William Eldridge Odom – Lieutenant General, United States Army

Lieutenant General William Odom, who has died aged 75, was one of the pre-eminent Sovietologists and Russian speakers in the American armed forces during the Cold War.

Odom emerged as a force on the Washington scene when he was appointed as military aide to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-American scholar and geo-strategist who served as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser from 1977 to 1981.

Odom had first caught Brzezinski’s eye when he taught at Columbia University, where the budding soldier-scholar obtained a doctorate on Soviet voluntary organisations. They rapidly forged a close partnership that would endure for the best part of four decades: Odom was the staunchest supporter of Brzezinski in urging Carter to be more robust in his dealings with the Eastern Bloc. He duly became became known in some quarters as “Brzezinski’s Brzezinski”.

The balance tilted decisively in Brzezinski’s and Odom’s favour after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Two documents drafted by Odom proved critical. In September 1980 Brezezinski forwarded Odom’s memorandum to Carter recommending a decisive shift away from a “de facto policy of strategic retreat in the world to a policy of strategic and regional competition with Soviet power”.

This constituted the unsung groundwork for President Reagan’s much more vociferous challenge to Communism after he defeated Carter in November 1980. Odom counselled a more vigorous approach to Soviet expansionism in the Third World, including enhanced aid to the Afghan mujahideen; a renewed emphasis on human rights towards the Soviet Union, which he termed “the brilliant obverse of international class struggle”; and more vigorous employment of COCOM controls on high technology exports to the Warsaw Pact countries. (COCOM is the
Co-ordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls.)

“We have laws that allow the President to force Europe to choose between the US as a trading partner and the Soviet bloc as a market. Once the allies are whipped into line, we can dictate the terms of East-West trade,” Odom noted.

Presciently, Odom concluded: “The Soviet Union, however militarily strong it is, suffers enormous centrifugal political forces. A shock could bring surprising developments within the USSR, just as we have seen occurring in Poland. The dissolution of the Soviet Union is not a wholly fanciful prediction for later in this century.”

Odom’s other achievement in this period was Presidential Directive 59, which effectively replaced the nuclear doctrine promulgated by the former Defence Secretary Robert MacNamara known as “Mutual Assured Destruction”, or MAD.

There was nothing theoretical about such planning. Odom rang Brzezinski at 3am one morning to inform him that 2,200 Soviet missiles had been launched at the United States. Just before Brzezinski was about to call the President to order the launch of American missiles, Odom called back to say that it had been a false alarm – someone had mistakenly placed military exercise tapes into the computer system. Brzezinski did not wake his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour anyway.

William Eldridge Odom was born on June 23 1932 at Cookeville, Tennessee. Two of his great-grandparents had fought for the Confederacy; another direct descendant, Colonel George Waller, served in the Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary War and was present at Yorktown when George Washington received the surrender from Cornwallis.

After graduating from West Point in 1954 Odom trained with mechanised infantry and tank battalions of the Cold War garrison forces in West Germany and then mastered Russian at the US Army Language School in Monterey, California – the springboard for his intelligence career.

From 1964 to 1966 Odom served on the US Military Liaison Mission to the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, based in Potsdam. In May 1965, when returning to headquarters, he was surrounded and stoned by an angry mob of East Germans, who had attended an officially sponsored anti-Vietnam war rally. Had Odom’s driver stopped, they would both have been killed; instead he accelerated, and was duly decorated by his boss.

From 1972 to 1974 Odom was assistant army attaché at the Moscow embassy. Although constantly trailed by Soviet military intelligence, or the GRU, he nonetheless managed to smuggle out a large portion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s archive, including the author’s membership card for the Writers’ Union and Second World War military citations; Solzhenitsyn subsequently paid tribute to Odom’s role in his memoir Invisible Allies (1995).

Odom displayed intellectual courage as well. In 1975 he wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine entitled “Who Controls Whom in Moscow”; it was a response to the fashionable notion, peddled by the then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger among others, that the American and Soviet leaderships had difficulty in controlling their military hardliners. Odom showed conclusively that the Red Army was squarely under party control.

Odom’s well-known forthrightness did him little apparent harm. In 1981 he was appointed Assistant Chief of Staff of the US Army for Intelligence. Four years later he became Director of the National Security Agency, the multi-billion-dollar global signals intelligence organisation based at Fort Meade, Maryland, which dwarfs the CIA in size and budgets. This made Odom the principal SIGINT (signals intelligence) adviser to the Secretary of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff; but he took very seriously his role in supplying the NSA’s “product” to other “customers”, most notably the CIA’s William Casey, with whom he enjoyed excellent relations.

The two men again teamed up when Bob Woodward, of the Washington Post, sought to print details of Operation “Ivy Bells”, a listening device planted around Soviet underwater cables in the Sea of Okhotsk by American mini-submarines.

Odom and Casey threatened the newspaper’s editor, Ben Bradlee, with legal action for imperilling national security. Bradlee argued that, since the US Navy operation had already been betrayed by Ronald Pelton, the NSA defector, there was nothing more left to hide. Odom argued that the less said the better: no one could be certain what Pelton had actually said to his Communist masters.

