Star Spangled Security: Applying Lessons Learned over Six Decades Safeguarding America

Star Spangled Security: Applying Lessons Learned over Six Decades Safeguarding America

by Harold Brown

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Harold Brown served as U.S. secretary of defense when the Soviet Union posed an existential threat with superior conventional force capability and a daunting nuclear weapons arsenal. No one could have been better suited to deter the Soviets during that most dangerous period in the Cold War.

A physicist, Brown had previously led Livermore Laboratory and its

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Harold Brown served as U.S. secretary of defense when the Soviet Union posed an existential threat with superior conventional force capability and a daunting nuclear weapons arsenal. No one could have been better suited to deter the Soviets during that most dangerous period in the Cold War.

A physicist, Brown had previously led Livermore Laboratory and its development of the Polaris missile warhead. By age 33 he was director of Defense Research and Engineering, and he later served as secretary of the U.S. Air Force early in the Vietnam War.

In the Carter administration, Brown reinvigorated the NATO alliance, promoted AWACs, increased U.S. conventional force capabilities, and developed a new generation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. As a senior negotiator of SALT II, he also helped set their limits.

Brown was the first American secretary of defense to visit China; as principal interlocutor he forged military-to-military relations. During his tenure, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; the Iranian revolution resulted in the capture of American hostages; President Carter achieved the Camp David Peace Accords; and the Panama Canal Treaties—that still protect U.S. interests—were rewritten. Brown's role in each was integral.

Star Spangled Security provides lessons from the past to inform the future: from Afghanistan to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons; from international alliances and interests the U.S. needs to consider in a changing world to specific ideas for jumpstarting technological innovation that could boost American security and our economy today. Based on his twelve years of top-tier government service and nearly fifty more as a president of Caltech, a board member of a dozen corporations, the chair of recent, comprehensive studies of Chinese military capability, U.S. Intelligence, and technological innovation, and as the past chair and a current member of the Defense Policy Board that advises sitting secretaries of defense, Brown offers wise counsel to any American voter as well as to aspiring leaders.

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Editorial Reviews

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"From the government of science to the science of government, Harold Brown has always put his country and its principles first. This book, like his counsel to me as my secretary of defense, offers keen insight into how to ensure national security in a turbulent world. He offers practical ways to redress the widening inequalities in our society and to revive our economy. Harold helped to maintain a strong nation at peace while in office, and here we can benefit again from his wisdom—along with unusual stories of political personalities that make delightful reading. The reader will understand within a few pages why I awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom"—President Jimmy Carter

"Harold Brown is the most unique of statesmen: a scientist, a Cold War warrior, and a secretary of defense under President Carter whose intimate knowledge of our nuclear deterrent was matched only by his clear-eyed patriotism. Star Spangled Security is a fascinating and rewarding look at the last sixty years of American defense and diplomacy"—President Bill Clinton

" Star Spangled Security is part memoir, part history, and part guide to contemporary issues in world affairs. Harold Brown's wisdom shines through on every page of the clearly written text. A brilliant study of high-level decisionmaking, the book provides insights on every aspect of security while blending compelling historical portraits with thoughtful and often passionate advice for the future."—Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

"Harold Brown has played an indispensable role in American policymaking and thinking about nuclear issues for the entire nuclear age. At once scientist and policymaker, academic and handson operator, he distills his experiences and offers a roadmap in this thoughtful and very readable book. It deserves widespread attention"—Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

"I covered Harold Brown and have been waiting thirty years for this book and all it delivers. There is surely no one else who knows as much about national security, who could hold his own arguing thermonuclear warhead design with Edward Teller and whose talent for one-liners skewers complex problems. He's mellowed over time, but fortunately not a lot. His journey from wunderkind to wise man shows—from his pessimism about Afghanistan ('technology cannot overcome corrupt governments')—to his apprehension about China ('getting to 2030 without a frightening confrontation will be a major achievement')."—David Martin, CBS News Correspondent

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Brookings Institution Press
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6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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Meet the Author

