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In the summer of 1940, following his first year at the University of California, Berkeley, a young Tom Schelling and two of his college friends piled into Schelling’s Model A Ford for a road trip. When they reached San Antonio, Texas, Schelling and his buddies, Tom Ludwig and Morris Glickfeld, were separated and had a tough time finding one another again. They decided that if it ever happened again, they should be able to regather without communicating, so they spent a whole afternoon thinking about it individually, trying to come up with an established meeting place.

All three decided on the General Delivery window of the main post office. Schelling was struck by how they had each separately arrived at the same answer. Their thoughts had both independently and collectively focused on the General Delivery window. The seed of an important idea was planted.

Years later Schelling went to New York City to visit his old college friend Tom Ludwig. When he arrived, he realized he had misplaced Ludwig’s address. Thinking back to the road trip of their youth, he wondered if it was worth trying their plan. The General Delivery window wouldn’t work, because general delivery was a thing of the past. The closest thing he could think of was Western Union, so he called and asked, “Do you have a way that I can leave a message for a person who may call in for a message?” The operator said, “Yes, what is your name?” He said, “Schelling.” The operator replied, “Oh, we have a message for you from Mr. Ludwig.”

What to many people might have been nothing more than an amusing anecdote became, in Schelling’s remarkable mind, an insight into tacit, cooperative efforts to solve problems. It would germinate into the theory of focal points.

Schelling, one of the founders of the modern Kennedy School, would use that “theory” to burrow down into a simple problem so deeply as to reach great insights that would impact fields as different as nuclear strategy and tobacco use. His monumental work in game theory was rewarded in 2005 with a Nobel Prize in economics. And in the 1960s it was used to create the intellectual scaffolding that would steady the superpowers’ shaky nuclear balance.

“Tom Schelling is a titan, and it is not the slightest exaggeration to say that his remarkable scholarship has made the world a safer and better place,” says Dean David Ellwood.

Thomas Crombie Schelling is descended from Irish and German immigrants, as remains evident in his slightly ruddy complexion and square jaw. His father, John, was commissioned as a naval officer after attending the United States Naval Academy and married Zelda Maude Ayres in 1912. Zelda was a strong woman who lived to be 107. Thomas was born on April 14, 1921, in Oakland, California. With his father frequently away at sea for months at a time, he and his brother and sister grew up in what he describes as “very much a mother-oriented family.” They relocated between bases in California and Washington, DC, before being stationed in the Canal Zone. A bespectacled, intelligent young man with a fascination for solving puzzles, Schelling returned to California during the Depression for high school. His open-mindedness often put him at odds with his father.

When the United States entered World War II, Schelling attempted to volunteer for the army but failed his physical because of ulcers, so he returned to Berkeley to resume his studies. He chose economics because he liked the idea that it was based on people’s being rational. He also found that many academic economics papers he read shared his way of looking at social problems as puzzles. And Schelling liked puzzles. In fact, viewing society’s problems as puzzles to be solved became a common thread in his work. He developed a capacity to frame issues in terms of logic problems and took great pleasure in the mental gymnastics and lateral thinking required to find solutions. The logical deductions came first, rather than the views on policy.

A genuine, live problem

After berkeley, Schelling worked in Washington and then went to Harvard in 1946 for his PHD. With his course work completed, he left in 1948 for Europe to work first on the Marshall Plan and then with the Truman administration in a job related to NATO. He remained at the White House after Eisenhower was elected president but left to join the faculty of Yale in 1953. (The following year crew cuts became fashionable in America, and Schelling had his hair cut in the new style, a look he kept into his 90s.)

At Yale his focus was bargaining theory. The theory entered the realm of strategy when his “Essay on Bargaining” was published in the American Economic Review of June 1956. The essay gave a vocabulary to strategic studies, differentiating among threats, warnings, commitments, and promises and discussing the strategic implications of each.

In 1957, he devoted considerable effort to learning game theory and published a second time on strategic thinking when The Journal of Conflict Resolution released its first issue. It included a questionnaire Schelling had devised to determine how successfully people could coordinate decisions without communicating and whether they could reach tacit agreements by finding subtle signals in situations. At this point he understood game theory and had established his basic concepts on strategy and the importance of signaling in tacit communication which would be hallmarks of his work.

