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

If Marshall really knew that the Soviet economy was in deep trouble and the Red Army was a house of cards, why did he feel such urgency about waging a long-term (perhaps endless) competition? In Krepinevich and Watts’s account, Marshall believed that the rationale for détente with the Soviets was animated by a misplaced hopelessness about growing Soviet power (in some ways reminiscent of some discussion of China today) that turned out to be too pessimistic. But Marshall was reportedly not so pessimistic about the conventional balance after sponsoring interviews of Soviet émigrés that revealed deep ethnic cleavages and serious demographic problems in the Red Army. He also understood that the Soviets were themselves pessimistic about their side of the strategic nuclear balance. Given this, why was he so exercised about the Soviet threat that he thought we needed to arms race them into submission, with all the attendant costs and risks this entailed?


FINALLY, KREPINEVICH and Watts fail to discuss Marshall’s close professional and personal relationship with Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, in any depth. As a young Harvard graduate student, Ellsberg interned at RAND in the summer of 1958, serving as rapporteur for a strategy group that included such luminaries as Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Harry Rowen and Marshall himself. Once Ellsberg joined RAND full-time, Marshall and his first wife Mary became very close to Ellsberg and his first wife Carol. Tom Wells’s biography of Ellsberg, Wild Man, draws heavily upon interviews with the Marshalls—the title coming from Mary’s description of him.

In Wells’s account, it is clear that the Marshalls were intimately familiar with Ellsberg’s character flaws—his reckless womanizing with RAND employees or wives of RAND colleagues and his desultory work ethic, about which Mary complained that the RAND leadership was “always excusing him, indulging him.” Indeed, it was to Mary that Carol Ellsberg first confessed her suspicions that her husband was the source of the Pentagon Papers leaks. The two of them tried to alert RAND president Harry Rowen about it, to no avail. After Ellsberg’s arrest and release on bail, it was from the Marshalls’ Los Angeles house that Ellsberg called his children.

We should not, of course, judge people by the behavior of their close friends; standing with them in their moment of tribulation is in many respects admirable, and the Marshalls were as dismayed and angered by their close friend’s breach of trust as anyone else at RAND. But the absence of this story from Marshall’s professional and personal life seems strange. It would be interesting to know what Marshall learned from his experience with the brilliant but complicated strategic wunderkind he took under his wing. Krepinevich and Watts themselves open the door to pondering this episode with their insistence that Andy and Mary Marshall were such shrewd judges of his colleagues.


AT THE end of the day, Marshall was not a saint but rather a public official who served too long and whose record was more mixed than his incense burners are prepared to admit. He consistently pushed his insights to their most hawkish extremes and endorsed expensive, even fantastic, weapons schemes, which may be why he is so beloved among the neocons. But that is no cause for celebration, and it is why any discussion of him is inextricably linked to the fate of his church.

In the Roman Catholic Church, canonizations have increasingly become as much about larger institutional political struggles as they are about the character of the saint. For example, the church has canonized two recent popes from very different ends of the political spectrum. Liberals love John XXIII, the convener of the Second Vatican Council; conservatives, John Paul II, who they think reined in its excesses. Similarly, St. Andy’s canonization is also about a larger political agenda: institutionalizing his mission.

But the fate of the Office of Net Assessment ought not to be determined just by the credulous devotion of its flock. Instead, a systematic scrutiny of its work is long overdue because so much of what it was supposed to have accomplished over the years remains officially classified. If such an inquisition concludes that there is true merit in the cause, then Marshall’s crusade will be the better for it in the future. If not, perhaps St. Andrew’s Prep, like so many now-superfluous parochial schools, should close its doors.

Michael C. Desch is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.