LET ME EXPLAIN
Eugene G. Fubini's Life in Defense of America
Harold Brown, PhD
Former United States Secretary of Defense
Eugene Fubini was short in stature. But in all other respects, he was larger than life: physically and intellectually energetic; voluble and imaginative; untidy in dress and gesture; by turns impulsive and thoughtful, impatient and persistent; aware of his superior talents but quick to acknowledge his mistakes. (And he made some; his driving was a menace to himself, passengers, and other drivers.) He dedicated his life to his family, to his many friends, to the pursuit of technology—and, notably, over five decades, to the security of his adopted country.
My own thirty-five years of close association with Gene began in 1961 (though we had met briefly a dozen years earlier) when he became my deputy for research and technology in the Defense Department’s Directorate of Research and Engineering. Through the following decades—as he was at various times in government, in the private business sector, running his own consultant activity, and acting as an outside adviser to government agencies, we remained close friends as well as professional associates. He was a loyal colleague, a valued source of advice (on matters technical, professional, policy, and personal)—and an endless generator of ideas, projects, and anecdotes.
Fubini’s experience working as scientific consultant and technical observer with the U.S. Army and Navy in the European Theater of Operations—including electronic reconnaissance and jamming for the invasions of Italy and southern France as well as combat missions for the Eighth Air Force—was central to his subsequent approach to the application of technology to military capability. He thought always in terms of the needs of the military user, and in particular about how to fit technical capabilities together with intelligence inputs and operational doctrine in support of executing military objectives. He learned to be the technologist as well as the system engineer that weaved the individual technologies into a system with ease of use and strength of result. This approach, together with his evident affection for the institutions and personnel of the U.S. armed forces, engendered a reciprocal positive sentiment from all levels, from enlisted ranks to chiefs of staff. And the same customer orientation characterized his work in the private sector, including his early advocacy of the development of the personal computer when he was at IBM and the effort to ensure that the strength and operative capability of IBM’s seminal 360 machine was fully utilized.
On a personal level, Gene’s high ethical standards, his broad interests, his ebullient manner, and commitment to excellence inspired all who knew him. He was quick with his opinions and had little patience for sloppy thinking, analysis, or presentations. That offended some. He was well known for a lack of tolerance of the obvious in program reviews and was a demanding personality in a debate. But Gene had at the same time an unusual degree of sympathy for the personal problems and aspirations of others, especially young people. He volunteered as a matter of course to help find positions for those he knew—and many whom he didn’t, but had heard of him and asked him for help. He helped untold numbers of ex-military officers and defense executives, through an expansive network of contacts, find roles that would not only enhance their personal stature but build the greater defense infrastructure of the country. But his legacy is not limited to what he did for individuals; he helped to build valuable institutions. In particular, the intelligence organizations of the Defense Department owe much of their strength and fundamental approaches to his efforts. The influential Defense Science Board is, in its current structure and processes, largely the result of his decade as its chairman and vice-chairman. When I appointed Gene to the chairman of the Defense Science Board I had hoped to raise its stature and impact on the defense community. Little did I imagine that Gene, through his strength of convictions and determined efforts, would build it to be the premier external advisory group to the Department of Defense that it is now.
Gene’s breadth of interests and abilities is illustrated by the fact that he was deeply involved in drafting the conflict of interest legislation that, in modified form, still applies to government service today. (At the dinner marking Gene’s departure from the Defense Department in 1965, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance joked that he, Vance, was losing his lawyer.) Gene did so recognizing that the role that he played as one that straddled industry and government was a role that would soon go away as a result of conflict and political necessity. As a result, Gene was the last of a breed. He had lived comfortably in both the service to his country and to industry. He was, in this way, also unique.
