The Scrapbook is sorry to hear that Andrew Marshall is retiring from the Pentagon, where he has led the Department of Defense’s internal think tank, the Office of Net Assessment, since 1973. Frankly, The Scrapbook is also a bit surprised. Marshall’s popular nickname, Yoda—taken from the sage of the Star Wars epic—while honoring his sagacity, wisdom, and mystery, is also testimony to his longevity. Marshall has served every defense secretary since James Schlesinger and every president since Richard Nixon, and it’s difficult to imagine the Pentagon without him. It’s even more difficult to imagine what the world will look like without Marshall and his staff imagining its contours for us.
The purpose of the office Marshall has directed since the middle of the Cold War is to forecast the various threats that the United States might someday face. His job was to look into the future and guess, in the words of one of his former bosses, Donald Rumsfeld, about the shape and scope of the unknown unknowns.
“Net assessments have consistently sought to determine where the United States stood in various areas of military competition relative to rivals and adversaries,” write Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts in their forthcoming book The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy.
Their ultimate aim has been—and remains—to illuminate emerging problems and strategic opportunities far enough in advance for senior leaders to have time to make decisions that will either mitigate the former or exploit the latter. From the Soviets’ achievement of strategic nuclear parity in the early 1970s to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Marshall’s net assessments have been remarkably prescient in identifying “the next big thing” for senior national security officials to worry about or capitalize upon. Far ahead of most others, he foresaw the consequences of the revolution in warfare brought about by precision weaponry and the rise of China as a major strategic competitor.
Krepinevich and Watts, both of whom worked under Marshall at the Pentagon, write that their aim was not to produce his biography, “but rather his intellectual history”—a narrative that necessarily dovetails with the history of the Cold War. Marshall, a Detroit native, attended the University of Chicago, where, write Krepinevich and Watts, he “assisted the legendary physicist Enrico Fermi with a cyclotron.” In 1949, Marshall joined the RAND Corporation, where he embarked on an “intellectual journey toward becoming one of the nation’s most influential behind-the-scenes strategists.” The authors of The Last Warrior describe Marshall as “an intellectual giant,” comparable, they write, to strategists like Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and Albert Wohlstetter.
Of course, one of the reasons that Marshall is not as well known as his peers is that, as Krepinevich and Watts explain, “much of what he has written, as well as the products of the Office of Net Assessment, remain classified.” Then there’s also Marshall’s aversion to self-promotion, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that one of his favorite quotes is “There is no end to the good a person can do if he does not care about who gets the credit”—a motto that another of his former employers, Ronald Reagan, displayed on a plaque on his desk.
Nonetheless, Americans owe Marshall their gratitude for his having helped U.S. policymakers safely navigate our country through the Cold War and other conflicts. We also owe him thanks for the many disciples he leaves behind at the Pentagon and elsewhere whom we can count on to defend America by imagining the unimaginable—and planning for it.