James Rodney Schlesinger (born 1929) was an intelligent and strong-minded conservative whose professorial expertise led to a controversial career in government which included several appointments by President Nixon, one of which was secretary of defense, from which he was fired by President Ford, and his appointment by President Carter as secretary of energy, from which he was forced to resign.
James R. Schlesinger was born and reared in a middle-class Jewish family in New York City. His early years coincided with the Great Depression and World War II. But the most indelible mark left on him was that of the formative years of the Cold War, which he experienced as a student at Harvard where he earned A.B., A.M., and Ph.D. degrees in economics. During these years he toured Europe on a fellowship and emerged with a no compromise attitude towards the Soviet Union. He also converted to the Lutheran Church and married Rachel Mellinger. Together they had eight children (four sons and four daughters).
In 1955 Schlesinger began his professional career as assistant professor of economics at the University of Virginia. His first and only monograph, The Political Economy of National Security (1960), received mixed reviews, including one which noted a tendency to speak ex cathedra. Despite that early indication of an impolitic style, the conservative content attracted the favorable attention of the RAND Corporation, which Schlesinger joined in 1963. He rose to the position of director of strategic studies and also served as a consultant to the Bureau of the Budget.
With Richard Nixon's presidential victory in 1968 Schlesinger became assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget, where he earned a reputation for winning a six billion dollar cut in the Defense Department budget. This cutback did not stem from a "dovish" perspective. On the contrary, one of the central tenets of Schlesinger's thought was the belief that the Soviet leadership could not be trusted. A corollary was that the United States must maintain military supremacy at all costs. This "hard line" did not, however, lock Schlesinger into any one system or weapon. In 1974, for example, he proposed the development of the MX missile, yet as a member of the Scowcroft Commission in the early 1980s he opposed its further development.
Environmentalists—Friends or Foes?
Another major element in his thinking was concern for the environment. This played a role in his appointment as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.) in 1971 and as energy secretary in 1977. In both instances his environmental concern was supposed to balance a known bias for the development of nuclear power. As A.E.C. chairman he did not halt a nuclear bomb test on an Aleutian island. Rather, he attempted to demonstrate its safety by taking his wife and two of his daughters to view it. As secretary of defense he approved the chemical extermination of hundreds of thousands of blackbirds which were causing problems at several military bases despite the pleas of environmentalists, especially bird-watchers, who had counted Schlesinger as one of their own.
Later, as energy secretary, he weighed the case of the snail darter—a rare, tiny fish whose survival since prehistoric times was now endangered by the Clinch River nuclear power project—and found it wanting. His minimizing of the danger at Three Mile Island proved to be the proverbial last straw, evoking a flood of verbal abuse from environmentalists and powerful politicians. Speaking for the environmentalists, Jane Fonda declared, "Putting Energy Secretary James Schlesinger in charge of nuclear power is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank." Never timid, Schlesinger replied in kind, dismissing the ad hominem analogy as an expression of "the same people who were for Ho Chi Minh." Senator George McGovern's description of Schlesinger's performance as a "disaster" was not so easily contradicted, and congressional opposition ultimately led to Schlesinger's resignation from the center stage of national politics.
Schlesinger's style was a constant problem. After one of his earliest meetings with Nixon, the president reportedly told an aide, "Never bring him in here again," because he was put off by Schlesinger's abrasive challenges to more senior aides. Later, Nixon was offended by Schlesinger's condescending call for the president to use his forensic ability in getting the Soviets to yield in the SALT I talks, describing the comment as an insult to everyone's intelligence, "particularly to mine." Gerald Ford's perception of Schlesinger as patronizing was even stronger, dating back to Ford's days in the House. Moreover, Ford perceived Schlesinger's relations with congressmen as a liability, so when they differed on the defense budget as well as the handling of the Mayaquez incident, Ford fired him. Schlesinger first allied with the Reagan camp. When this bid failed, he joined forces with Carter, forming an especially close personal relationship. This bond preserved his place in Carter's inner circle even after it was clear that Schlesinger's congressional opponents would not be satisfied until he was out of office. Their deep-seated opposition may also account for the fact that Schlesinger remained in academe after his resignation in August 1979, serving as a senior adviser and later as counselor at the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies despite the return of conservative Republicanism to the White House in 1981.
When in 1990, President George Bush proposed arms reductions with Russia, Schlesinger argued that a U.S. presence in Europe of 75,000 to 100,000 would be sufficient to represent America's commitment to Europe and assure stability on the continent.
Aligned with Jesse Helms
In May of 1996 during the heat of the U.S. Presidential campaign, Schlesinger and two former secretaries of defense, Caspar Weginberger and Donald Rumsefeld, along with nuclear scientist Edward Teller and former CIA director James Woolsey, testified in favor of mandating the deployment of a nationwide system of satellites, radars, and missile interceptors by the year 2003. However, independent polls and focus groups showed little public interest, and soon Republican candidates began walking away, convinced that they should not raise the issue in their campaigns.
In April 1997 four former defense secretaries lined up with Senator Jesse Helms against the chemical weapons treaty. One of them was James Schlesinger, who said it would tie U.S. hands in developing defenses against the very weapons America was swearing off. Schlesinger argued that the treaty would ban use of crowd-control chemicals such as tear gas, impair development of defenses against chemical weapons, and open the way for industrial espionage in the chemical industry.
Further Reading on James Rodney Schlesinger
There were no published works or lengthy articles which focused exclusively on Schlesinger, and he has not published an autobiography. Hence, his career and character were best gleaned from the memoirs of Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978); Ford, A Time To Heal (1979); Carter, Keeping Faith (1982); and those of cabinet members such as Kissinger. Studies of the Department of Defense, such as Douglas Kinnard, Secretary of Defense (1981), also include treatment of Schlesinger.