There will not be another Gene Fubini. Even if there were, it is doubtful that he could achieve similar results now. Institutions age and ossify; the Congress and the media are much less open to the idea of movement between the private sector and government (the “revolving door”). They prefer career civil servants (except when they call them “bureaucrats”) and are less troubled by movement between Congressional staffs and executive branch positions. Barring a crisis severe enough to cause a fundamental transformation in the way government works, a Gene Fubini, no matter how capable, effective and admired by the military, would have a harder time today. Part of Gene’s special gift was his ability to weave this understanding of industry, technology, and military need together to the benefit of all. Just as he had eighteen months after entering this county from an Axis nation and aided in the design of radar countermeasures in collaboration with others from academia, industry, and the military—so did Gene do this for the balance of his life. We will likely never see that same integrated effort emerge again.
There is another lesson, though not a new one, to be drawn from Gene’s career. From its beginning, America has been built by immigrants and their descendants. It has depended on its ability to attract the adventurous, vigorous, and talented from outside, and on their dedication and devotion once here. As has happened periodically over the past two centuries, the last decade has seen a growth of attitudes and actions discouraging that process. Talents like Gene’s are rare; we need more of them, whether indigenous or imported. His lasting legacy is to be found in his technological achievements that continue to contribute to our national security and our modern economy, in the many individuals who learned by association with him how to innovate and to solve problems, and from the example he provides of how one unusual individual can change for the better even so gargantuan an institution as the U.S. Armed Forces.
The country benefited from Gene’s behind-the-scenes effort. Gene never sought the limelight and always felt his impact was better served through the counsel to others. His constant refrain of “let me explain” is at the core of my and many others’ relationship with Gene. He always wanted to explain. Not take action for you, not make the decision for you. Rather his was the role of a counselor, mentor, and guide. Through his explanations and his questions, he showed us the path to the building blocks of a modern defense establishment. Gene did this not only in by enabling informed choices around the deployment of technologies but also in the network of talent and expertise that he brought to the task.
Joseph Alsop, the well-known columnist, once wrote to Ted Sorensen on the death of President John F. Kennedy urging him to stay the course because as JFK’s counselor Sorensen had “strengthened his arm and extended his reach.” Well for me, Gene strengthened my arm through his intellect, his drive, his indomitable spirit, and his humility. He extended my reach and helped me in my service to country. Gene was a true patriot and my valued counselor. We all are the beneficiaries of what he did in defense of his country.
William James Perry, PhD
Former United States Secretary of Defense
Gene Fubini’s life was characterized by brilliant and energetic service to his adopted country. Indeed, Gene’s contributions to the US Defense Department, sustained over many decades, are unrivalled in their importance and duration. A young man in World War II, he pioneered in the development of electronic countermeasures for the US Air Force. Later, during the darkest days of the Cold War, he pioneered—both in industry and government—in the development of intelligence and countermeasures systems that were at the heart of the Cold War rivalry. During the Kennedy administration, when Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense and Harold Brown was the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), he served as Harold’s Principal Deputy and as the Assistant Secretary of Communications and Intelligence. In that job he became legendary for his brilliance, his volatility, and his inability to suffer fools. He also became legendary as a mentor to several generations of Defense Secretaries, Directors of Research and Engineering, and Directors of the Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency (DARPA). Sometimes the mentorship was official, as when he was the head of the Defense Science board, but most often it was unofficial and unpaid—but always uniquely valuable and welcome.
I first met Gene when he was the Assistant Secretary, and, like nearly all of my colleagues, was deeply impressed with his brilliance and energy. I came to know him better in the period after that when he was back in industry, this time as a vice president of IBM. But his heart never left the Pentagon. He was appointed to many boards, most notable as the Chair of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Advisory Board. (I served with Gene on this Board.) He served as chair of this board during some of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War, and the danger was heightened by intelligence uncertainties. Nobody did more than Gene to apply science and technology to reduce those uncertainties. He did this with great skill and even greater passion. Indeed, his passion for getting good intelligence dominated his tenure as the chair of the Advisory Board. And he often knew more about the issues on which we were being briefed than did the briefers. During one briefing, he interrupted the hapless briefer so often with corrections that one of the other board members finally commented: “On this Board, we don’t receive briefings, we give them!”
