Harold Brown, who as defense secretary in the Carter administration championed cutting-edge fighting technology during a tenure that included the failed rescue of hostages in Iran, has died at age 91.
Brown died Friday, said the Rand Corp., the California-based think tank which Brown served as a trustee for more than 35 years. His sister, Leila Brennet, said he died at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
Deborah Brown told The New York Times her father died from pancreatic cancer at his home.
Brown, a nuclear physicist and weapons designer, developed America’s Cold War-era national security policy as secretary of defense and previously as secretary of the Air Force.
He was the first scientist to run the Pentagon.
“Harold Brown understood, perhaps better than any defense secretary before him, the technological complexities and unprecedented dangers of modern warfare,” said Michael D. Rich, president and chief executive officer Rand Corporation. “He was also an educator and author who made tremendous contributions to the advancement of science and the security of the nation.”
Brown was named Air Force secretary by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, serving during the Vietnam War.
In 1969, he left government to become president of Caltech. Despite being a registered Democrat, President Richard Nixon tapped him to serve on the SALT I delegation in 1972 for an agreement with the Soviet Union to curtail the production of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Brown faced numerous obstacles when he took the job as Pentagon chief, including pressure to reduce the defense budget both from within the administration and from influential congressional Democrats.
“When I became secretary of defense in 1977, the military services, most of all the army, were disrupted badly by the Vietnam War. There was general agreement that the Soviet Union outclassed the West in conventional military capability, especially in ground forces in Europe,” he wrote later.
Wary of the growing Soviet threat, Brown sought to withstand the pressure to cut defense and, gradually, managed to increase spending.
“The constant Cold War competition raged hot during the Carter administration and preoccupied me throughout the four years,” Brown wrote. He noted later that “the Defense Department budget in real terms was 10 to 12 percent more when we left than when we came in,” which he said was not an easy accomplishment.
As defense secretary, he played a major role in crafting the SALT II agreement signed by Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1979.
Brown oversaw efforts to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980. Eight American servicemen died trying to free the hostages, who were not released until after Carter left office in 1981.
“The failure to rescue the U.S. hostages still haunts me,” Brown wrote in his memoir Star Spangled Security, published in 2012. “The lesson to keep in mind now, especially as Americans watch the news about turbulence in the Middle East, is that at times political pressure becomes strong enough so that even risky actions appear to be necessary.”
Carter bestowed on Brown the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and President Bill Clinton gave him the Enrico Fermi Award for achievement in science and technology.
Brown remained in Washington afterward, joining the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies as a visiting professor and later the university’s Foreign Policy Institute as chairman.
He was the founding chairman of the advisory board of Rand’s Center for Global Risk and Security.
Brown, the son of a lawyer, was born in New York City on Sept. 19, 1927. He received three degrees from Columbia University — a bachelor’s degree in physics at 18, a master’s one year later and a doctorate in nuclear physics at 21.
Not long after graduation he moved to California and went to work on projects that related to the development of plutonium. He then went to work at a nuclear weapons lab. He worked his way up to director of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore in 1960.
In 1961, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara invited him to be director of defense research and engineering in the Kennedy administration. In 1965 he became secretary of the Air Force during the Johnson administration and, as he described it later, “served in that role through some of the most difficult and divisive parts of the Vietnam War.”
After the 1968 election put a Republican, Richard Nixon, back in the White House, Brown accepted the position of president at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena serving until he went back into government work and was a delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in the 1970s.
Carter nominated Brown to be defense secretary in 1977. He was quickly confirmed and served throughout Carter’s term. During the 1980 campaign Brown actively defended the Carter administration’s policies, speaking frequently on national issues in public.
After leaving the Pentagon, he remained in Washington, joining the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies as a visiting professor and later the university’s Foreign Policy Institute as chairman. He remained active in matters of national security, including service on the Defense Policy Board, which meets quarterly to offer perspectives to the current secretary of defense. He served as a consultant to many corporations, often serving as a member of the board of directors.
Carter awarded Brown the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Bill Clinton gave him the Energy Department’s Enrico Fermi Award for achievement in science and technology.
At a farewell address from his job as defense secretary, Brown said: “Most satisfying of all is that for four years our nation remained at peace despite the world tensions and turmoil that constantly pose challenges to our interest and peace.”
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