Defense secretary under Carter oversaw arsenal he helped design
Harold Brown, President Jimmy Carter’s defense secretary in an era of rising Soviet challenges, died Friday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California. He was 91. His daughter Deborah Brown said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Brown was a brilliant scientist of nuclear technology who helped develop America’s nuclear arsenal and negotiate its first strategic arms control treaty.
As defense secretary from 1977 to 1981, Brown presided over the most formidable power in history: legions of intercontinental ballistic missiles and fleets of world-ranging bombers and nuclear submarines, with enough warheads to wipe out Soviet society many times over. But that was hardly the question.
In an age that imperiled humanity with nuclear Armageddon, the issue was whether America could keep pace with Soviet strategic capabilities, maintaining the balance of terror – an assurance of mutual destruction, with hundreds of millions killed outright – that had dominated the nuclear arms race and strategic planning throughout the postwar era.
In those days, “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy film about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, shaded debates over nuclear strategy because the concept of deterrence was based on the dubious assumption that if the Russians launched a surprise nuclear attack, America could survive and retaliate, devastating Soviet cities and strategic targets, although millions would die.
“I believe that in the age of mutual deterrence – and we are still in the age of mutual deterrence – the superpowers will behave the way hedgehogs make love,” Brown said a few months after taking office. “That is, carefully.”
In retrospect, experts say, the Carter administration and Brown maintained the strategic balance, countering Soviet aircraft and ballistic innovations by improving land-based ICBMS, by upgrading B-52 strategic bombers with low-flying cruise missiles and by deploying far more submarine-launched missiles tipped with MIRVS, or multiple warheads that split into independent trajectories to hit many targets.
In his cavernous Pentagon office, behind a 9foot desk once used by Gen. John J. Pershing, Brown, a soft-spoken and intensely private man, often worked alone, absorbed in his documents, books and judgments. He seemed uncomfortable at briefings and hearings.
But colleagues called him a forceful political infighter who protected his turf and impressed hawks and doves with his command of facts.
By the time he joined the Carter administration, Brown had played important roles in the defense establishment for two decades – in nuclear weapons research, in the development of Polaris missiles, in directing the Pentagon’s multibilliondollar weapons research program, and in helping plot strategy for the Vietnam War as secretary of the Air Force.
He had been a protégé of Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, and his successor as head of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. He had been president of the California Institute of Technology; had worked for Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon; and had been a delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.
As the first scientist to become defense secretary, Brown knew the technological complexities of modern warfare. He began development of “stealth” aircraft, with low profiles on radar. He accelerated the Trident submarine program and the conversion of older Poseidon subs to carry MIRVS. And, with an eye on cost-effectiveness, he and Carter halted the B-1 bomber as a successor to the B-52.
It was all very expensive. Despite Carter’s campaign promises to cut military spending, military budgets under
Brown rose to $175 billion in the 1981 fiscal year from $116 billion in the 1978 fiscal year, reflecting the need to modernize strategic arms and strengthen conventional forces to meet challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Brown laid the groundwork for talks that produced the Camp David accords, mediated by Carter and signed in 1978 by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel. The accords led to an Israeli-egyptian peace treaty in 1979.
In 1980, Brown helped plan a mission to rescue American hostages held by Iranians who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. It failed. Eight U.S. servicemen were killed in the operation, and the hostages were not freed until President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981.
Concerned that America’s allies were not sharing enough of the defense burden, Brown repeatedly urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Japan and South Korea, to increase military spending, but with limited success. He had sharp valedictory words for the allies: “They need to behave as if their military security is as important to them as it is to us.”
Harold Brown, President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of defense, at Senate confirmation hearings in 1977.