Following Richard M. Nixon's 1968 election as president, Schlesinger took a position with the Bureau of the Budget, and in 1971 Nixon named him chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. In February 1973 Nixon appointed Schlesinger director of the CIA, but he stayed only five months before being confirmed as defense secretary that July.
Schlesinger's tenure at the Department of Defense coincided with a tense and troubled time in modern American history. The Vietnam War was winding down, and the Watergate scandal had already begun to engulf the Nixon administration. Schlesinger tried to maintain high defense budgets at a time of economic stagnation, when Congress was intent on trimming military spending. His efforts to increase defense spending were largely unsuccessful. He also sought to keep pace with the Soviets in terms of strategic nuclear weapons. Generally known as a hawkish hard-liner, he had doubts about the efficacy of détente, the warming of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The most controversial part of Schlesinger's time in office came during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. When several Arab countries launched a surprise attack against Israel, the Jewish state requested American military assistance. According to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Schlesinger delayed sending war matériel to Israel in U.S. aircraft for fear of offending Arab nations, a charge that Schlesinger has strenuously denied. This led to a permanent rift between the two men, and Kissinger thereafter worked assiduously to push Schlesinger out of the administration.
Following Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Schlesinger stayed on in President Gerald Ford's cabinet. However, Schlesinger's insistence on more defense appropriations and his disagreements with Kissinger led Ford to relieve Schlesinger of his post in November 1975. Schlesinger returned to public life in October 1977 when President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, named him to be the first secretary of energy. At the time, the United States was still reeling from the 1973–1974 energy crisis, and Carter was determined to implement a cohesive energy policy to wean America off oil imports. By 1979, however, Carter was unhappy with Schlesinger's efforts to handle the second energy crisis, precipitated by the 1979 Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis. Carter replaced Schlesinger in July 1979.
Schlesinger has remained active in politics, writing books and lecturing mostly on military and defense issues.
Justin P. Coffey
Schlesinger, James R. America at Century's End. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.