Best Defense

Why did Robert Gates name Harold Brown as his favorite defense secretary? And what can we learn from that?

On January 23, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in an interview with Fox News, named Mel Laird and Harold Brown, as his two favorite defense secretaries.



By Frances Tilney Burke
Best Defense office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense

On January 23, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in an interview with Fox News, named Mel Laird and Harold Brown, as his two favorite defense secretaries: President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Defense (whose name was always below the fold while Kissinger grabbed the headlines) and President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense, one who served a president with an abysmal foreign-policy record culminating in the failed Iran hostage rescue mission.

Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, responded, “Interesting…” Gates then explained he admired the two men for their ability to “operate inside the building” and “deal with Congress.” Considering that Gates is often Washington insiders’ top choice for “best SECDEF ever,” I wanted to figure out why Brown, in particular, makes Gates tick.

Did Harold Brown use certain tools that may be replicated for Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis, or for future secretaries? In other words, is there normative value in studying Brown’s leadership?

As an aside, in doing a quick search on Laird, who was secretary of Defense during Nixon’s first term and then became “presidential counselor” for about a year before Watergate, I found that William Saffire wrote this zinger in November 1973: “I would not call Mel Laird devious, but there are not many men in the White House in comparison with whom Richard Nixon look like a Boy Scout.”

It turns out that, on paper, Harold Brown was a wunderkind. He got his PhD in physics from Columbia at age 21 and then went on to become a research scientist in radiation at Berkeley, later Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and then became president of CalTech. Brown worked for Robert McNamara as the director for research and engineering at DoD (traditionally a job for the smartest of the smart). Brown was the first scientist to run the Department, but he was also a veteran bureaucrat, logging eight years at the Pentagon before his nomination as secretary.

Perhaps Gates sees something of himself in Brown, as he also was a career bureaucrat and adept at understanding the large bureaucracies he ran. Brown wrote a book for the Brookings Institution in 2012, Star Spangled Security: Applying Lessons Learned over Six Decades Safeguarding America, which can be read as a primer for national security leaders. In his third chapter, “How the Team at the Top Affects Security Policy,” Brown writes of himself as an introvert who sought “to solve problems with others in private” and cultivate a reputation of “technocratic nonpartisanship.”

He also argues for downsizing, explaining that most “officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals.” Brown writes, “As defense secretary, I ‘made do’ with two undersecretaries and seven assistant secretaries. There are now five undersecretaries and sixteen assistant secretaries, with deputy undersecretaries and deputy assistant secretaries having multiplied by a similar factor.”

Brown is proud of, and lauded for, his long-term programming vision. This is not sexy policy stuff; rather, Brown took deep, detailed dives into what the Services would need 10 and 15 years down the road, specifically in the realm of highly technical weapons systems. On his detailed reviews and prognostications of systems for the Services, Brown wrote — not with rancor, but with satisfaction — that “the Carter administration initiated and developed these programs, the Reagan administration paid for their acquisition in many cases, the George H. W. Bush administration employed them.”

Most telling of Brown’s tenure as SecDef was that he learned not to use business tactics to run the Pentagon. After leaving the Carter administration, Brown gave a speech at the University of Michigan called, “Managing the Defense Department: Why it Can’t be Done.” Whereas many secretaries have entered the DoD establishment with the idea that it could, and should, be run like a well-oiled corporation, Brown concluded that the Department was an inherently unmanageable place and must be treated as such. (See the canonic U.S. Defense Politics.)

A few of Brown’s conclusions simplified for DoD: Don’t air your dirty laundry, do deflate the leadership bloat, do long-term and concentrated strategic programming, and don’t manage the Department like a company — because it’s not. Despite Brown’s excellence as a defense secretary, he still had to contend with Carter’s foreign policies. Likewise, for Mattis, his management of the Department may be unsurpassed, but he must still contend with difficult unknown variables, like President Donald Trump’s version of the Iranian hostage rescue mission.

Frances Tilney Burke is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, focusing on international security studies and the history of U.S. foreign relations. She was a former special assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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