Don't Worship at the Altar of Andrew Marshall

December 17, 2014 Topic: DefenseHistoryPolitics Region: United States

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.

Marshall’s second major contribution, and the one most outside observers are most likely to credit him with, is his advocacy of the notion that we are in the midst of another RMA. As with Marshall’s interest in counterforce, it was Soviet military writings in the early 1970s about what they called the Military Technical Revolution (MTR) that first alerted him to this possibility. Indeed, a retired flag-rank officer who was on active duty throughout the RMA debate told me that Pentagon wags used to joke about the rechristening of the MTR as the RMA to camouflage its Soviet pedigree by imitating a herd of sheep bleating “MTR = Baaaaaad, RMA = goooood.” But it was no laughing matter to Marshall, who, as usual, viewed Soviet interest in the direst of terms: “It is clear that the Soviets have been engaged in a well-financed, steadily growing, increasingly effective effort to catch-up, across the board, in military technology.”

Marshall’s final signal contribution, we are often told, was his anticipation of the rise of China as the United States’ primary “peer competitor” in the twenty-first century. In Marshall’s vision, a rising China was embracing elements of the RMA to develop a strategy and force posture that would increasingly make it impossible for the United States to operate in the western Pacific littoral.

While there is no doubt that the rise of China constitutes the United States’ major strategic challenge in the new century, Marshall’s role in identifying this threat needs to be put in perspective. First, there were plenty of other strategists who came to the same conclusion about China independent of Marshall’s net assessments. Second, China’s strategy is hardly an example of the mature RMA in action that he envisioned during the later stage of the Cold War. Indeed, it is probably better regarded as an example of the sort of “asymmetric warfare” that inferior powers have historically embraced to counter a technologically superior foe. And finally, it’s difficult not to conclude that Marshall’s preoccupation, even obsession, with the RMA and China in the 1990s and early 2000s led him to ignore the very real threat of terrorism that thrust itself onto our national-security agenda so dramatically on September 11, 2001.


THROUGHOUT, KREPINEVICH and Watts also don’t address important inconsistencies in Marshall’s strategic thinking. Despite having helped create the “bureaucratic politics” framework, Marshall never consistently applied it. If Soviet strategic decisions and weapons-acquisition policies were principally the result of internal processes, then why should we have concluded that they reflected the most malign intentions and used them as our strategic polestar? Furthermore, Marshall clearly wanted to have it both ways on the issue of whether and how much U.S. actions could influence adversary behavior. In his early work in the 1950s and 1960s, he was quite critical of action/reaction models of arms racing, arguing that Soviet behavior would be driven largely by internal dynamics. But later he would take a more bullish view of the action/reaction thesis, declaring in 1999 that “every action creates a reaction; every new weapon spurs the creation of a new defense.” So which was it?

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.