The Last Warrior

Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy


By Andrew F. Krepinevich

By Barry D. Watts

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Andrew Marshall is a Pentagon legend. For more than four decades he has served as Director of the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s internal think tank, under twelve defense secretaries and eight administrations. Yet Marshall has been on the cutting edge of strategic thinking even longer than that. At the RAND Corporation during its golden age in the 1950s and early 1960s, Marshall helped formulate bedrock concepts of US nuclear strategy that endure to this day; later, at the Pentagon, he pioneered the development of “net assessment” — a new analytic framework for understanding the long-term military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Following the Cold War, Marshall successfully used net assessment to anticipate emerging disruptive shifts in military affairs, including the revolution in precision warfare and the rise of China as a major strategic rival of the United States.

In The Last Warrior, Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts — both former members of Marshall’s staff — trace Marshall’s intellectual development from his upbringing in Detroit during the Great Depression to his decades in Washington as an influential behind-the-scenes advisor on American defense strategy. The result is a unique insider’s perspective on the changes in US strategy from the dawn of the Cold War to the present day.

Covering some of the most pivotal episodes of the last half-century and peopled with some of the era’s most influential figures, The Last Warrior tells Marshall’s story for the first time, in the process providing an unparalleled history of the evolution of the American defense establishment.




I’d rather have decent answers to the right question than great answers to irrelevant questions.


Andrew Walter Marshall arrived in this world on September 13, 1921, in the city of Detroit. His parents named their first son after the infant’s seafaring grandfather.

The newborn’s father, John Marshall, was born in 1886 in the port city of Liverpool, some 175 miles northwest of London along England’s west coast. He was the youngest of four children, with two brothers and a sister. Their father, Andrew Marshall, was the engineer on a ship that ran between Liverpool and Buenos Aires. After he was killed in an accident at sea, his wife took their children, including John, back to Carluke, a small town between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where she had grown up. Not long afterward she passed away as well.

Not much is known about how the four orphaned children were raised. What is known is that John Marshall was less educated than his two elder brothers, perhaps due to their parents’ untimely deaths. Upon reaching adulthood they all emigrated from Scotland to either Canada or the United States. Christina, John’s sister, chose Canada and eventually married a World War I fighter ace, settling down on a large farm in Saskatchewan. One brother, Arthur, came to the United States and migrated west. Over time the family gradually lost track of him. The other brother, who was also named Andrew, had attended a technical school and became a craftsman-engineer, settling in Dayton, Ohio, where he worked at Wright Field with two of his cousins, Fred and Tom Russell.

Unlike many European immigrants who entered the United States at Ellis Island in New York harbor, John Marshall took an indirect route. He traveled first to South Africa, India, Australia, and then to Canada as he looked for a place to settle down. He arrived in Detroit via Ontario, where he met Katherine Last who, like him, was a British expatriate.

Katherine was born on December 27, 1894, the middle child in a family of thirteen children. She was raised in the small town of Halstead in Essex County, northeast of London. In the late nineteenth century Essex was a manufacturing center and Halstead was known for its weaving. One of Katherine’s more enterprising elder sisters, Maude, immigrated to the United States and settled in Detroit. In 1916 Katherine joined her there.

John and Katherine married in 1920. Having met in Detroit, they decided their family would plant its roots in the United States, and they both became American citizens.

The year after their marriage Andrew Marshall was born in his parents’ home, a relatively rare event in today’s America but quite common in those times. The two-story detached house was modest but comfortable, a reflection of the lower-middle-class blue-collar section of Detroit where the Marshalls lived. A second son, Frederick John Marshall, was born in December 1922. He was named after one of his mother’s brothers, but everyone called him Jack.

Unlike the hollowed-out, financially insolvent city of today, the Detroit of Andrew Marshall’s youth was a vibrant, growing metropolis. The city was a key part of America’s rapidly expanding industrial sector—a kind of early-twentieth-century Silicon Valley. Automobiles were the new sensation. Such innovations as Henry Ford’s assembly-line production techniques made cars affordable for the middle class. The United States was becoming a nation on wheels, with Detroit—“Motor City”—its capital.

Andrew Marshall’s boyhood years were in many ways typical of that bygone era. He enjoyed sports, playing pickup baseball and football, and, during Michigan’s long, cold winters, ice-skating. The family made periodic trips to Dayton to visit his father’s brother Andrew. Young Andrew bonded with his uncle, who on one occasion took him to an open house day conducted by the Army Air Corps at Wright Field. The airplanes on display, especially the large bomber aircraft, awed young Andrew, who would develop a lifelong interest in military affairs.

