Despite his long and influential career in the conduct of the US’s international affairs, Brent Scowcroft, who has died aged 95, attracted little personal attention to himself. This low profile was surprising enough in 1975 when, as national security adviser in the Gerald Ford administration, he organised the US’s evacuation from Saigon, the event that marked the end of the Vietnam war.
More remarkably, he remained as much in the shadows when recalled to the same job by the White House of George HW Bush 14 years later. During that stint he was caught on the hop by the fall of the Berlin Wall, by the implosion of the Soviet Union, and by Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait.
Yet he effectively superseded James Baker, the secretary of state, as manager of US foreign policy during this crucial period of modern history. His undiminished standing with Bush Sr was reinforced in 1998 when he was credited as co-author of the president’s memoir A World Transformed, in which Baker’s role in US policy was barely acknowledged.
Scowcroft’s entry to the highest levels of government came when he served as military assistant to Richard Nixon in 1972, at the time of the president’s visits to China and the Soviet Union. Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, chose Scowcroft as his deputy when Alexander Haig went on to a senior army post at the start of the following year.
Kissinger was then heavily engaged in the frantic shuttle diplomacy that preceded the Vietnam peace talks, becoming secretary of state as well from September 1973, so Scowcroft took over much of the running of the national security council.
Among other responsibilities, he regularly conducted the president’s daily intelligence briefing and, in the turmoil of the Watergate crisis and Ford’s succession to the presidency, Scowcroft became the obvious successor to Kissinger when he stepped down from the security side of his post in 1975.
Much of the new security adviser’s time was inevitably taken up with the humiliating end to America’s involvement in Vietnam but he was also closely involved in the preparation of the Salt II nuclear arms limitation treaty, eventually signed three years later by President Jimmy Carter but refused ratification by the US Senate.
Scowcroft sat out the Carter years (1977-81) as a private consultant, going on to serve as vice-chair of Kissinger Associates (1982-89). Since the Republican right viewed the arms reductions specified under Salt II as a sellout to the Soviet Union, he was also initially ignored by the Ronald Reagan administration.
But Reagan’s increasingly tangled strategic policy, highlighted by its failure to find a credible way of deploying the multi-warheaded MX missile, brought Scowcroft back into play in 1983 as chair of a special presidential commission on strategic weapons.
The commission’s report pleased no one but it confirmed Scowcroft in his view that the arrival of the MIRV – the multiple independent re-entry vehicle warheads that had been installed on the MX and made it capable of striking 10 separate locations – was dangerously destabilising. He thought it might also undermine the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty. He strongly advocated the development of a single-warhead replacement for the ageing fleet of Minuteman missiles, first deployed in 1961, and Congress duly authorised the project.
Scowcroft’s final duty for the Reagan administration was to serve on the Tower commission that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal, in which weapons illegally sold to Tehran helped fund the US’s equally illegal effort to topple the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Though the national security adviser, Admiral John Poindexter, resigned and his assistant, Colonel Oliver North, was sacked, Scowcroft argued there was no need for drastic reform of the NSC. “It was not that the structure was faulty,” he commented, “it was that the structure was not used.”
When Bush Sr took over the White House in 1989 he brought Scowcroft back as head of the NSC. The administration’s immediate preoccupations were first with the president’s visit to China and then with his plan for major superpower force reductions in Europe – a response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s offer the previous month to withdraw 10,000 Soviet tanks and 500,000 troops.
The Chinese visit was notable for its failure to mention human rights and, when the army brutally attacked Chinese students in Tiananmen Square after they had soured Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing, there was no more than a subdued response from the White House (though it later emerged that Scowcroft was secretly sent to China “to underscore US shock and concern”).
Meanwhile, Scowcroft felt that Gorbachev was sufficiently bogged down in the domestic problems of perestroika that he could be ignored for the time being and he seemed to extend this blinkered view to the accelerating pressure for change in eastern Europe.
The first indication of the new climate had come when Solidarity candidates swept the board in the first free Polish elections. In spite of this, Scowcroft seemed totally to underestimate the significance of the parallel demonstrations in East Germany and the mass flight of its citizens into Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
When the demoralised and disorganised Erich Honecker regime eventually caved in on 9 November to announce the permanent opening of the Berlin Wall, Scowcroft’s intelligence failure was encapsulated in Bush Sr’s bizarre comment that: “We’re handling it in a way where we are not trying to give anybody a hard time.”
