasing the defense budget.

He noted the Defense Department was absorbing about 6 percent of the gross national product, the lowest percentage since before the Korean War, and that military manpower was at its lowest since before the Korean War. Defense spending, he said, came to about 17 percent of national spending, which was the lowest since before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. With those figures, and with his concern over ongoing Soviet weapons progress, Schlesinger was a dedicated advocate of bigger defense budgets.


After leaving the Pentagon, Schlesinger wrote and spoke vehemently about national security issues, particularly 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 as his special adviser on energy, and later as the first secretary of his new Energy Department. After two years, Carter replaced Schlesinger at the Energy Department.

Following his federal government career, Schlesinger resumed his writing and speaking engagements. He was employed as a senior adviser with Lehman Bros., and Kuhn Loeb Inc., of New York.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member