News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Remembering Brent Scowcroft

| Aug. 08, 2020

American strategic giant Brent Scowcroft passed away on Thursday. For over five decades, he helped steer the ship of State, conducted himself with a civility and decency nearly unknown today, and helped countless men and women, including me, to strengthen their faith in public service. He is therefore a special model for the Belfer Center.

As Secretary of Defense, I made sure to confer upon Brent the Department of Defense’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award. On that occasion I told a couple stories of me and Brent and then tried to sum up his titanic accomplishments, as follows:

Brent was a mentor of mine for nearly 40 years and there are many like me too. In 1983, when I was an MIT physicist with no sense of a career in national security, I first had the opportunity to meet Brent. SDI or Star Wars was the issue of the day, and I was asked by Paul Nitze, then President Reagan’s arms control advisor, to accompany a small delegation to Moscow to discuss nuclear arms, including strategic defenses. I knew something about lasers, neutral particle beams, and so forth, so Paul asked me to go as an expert.

My mission was to examine a Soviet spacecraft that they claimed was a probe of a moon of Mars, but our intelligence community suspected was a space-based laser weapon. So off we went to Moscow: Brent, me, and others including former Chief of Staff of the Army Shy Meyer. The Soviets took me to their space center, let me climb around the probe and satisfy myself that the laser aboard it could not shoot down missiles. This was the Soviet Union of the old days, and Brent and the rest of the delegation all shared the single bar of soap that one of us brought, since there was of course no soap in the Soviet hotel. What I really remember is Brent’s kindness and example. It was when I first realized that the values embodied in Brent Scowcroft existed in public life at the highest levels. He didn’t treat me as an insignificant junior, nor yet as a peer, but as somebody to be brought along and encouraged. There are countless men and women, including of his generation, that will tell you their faith in public life was strengthened by the example and values of Brent Scowcroft.

In the years after, and for almost 20 years every summer in Aspen, I hiked the Rockies with Brent. I remember one of those treks vividly – it must have been 15 years ago now. A whole group of us went up to hike Independence Pass. At the end of our journey, the only ones to finish were my wife Stephanie and I, a 15 year-old teenager wearing flip-flops, of all things, and, unbelievably, Brent Scowcroft, who at that time was in his 80s. Rather than recount all the happenings in which Brent Scowcroft figures in my life, or all of yours in the Belfer Community, or in the life of our country, I commend to you a shorter, but useful way to appreciate Brent: reflect on all the bad things that did not happen because of him or how history could have been very different, but for the cool head and warm heart of this great man at the center of America’s national security for five decades.

In the aftermath of Vietnam, for example, when America could have been plunged into a dark period of declined influence and self-confidence, but did not because, with Brent’s advice, America acted decisively in the Mayaguez Incident, opened up to Mao’s China, and stood resolute against Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.  Our prestige in the world was sustained. Or in the final days in the Nixon White House and the transition to President Ford, an unprecedented achievement for our Republic precisely because nothing happened… but it could have been quite different. Or in the peak years of the Cold War when we now know from the Soviet archives that we were closer to nuclear war than anyone except maybe Brent imagined. But it didn’t happen.

Or above all, the collapse of the Soviet Union… the first ever disintegration of a nuclear power… a moment whose danger is scarce remembered now precisely because it turned out so much better than it might have. In all these moments, Brent Scowcroft was at the center, and his balance, civility, and realism brought us through safely.

If you need hope and resolve for the American future, you can do no better than to follow the example of Brent Scowcroft.

Ash Carter
August 8, 2020

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ash. “Remembering Brent Scowcroft.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 8, 2020.