Who Was Thomas C. Schelling?

Thomas C. Schelling was an economist and Nobel Laureate known for his research on conflict and cooperation through the application of game theory. Focusing on resolution and war avoidance, his ideas have influenced strategies on national security, the environment, and ethical issues in public policy and business.

Schelling is remembered as one of the "founding fathers" of the Harvard Kennedy School. Thomas C. Schelling died on Dec. 13, 2016.

Key Takeaways

  • Thomas Schelling held a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University.
  • He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics for his application of game theory to social, political, and economic problems.
  • Thomas Schelling worked as an advisor to both President Truman and President Kennedy.
  • Schelling is considered a master theorist of nuclear strategy.

Early Life and Education

Thomas C. Schelling was born in Oakland, California on April 14, 1921, and attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in economics in 1944. He went on to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he was a member of the Society of Fellows. His early work experience included a position as an analyst with the U.S. Bureau of the Budget.


Thomas C. Schelling was an advisor to multiple U.S. presidents and his ideas have been applied by policymakers to issues such as nuclear strategy, climate change, and addictive behavior. In 1948, Schelling served in Europe with the Marshall Plan, a U.S.-backed plan to rebuild Europe following World War II. He joined the foreign policy staff of President Truman in 1950, where he helped negotiate the European Payments Union.

Schelling was particularly intrigued by the challenges presented by the nuclear age and the Cold War. At the height of his influence on public policy in the 1960s, he advised President Kennedy during the Berlin crisis. Schelling initiated the idea of a “red telephone” connecting the Kremlin to the White House and is remembered for having steadied the Cold War’s nervous nuclear standoff. In 1970, his influence in Washington waned after he publicly opposed the invasion of Cambodia.

In game theory, a focal point (or Schelling point) is a solution that people tend to choose by default in the absence of communication.


After spending a year studying nuclear weapons at the RAND Corporation in 1958 and writing “The Strategy of Conflict” in 1960, Schelling took his place as a leading theorist of nuclear war and peace at the Defense Studies Center at Harvard. Helping to design a curriculum for a new generation of public policy leaders, he held a position within the Department of Economics and the Center for International Affairs. By 1969, Thomas C. Schelling was positioned as a leader for the newly formed John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he spent 31 years as a professor.

Honors and Awards

Schelling was elected a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association in 1987, and he was awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2005 for having enhanced understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.

Published Works

In 1960, Schelling wrote The Strategy of Conflict, which focused on conflict behavior and introduced the "Schelling point," the idea that people choose solutions by default in the absence of communication. The theories and ideas in The Strategy of Conflict and related books, Strategy and Arms Control, and Arms and Influence, have been highly influential in international diplomacy.

Micromotives and Macrobehavior, published in 1978, is Schelling's attempt to tackle the dynamics of racial change within American neighborhoods. In this work, Schelling introduces the "tipping point," the idea that individual behavior or preference can lead a group to adopt a previously unusual or rare practice. Schelling connected this idea at the time to the dynamic of "white flight " from urban areas as minority populations increased.

What Was Thomas C. Schelling's Advice Toward Preventing Nuclear War?

As the creator of the concept of "mutually assured destruction", Schelling cited that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation.

At Which American Universities Has Thomas C. Schelling Taught?

Aside from his 31 years at Harvard University, Schelling has taught at Yale University and the University of Maryland.

How Did Schelling's Theories Affect His View on Climate Change?

Schelling chaired a climate change commission in 1980 under President Carter. Based on his theories, Schelling deemed the issue a basic bargaining problem, where poorer countries benefit from greenhouse gas emission reduction, while more developed nations bear the brunt of the cost.

The Bottom Line

Thomas C. Schelling is remembered as a master theorist of nuclear war, applying his ideas to policymaking during the Cold War. As a scholar driven to understand the motivations behind human behavior, his game theory has been applied to resolutions on climate change, public policy, business issues, and national security.

Article Sources

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  1. Harvard University. "Schelling provided a new way of looking at nuclear strategy, climate change and addictive behavior."

  2. Nobel Prize. "Thomas C. Schelling."

  3. The Commonwealth Fund. "Of Thomas Schelling, Nuclear War, and the ACA."

  4. Carleton. "Nobel Prize Winner to Speak about the Economic Implications of Global Warming."

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