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James R. Schlesinger dies; Cold War strategist, secretary of defense under Nixon, Ford

NEW YORK – 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 Thursday in Baltimore. He was 85.

Schlesinger died in Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center of complications of pneumonia, said his daughter Ann Schlesinger.

A brilliant, often abrasive Harvard-educated economist, 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, 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 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 U.S. 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.

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 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, 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 a U.S. airlift of matériel to Israel; an invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces, leading to a congressionally mandated arms embargo of Turkey, a NATO partner; 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, as he confirmed years later, 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 any problems with a peaceful succession. As Nixon resigned, Ford took over and, for stability, retained the Cabinet, including Schlesinger.

His wife, Rachel, died in 1995. Schlesinger is survived by four sons, four daughters; and 11 grandchildren.

In recent years, in addition to being a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Schlesinger was chairman of the Mitre Corp. He wrote no autobiography but synthesized much of his experience in a 1989 book, “America at Century’s End.”