Brown was key defense adviser to President Carter
Harold Brown, the defense secretary in the Carter administration who was mandated to cut military spending but instead laid some of the groundwork for the U.S. arms buildup of the 1980s and who helped oversee a disastrous military raid to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran, died Friday. He was 91.
His death was announced by the Rand Corp., where he was a longtime member of the board of trustees. The cause and other details were not immediately available.
A onetime physics prodigy who earned a doctorate at 21, Brown became the first scientist to head the Pentagon. His predecessors had been business, political or military leaders accustomed to the ways of massive bureaucracies. .
Brown built his initial reputation as a nuclear weapons designer at what is now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. He went on to direct the laboratory, replacing Edward Teller, the Hungarian-born physicist widely recognized as the “father” of the hydrogen bomb.
In 1961, he became one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s team of bright young “whiz kids.” From 1965 to 1969, he was secretary of the Air Force.
Brown left the Pentagon in 1969 to lead the California Institute of Technology after Richard Nixon’s election as president. He returned to the Defense Department when Carter entered the White House in 1977.
Brown spent most of his four-year tenure mediating between Carter, who in the wake of the Vietnam War fiasco promised to eliminate Pentagon waste and reduce defense spending by 5 percent, and a military establishment that demanded more firepower to counter threats coming from the Soviet Union and Middle East.
The downsizing included ceding control of the U.S.-built Panama Canal to the Panamanian government and the cancellation of the B-1 bomber, which was revived under Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan.
In 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, prompting U.S. sanctions against Moscow. The same year, the shah of Iran, a key U.S. ally, fled as Islamic radicals took control of the oil-rich nation and seized 52 U.S. diplomats and military personnel, who were held for 444 days.
Those events, coupled with concerns about the readiness of post-Vietnam U.S. military forces, prompted Brown to push Carter toward a more hawkish stance.
By all accounts, Brown’s biggest failure as defense secretary was the botched effort in April 1980 to rescue the U.S. hostages in Tehran.
Called Operation Eagle Claw, it was to be an audacious, two-night raid involving two staging areas in the Iranian desert and personnel from four service branches. With little hope of a diplomatic breakthrough to free the Americans, Brown called it “the best of a lousy set of options” and recommended going forward.
Amid mechanical problems, a dust storm and the collision of a helicopter with a transport plane that killed eight U.S. servicemen, the raid was aborted. The incident damaged U.S. prestige and helped doom Carter’s re-election bid.
As Brown wrote decades later in his book “Star Spangled Security,” he “considered the failed rescue attempt my greatest regret and most painful lesson learned.”
In 1953, he married Colene McDowell. She died last year. Survivors include two daughters.