Brent Scowcroft, former fighter pilot who went on to serve three presidents – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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Brent Scowcroft - Stuart W Conway
Brent Scowcroft - Stuart W Conway

General Brent Scowcroft, who has died aged 95, was a thoughtful and respected academic and former fighter pilot who served as US National Security Advisor to presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush.

He played a vital role in orchestrating the SALT II arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union, and planning America’s response to challenges from the evacuation of its last citizens from Saigon through the end of the Cold War to Operation Desert Storm.

In a Washington career spanning four decades, Scowcroft also carried the nuclear “football” for Richard Nixon, headed George W Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and gave advice - less closely - to Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Considered too doveish for the incoming Ronald Reagan, he was soon brought into the tent.

Scowcroft had a long and close association with Henry Kissinger, beginning when Kissinger was Nixon’s national security advisor and Scowcroft his deputy. When Kissinger became Ford’s Secretary of State, he recommended Scowcroft as his successor. From 1982 to 1989 he was vice-chairman of Kissinger’s consultancy business.

Rated “the ultimate nuts and bolts man of the White House inner circle”, Scowcroft - a moderate Republican who became a close friend of Bush Snr - was respected across the political spectrum for his grasp of complicated policy issues. A spare, diminutive figure who never wasted words, he preferred to work in the background and achieve results through quiet diplomacy.

Scowcroft, left, at the White House in 1974 with Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger and President Ford - David Hume Kennerly/ Getty Images
Scowcroft, left, at the White House in 1974 with Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger and President Ford - David Hume Kennerly/ Getty Images

For decades, he was part of the community in Washington that “thinks the unthinkable” about nuclear warfare. At one seminar he spoke of the need to communicate with the enemy after a nuclear war had begun, just as each side was trying to take out the leadership of the other.

Despite his academic credentials, Scowcroft described himself as a “country boy” from Utah. “I like a glass of wine and a cup of coffee.” he admitted. “But yes, I do consider myself a Mormon.”

Scowcroft was the inspiration and namesake for a special award begun by Bush Snr, to the official “who most ostentatiously falls asleep in a meeting with the president”. According to Bush’s CIA director Robert Gates, “Snoring always gets you extra points - and then there’s the quality of recovery.”

Brent Scowcroft was born on March 19 1925, the son of James Scowcroft, a grocer, and the former Lucile Ballantyne. He went to school in the city of Ogden, Utah, then enrolled at West Point.

Graduating in 1947, he was commissioned into the US Air Force just as it separated from the Army. Scowcroft earned his pilot’s wings in 1948, but within months was seriously injured when his aircraft developed a fault and crashed.

Convinced he would never fly again, he took a series of staff jobs while reading International Relations at Columbia University. Graduating in 1953 - he would return for a PhD in 1967 - he was appointed to teach Russian History at West Point.

After studying Slavic Languages at Georgetown University he was posted to Belgrade as assistant US air attaché. Returning in 1962, he joined the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs as an associate professor of Political Science. Next, he worked in plans and operations at Air Force headquarters in Washington, then briefly as an instructor at the National War College.

In November 1971, by that stage a colonel, Scowcroft was appointed military aide to Nixon, accompanying him with the “football” containing the nuclear launch codes. Three months later, he travelled with the president on his ice-breaking visit to China, the highest-ranked US officer to go there in a generation.

Promoted to brigadier-general, Scowcroft led the advance party that prepared the ground for Nixon’s visit to Moscow in May 1972. His fluency in Russian helped, and even more his diplomatic skills, as Nixon had just restarted the bombing of the Soviet Union’s ally North Vietnam.

On these assignments Scowcroft impressed Kissinger, who chose him to succeed General Alexander Haig as his deputy. He took up the post in September 1973, becoming the first White House staffer to brief the president each morning.

Kissinger and Scowcroft survived Nixon’s resignation over Watergate, and prospered under Ford. Scowcroft’s promotion to National Security Advisor obliged him to resign his commission, retiring a lieutenant-general.

Scowcroft, right, at Nato headquarters in 1989 with Margaret Thatcher, President Bush and the Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney  - Vince Mannino/Reuters
Scowcroft, right, at Nato headquarters in 1989 with Margaret Thatcher, President Bush and the Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney - Vince Mannino/Reuters

Scowcroft played an important role alongside Kissinger in orchestrating the interim SALT II agreement with the Soviet Union, which Ford approved in 1974.

He was also the chief planner of the evacuation of the last US personnel from Saigon in April 1975 as the North Vietnamese closed in, and the response weeks later to Cambodia’s seizure of the American merchant ship Mayaguez.

Scowcroft left the White House when Carter succeeded Ford in January 1977, but served on the new president’s advisory committee on arms control, preparing the Salt II treaty signed by Carter and Leonid Brezhnev in 1979.

When Reagan became president in 1981, Scowcroft was considered too wedded to détente to be offered a policy-making job. But he was appointed to a committee evaluating options for deploying the MX missile.

