A wunderkind who earned a PhD in physics at 21, Harold Brown became director of Livermore Laboratory in his mid-twenties after helping develop the Polaris missile. That nuclear weapon, which could be launched from a submarine, changed the balance of nuclear capabilities in the Cold War. In his early thirties, Brown became director of U.S. Defense Research and Engineering and advised President John F. Kennedy on nuclear testing and weaponry. Dubbed "Childe Harold" by the press when tapped to be Lyndon B. Johnson's Air Force secretary at 34, Brown next served an eight-year term as president of the California Institute of Technology and worked as a part-time negotiator on SALT I, seeking to limit and prevent the use of atomic weapons he helped develop. Therefore, by the time Brown became Jimmy Carter's secretary of defense in 1979, his perspective was broad. He believed that the strength of conventional troops was as important as a nuclear deterrent, particularly because the Soviets had superior strength massed on the border of Europe and the ambition to march through it to the English Channel in 30 days.
Still active in national security as a member of the Defense Policy Board that advises sitting defense secretaries, the octogenarian has now written Star-Spangled Security: Applying Lessons Learned over Six Decades Safeguarding America. A blend of memoir and prescient blueprint for the future, it arrives at a critical time as our nation grapples with a polarized Congress, a turbulent world, and massive cuts to the U.S. defense budget. Brown indeed relays pertinent lessons learned, including the development of new weapons, such as a long-range bomber, to safeguard the western Pacific. America has no such plane now. He writes about his own leadership to develop game-changing military technologies: a new generation of ballistic and cruise missiles, laser and other devices to make bombs smarter and more accurate, the first stealth bomber. He put the first GPS satellites in the sky. Brown thinks that scientific innovation, funded in large part by the federal government, is important to maintain America's technological and economic edge. Sequestration now severely cuts into that funding.
In 1980, Brown, as secretary of defense, practiced what he preached. He buoyed up NATO with the "Three-Percent Solution," a defense-budget hike for the United States and its European allies to enable fast deployment of troops to Europe and NATO's purchase of AWACs. At the time, U.S. troops were still ragged from the Vietnam War. Taken together, these innovations, along with Brown's nuclear-deterrence strategy, made America far safer when the Soviet Union posed an existential threat.
Today, Brown argues, "technology can't overcome corrupt government" in Afghanistan any more than it could in postwar South Vietnam. He calls for an end to the burgeoning number of Congressional staffers who tweak line items in the defense budget based on parochial (versus national) interests, with no accountability for national security. Brown sees the spiraling costs of military healthcare — $21 billion in 2012 for military personnel, their families and retirees, a cost projected to double by 2030 — as a liability to the defense budget: "The issue here is how much of the military health care cost for those not active personnel should fall on the Department of Defense."
For readers interested in a close look at VIP players, Brown delivers; he has seen his share over 10 presidencies. If it is score settling you seek, look elsewhere. This is a book for grown-ups. Highly readable, its first two chapters are a primer on how a defense budget is formed, how line items have bloated from 50 to 200 since he was head of the Defense Department, and how we ought to go about formulating a budget during sequestration. Other chapters deal with such pressing issues now as Syria, China, the Arab Spring, nuclear proliferation, and the many ways that global warming will affect national security.
Using the national anthem as the book's title and its lyrics as chapter headings, Brown and Winslow (a Washington journalist and RAND's former op-ed editor) organized the book around themes. In "Stripes and Bright Stars," Brown describes the SecDef's responsibilities generally and in the Carter years, in particular. Altogether, this is a compelling narrative that makes critical subject matter come to life and will "arm" readers with facts they can take into the voting booth.
Brown's relationship with Edward Teller, his former boss at Livermore Lab and father of the hydrogen bomb, lost its luster when Secretary Brown "ceased to regard nuclear weapons as the solution to everything." We learn that Brown's counterpart in the Soviet Union, Chief of General Staff Sergei Akhromeyev, committed suicide after the Soviet Union fell. Before that last act, he asked rhetorically, even if the Soviets had pushed all the way to the English Channel, "then what would we have done?" It was in part a nod to Brown's deterrence strategy.
Brown permitted no daylight between himself and President Carter's policies. He explains how the professional-turned-personal animosity between Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, and Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state, plagued the Carter administration. Without wholly revising the president's record, Brown offers a useful corrective: the administration scored many successes such as new key weapons systems, the Egypt-Israel peace accords and improved U.S.-China relations.
Brown's compelling chapter on the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran delivers important and timely information. His narrative puts the attempt into a new perspective: "jointness." The U.S. military's lack of practice in joint operations led directly to the failure. Navy helicopters had to fly inland 500 nautical miles, be refueled by Air Force planes, and deliver Army Delta Special Forces to the hostages at night — through a sandstorm. Brown had long pushed jointness as a central component of military operations. A generation later, the Joint Special Operations Command successfully nabbed Osama bin Laden.
With Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions in mind, along with the threat that terrorists could gain nuclear weapons, Brown devotes significant attention to preventatives that could curtail membership in the nuclear club. His hard-won experience with 1970s Iran and the subsequent 2003 Iraq War leads him to conclude, "The use of force without a clear and convincing picture of the endgame is a recipe for a bad outcome." In fact, Brown does not think we should ignore public support in Iran for nuclear weapons and that bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would only intensify Iran's efforts, after an initial stall, to resume them.
The U.S.-China relationship promises to become the most significant foreign-policy issue of the coming decade. Brown possesses a deep understanding of the PRC based on 30 years of experience with it, beginning as the first U.S. secretary of defense to act as interlocutor after normalization of relations. In 1980, Brown began his many visits to China. In the late 1990s, he led a U.S. commission to ascertain China's military capabilities to 2030. He counsels that the United States should "accommodate China's legitimate aspirations and resistance to hegemonic claims in a way that avoids the historic causes of armed conflict, which as Thucydides noted two and a half millennia ago are fear, honor and self interest." This is Brown at his best. He warns that historically there have been natural tensions between a leading power, like ours, and a rising power, like China. He cautions that to avoid a seriously adversarial relationship will require skill on both sides.
Brown sees America at a "tipping point." Unlike the legions of talk-radio hosts nattering about national decline, he believes this nation could tip toward military strength, economic growth and cultural vitality — if America slowly eases out of its current economic doldrums, boosts science education, funds technological innovation for the sake of both economic and national security, and operates in Congress in a spirit of comity. "Let's do it," Brown says. If Americans heed the lessons and wisdom in Star Spangled Security, we will be on our way.