Brown was key de­fense ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Carter

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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