Obituaries

Harold Brown, 91, defense secretary in Carter administration

As defense secretary from 1977 to 1981, Mr. Brown, a scientist, served in an era of rising Soviet challenges.
George Tames/New York Times/File 1977
As defense secretary from 1977 to 1981, Mr. Brown, a scientist, served in an era of rising Soviet challenges.

Harold Brown, a brilliant scientist who helped develop America’s nuclear arsenal and negotiate its first strategic arms control treaty, and who was President Jimmy Carter’s defense secretary in an era of rising Soviet challenges, died Friday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. He was 91.

His daughter Deborah Brown confirmed the death. She said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

As defense secretary from 1977 to 1981, Mr. 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.

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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.

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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,” Mr. Brown said a few months after taking office. “That is, carefully.”

In retrospect, experts say, the Carter administration and Mr. 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 9-foot desk once used by General John J. Pershing, Mr. 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.

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By the time he joined the Carter administration, Mr. 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 multibillion-dollar weapons research program, and in helping plot strategy for the Vietnam War as secretary of the Air Force.

Mr. Brown laid the groundwork for talks that produced the Camp David accords, mediated by Carter and signed by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel in 1978. The accords led to an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979.

In 1980, Mr. Brown helped plan a failed mission to rescue American hostages held by Iranians who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Eight US 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, Mr. 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.”

Mr. Brown, who had helped negotiate the SALT I arms control pact signed in 1972 by Nixon and Leonid I. Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, also took part in talks that led to SALT II, a comprehensive pact signed by Carter and Brezhnev in June 1979. It was to sharply limit missiles and warheads, and Mr. Brown considered it a cornerstone of national security and détente with the Soviet Union.

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It needed only Senate ratification. Mr. Brown, the chief administration advocate for the treaty, said it would cut military costs and the risks of nuclear war. But critics called it unverifiable and argued that the Russians could not be trusted. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 killed the treaty’s chances, and Carter withdrew it from consideration. (Washington and Moscow nonetheless honored its terms until 1986, when Reagan accused the Russians of violations and withdrew from it.)

Mr. Brown called the treaty episode his deepest regret in office. But in an interview with The New York Times, he spoke of one satisfying outcome. “I guess I’m proudest of the fact that we have remained at peace these four years,” he said. Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Harold Brown was born in New York City on Sept. 19, 1927, the only son of Abraham Brown, a lawyer, and Gertrude Cohen Brown. From childhood, he was considered a genius. At 15, he graduated from the Bronx High School of Science with a 99.52 average. At Columbia University, he studied physics and earned three degrees — a bachelor’s in only two years, graduating in 1945 with highest honors; a master’s in 1946; and a doctorate in 1949, when he was 21.

He married his wife, Colene D. McDowell, in the early 1950s. They were married until her death last year.

Since 1990, he had been a partner at Warburg Pincus, the New York investment firm. He served on the boards of many companies, including Altria, CBS, IBM, Mattel, and Rand.

He leaves his daughters, Deborah Brown and Ellen Brown; a sister, Leila Brennet; and two grandchildren.