His work at Yale attracted attention, and he was invited to spend the summer of 1957 at the RAND Corporation in California. It was there that he developed an interest in thermonuclear strategic planning and joined the elite society of leading civilian nuclear strategists. The biggest RAND puzzle was the threat of a surprise nuclear attack.

Schelling headed to London on a Ford Foundation grant in the spring of 1958. He recalls, “When I was in London thinking about surprise attack, I was doing it substantially as an intellectual puzzle. But as I worked through it, I realized it was a genuine, live problem. I became convinced that solving the intellectual puzzle was crucial to solving the practical policy issues.” As the leading American economist and Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson said, “Once the vital game of survival in a nuclear age challenged Schelling’s attention, mere economics could no longer contain him.”

Schelling returned to RAND for another year. The feeling of good against evil couldn’t be exaggerated, he remembers: “Nobody doubted we were on the side of the angels.”

His solution to the puzzle of surprise attack was “mutually assured destruction,” with its appropriately infamous acronym, MAD. To make this more easily understandable, he used a metaphor from the westerns that then topped television ratings and the Zane Grey stories he had enjoyed since childhood, involving gunfighters: “The ‘equalizer’ of the Old West (the ‘six-shooter’) made it possible for either man to kill the other; it did not assure that both would be killed . . . . The advantage of shooting first aggravates any incentive to shoot. As a survivor might put it, ‘He was about to kill me, so I had to kill him in self-defense.’ Or, ‘He, thinking I was about to kill him in self-defense, was about to kill me in self-defense, so I had to kill him in self-defense.’ But if both were assured of living long enough to shoot back with unimpaired aim, there would be no advantage in jumping the gun and little reason to fear that the other would try it.”

So if both the Soviets and the United States could be assured that they could destroy the other, the incentive for a surprise attack would no longer exist. As a RAND document reported, “Schelling’s ideas are at the heart of the complex, counterintuitive logic of mutually assured destruction, which has underpinned American nuclear and arms-control strategy for four decades.”

As influential as anybody

In 1960, amid growing Cold War tension, Schelling arrived at Harvard, where he initially worked in the economics department and the Center for International Affairs.

With the publication that year of The Strategy of Conflict, he began having an influence on policy analysis that was unsurpassed in the world of civilian consultants. His focal points were a recognized solution for games involving elements of cooperation. His emphasis on understanding signals sent and received by participants in interactive situations was crucial during a time when mistakes threatened disaster. He advised President Kennedy during the Berlin crisis of 1961. He proposed the hotline as a means of direct communication between U.S. and Soviet leaders to decrease the chances of a cataclysm. Using war games he had developed, he conducted training for Henry Kissinger and Robert Kennedy, among others, for dealing with crisis situations. An article he wrote, “Meteors, Mischief and War,” was read by Stanley Kubrick, who came to Schelling’s Harvard office to discuss how they could make a movie out of it. The result was the Cold War classic Dr. Strangelove.

Robert McNamara wrote “[Schelling’s] view permeated civilian leadership under Kennedy . . . to a remarkable degree.” Schelling acknowledges, “For a person outside the government, I was probably as influential as anybody else. Maybe more than most.”

That influence came at a price and raised what would be a recurring issue during Schelling’s career: the proper role of an unelected and unaccountable civilian strategist who affected issues of extreme importance and whose words were sometimes taken as policy advice. He always considered his role to be clarifying options so that decision-makers would understand the consequences of their choices.

But some were critical of what they saw as his fingerprints on a number of the United States’ most controversial national security policies during the 1960s and 1970s, including bombing campaigns in the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration’s use of Schelling’s “madman theory.”

Robert McNamara said he was not influenced by Schelling on the Vietnam bombing and wrote jokingly, “A story being circulated at Harvard during the 1960s was that a missed opportunity had occurred when Harvard failed to offer a scholarship to Ho Chi Minh, in order that he might have the opportunity to study with Professor Schelling. If he had, according to the Cambridge pundits, he would have known that Washington was trying to send him a signal via the bombing. As it was, Ho and his colleagues, in their ignorance, thought the United States was trying to destroy their country.”

