National Security & Defense

Just Andy Marshall

Andrew Marshall at a retirement farewell ceremony at the Pentagon, January 5, 2015. (Master Sergeant Adrian Cadiz/US Army)
Andrew Marshall, first director of the Office of Net Assessment, was a great man.

Andrew W. Marshall, the eminent defense strategist, spoke sharply to me only once in the ten years I knew him. A remarkably kind and humble man, Andy Marshall was successful for over four decades in the Pentagon and, more broadly, in Washington, D.C. This success, and the legend that came to be attached to him in the final decades of his 97-year-long life, grew from Marshall’s qualities as an individual, the methodology of “net assessment” that he developed, and the way he ran the Office of Net Assessment.

Andy Marshall died March 26.

Marshall was a standout as a young student. After a heart murmur medically disqualified him for military service during World War II, he attended both the University of Detroit and Wayne State College while working in factories. He took an interest in history, literature, math, and the sciences, but his formal education came to focus on economics and system modeling. After the war and without actually graduating from Wayne State, he applied to and was accepted by the University of Chicago to pursue a master’s in economics. While there, he became interested in understanding how the world actually worked as a macro-political-economic-security system. In his spare time, he worked in the university’s Institute for Nuclear Studies, where he leveraged his experience as a tool-maker in Detroit’s factories to upgrade the university’s cyclotron.

Marshall completed his degree requirements in 1949 and accepted a job offer from the relatively new RAND Corporation, a federally funded research and development center in Santa Monica, Calif. Years later, while working for him, I often fielded questions from senior officials, both foreign and domestic, as to how they should address him: “Do we call him Director Marshall or Dr. Marshall?” “No,” was my instructed reply, “it’s just Andy Marshall.”

At RAND, Marshall worked with such luminaries as Herbert Goldhamer, Charles Hitch, Herman Kahn, and Albert Wohlstetter. Marshall spent 20 years with RAND and enjoyed its multi-disciplinary approach and collegial work environment. “Rank” had no place in those early RAND studies, as young minds were expected to contribute just as much as the more experienced researchers, although almost everyone at RAND was young then. During this era of his life, Marshall examined a wide array of issues but also quietly began to develop a broad multi-disciplinary practice of analysis that he called “net assessment.”

Combining aspects of economics, history, organizational behavior, business management theory, and grand strategy with his strong respect for the sciences, Marshall sought a better way to measure the relative power of opposing nations. For instance, while examining how the Soviet Union was preparing to defend itself against outside bomber attacks, he discovered that the United States’ bomber force imposed a significant cost upon the Soviet Union by forcing it to deploy anti-air guns and missiles along its long borders. Marshall understood that money spent on defensive weapons could not be spent on offensive systems that would be arrayed against the United States. This idea of asymmetric cost imposition—of finding ways to exploit an enemy’s inherent weaknesses with your strength—began to define his research. In 1969 Henry Kissinger brought Marshall to Washington, D.C., to assess the intelligence products being provided to the White House. Marshall and his wife, Mary, moved into a temporary apartment with rented furniture, always intending to return to their home in Santa Monica.

Andy Marshall ended up spending several years performing net assessments for Kissinger within the White House, but in 1973, when his former colleague at RAND, Dr. James Schlesinger, was named secretary of defense, Marshall was transferred to the Pentagon to establish an Office of Net Assessment (ONA) within the Department of Defense. Marshall was appointed ONA’s first director by Richard Nixon and was subsequently reappointed by each successive president through Barack Obama, a 42-year epoch that overlapped with 13 secretaries of defense. Beyond Marshall’s long life and intellectual vitality, the reasons for his longevity lay in the type of people he picked to work with him, the quality of ONA’s products, and Marshall’s nearly unique professional humility.

I was picked to work in ONA as part of a team of professionals who all shared a predilection to challenge established norms. We were intellectually curious and uniform in our belief that working in ONA was the best job we ever had. Those I’ve met who came before my time in the office, and those who came after me, nearly all share this opinion. Most of Marshall’s military assistants were not “hot runners” in our respective military services, and in my time with him he consistently rejected the “superstar” candidates who were sent to him by various service leaders in favor of more iconoclastic intellects.

Not all of Marshall’s military assistants found success within their services. Some, such as General Lance Lord and General Paul Selva, the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, went all the way to four-star rank, but most left military service and found their greatest influence elsewhere, such as James Roche, who worked for Marshall as a Navy commander but went on to become secretary of the Air Force, or Andrew Krepinevich, who served as a lieutenant colonel under Marshall but went on to head an influential think tank. All of Marshall’s military assistants worked well together. He had a good instinct for group dynamics and led them by posing the big questions facing the Department of Defense. Marshall was in every sense the director of the office’s efforts, but he was also comfortable both asking and taking questions, and he continued to mentor and guide many of us after we left his office. He became our friend, and we became his family.

