Don't Worship at the Altar of Andrew Marshall

Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts’s The Last Warrior seeks to canonize longtime Defense Department strategist Andrew Marshall. But his record was far more mixed than his incense burners are prepared to admit.

January-February 2015

Unfortunately, this is not an exercise that can be repeated across the board, because the ONA’s relationship with the handful of external contractors and individuals that Marshall relies upon to provide alternative expertise and perspectives to those of the Pentagon bureaucracy is, as Krepinevich and Watts delicately put it, “opaque.” During the Cold War, one of the major recipients of ONA largesse was Phillip Karber of the BDM Corporation, a for-profit defense research organization in Washington, DC. Today, one of the largest recipients of ONA alms is none other than—you guessed it—Krepinevich and Watts’s own Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which reportedly gets almost $3 million per year (or 40 percent of its budget) from Marshall’s office. That kind of largesse can inspire an awful lot of pious devotion, even in a city as cynical and opportunistic as the capital of the free world.


DESPITE MARSHALL’S admission that net assessment could not provide clear predictions or concrete advice, he nonetheless had a clear and consistent policy agenda: the United States needed to gird itself for a long-term rivalry with the Soviet Union in which it should be prepared to use military force to win. In a 1972 RAND report, for example, Marshall maintained that “the United States is now, and will continue to be, in an extended, continuing strategic arms competition with the Soviet Union. . . . The competition will be prolonged—indeed, for planning purposes, endless [emphasis added].”

Marshall was enamored with nuclear weapons. He was a long-standing proponent of nuclear war-fighting strategies for the United States. Rejecting “mutual assured destruction” and the arms-control community’s “overstated” preoccupation with strategic stability, along with the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” policy of threatening “massive retaliation” to deter Soviet aggression, Marshall consistently pursued different nuclear strategies. Beginning with his participation in RAND’s “Strategic Objectives Committee,” which advocated that the United States develop a nuclear force capable of executing a first strike that could eliminate the Soviet Union’s strategic arsenal (or a “counterforce” strike, as it was known), and continuing in his intellectual collaboration with Herman Kahn, a model for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Marshall never showed any hesitation about thinking the unthinkable: fighting and winning thermonuclear war.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marshall worked together with former U.S. Air Force targeteer and intelligence analyst Joseph Loftus. Through Loftus, Marshall gained access to sensitive intelligence about the Soviet nuclear arsenal that was off-limits to other RAND analysts. It persuaded him that a successful counterforce strike against the Soviet Union was feasible. Marshall and other proponents of counterforce were not, so far as we can tell, advocating a preventive nuclear war. Instead, their attraction to counterforce was its potential for limiting damage to the United States through preemptive strikes should war with the Soviet Union seem unavoidable. However, this policy was a tough sell to other RAND analysts in the era of the “missile gap.”

Whether Marshall’s privileged access to sensitive intelligence about the actual state of the Soviet nuclear arsenal justified his confidence in counterforce is questionable. But having this detailed information about the rather limited size and scale of the Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile should certainly have revealed to him that the missile gap was a myth. Yet despite his access to this information, Marshall apparently failed to convince the Gaither Committee, which played a major role in peddling alarmism and which he served as a consultant. Nor did it stop him from moonlighting for the Kennedy campaign, along with a number of other RAND luminaries. John F. Kennedy, of course, won the 1960 election in part by preaching the false gospel that the passivity of the Eisenhower administration had allowed Washington to fall dangerously behind Moscow in the nuclear sphere.

Nevertheless, there was considerable intellectual consistency in Marshall’s embrace of counterforce. His access to intelligence convinced him that Soviet nuclear strategy was oriented toward war fighting. Given that, Marshall thought that the United States should embrace a similar doctrine. This would be the first of several occasions in which Marshall would use Soviet military doctrine as his guide for the United States, sometimes by emulating it, other times by exploiting its weaknesses. Given what he saw as the imperative to meet the Soviet challenge on its own terms, Marshall consistently advocated hardware and doctrinal developments that would make counterforce and nuclear war fighting possible for the United States. This would be a major theme, for example, of the preposterous Team B exercise, which granted hard-line anti-Soviet ideologues access to sensitive intelligence to see if they came to different conclusions from CIA analysts (spoiler alert: they did), to which Marshall contributed, and which offered a far gloomier assessment of the strategic balance than did the U.S. intelligence community.


IN KREPINEVICH and Watts’s account, Marshall made his most important contributions to U.S. national security in three particular areas: in forcing a much-needed debate about the CIA’s supposedly flawed assessments of the Soviet economy and defense spending; in identifying before anyone else in the Pentagon the outlines of an imminent RMA flowing from new technologies and innovations; and in predicting the rise of China as a “peer competitor” for the United States after the Cold War.