“I was trying to formulate principles that people might understand,” Schelling explains. “I felt completely responsible for anything I wrote. I don’t feel responsible for any bad judgment of people who might have read a book of mine. I thought, and still think, that people are likely to make better decisions if they understand things than if they don’t.”

Still, some analysts suggested that if he had been more operational in the presentations of his thoughts, if he had described how his ideas should be put into practice, there might have been less likelihood that he would be taken in ways other than those he intended.

Schelling’s one deviation from what he saw as his objective role as a Cold War advisor came with the 1970 invasion of Cambodia. He led a group of Harvard professors, most of whom had held government advisory positions, to confront his former colleague and friend, Henry Kissinger, opposing the Nixon administration’s policy, and then spoke to the press. He took a public stand on an issue that he felt required it. That was very much out of character for Schelling, and it was a costly decision. His influence in Washington waned significantly.

His place in the national security pantheon, however, is undeniable. As a RAND assessment states, Schelling “established the basic conceptual structure of deterrence theory.”

Schelling’s ideas are also generally acknowledged for contributing to overcoming the Prisoner’s Dilemma of the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, resulting in the SALT I agreement and the ABM Treaty. The Doomsday Clock on the cover of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had been set at two minutes to midnight when Schelling first became involved in nuclear strategy; after those treaties were signed, the clock was set back to 12 minutes to midnight.

A life-changing experience

As the full impact of his work was being felt in the world of policy, Schelling began to be pulled into another academic venture at Harvard. He was among a small group who felt the University needed a school to bring an academic foundation to the practical world of public policy decision-making and to educate people in the profession of policymaking.

Former Harvard president Derek Bok recalls Schelling’s role in the process. “I remember him chiefly as one of the handful of faculty members who really founded the Kennedy School and devoted tremendous efforts to ensuring its success. Without the interest of Tom and a few others . . . I never would have decided to make the building of the school a priority. It was their presence and dedication that made it seem conceivable to create an entirely new professional school for professional service; without them, the effort couldn’t possibly have succeeded.”

The school became his intellectual home. As it evolved, Schelling’s interests expanded to include integration, organized crime, addictive behavior, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and more. For many of his newer interests, particularly addictive behavior and climate change, he has been very prescriptive in offering solutions as well as defining problems. As has always been the case, his ideas are unusually innovative and insightful.

But at the Kennedy School he is especially remembered as a teacher. His students recall how he would walk into the lecture room and begin going over a problem set that had baffled most of them. He would pace a little, stare into the distance, and purse his lips occasionally, clenching his jaw at irregular intervals. During the brief pauses in his presentation, it was obvious that he was very rapidly analyzing some problem in his mind. As he came up with examples and answers to questions, he drew on sources that ranged from interactions with his own children to nuclear encounters, always finding underlying themes to link them.

“It was a stunning — even life-changing — experience,” Herman “Dutch” Leonard, now Baker Professor of Management at the Kennedy School, remembers about being in Schelling’s class. According to Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine and formerly provost of Harvard University and dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, “No matter how complicated an argument he would weave, Schelling never dropped a strand, and the product was consistently complete, compelling, and beautiful.”

Schelling describes the Kennedy School’s evolution: “It has grown fantastically. It began with 21 students, of whom four went to Washington for the first Earth Day and only one returned to school. The faculty was six seniors and five juniors. It didn’t change much until we got our own building, which President Bok allowed to be big enough to accommodate enough people to require our own dining room and a cafeteria. The mid-career students in the one-year public administration degree program were assimilated. A large program for developing-country mid-careers followed, as did special programs for military officers and ‘super-grade’ officials of the federal government. And so on, until we had 30 or 40 times that original complement of 21. Not only did the Kennedy School grow enormously, but similar schools proliferated in Texas, California, Wisconsin, Maryland, and all over the country. I don’t think anybody ever anticipated such growth.”

Today, at 91, Schelling is a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, where he moved after mandatory retirement from Harvard. He continues to tour the world, giving lectures and serving as a consultant. He has one requirement for all his far-flung travels, and that is that his wife, Alice, must accompany him. When he finally agreed to go on a pleasure cruise, he picked the destination — Antarctica — so that he could get a firsthand look at the effects of climate change.

Robert Dodge MC/MPA 1990 is the author of two books on Schelling including, most recently, Schelling’s Game Theory (see Alumni books). He lives in Singapore.