The role of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in managing the Pentagon, boosting the military and confronting the Soviet Union during the Jimmy Carter Administration is examined in a new Department of Defense historical volume that was declassified and published this month.
It was during Secretary Brown’s tenure that the Carter Administration reversed a decline in defense spending and began a military buildup that is usually associated with the Reagan Administration. Stealth aircraft, precision bombs, cruise missiles and other new weapons programs were championed by Brown, a physicist, and brought into production.
“Unlike previous secretaries of defense, Brown faced the Soviet Union at the apex of its Cold War military might,” wrote historian Edward Keefer in the new DoD volume. “Flush from new discoveries of oil and natural gas in an era of high energy prices, the Soviet Union of the Carter years came closer to matching the United States in strategic power than it had in any other period. By most reckonings, the Kremlin held advantages over the West in conventional weapons and forces in central Europe. Brown and his staff worked diligently and creatively to offset the formidable Soviet military challenge. Yet the achievements Brown amassed as secretary have been overshadowed by one horrendous failure, the Iran hostage rescue mission. As a result, history has paid scant attention to his successes. Similarly, it has ignored the foundation that the Carter administration built for the Reagan revolution in defense. This volume aims to remedy the oversight.”
“This is an authorized history, but not an official one,” wrote DoD Chief Historian Erin R. Mahan. “There is a distinction.” That is, it is based on authorized access to classified source materials and underwent internal peer review, but it represents the author’s own judgment.
Among other areas of friction and public controversy, Secretary Brown defended the nuclear weapon targeting policy set forth in Carter’s Presidential Directive 59. “To liberal arms control advocates, such as the Federation of American Scientists, PD 59 seemed warlike and dangerous,” the Pentagon history said.
See Harold Brown: Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge, 1977-1981, Office of the Secretary of Defense, June 2017, 840 pages.
The new volume is the latest in a series of scholarly histories of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and one of several new publications from the OSD History Office.