Reagan appointed him in 1983 to head a Commission on Strategic Forces to settle several contentious issues. Within three months, Scowcroft had resolved them in a 10,000-word interim report offering “a new direction both in ICBM forces and in arms control”.

With President Bush and the Secretary of State James Baker - David Valdez/White House/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
With President Bush and the Secretary of State James Baker - David Valdez/White House/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

America’s objective, he said, “should be to have an overall programme that will so confound, complicate and frustrate the efforts of Soviet strategic war planners that, even in moments of stress, they could not believe they could attack our ICBM forces effectively”. The Commission urged the administration to proceed with “extreme caution” to advoid jeopardising the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed by Nixon in 1972.

Scowcroft was pessimistic about securing a wider arms control agreement, particularly after Reagan gave him a message to deliver to the Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko and Chernenko refused to receive him.

In 1986 Reagan appointed him to the commission under former Senator John Tower investigating the National Security Council’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Weapons had been sold to the revolutionary regime in Iran, with the profits going to the Right-wing Contras in Nicaragua - each of them actions that had been specifically prohibited.

The Commission’s report, issued in February 1987, was a scathing indictment of the administration’s handling of the affair. Though not held primarily responsible, Reagan was criticised for not keeping an eye on the actions of his subordinates.

Within two years, Scowcroft was back in the White House as National Security Advisor to the incoming George HW Bush. The end of Soviet Communism was close, and in September 1989 the visiting Boris Yeltsin threw a tantrum outside the White House when he learnt he would not be greeted by Bush in the Oval Office. Instead he met Scowcroft, and the president “dropped by”.

With Barbara and George Bush in 1991 receiving the US Medal of Freedom - Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
With Barbara and George Bush in 1991 receiving the US Medal of Freedom - Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Washington struggled to work out which horse to back. Bush wanted to help Mikhail Gorbachev, Gates and Dick Cheney wanted a clear break with communism, and Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker did not trust Yeltsin, who eventually prevailed.

After Saddam Hussein’s seizure of Kuwait in August 1990, Scowcroft liaised closely with Sir Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary who stayed on under John Major, to ensure continuity as military action against Iraq was readied.

When Desert Storm was launched the following February, Scowcroft hoped it would leave Iraq with “no offensive military capability” and reduce Saddam’s chances of staying in power.

Years later, Bush and Scowcroft explained why American forces had not pressed on to Baghdad: “Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”

Weeks after the recapture of Kuwait, he spent two days in intensive talks with representatives of Iran aimed at securing the release of three Britons and six Americans being held by Hezbollah in Beirut.

Scowcroft’s last in-house crisis was Bosnia, with Washington wanting to respond through a multilateral force under the UN flag, rather than send troops of its own. He told those planning the force that America’s contribution would probably be from the air, and that if force became necessary it would be to provide humanitarian assistance, not intervene in the conflict between Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

On the morning of Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993, Scowcroft briefed him on what he was taking over, starting with overnight developments in the Gulf, where Bush had recently ordered air strikes. Out of office, he founded the Forum for International Policy.

Scowcroft was one of the first Washington insiders - as early as 1994 - to call for a pre-emptive strike to destroy North Korea’s nuclear processing plants.

With the broadcaster Diane Sawyer and her husband, the film director Mike Nichols  - Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
With the broadcaster Diane Sawyer and her husband, the film director Mike Nichols - Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Two years later, there was a furore when it emerged that confidential FBI files on Scowcroft, Gates and 600 other members of former Republican administrations, had been sent for by Clinton White House staffers.

On the morning of September 11 2001, Scowcroft was in an E-4B command aircraft awaiting take-off to Strategic Air Command in Nebraska when the first hijacked airliner hit the World Trade Center. He was in the air when the second struck, and observed from the E-4B’s command centre the responses of both the President, in Florida, and vice-president Cheney in the White House

Scowcroft was a leading Republican critic of George W Bush and Cheney’s policy towards Iraq before and after the 2003 invasion, yet he strongly opposed a hasty withdrawal. Pulling out before the country was able to govern, sustain, and defend itself would, he argued, “be a strategic defeat for American interests, with potentially catastrophic consequences both in the region and beyond”.

In 2004 Scowcroft served on a high level panel on the future of the UN. With conservatives in the administration wanting to reduce its powers, he said: “The US ought to be using the UN, because the UN is the best vehicle to promote US principles and an understanding of why we behave and what our motives are.” From 2010 to 2012 he co-chaired a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Scowcroft was president of the Scowcroft Group, an international business consulting firm, co-chair of the Aspen Strategy Group, a member of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, and a board member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council.

In 1998 he co-wrote with Bush Snr A World Transformed, describing what it was like to be in the White House as the Cold War ended. Scowcroft’s discussions with Zbigniew Brzezinski, his counterpart under Carter, were published in 2008 as America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy.

He was awarded the US Medal of Freedom in 1991, and appointed an honorary KBE in 1993.

Brent Scowcroft married Marian Horner in 1951; she died in 1995, and he is survived by their daughter.

Brent Scowcroft, born March 19 1925, died August 6 2020