Marshall’s father was a kind and generous man, and within the family Andrew naturally gravitated toward him. This was made all the easier as Katherine was the source of order in the family, the principal disciplinarian for Andrew and Jack. She also managed the family finances with intelligence and prudence. Even during the Great Depression, when her husband went through a long stretch during which he had trouble getting work as a stonemason, Katherine’s financial acuity enabled the family to weather the country’s economic downturn without the severe hardships that were visited upon many of their neighbors. Things were tight but there was no wolf at the door.

Young Andrew possessed an intense curiosity, combined with a love of reading, both of which he inherited from his father, whose interests were diverse. The family’s modest library included a multivolume literature collection and a set of encyclopedias. Andrew devoured the books and, in seeking further intellectual stimulation, discovered the main Detroit Public Library. Funded by Andrew Carnegie, the library opened its doors in the same year as Marshall’s birth. Andrew started visiting the library at an early age. He also began using his modest allowance to buy his own books, reading widely on topics ranging from chess and mathematics to history, literature, and warfare.

On a trip to one of his mother’s relatives in the city, Andrew came upon a set of the 1911 edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica. During subsequent visits the precocious young man would steal away to sit by himself and read entries, many of which were written by some of the leading figures in their respective fields. Having access to some of the best minds in the world in this way so excited Marshall that he started saving money to buy a set of his own, which he did as a teenager—quite an accomplishment, given the considerable cost of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, then and now.

Marshall attended Marxhausen Elementary School, about a half-dozen blocks from his home. This was followed by what today would be called middle school at Barbour, a little farther away. In those days children walked to school, irrespective of the weather, and even a few blocks’ distance could be a challenge in the Michigan winter. At Barbour, students were separated into homerooms according to academic proficiency. Andrew’s homeroom boasted the top students.

Toward the end of his last year at Barbour, Marshall and his classmates were given an exam, a kind of aptitude test. Some days later the principal asked to see Andrew, another boy, and three girls. The principal questioned them about their plans for further education. “Where are you going to go to high school?” she wanted to know. It was quickly apparent to Andrew that she had called them in because he and the others had scored extraordinarily high on the exam. When Andrew told her his parents planned for him to attend Cass Technical High School, she expressed some concern. Cass was a good school, she said, but she emphasized that he should go to college, and a technical high school wouldn’t give him the preparation he needed. She seemed to fear that since his father was a stonemason, Andrew would see Cass as the way to acquire a trade or craft and not fulfill his intellectual potential.

Despite the principal’s misgivings, Marshall went to Cass, thinking—as did his parents—that it would offer him the best future. Cass was not like many of today’s trade schools; it did have aspects of a vocational or trade school, but students had to have good grades to be accepted. In some respects it was like a magnet school. Its curriculum featured more courses in such subjects as mathematics and chemistry than did any other high school in Detroit. The school’s “celebrity” teacher was Charles Lindbergh’s mother, Evangeline Lodge Land Lindbergh, who taught organic chemistry. Many students and their parents saw attending Cass as an honor.

Cass was also, however, geared toward teaching technical skills in a way not seen in the more academically oriented high schools of the time. Cass had machine and electrical shops and even a foundry. Marshall learned to run lathes and milling machines. His homeroom, on the school’s seventh floor, was in the foundry where students learned to cast metal molds. Every few weeks the furnace was lit and the students were able to work with molten metal, pouring it into their molds to make castings. By the time he graduated from Cass, Marshall had acquired considerable skill with machine tools as well as a first-rate education in mathematics and the hard sciences.

Like many young boys of high school age, Marshall enjoyed sports. After setting aside funds for his future book purchases, he went as often as time and money would allow to Briggs Stadium to see the Detroit Tigers baseball club. The team was quite a powerhouse for much of the 1930s and boasted some of the game’s biggest stars, including future Hall of Famers such as slugger and first baseman Hank Greenberg, catcher Mickey Cochrane, and second baseman Charlie Gehringer. Admission to the bleacher section was cheap, only fifty cents. In the fall Marshall went to see the Lions, Detroit’s professional football team. John Marshall would often take his sons to the Thanksgiving Day game, which began at eleven a.m. so everyone could get home in time for a big dinner.

