James R. Schlesinger, a tough Cold War strategist who was 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 Thursday in Baltimore. He was 85.
Schlesinger died at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center of complications of pneumonia, his daughter Ann Schlesinger said.
A brilliant, often abrasive Harvard-educated economist, Schlesinger went to Washington in 1969 as an obscure White House budget official. In the next decade he became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, CIA director, a cabinet officer for three presidents (two of whom fired him), a thorn to congressional leaders and one of the nation's most controversial public officials.
His tenure at the Pentagon was brief, 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 U.S. military prestige and morale was low. Congress was wielding an ax on a $90 billion defense budget. And the Watergate scandal was enveloping the White House.
Schlesinger, a Republican with impressive national security and nuclear power credentials, took a hard line, demanding increased budgets for defense and insisting America's security depended on nuclear and conventional arsenals at least as effective as the Soviet Union's.
With Europe as a potential flash point for war, he urged stronger NATO forces to counter Soviet allies in the Warsaw Pact. His nuclear strategy envisioned retaliatory strikes on Soviet military targets to limit the chances of what he called "uncontrolled escalation" and mutual "assured destruction."
He also dealt with a series of crises, including the 1973 Middle East war; an invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces; and the Mayaguez episode, in which Cambodian forces seized an unarmed U.S. freighter, prompting rescue and retaliation operations that saved 39 freighter crewmen but cost the lives of 41 U.S. servicemen.
In August 1974, with the Watergate scandal boiling over, Schlesinger worried that Nixon might be unstable and 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 problems with a peaceful succession. As Nixon resigned, Ford took over and, for stability, retained the cabinet, including Schlesinger.
While often criticized by political foes and in the media, 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, Carter consulted Schlesinger and was impressed. Taking the White House in 1977, 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.
Schlesinger is survived by four sons, four daughters and 11 grandchildren.