To Deter and Protect

How close were we to nuclear Armageddon? Harold Brown ’45CC, ’49GSAS, who served as secretary of defense under Jimmy Carter, speaks with Columbia Magazine about the threats of the Cold War and their lessons for today.

Published Summer 2013
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President Jimmy Carter holds a 1977 cabinet meeting with, from left to right, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. / © Bettmann/Corbis

Columbia: Is it the same with North Korea?
Brown: North Korea is an interesting example. I don’t think so far they have gained anything by having nuclear weapons, except perhaps attention. They know that if they use nuclear weapons, that’s the end of the regime and probably of the population as well. It does allow them to posture and occasionally to behave violently, but that’s something we live with. They’ve been bribed several times, but mostly because of fear that they could start a conventional war with South Korea. They could wipe out Seoul or at least damage it severely without nuclear weapons. The South Koreans aren’t worried about North Korean nuclear weapons; they’re worried about North Korean artillery.

Columbia: Do you foresee war on the Korean Peninsula?
Brown: I don’t think so. I see them heading for another round of talks at some point. But whether they’ll be bought off and to what extent, I don’t know. The North Koreans have boxed themselves in. They have made so many threats that if they don’t do anything, they look not-serious. On the other hand, if they do anything in the way of an attack on some South Korean island or outpost, there is sure to be retaliation. North Korea seems to have finished its temper tantrum for the moment.

Columbia: The other nuclear question mark is Iran.
Brown: Unlike North Korea, Iran is a real country. Along with Turkey, it’s the major country in that general region, with a long history and a real future. Iran will be around for a long time, and it’s going to be very influential in its area, unlike North Korea.

The immediate question is, to what extent can Iran be deterred from acquiring nuclear weapons? They want the potential to have them on short notice at the very least. I suspect we probably would be prepared to offer some reduction in sanctions in return for their holding short of a nuclear-weapons capability, defined as having nuclear weapons, not potentially having them. The president has made a fairly strong commitment to preventing them, but I don’t think he or anybody else of authority in the United States is prepared to have another Iraq-type war to prevent it. There are other ways to sabotage Iran’s nuclear capability, but that’s a separate issue.

Columbia: You’ve said that military action against Iran would at best slow down the development of nuclear arms and harden the population against us.
Brown: My view is that it would delay it but make it more certain.

Columbia: Where do you think Syria is heading?
Brown: Into chaos. As that conflict continues, extremist Islamic elements may well gain predominant power in the opposition to Assad. His support from Iran and Russia could preserve his control of part of Syria. And the conflict risks spreading beyond Syria. The hope on the US side was that some regional powers — the Turks, the Saudis — would use their influence and take charge and support groups that would gain power and influence. That seems not to have happened. I’m sure there are Saudis supporting Islamist radical groups, which is not much help. The Turks, who are in many ways the natural power to try to influence things, since they used to run the country, haven’t done so.

We would need to be sure we understood the situation before getting drawn in. Iraq and Vietnam are examples of US involvement on the ground when the past was not fully understood by the people who made the decisions. The forces were not properly assessed. Syria is another such case.

We should not commit to doing something without knowing just how we are going to do it. Assad should go, but there are a lot of elements in the opposition who are not our friends.

Columbia: As secretary of defense, how did you strike the balance between being a policy person and being an implementation person? It seems as though you had a heavy hand in both aspects.
Brown: Like it or not, I think the secretary of defense should do the job of running the department. If he doesn’t, he can leave most of it to the deputy secretary of defense, and that has on occasion happened. It couldn’t happen with me because I’m a hands-on person. I had spent eight years in the Defense Department before and had run some things, and it was inevitable that I would resume making program decisions, starting initiatives with weapons programs and with procurement policy. When it came to weapons decisions, my instinct was to work hard on those and to oversee them and initiate strongly.

The secretary of defense has no choice but to deal with other countries. That automatically gets you into the US security-policy issues.

Columbia: Does that blur the line between the Department of Defense and the State Department?
Brown: State and Defense often disagreed, but the fact that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and I were old friends helped. State Department people tend not to be decisive decision makers. For them, a negotiation is a success no matter what happens.

Columbia: You’ve written about the difficulties that some secretaries of defense have had in their second terms. Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, so you didn’t have to face that possibility. Should there be a one-term limit for secretaries of defense?
Brown: Well, my own judgment is that anyone who has served longer than four and a half years has come to a bad end.

Harold Brown studied physics at Columbia, earning his PhD at the age of twenty-one. He served as director of the Livermore Laboratory, secretary of the Air Force, and president of Caltech. He is a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Star Spangled Security, written with Joyce Winslow.

Web Extra:

Harold Brown’s speeches and essays are often flavored with quotations from philosophical and literary figures, and we asked him about that. “It’s because of my Columbia education,” he says. “I’m not fooling. Those years gave me a world view that was quite valuable.”

Brown graduated from Columbia College in 1945 at the age of seventeen, and was awarded a Ph.D. in physics from SEAS four years later. “I remember a number of wonderful professors,” he says. “There was contemporary civilization with Austin P Evans, a great scholar of medieval history; and Paul Kristeller was my Humanities-A professor. He, of course, was an important Italian renaissance philosopher. I recall Lyle Fitch [’46 GSAS], who was a rather radical political science professor. These were capable people.

“My math and sciences professors I remember very well, less as an undergraduate than as a graduate student. John Dunning [’34 GSAS], who was a nuclear physicist who built the cyclotron in the basement of Pupin, was my thesis director. I also took courses with Willis Lamb and I. I. Rabi [’27 GSAS], both of whom won the Nobel Prize.”


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