Marshall proved to be a better-than-average athlete. In those days the city’s leading newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, sponsored a kind of decathlon. Participants engaged in events involving sprinting, throwing a javelin, putting the shot, and broad jumping, along with sit-ups, pull-ups, and chin-ups. Marshall’s performance was sufficiently notable to earn him several medals.

While at Cass, Marshall’s intellectual curiosity could not be contained within the bounds of his father’s modest library, or those of his relatives. He continued trooping down frequently to the public library, where he began in earnest what amounted to a lifelong process of self-education. He was especially impressed by Ford Madox Ford’s The March of Literature: From Confucius’ Day to Our Own.1 Written for general readers rather than scholars and first published in 1938, it presents Ford’s views of what is valuable in literature, and why. After reading Ford’s favorable accounts of various works, Marshall set off to read them himself, devouring such novels as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, then on to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and many others besides.

Marshall pursued his curiosity about military affairs, and naval warfare in particular, by heading to the city’s main library and poring over books such as Jane’s Fighting Ships, a ponderous annual publication that provided exquisitely detailed accounts of the vessels of the world’s naval powers. Marshall also read histories of the First World War and B. H. Liddell Hart’s writings on strategy. As World War II approached, Marshall began following the columns of the military historian S. L. A. Marshall in the Detroit News and even heard him speak once at the local library. Marshall’s eclectic interests also found him burrowing into books on mathematics, such as Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins’s What Is Mathematics?2 Marshall read nearly all of Alfred North Whitehead and George Santayana’s works, followed by specialized philosophical works, such as F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies, which criticized utilitarianism.

While browsing through a magazine one day during the 1930s, Marshall came upon a reference to Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. The first three volumes had come out in 1934, and three more were to be released in 1939. Marshall scraped together the money and bought the first three volumes, reading them in rapid succession. When the second set was published, he purchased them as well.3

Toynbee’s writings were an epiphany for Marshall. Later he would recall that, as he read Toynbee, he was beginning to understand for the first time the broad sweep of history; the various cultures that had emerged over time; how civilizations had changed from one era to the next; and how states acquired power, wielded and preserved it, and eventually lost it. His readings gave young Andrew a sense of how quickly things could change, how fragile human societies could be, and of how different groups of human beings were capable of visiting unspeakable depredations on others.

Marshall’s growing understanding of human strengths, weaknesses, and proclivities was reinforced by the dark days of the Great Depression, and by reports of Communist and Fascist states inflicting enormous suffering on their own peoples while pursuing expansionist policies to enslave others. It also led him to conclude that the popular view of the past in any given era can often be very wrong—in some cases dangerously so. Simply put, Marshall realized that the popular, or conventional, wisdom regarding what constitutes “reality” is wrong more often than people care to admit.

In later years the self-education derived from Marshall’s intense curiosity would manifest itself in a healthy skepticism when presented with the latest version of the “conventional wisdom” on any given subject. Although he could not have known it at the time, Marshall’s eclectic interests would serve him well years later, when he began struggling to understand the dynamics of the complicated and dangerous geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that emerged after World War II.

In the spring of 1939, toward the end of Marshall’s four years at Cass, he and some of his fellow seniors in the city were given an aptitude test, similar to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) of today but limited to students with high grade point averages. Among the roughly four hundred honor students who took the test, Marshall scored the second highest. Cass, it turned out, would not be the end of his formal education.

Marshall’s parents rarely discussed their personal histories, even in front of their two sons. But during the 1930s they often talked about the growing likelihood of another world war. Totalitarian states in Europe and Asia seemed intent on expansion: Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, seized Manchuria from China in 1931; his troops invaded China itself in 1937 on the way to creating what the Japanese labeled the “East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” In 1932 the Soviet Union’s brutal dictator, Joseph Stalin, sanctioned the starvation of millions of his people in Ukraine to liquidate private property and spur industrialization while he looked for opportunities to prey on weak countries along his borders. Three years later Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia as part of his bid to create a new Roman Empire. Speaking of the need for “living space” to create a “Greater Germany,” in 1938 Adolf Hitler sent German troops first into Austria and then into Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. In the spring of 1939 Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, and began making demands on Poland.

The League of Nations, the international institution created after World War I to ensure there would never be another great war, had proven both feckless and toothless in its attempts to arrest these acts of aggression. The victors of World War I, Great Britain and France, alternately threatened sanctions against Italy and pursued appeasement with Germany, all to no avail.