Harold Brown was the U.S. secretary of defense from 1977 to 1981. His unique, ongoing career spans science, academia, government, and the corporate sector over ten presidencies. He is currently trustee emeritus of the RAND Corporation and a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Joyce Winslow is a Washington journalist, op-ed editor, and a prize-winning fiction author in The Best American Short Story collection

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Copyright © 2012 Harold Brown
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-2382-0

Chapter One


I watched more than a dozen atmospheric nuclear tests, all of them before I became secretary of defense. Only one other secretary of defense (Charlie Wilson) may have seen one. I wanted to see the work of which I'd been part and to make sure the devices did work. At a test in 1956 of a ten-megaton thermonuclear weapon, I was billeted in a cabin on Eniwetok while the test ran on Bikini, 200 miles away. I was in my late twenties. The test occurred an hour before sunrise. The sky was pitch black. In the Marshall Islands, so close to the equator, there is little in the way of dawn. The sun comes straight up. In the predawn darkness the bomb made a light so bright that for twenty seconds I could have read the newspaper on that beach.

On another occasion I viewed the detonation of a six-megaton bomb from an aircraft thirty miles away. I saw the immense fireball expand to a thousand yards in diameter. About two minutes later I felt the shock wave. The fireball expanded into a hot cloud within the first minute and kept changing color as its temperature rose. When the cloud reached the stratosphere, it spread into the well-known mushroom shape.

My reactions watching tests were mostly scientific and professional. I was gratified when designs I'd overseen worked and disappointed if they fizzled. There was a component of deep concern about their power of destruction and a component of satisfaction that convinced me—as it still does—that I was contributing to U.S. security. By the sixth multi-megaton bomb I had no poetic or religious or inspirational sort of reaction. We needed nuclear weapons as a deterrent to their use. After viewing their destructive power, I was determined that so far as I could influence matters, we would never be confronted with the decision to use them.

One way to make sure that the Soviet Union wouldn't use nuclear weapons was to ensure we could deliver our own. For that purpose new designs were necessary. Emotions could not be substituted for actions. I do not pretend to know what a full-scale nuclear war would be like. I remain utterly convinced that it would be dreadful beyond imagination.

During the 1960s and 1970s we coined new jargon in the Cold War: "rapid deployment forces" and "power projections" and "deterrence." America faced an existential threat. There was widespread concern that the United States might be falling behind the Soviet Union in strategic nuclear weaponry. Most Americans were aware of and feared the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Few citizens knew or wanted to know the terrifying extent of weaponry that the Soviet Union and the United States kept at the ready and how the arsenals grew through the 1970s. By 1979 the total Soviet nuclear stockpile numbered about 28,000 weapons, the U.S. nuclear stockpile numbered about 24,000. The potential devastation that could be caused by these thousands of nuclear arms would be catastrophic.

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. Soviet leaders were convinced that they had conventional warfare superiority in Europe and were committed to increasing their influence in Western Europe. I concluded that America and its allies needed to be able to deny or at least reduce Soviet confidence that it could roll over Western Europe in thirty days. We thought that given more than a month of fighting, the Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact alliance would fray.

The disparity in conventional forces loomed over political relations between the United States and our European NATO allies. Because of it we still needed to rely on the threat that we would use tactical nuclear weapons to deter or blunt any conventional Soviet attack in Europe. We had to accept the possibility that our use of those weapons could escalate to a full-blown nuclear war that would destroy the United States, the Soviet Union, and Europe. That was a terrifying strategy in a tumultuous time. The world was truly divided into "our side" and "theirs."

The United States considered how to change the Soviet calculation that its military could accomplish a blitzkrieg victory in Western Europe. We reinforced our conventional warfare capability. We planned ways to deter a Soviet nuclear strike with our own ability to strike back. At the same time, we negotiated with Soviet authorities on limiting strategic nuclear arms. The constant Cold War competition raged hot during the Carter administration and preoccupied me throughout the four years.

One telling incident occurred after the Soviet Union collapsed and before Chief of General Staff Sergei Akhromeyev committed suicide. Shortly before his last act, he confided to a friend of mine his belief that the Soviet forces could have fought their way to the English Channel in thirty days in a conventional war. "But," he added with a nod to our nuclear deterrent and the Soviet system's internal failure, "then what would we have done?" Our deterrent and global reach prevented Soviet expansion and military domination. The containment we engineered made the Soviet authorities confront their dysfunctional system and helped to bring it down.

