In Memoriam: William E. Odom, Top Military Official Taught Political Theory
William E. Odom, a senior military and intelligence official in the Carter and Reagan administrations who served for many years as adjunct professor of political science at Yale, died of a heart attack on May 30 at his vacation home in Lincoln, Vermont. He was 75 years old.
A career Army officer, Odom was the military assistant to Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, and was director of the National Security Agency in the Reagan administration. In recent years, Odom was one of the top military officers to speak out against the war in Iraq.
Odom was a noted scholar of international relations and an authority on the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, he was known as a military hard-liner who opposed détente with the Communist nation. In the 1990s, he advocated sending American troops to the Balkans, arguing for their strategic importance.
At Yale, Odom taught an undergraduate seminar on Russian political theory. He was awarded the Lex Hixon Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences at the University’s 2003 Class Day exercises. His citation read, in part: “Your students are amazed at the way you manage the busy life of a retired Army general and former director of the National Security Agency. But they are even more amazed that you always find the time for them. Between classes, you hold what one student characterized as ‘endless’ office hours and have been known to talk for hours on the phone, despite facing your own publishing deadlines, to a student struggling with an essay assignment. In class, it is said, you guide discussions with a military precision that keeps everyone on topic, yet show a truly diplomatic accommodation of diverse points of view. Your career at Yale has given us all a model of how public service invigorates scholarship and how a generous spirit leads to great teaching.”
Born on June 23, 1932, in Cookeville, Tennessee, Odom was the son of an agricultural researcher. He traced his interest in foreign affairs to childhood debates about capitalism with his father and about socialism with his minister, according to his obituary in The New York Times. After graduating from the military academy at West Point in New York in 1954, he spent the late 1950s in Army infantry and armor divisions in the United States and West Germany. In the mid-1960s, he was a liaison to the Soviet military in Potsdam, East Germany. From 1970 to 1971, he served as a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam helping to oversee attempts to build up the South Vietnamese forces.
Odom served as a military attaché at the American Embassy in Moscow from 1972 to 1974. He was the Army’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence from 1981 to 1985.
Odom earned his master’s degree in Russian studies from Columbia University in 1962 and his doctorate in comparative politics there eight years later. It was at Columbia that he met Brzezinski, who was then a professor there. Brzezinski became Odom’s mentor, and later appointed him his military assistant in the Carter administration.
Odom’s scholarly works include his 2003 book “Fixing Intelligence: For a More Secure America,” in which he argued that America’s intelligence bureaucracy must be revamped. He was particularly critical of the decision to give law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, responsibility for counterintelligence operations.
As an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, Odom was featured on major television news shows. He outlined his views in The Washington Post’s Feb. 11, 2007 “Outlook” section by saying, “The president’s policy is based on illusions, not realities. There never has been any right way to invade and transform Iraq.”
Odom is survived by his wife, Anne Weld Curtis Odom, who is a curator emeritus at the Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C., the couple’s primary home. He also leaves his son, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Odom, who served 12 months with the Army in Iraq and was wounded by a roadside bomb in August 2007.
A memorial service will be held on Monday, Sept. 8, at 11 a.m. at Memorial Chapel in Ft. Myer, Virginia. There will be a caisson procession to the gravesite. Following the gravesite ceremony, a reception will be held in the Ft. Myer’s Officers Club, 214 Jackson Ave. Those planning on attending the reception should R.S.V.P. to firstname.lastname@example.org. A valid driver’s license or official Department of Defense photo ID is required for admission.
Donations in Odom’s memory can be made to the National Symphony Orchestra, c/o Jeannine Smith, NSO Circle Membership, P.O. Box 10510, Arlington, Virginia 22210. For more information, call (202) 416-8072 or send an e-mail to JL.smith@kennedy_center.org.