Like many other parents at that time, John and Katherine Marshall believed that if another war came, the casualties would be enormous and few families would be spared suffering. One of Katherine’s brothers had been killed at the Battle of the Somme during the Great War only twenty years before. Another had been made an invalid, and still another came home mutilated. John Marshall was spared only because he fractured his foot during a training exercise and was ruled physically unfit for combat duty.

This somber mood about the future was not limited to Marshall’s parents. Shortly before graduation, Marshall’s metallurgy class teacher, when describing a type of steel, told the students that it was of the kind used in armor and helmets. He said he feared the students soon would become very familiar with these instruments of war.

Most high school graduations are happy affairs, occasions to recognize years of accomplishment and to anticipate a future of exciting possibilities. This was not the mood at the graduation exercises for Cass Technical School’s Class of 1939. Rather than an atmosphere of celebration, a cloud of foreboding hung over the ceremony. Parents sat somberly in their seats. War was in the air, and it appeared to many that, as in the last war, the United States would not be able to avoid involvement. It seemed likely that the conflict would consume many of the young men now awaiting their diplomas. Cass had a junior Reserve Office Training Corps (ROTC) unit, quite normal in high schools at that time. At graduation the ROTC cadets, as was the tradition, wore their uniforms and sat together. The sight of the assembled cadets moved many women, and not a few men, to tears. Marshall would later recall it as the most emotional public experience of his life.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, followed later that same month by Soviet forces, part of an agreement that Hitler and Stalin had reached only days before. Both Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany, but failed to come to Poland’s aid. Abandoned by its Western allies, and with Stalin’s armies moving in and occupying the eastern half of the country, Warsaw surrendered after only a few weeks’ resistance.

After a long lull in the fighting, in April 1940 the Germans invaded and quickly conquered Denmark and Norway, while Stalin seized control over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Then, in May, the world was stunned by a massive German offensive against France and the Low Countries. Germany’s revolutionary blitzkrieg form of warfare, combining large concentrations of tanks and aircraft linked by radio, enabled the Wehrmacht—Germany’s unified air force, army, and navy—to defeat British and French forces in a six-week lightning campaign that saw France surrender and the British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk. This left Great Britain to face Germany—now the master of much of Europe—alone. In the Far East, Japan pressed its advantage in China and, following the defeat of France, moved to occupy French Indochina as well.

Despite the growing threats from Germany and Japan, the United States maintained its neutrality. Marshall, meanwhile, was in kind of limbo as well. Although his high grades and his score on the aptitude test had earned him a scholarship to an engineering school, he decided to delay further education. Instead he spent the next year running a lathe in a factory where the father of one of his friends worked.

Finally, in the fall of 1940, Marshall enrolled at Detroit University. The school required entering students to take a medical exam. Marshall’s physical revealed that he had a heart murmur. The condition later precluded him from military service when the United States entered World War II.

Marshall found Detroit University’s curriculum disappointing. Many of the courses merely repeated work he had done at Cass. He felt he was wasting his time, and left school after a year to take a job at the Murray Body Company. Named after its cofounder John William Murray, a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, the company had been formed in 1913 to manufacture sheet metal parts for the rapidly growing automotive industry. Its customers included Ford, Hudson, Hupmobile, King, and Studebaker. In the 1920s the company merged with others to form the Detroit-based Murray Body Corporation, which boasted over a million square feet of floor space and employed over one thousand men and women. By the time Marshall joined the company it had converted to aircraft production, and Marshall’s job was to build machine tools for use in fabricating aircraft parts; most of the work at that time was for planes bound for Great Britain.

On December 7, 1941, a Sunday, Marshall took his usual six-hour shift at Murray, heading home shortly after one o’clock. When he arrived back at his parents’ home, he turned on the radio in the living room to get the day’s news. After a few moments the program was interrupted by a flash bulletin: Reports were coming in of an attack by Japanese forces on the United States’ main Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Marshall called his parents, who came rushing into the room. There the three of them stood in silence as bulletin after bulletin provided further details. They were surprised at the timing and character of the attack, but not at the fact that the United States would no longer be able to maintain its neutrality. What had long seemed inevitable was now a reality.