In the four years of my tenure as secretary of defense, I also focused my attention on North Korea. President Kim Il-sung, grandfather of that country's current leader, Kim Jong-un, had authorized attempts to kill the president of South Korea and members of his cabinet. Kim's army had already assaulted and killed American soldiers in the demilitarized zone. Even as we dealt with those pressing concerns, the Carter administration was to find that still more security issues would define the president's term. They included the normalization of relations with China, and the Panama Canal Treaties, as well as Mideast conflicts, and ultimately the Iran Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis.

From where I sat, the panorama of challenges was complex and the penalty for mistakes was severe. I called on experience I'd gained from my former positions. With each one, my perspective had widened. When I directed Livermore Laboratory, I'd overseen the development of thermonuclear weapons and considered them paramount for national defense.

Next, as director of defense research and engineering (DDRE) in the Defense Department, I became concerned with efficient acquisition of entire weapons systems, nuclear and nonnuclear. I tried to select the ones that made the most sense in terms of cost-effectiveness and mission relevance. In that job I quickly understood that in a situation of mutual deterrence, Soviet and U.S. nuclear weapons in effect canceled each other out. That greatly increased the importance of conventional armament.

Later, as secretary of the air force, I considered one aircraft program versus another for the war in Vietnam. Planes can have up to fifty-year life spans so I looked at them with an eye not only for their immediate use but also for how they would weather time and serve military purposes that could differ and change drastically over decades. Taken together, these vantage points offered an understanding of security issues in considerable detail.

After my first Pentagon service in the 1960s, and before my return as secretary of defense in 1977, I was president of Caltech. During that period I was a member of the negotiating team for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) for the Nixon and Ford administrations. I understood the need to limit and preferably reduce nuclear arms even as we readied programs for potential conflict or war. I concluded that the goal of a stable strategic balance could be safely sought through agreed limitations on offensive and defensive weapons if they were adequately monitored to ensure the limits were observed. This was a better path than continuing an unrestricted competition in which the perception of advantage, however mistaken, could lead to rash action and even a nuclear war. Our reasoning led to the formulation of the "1,000 strategic warheads" proposal, which the Soviet negotiators dismissed out of hand. So the strategic arms competition continued, only slightly moderated by SALT I.

I still had much to learn about how both my strategic decisions and my daily actions as defense secretary would affect the country's safety and influence the economy clear down to its local communities. I understood from the start that I had to weigh the relative value of various armament systems and of military units and their placement. I compared the value of adding aircraft against adding ships, tanks, or personnel. I considered how aircraft or other weapons platforms and systems might be used not only by America, but also by our allies over the next two generations of those systems. I looked at new technologies under development to select those that provided the most benefit for the cost and would prove effective in combat. And I learned how military capabilities and operations fit into the larger framework of national security.

In high school I had been the kind of kid who went to his room after dinner to read a book. One book, Bleak House, written more than 150 years ago by Charles Dickens, concerned a Victorian court bureaucracy in which he'd labored as a clerk. In the frustration and anger that it engendered, it was not unlike bureaucracies of our own day. Dickens wrote of that bureaucracy: "It exhausts finances, patience, courage and hope ... and overthrows the brain and breaks the heart."

The organization I was charged to lead—the Department of Defense—transcended anything the Victorian mind could have imagined. In 1977 the secretary of defense managed 2.1 million soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen and airwomen in uniform, and 1 million government civilians—a force much larger than the number of employees in the world's largest private corporation and nearly 40 percent of the civilian employment of the entire federal government. Getting a massive organization like the Department of Defense to focus on the right things wasn't going to be easy.

Chapter Two


The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states that the purpose of our government is to "provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." The general welfare includes economic growth, standard of living, jobs, education, and health care. Promoting general welfare entails avoiding or at least limiting class or culture warfare, controlling crime, and minimizing terrorism. Providing for the common defense means deterring war by letting enemies and allies see you're ready to defend American territory and suitably defined American interests, and you're able, if necessary, to fight to win.

