The Most Patriotic Act of Treason in American History?

Roundup
tags: Nixon, Secretary of Defense, James R Schlesinger



Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

It sounds more Hollywood than history. A paranoid president, unhinged, drinking heavily, ranting against his enemies, terrifies subordinates. The defense secretary commits what may be the most patriotic act of treason in American history: ordering the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ignore any White House military initiatives lacking his signature.

Most historians believe that as Richard Nixon staggered toward resignation in 1974, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger undermined the president’s constitutional authority. The late Watergate expert Stanley Kutler was skeptical, asking where was the paper trail? But who would write down such orders? It is more believable that this prickly, patriotic, public servant risked his career to save America rather than risking his reputation by inventing such a crazy story.

Born to an immigrant Jewish family in New York in 1929, refined with a Harvard trifecta—A.B., A.M., and Ph.D.—in the 1950s, Schlesinger was one of the meritocratic Bureaucratic Braniacs who succeeded the WASPy, aristocratic, Cold-War-era “Wise Men.” Schlesinger converted to Lutheranism in his twenties. His Harvard classmate and Washington rival, Henry Kissinger, was a Jewish refugee who barely escaped Nazi Germany. Kissinger sniffed that Schlesinger was a rare intellectual “equal.”

This wunderkind taught economics at the University of Virginia. He consulted for the Rand Corporation. He headed the Atomic Energy Commission, the CIA, the Pentagon under Nixon and Gerald Ford, and the Department of Energy under Jimmy Carter—all before turning 50. Schlesinger’s CIA reforms were so extensive, including firing 1,000 of the agency’s 17,000 employees, that co-workers decided security cameras were installed to deter agents from defacing his portrait.

In retirement, Schlesinger would preach that “the art of politics is to overcome past resentments to work with people who will not fully share your moral and political views and judgments” (PDF) Nevertheless, he admitted: “I tended to be self-righteous, a quibbler. Stubborn too. It took me a while to understand how hard I must have been to deal with.” ...




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