Congress declared war on Japan on December 8, and on Germany and Italy three days later, in response to the two European Axis powers’ declarations of war upon the United States. Suddenly Marshall found himself on the front lines of the home front. Given its ongoing work on military contracts, Murray was well positioned to support the war effort, and over the next two years the company’s workforce expanded to over thirteen thousand workers, most of them women. Murray’s sheet presses worked around the clock to fulfill the company’s role in America’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” as FDR had termed it a year earlier. The plant produced wings and other components used in the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Super Fortress bombers, as well as in Douglas’s A-20 Havoc light bomber and Republic Aviation’s P-47 Thunderbolt fighter.4

Marshall’s work at Murray kept him busy for ten hours a day on weekdays, eight hours on Saturdays, and six hours on Sundays. So it is perhaps surprising that, by the autumn of 1943, he was itching to continue his formal education in addition to his heavy workload. He enrolled at Wayne University to take a few courses in the evenings, and continued night school through the spring of 1945. By that time Germany had been defeated and it was clear the war against Japan would end soon. War production would be winding down and Marshall would be free to pursue his education full-time.

One of Marshall’s friends at Wayne University had been accepted to the University of Chicago’s divinity school and their discussions about the university piqued his interest. Marshall read up on the school and was impressed by its reputation. He applied and took several entrance examinations. Word came back from the university that Marshall had been accepted into Chicago’s graduate school, even though he had never received an undergraduate degree.

Marshall arrived on the University of Chicago campus in September 1945, shortly after the Japanese had formally surrendered on the deck of the US battleship Missouri. While he would have preferred pursuing studies in mathematics, he decided that economics would offer him a better chance to make a good living. And so he opted for the latter discipline.

In postwar America the University of Chicago was an incubator of cutting-edge economic thought, attracting some of the country’s best economists. Marshall’s teachers included such scholars as Rudolf Carnap, Milton Friedman, Frank Knight, Jimmy Savage, and W. Allen Wallis. Friedman and Knight were two of the leading lights of what in the 1950s would become known as the Chicago School of Economics, which challenged Keynesian economics in favor of monetarism. Marshall took classes from both Knight and Friedman. Knight made a particularly lasting impression on Marshall by introducing him to broader conceptions of human decision-making than envisioned and recognized by the economic theory of that time.* Although Knight became known as the father of price theory, he also stressed the limits of rationality in economic choice. Knight’s arguments resonated strongly with Marshall, given his interest in how the world worked in practice, rather than in abstract theory.

The University of Chicago was also then home to the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics, which Alfred Cowles had founded in 1932. The commission dedicated itself to pursuing the linkages and relationships between economics, mathematics, and statistics. Its motto was “Theory and Measurement.” Work at Cowles contributed greatly to the emergence of econometrics and general equilibrium economic theory.*

The commission’s emphasis on mathematics and statistics appealed to Marshall and he took some courses in those subjects. At Cowles he spent time with Tjalling Koopmans, who became the commission’s director in 1948. Herbert Simon, a former student of Frank Knight’s, participated with them in some of the seminars. Marshall also became friends with a young woman, Selma Schweitzer, who was in several of his economics classes. At the time Schweitzer was dating a young scholar at Cowles, Kenneth Arrow. On various occasions Marshall and a fourth would join the Arrows, who married in 1947, to play bridge. Arrow, Friedman, and Koopmans would each go on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, as would Simon.

While Marshall was pursuing his studies he earned a little extra money working a part-time job at the university’s Institute for Nuclear Studies, formed shortly after the war ended. Among its distinguished members was Enrico Fermi, who had played a key role during the war in the US effort—known as the Manhattan Project—to develop the atomic bomb. Marshall was assigned to work with Gerhardt Groetzinger, a colleague of Enrico Fermi's, and helped Groetzinger get the cyclotron back in operation. The experience provided the young Marshall, who would later become a leading American nuclear strategist during the Cold War, his first experience with nuclear technology.

The machinist skills Marshall had acquired at Cass earned him an assignment in the machine shop located in the basement of Eckhart Hall, the university’s mathematics building, where he helped the school upgrade its cyclotron. (Cyclotrons are particle accelerators that dispatch charged particle beams outward from their center along a spiral or cyclical path, enabling nuclear physicists to examine the results of collisions between the accelerated particles and target atoms.) The university physicists often visited the machine shop; it was not unusual to see Fermi himself working on some piece of equipment alongside the machinists.


On Sale
Jan 6, 2015
Page Count
344 pages
Basic Books

Andrew F. Krepinevich

About the Author

Andrew Krepinevich is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and the author of several books on military history and strategy, including 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the Twenty-First Century and The Army and Vietnam. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia.

Barry Watts has been a senior fellow at CSBA since 2002, when he left the Pentagon as the Director of Program Analysis and Evaluation. He too has written extensively on military history and strategy, including Clausewitzian Friction and Future War. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

Learn more about this author