The framers of the Constitution deliberately divided power among the branches of the central government, and between it and the states. They accepted the inefficiency of divided power to reduce the risk of tyranny. They sought to avoid faction within representative government, hoping that those chosen to represent the people would surmount or balance particular interests. Surmounting the tyranny of particular interests never quite worked. Political parties—what the framers meant by faction—appeared within ten years.


By 1977 inefficiencies in government caused by special interest groups had become severe (though special interest groups then were nowhere near as numerous or effective as they are now). Conflicts between and within Congress and the Executive Branch sometimes produced flawed foreign and security policies. Opposing viewpoints held by particular interest groups and the many layers of decision makers clawing at domestic policies resulted in contradictory decisions or none at all. Our national security now, as then, depends on our political cohesion and the state of our domestic economy as much as on our military capabilities and diplomatic skills. A failure to face up to and deal with issues in a rational manner risks putting our nation on a course to disaster.

When I was in my early thirties a journalist named Joe Kraft who covered Washington for a long time came to see me. This was in 1961, during my first months as director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDRE). He asked me—maybe because I was so young that the media had dubbed me Child Harolde—"What makes you think you're going to be able to accomplish anything here?" I answered: "I intend to know more about the subject than anyone else in the room and therefore I'm going to be able to get done the things that I want."

How naïve! Of course, by the time I became secretary of defense I'd long since learned that while being smart is good, it's not the same thing as being wise. Wisdom comes from experience and can derive from mistakes as well as from good decisions. Getting things done takes a combination of intellect, personal skills, and judgment, not to mention good luck. No one of them alone gets you very far. As secretary of defense I came to appreciate what is applicable even more broadly in government now: we Americans must close the wide gap between what we say we want our government to do for us and what we're willing to pay or give up to get it.

To make my case, I draw on my particular experience with the defense budget, which directly affects security, domestic welfare, and the blessings of liberty. In this chapter I offer a brief tutorial to illustrate that, supplemented with examples from my particular experience.


The secretary of defense advises the president on national security; manages the Defense Department, including the armed services and the Pentagon and the defense budget; and is second only to the president in directing the military chain of command—both combat and support.

1. Adviser on National Security

As one of the president's chief advisers on international security, and occasionally on other issues, the secretary of defense offers views that the president considers along with those of the secretary of state, the assistant for national security affairs (usually known as the national security adviser), the director of national intelligence (replacing in that role the director of central intelligence), the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and certain of the president's staff.

Statute puts only four members on the National Security Council (NSC): the president, vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense. The national security adviser, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the director of national intelligence are statutory advisers to the NSC. The president can invite others, but they are temporary, not permanent members. (The Obama White House lists up to nineteen attendees. The efficiency of such a crowded meeting is doubtful.) During the Carter administration, the National Security Council usually met informally at Friday breakfasts with five to eight people present. An interesting aside is that President Carter charged us for those breakfasts. He was equally careful with the nation's finances, an attitude less in evidence among his successors.

The advice I offered the president was not only about military matters. I also weighed in on what ought to be included in treaties, negotiations, and certain matters of diplomacy to take into account military need and the inevitably related domestic issues. In many secretaries of defense (SecDefs) there is a secretary of state striving to break out. After all, U.S. military capability is intended to support our foreign policy, and military strategy is part of a larger international security strategy.

The defense secretary meets military security needs through the defense budget, which is much larger than that provided to the secretary of state, although the State Department is charged with broader issues of international relations. I had been deeply involved in arms limitation negotiations with Soviet authorities in various roles both in and out of the government for ten years before becoming defense secretary, so without trying to be secretary of state, I did add my thoughts on that and some other diplomatic issues that affected national security. For example, the Defense Department became central to the contents of the Panama Canal Treaties. I was also involved in President Carter's decision and efforts in the normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China. I wound up being a principal interlocutor with China, Japan, and Korea.


Excerpted from STAR SPANGLED SECURITY by HAROLD BROWN JOYCE WINSLOW Copyright © 2012 by Harold Brown. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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