James R. Schlesinger, a tough Cold War strategist who served as secretary of defense under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford and became the nation’s first secretary of energy under President Jimmy Carter, died on Thursday in Baltimore. He was 85.
His death, at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, was confirmed by his daughter Ann Schlesinger, who said the cause was complications of pneumonia. He lived in Arlington, Va.
A brilliant, often abrasive Harvard-educated economist, Mr. Schlesinger went to Washington in 1969 as an obscure White House budget official. Over the next decade he became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, director of Central Intelligence, a cabinet officer for three presidents (two of whom fired him), a thorn to congressional leaders and a controversial national public figure.
His tenure at the Pentagon was little more than two years, from 1973 to 1975, but it was a time of turmoil and transition. Soviet nuclear power was rising menacingly. The war in Vietnam was in its final throes, and United States military prestige and morale had sunk to new lows. Congress was wielding an ax on a $90 billion defense budget. And the Watergate scandal was enveloping the White House.
In the days leading up to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, Mr. Schlesinger, as he confirmed years later, became so worried that Nixon was unstable that he instructed the military not to react to White House orders, particularly on nuclear arms, unless cleared by him or Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. He also drew up plans to deploy troops in Washington in the event of any problems with a peaceful presidential succession.
Mr. Schlesinger, a Republican with impressive national security and nuclear power credentials, took a hard line with Congress, and the Kremlin, demanding increased budgets for defense and insisting that America’s security depended on nuclear and conventional arsenals at least as effective as the Soviet Union’s.
With Europe as a potential focal point for war, he urged stronger North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces to counter Soviet allies in the Warsaw Pact. His nuclear strategy envisioned retaliatory strikes on Soviet military targets, but not population centers, to limit the chances of what he called “uncontrolled escalation” and mutual “assured destruction.”
Beyond strategic theories, he dealt with a series of crises, including the 1973 Middle East war, when Arab nations attacked Israel, prompting an American airlift of matériel to Israel; an invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces, leading to an arms embargo of Turkey, a NATO partner; and the Mayaguez episode,in which Cambodian forces seized an unarmed American freighter, prompting rescue and retaliation operations that saved 39 freighter crewmen but cost the lives of 41 American servicemen.
After succeeding Nixon, Ford, for stability, retained the cabinet, including Mr. Schlesinger. But the president and Mr. Schlesinger were soon at loggerheads. Ford favored “leniency” for 50,000 draft evaders after the Vietnam War. Mr. Schlesinger, like Nixon, had opposed amnesty. Unlike Mr. Schlesinger, Ford was willing to compromise on defense budgets, and he recoiled at Mr. Schlesinger’s harsh criticisms of congressional leaders. These were not grave policy disputes, but the two were personally incompatible.
“There was a tension,” Mr. Ford acknowledged later.
Mr. Schlesinger’s blunt talk and uncompromising ways seemed insubordinate to Ford, and struck many White House officials as arrogant and patronizing. Besides his prickly relations with the president, Mr. Schlesinger differed with Mr. Kissinger over nuclear strategy, aid to Israel and other issues. In November 1975, after 28 months in office, he was dismissed.
While often criticized by political opponents and in the press, Mr. Schlesinger was viewed by many historians as an able defense secretary who modernized weapons systems and maintained America’s military stature against rising Soviet competition.
In his 1976 presidential campaign, Mr. Carter consulted Mr. Schlesinger and was impressed. Taking the White House in 1977, Mr. Carter named him his energy adviser and, after the Energy Department was created in a merger of 50 agencies, appointed him its first secretary. The only Republican in the Carter cabinet, he was in charge of 20,000 employees and a $10 billion budget.
Mr. Schlesinger, an outspoken advocate of nuclear power, shared with Mr. Carter a belief that fossil fuels were destined for exhaustion, and warned that Arab oil supplies were unreliable. As oil prices rose and acute shortages and long lines at gasoline pumps formed, he and Mr. Carter endorsed conservation, tax incentives and synthetic fuels. The crisis passed, but not the energy problems.
While he helped establish the new department and developed proposals intended to alter life in a nation addicted to enormous energy consumption, Mr. Schlesinger’s performance was widely criticized. Congressional opposition contributed to his departure in a 1979 cabinet shake-up by President Carter.
“In that administration, for some strange reason, I was the voice of experience, or the only voice of experience,” Mr. Schlesinger said years later for an oral history project. “I’m not sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a mixed virtue, because that meant that in some sense I shared the contamination of the past and therefore my views, while they were interesting, and useful, had to be viewed with suspicion because they were views from the pre-1976 past.”
Mr. Schlesinger resumed writing and speaking, served on commissions and advisory panels, testified before Congress and became a businessman and a perennial consultant to presidents. He led inquiries into the safekeeping of nuclear weapons, the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, prisoner interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and other issues.
“There was sadism on the night shift at Abu Ghraib, sadism that was certainly not authorized,” he said in announcing the findings of Abu Ghraib inquiry in 2004. “It was kind of ‘Animal House’ on the night shift.”
James Rodney Schlesinger was born in New York City on Feb. 15, 1929, the son of Julius and Rhea Schlesinger, immigrants from Austria and Russia respectively. He was raised in a Jewish household but became a Lutheran as an adult. He attended Horace Mann School in the Bronx and Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1950, a master’s in 1952 and a doctorate in 1956, all in economics.
In 1954 he married Rachel Mellinger, a Radcliffe student. Mrs. Schlesinger died in 1995. Mr. Schlesinger is survived by his sons Charles, William, Thomas and James Jr.; his daughters, Cora, Ann, Emily and Clara; and 11 grandchildren.
From 1955 to 1963, Mr. Schlesinger taught economics at the University of Virginia. His 1960 book, “The Political Economy of National Security,” drew attention at the RAND Corporation, which hired him in 1963. He became director of strategic studies there in 1967.
Mr. Schlesinger joined the Nixon administration in 1969 as assistant director of the Bureau of the Budget, and drew the president’s attention by challenging a Pentagon weapons proposal in his presence.
In 1971, Nixon named him chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, formed after World War II to promote nuclear energy. Over time, critics said, the commission fell under the industry’s sway. Mr. Schlesinger favored atomic power, but said it raised legitimate environmental concerns. He ordered overhauls, including a new division of environmental and safety affairs, and set the commission on a course to “serve the public interest.”
In February 1973, Mr. Schlesinger was named director of Central Intelligence, succeeding Richard Helms, who had been fired by Nixon for refusing to block the Watergate investigation. His five-month C.I.A. tenure was stormy. He was appalled to learn that agents prohibited from spying on Americans had carried out domestic break-ins for the White House. He purged 1,000 of 17,000 employees and ordered a sweeping investigation into past operations.
That investigation eventually turned up evidence of widespread illegality. (The findings were not made public until 2007, and then were heavily censored.) But the inquiry had barely begun when, in July 1973, Nixon chose Mr. Schlesinger for the Pentagon job, replacing Elliot Richardson, who became attorney general.
In recent years he was a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research organization, and chairman of the Mitre Corporation. He wrote no autobiography, but synthesized much of his experience in a 1989 book, “America at Century’s End.”