Marshall set no deadlines, but he expected his assistants to produce useful and original work. A person would join the office, spend a few days or weeks reading up on its history and ongoing projects, and only then sit down with Marshall to set out on a new project in collaboration with him or others. In meetings one often got the idea that he was asking a question that he had raised several times before but wanted to see if anyone would offer a new, surprising approach. Marshall was a voracious reader with an eclectic range of tastes. He would often drop books or articles on the desks of his military assistants and then stop by a few days later to see if they had read the materials. Always, always, he would ask, “what did that make you think of?” Marshall was never simply interested in what the written word said but rather was curious as to where it took the reader’s mind. To work with him (one never got the sense of working for Andy Marshall so much as working with him) was to be on a constant path of collaborative intellectual growth. The “work” never ended, and that was acceptable because the “work” was never the normal drudgery that one often endured in traditional military service.

Of course, it was the power of ONA’s products that propelled it and its director to great influence. The initial set of net assessments of U.S. competition with the Soviet Union were delivered in the opening days of the Carter administration, and the power of their diagnoses was such that then–Secretary of Defense Harold Brown made the decision to keep ONA open and to retain the service of Andrew Marshall. Marshall’s net assessments identified offsetting technologies such as stealth, precision strike weapons, and space-based surveillance, positioning, and timing systems as key enablers of potential U.S. dominance. He also correctly ascertained that the Soviet economy was much smaller than suspected and that the United States would prevail in the long-term competition with the communist state.

Later he identified the importance of continuous innovation, strongly supporting what he termed “revolutions in military affairs.” He also identified China as a rising threat in the early 1990s, long before any other voice in the national-security establishment. He missed some developments as well, but his overall predictive abilities were better than any grand strategist of his generation, and the power of his trend analysis will continue to influence decision-makers for years to come.

Marshall also greatly influenced the broader strategic community. Many have written about the cadre of strategists that he trained and mentored, and this certainly was a big part of his growing influence. Those who had worked for him gained reputations for being able to identify the right strategic questions and mastered their national-security portfolios in government, academia, think tanks, and industry. Marshall also used his small studies budget to fund ongoing research on important topics through the think tanks, academic institutions, and private consultants who were willing to gore more than a few sacred cows. He created and sustained a vital intellectual “churn” of ideas in an era that was increasingly characterized by strategic calcification and hubris. A system of interlocking net assessments, sponsored studies, and exercises was the real source of Marshall’s influence.

It was this influence that created Marshall’s “aura” as the “Yoda” of the Pentagon, the wise seer and adviser to the powerful. It would be a lie to say that those of us who worked for him were unaware of his reputation. It was, in fact, hard at times to differentiate the humble man who became our mentor and friend from the legend that grew around him over decades of national service. Marshall himself remained largely oblivious to his reputation and comported himself with humility. He was naturally quiet. When he developed a new analytical product, he presented it to the secretary of defense instead of sharing his insights widely, even if such sharing would have brought him more fame and influence within the labyrinth of the Pentagon. He was a counselor with one client — the defense secretary — and he kept his focus on that relationship. His willingness to be the unseen adviser to the senior minister to the president on national security was his core strength, and he employed it well.

Marshall conversed as easily with my father, a dignified and respected dairy and crop farmer from Indiana, at my last promotion ceremony as he did with secretaries of defense. Dad told me later, “I know he’s a great man. You told me, but he seems like a normal guy from Michigan to me.” He was never impressed with himself. He never bought into the “Yoda” appellation, and it was that humility that provoked the only sharp words he ever spoke to me.

I was in his office to discuss ideas for research that I was interested in pursuing following my retirement from active duty in late 2014 when Andy informed me that he had himself decided to finally retire. I was saddened but not surprised. He had just turned 93, his hip had been bothering him, and he had become increasingly frustrated with the decline of a strategic culture among the nation’s national-security elite, which had become more focused on domestic politics than grand strategy. I asked him whether he planned to have a hand in selecting the person who would become the second director of ONA. He told me that no, he planned to retire and leave it to others to select his replacement. I, after a moment’s hesitation, offered that I thought that was a mistake. I told him, “You know sir, Andy Marshall wasn’t always Andy Marshall.” I meant that the legend of “Andy Marshall” hadn’t always been there and that if he participated in the selection of his successor, that perhaps he could pass some of his “aura” on to them. His answer was sharp, and quick: “I have always been Andy Marshall!”

He never bought into the legend. He was always “just” Andy Marshall. He was a great man, perhaps the most influential geo-strategist of his generation, who tackled the nation’s hardest security challenges and saw accurately and consistently into the future. He served humbly, always with the sense that serving was a privilege that would someday end. It wasn’t until after his first wife passed away and the furniture rental company stopped taking his monthly check for the use of their 30-year-old chairs that he finally sold the house in Santa Monica. His simple dedication always kept the nation’s best interests in mind. In the end he was just Andy Marshall, and that was more than enough.


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