My definitive contact with Gene occurred later in his career, in 1977, after Harold Brown was confirmed as the Secretary of Defense. Harold called me and asked me to be his Director of Defense Research and Engineering, the job he had held under Secretary McNamara. At the time I was the President of ESL. Inc., a company I had founded 13 years earlier. I did not want to leave my company and my home, and so I rejected Harold’s offer, but I did agree to come back to Washington to discuss it further. During that visit, my definitive meeting was with Gene, who was serving as an unofficial advisor to Harold. He took me into the DDR&E’s office for a long discussion. I expected to get a sales pitch from Gene, but instead he started out by asking me to explain why I had turned down the job. He told me to take as long as I needed and he would listen and not interrupt. That was an amazing offer, coming from the irrepressible Fubini, and I doubted that he could contain himself. But he did—he listened without interruption for a half hour while I explained why I could not take the job. Then, based on what he heard, he concluded that I didn’t understand what I was turning down and proceeded to explain it to me in detail and with many examples. He concluded by saying: “I gave you all of these examples because I believed that you did not realize what you were turning down. You did not realize that for a technical person, this is the most interesting job in the world. It will expand your mind in ways you cannot now imagine.”
I did take the job, and Gene’s logic (which proved to be correct) was the decisive factor. So Gene is really the one most responsible for my becoming the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, which for me (as for Harold Brown) led ultimately to the job of Secretary of Defense.
But I came into the job of Under Secretary with very little background in the management of the large weapon systems that were such a large and important part of the Defense budget. I had much to learn in order to succeed in this vitally important job. Fortunately, I had much expert help. Gene would stop by my Pentagon office every Saturday morning to get briefed on the problems of the prior week and to offer support and advice in resolving those problems (he would also visit Harold Brown’s office on the same mission). During my first month in office, Gene offered me some of his most important advice: he told me that an able military assistant was indispensable to my success in the job, and that the best and brightest young military officer he knew of was Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Paul Kaminski, who had just completed a year of study at the National Defense University. Following his advice, I requested the Air Force to assign him to my office, but the Air Force chief of staff, David Jones, said that Kaminski had already been assigned to another job. The following Saturday, when I explained to Gene that I was not going to be able to get Paul, he just looked at me disbelievingly. Then, with his with characteristic flare, he told me to call Jones back, tell him to cancel Kaminski’s other assignment and have him report to my office that week. I did, and he did—this was my first taste of the leverage I would have in my new position.
Gene went on to be my principal advisor as we formulated the Offset Strategy and developed the weapons to make it a reality: stealth, cruise missiles, smart weapons, and smart sensors. These weapons turned the defense balance in our favor, offsetting the numerical superiority of the Soviet Union, and facilitated a favorable ending to the Cold War. When these systems were demonstrated so effectively in Desert Storm, no one was prouder, or had more reason to be proud, than Gene Fubini.
I have already said that I was in the Under Secretary’s position because of Gene. But it is also true that whatever success I had in that position was due in large measure to Gene’s advice, both officially, through the Defense Science Board, and unofficially, through his Saturday morning visits. He also played a key role indirectly through his perseverance in getting me an extraordinarily effective Military Assistant.
During my four years in office, Gene never wavered in his support, both as my unofficial advisor and as head of the Defense Science Board. Twelve years later, when I was to become the Secretary of Defense, Gene was equally eager to serve. But by then his health was failing. His spirit was still ready to serve, but his body was not. A little over a year after I took office as Secretary, I observed the 40th anniversary of the Defense Science Board by creating the Fubini Award, and making Gene its first recipient. The Fubini award was created to “recognize individuals who, like Dr. Fubini, have made a significant contribution to the Department of Defense and the national security through their outstanding scientific or technical advice.”
Gene never lived to see any of the later awards, but he would have been pleased to see the capabilities of the younger scientists who followed in his footsteps. By his actions, Gene has made unique and vitally important contributions to the defense of our country. But by his example, he continues to make those contributions as he inspires young scientists and engineers to believe that, even in the face of daunting bureaucratic challenges, it is possible to solve vitally important defense problems through the creative and energetic application of technology.