Schelling provided a new way of looking at nuclear strategy, climate change and addictive behavior

by Robert O'Neill

Tom Schelling, whose pioneering work in game theory and understanding the “subtle tension … between conflict and cooperation” helped steady the Cold War’s nervous nuclear standoff, passed away Tuesday (Dec. 13).

Schelling, a 2005 Nobel Prize winner in economics, provided a new way of looking at issues as disparate as nuclear strategy, climate change and addictive behavior. At the height of his influence on public policy in the 1960s, he advised President Kennedy during the Berlin crisis, came up with the idea of a hotline between Washington and Moscow, and even provided the intellectual seed for the black comedy Dr. Strangelove.

Schelling was 95.

Among his many achievements, Schelling also was a major figure in shaping the modern Harvard Kennedy School. In 1969, Schelling was one of the so-called “founding fathers” of the Kennedy School, helping design a new curriculum not for public administrators, but for a new generation of leaders literate in public policy.

Schelling described the group of leading thinkers that formed the core of the school – a mix of political scientists, statisticians, economists, and decision theorists that included himself, Richard Neustadt, Philip Heyman, Howard Raiffa, Fred Mosteller and Francis Bator – as “distinguished misfits.”

Tom Schelling on Arms Control and Mutual Deterrence

“Tom was the most lucid, most incisive, most insightful mind among the stellar band of founding fathers of Harvard’s Kennedy School,” said former Kennedy School dean Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the School. “As he said, had he or Howard or Fred Mosteller or Dick Neustadt fit entirely into a department of economics or statistics or political science, they would have stayed there. Instead, while having one foot planted squarely in their disciplines, they simultaneously wanted to venture forth with the other to a new frontier.

Schelling was always proud of the growth of the school as well as of the proliferation of similar schools around the country. ‘I don’t think anybody ever anticipated such growth,’ he said.

“Tom Schelling and a handful of other brilliant and dedicated scholars developed a new approach to teaching public leaders how to make better public policy, and they put that approach into action,” said Doug Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy. “Without Tom Schelling, the Kennedy School as we know it today would not exist, and the world would be poorer for that.”

Schelling was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1921. He fell into economics, he said, because the economics papers he read shared his way of looking at social problems as puzzles. He went to Harvard for his PhD in 1946, leaving after his coursework ended to work on the Marshall Plan and then at the Truman White House. (He wrote most of his dissertation at night, working alone, after he had finished his “day job.”) He joined the Harvard faculty in 1958, while also working at the RAND Corporation, where strategic thinking was a priority.

While working on the problems of a surprise nuclear attack, Schelling recalled, “I was doing it substantially as an intellectual puzzle. But as I worked through it, I realized it was a genuine, live problem.”

Perhaps Schelling’s most influential work was the 1960 book The Strategy of Conflict. The book focused, broadly speaking, on how parties that are ostensibly opposed can find ways to cooperate, said Richard Zeckhauser, Frank Plumpton Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at the Kennedy School, and one of many influential scholars who saw Schelling as a mentor.

“Tom made the observation, now widely accepted but then not fully recognized, that war is far from a zero-sum game,” said Zeckhauser, who studied under Schelling as an undergraduate and later worked alongside him. “His big insight was that the United States and the U.S.S.R. had an immense joint interest in avoiding a nuclear war.” In true Schelling style, the complex problems of superpower nuclear strategy were boiled down to the simplicity of a Wild West duel: “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.”

The influence of his theory in Washington in the 1960s could not be overstated. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote, “[Schelling’s] view permeated civilian leadership under Kennedy … to a remarkable degree.”

Beyond his advice to Kennedy during the height of Cold War tensions and his efforts to defuse them, such as the creation of what became known in popular culture as the “red telephone” connecting the Kremlin to the White House, Schelling’s influence also made him the target for criticism. Some saw his fingerprints on national security policies such as the bombing campaigns in Vietnam and Nixon’s use of the “madman theory.” His influence in Washington waned after he publicly opposed the 1970 invasion of Cambodia.

Later, Schelling turned his attention to a wide range of policy issues, including racial segregation, traffic congestion and climate change. His work on rationality and how individuals could control their own behavior led him to work on substance abuse and addiction.

Schelling is survived by his wife Alice and by four sons.