After retirement from the US Army in 1988 Odom became a popular adjunct professor at Yale, and recently teamed up again with Brzezinski at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He published seven further books, including Fixing Intelligence (2003) and America’s Inadvertent Empire (2004).

During his final years, Odom’s profile was never higher. He became one of the most vociferous critics of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, penning columns such as “What’s Wrong with Cutting and Running?”.

In 2007 he was chosen by the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to deliver the riposte to President Bush’s weekly radio address. His last column, co-authored in May this year with Brzezinski, advocated renewed American engagement with Iran.

With his trademark large cigar, Odom sounded like a classic east Tennessean “good ‘ole boy”; but this utterly unconventional polymath was most comfortable with east European émigré intellectuals discoursing about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

The US Army, perhaps the most conformist organisation in America, managed to produce the most nonconformist of officers at a critical moment in Cold War history.

William Odom, who died in Vermont on May 30, married, in 1962, Anne Curtis, one of America’s leading authorities on Russian art. Their only son, Lieuetnant Colonel Mark Odom of the US Army Rangers, was wounded in Iraq in 2007.

 By Matt Schudel
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Sunday, June 1, 2008

William E. Odom, 75, a retired Army Lieutenant General who was a senior military and intelligence official in the Carter and Reagan administrations and who, in recent years, became a forceful critic of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, died May 30, 2008, at his vacation home in Lincoln, Vermont. An autopsy will be performed, but his wife said he had an apparent heart attack.


General Odom was a career Army officer who was also a serious scholar of international relations and a leading authority on the Soviet Union. He was the military assistant to Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and director of the National Security Agency during President Ronald Reagan’s second term.

He had a reputation as a military hard-liner who opposed any compromise with the Soviet Union, which made his vocal opposition to the current involvement in Iraq all the more cogent and surprising.

“Among senior military people, he was probably the first to consider the war in Iraq a misbegotten adventure,” Brzezinski said yesterday. “He believed that we’re just stoking hostility to the United States in that region and developing an opposition that cannot be defeated by military means. He was very outspoken.”

Well before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, General Odom warned that military action in Iraq would be foolhardy and futile. He outlined his positions in The Washington Post’s Outlook section Feb. 11, 2007, in the essay “Victory Is Not an Option.”

“The president’s policy is based on illusions, not realities,” he wrote. “There never has been any right way to invade and transform Iraq.”

General Odom became a fixture on news programs and never altered his critical stance toward the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and Iran. On Tuesday, he and Brzezinski wrote an op-ed article for The Post in which they stated that the White House’s “heavy-handed” approach toward Iran would backfire and “almost certainly result in an Iran with nuclear weapons.”

Earlier in his career, as an Army officer in Vietnam, General Odom had privately come to oppose U.S. involvement in foreign wars that brought, in his view, little benefit to the United States. He drew parallels between Vietnam and Iraq and believed that the only sensible path for the United States was a complete and immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

He was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but in 2007 he delivered a stinging radio address on behalf of the Democratic Party.

“Most Americans suspect that something is fundamentally wrong with the president’s management of the conflict in Iraq, and they are right,” he said. “The challenge we face today is not how to win in Iraq, it is how to recover from a strategic mistake: invading Iraq in the first place.”

General Odom was born June 23, 1932, in Cookeville, Tennessee, and was a 1954 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. His interest in Russia began when he studied the 18th-century reign of Peter the Great.

After serving as an infantry and armor officer, he took a more strategic path. He learned Russian, received a master’s degree in 1962 from Columbia University and was posted to East Germany in the mid-1960s.

After teaching government at West Point, he returned to Columbia for a PhD in comparative politics in 1970. General Odom was a military attache at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1972 to 1974, where he studied Soviet life. He also spent more time on the West Point faculty in the 1970s and at Brzezinski’s Research Institute on Communist Affairs at Columbia.

When Brzezinski became Carter’s national security adviser in 1977, he named General Odom his military assistant.

“He was both a fighter and an intellectual,” Brzezinski said.

Because of his fierce anti-Soviet stance, General Odom was known as “Zbig’s superhawk” and his “crisis coordinator,” who helped plan responses to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the capture of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

General Odom spent four years in Army intelligence before being named director of the National Security Agency, the government’s largest spy operation, in 1985. He threatened to prosecute journalists at The Post and other media outlets in 1986 for compromising national security after exposing a U.S. eavesdropping operation by submarines in Soviet harbors.


In 1988, General Odom retired from the Army and NSA and began a career in academia. He was a resident of Washington but had taught at Yale University since 1989. He wrote seven books in the past 16 years, including the authoritative “The Collapse of the Soviet Military,” which portrayed the Soviet military hierarchy as bloated and hopelessly corrupt.

“He was a genuine scholar who loved scholarship and wrote some important books and was a very effective teacher,” said Brzezinski, who added that he and General Odom often played tennis. “He was better than me,” Brzezinski said.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Anne Odom, a former chief curator of the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, of Washington and Lincoln, Vermont; a son, Army Lieutenant Colonel Mark Odom, of Fort Lewis, Washington, who was wounded in action in Iraq; a brother; a sister; and a granddaughter.

NOTE: General Odom was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on 8 September 2008 following services in the Fort Myer, Virginia, Memorial Chapel.


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 06/23/1932
  • DATE OF DEATH: 05/30/2008

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