In spite of this embarrassing episode Scowcroft continued to believe that, though Gorbachev had been loudly booed by the May Day throngs in Red Square and Boris Yeltsin had been elected chair of the Russian Supreme Soviet, the general situation in the Soviet Union would remain stable.
Then came Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Scowcroft admitted he had dismissed Iraqi bellicosity as “part of a policy of bluster” and this misjudgment provoked the crisis that took up much of Bush Sr’s Helsinki summit meeting with Gorbachev. Having secured Soviet support for retaliatory action, Scowcroft and his staff became totally engrossed in preparations for the Desert Storm campaign.
Then the unification of Germany and the aftermath of the allied victory in Kuwait induced a euphoric state into which the steady crumbling of the Soviet empire, not only in the Baltic but in other non-Russian republics, barely impinged. Scowcroft’s attention was largely on the technicalities of the strategic arms reduction treaty, designed to cut Soviet and US nuclear weapons by half over the ensuing 20 years.
Bush Sr and Gorbachev signed Start I at the end of July 1991: three weeks later outraged hardliners in the Soviet military and KGB, who echoed America’s rightwing Republicans in seeing any arms reductions as a sell-out to the enemy, mounted their attempted coup. The White House had been given no clue of what was in the offing. Fortunately it turned out to be a ludicrous bungle but, in its aftermath, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in September and Gorbachev resigned on 25 December.
Days later, in his State of the Union address, Bush Sr cancelled the Midgetman missile, stopped further production of the B-2 bomber and of the country’s most modern missile warhead and limited its advanced cruise missile arsenal. However, when Bush Sr’s inept domestic policies cost him the November election Scowcroft’s days were, of course, also numbered.
But there was one last shot in the locker. Just before Bush Sr handed over to Bill Clinton, he met Yeltsin to sign the Start II treaty, which Scowcroft had done so much to devise. It specified the elimination of all MIRV land-based missiles within a decade. These accumulated moves to reduce nuclear instability will probably be Scowcroft’s most enduring legacy.
Born in Ogden, Utah, Brent was the son of James Scowcroft, who ran a wholesale grocery business, and his wife, Lucille (nee Ballantyne). When he graduated from the US military academy at West Point, New York, in 1947, he had a conventional forces career in mind. Commissioned as an US Air Force pilot, he was seriously injured a few months later while landing a faulty plane. The accident had an unsettling effect on him and for the next two decades he repeatedly changed the course of his life.
Initially he opted for staff jobs in the air force, but then enrolled at Columbia University to study international relations. Armed with his Columbia master’s (1953), and already a specialist in Slavic languages, he returned to West Point to teach Russian history. In 1959 he became the American embassy’s assistant air attache in Belgrade, and moved again two years later to head the political science department at the US Air Academy in Colorado.
After a brief period at the Air Force’s Washington headquarters and a further teaching stint at the National War College he gained a Columbia doctorate (1967) and finally settled into the politico-military environment in which he was able to prosper.
His first move was to the Pentagon in 1968 when, at the age of 43, he joined its international security staff and worked his way rapidly through a succession of increasingly senior positions. In 1971, having by then risen to colonel, he was assigned to the White House to fill the highly sensitive role of Nixon’s military assistant.
On the eve of Nixon’s historic visit to China he was naturally assigned to the American delegation. Unexpectedly he found he was the highest-ranking US military officer to have arrived in Beijing since the 1949 revolution and his work during the visit secured his promotion to brigadier-general.
That and his fluent Russian made him a natural choice to organise the president’s visit to Moscow, where, in 1972, the idea of reciprocal reductions of US and Soviet forces in central Europe was first mooted. From then on the promotion of arms reductions became Scowcroft’s continuing theme.
Once his full-time official involvement had come to an end, in 1994 he started his own international business advisory consultancy, the Scowcroft Group. Thereafter he maintained the same discreet approach and moderate tone, his one very public intervention coming in 2002 as President George W Bush was preparing for further war in Iraq.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Scowcroft advised against attacking Saddam, pointing to scant evidence of links to al-Qaida or 9/11, and the risk that the US might “seriously jeopardise, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken”. But the son was not deterred by what his father’s adviser had to say.
His founding of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security in 2012 as part of the Atlantic Council thinktank served to assert his belief in the alliances that had brought the cold war to an end.
In 1951 he married Marian Horner; she died in 1995. He is survived by their daughter, Karen, and a granddaughter.
• Brent Scowcroft, international security adviser, born 19 March 1925; died 7 August 2020