Ash Carter, 1954-2022

A brilliant national security leader is gone too soon.

New York Times, “Ashton B. Carter, Defense Secretary Under Obama, Dies at 68

Ashton B. Carter, who harnessed his training in theoretical physics and knowledge of nuclear weapons to climb the leadership ranks at the Pentagon — culminating in two years as secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, a position he used to further open the military to female and transgender service members — died on Monday at his home in Boston. He was 68.

The cause was a heart attack, his family said in a statement.

Mr. Carter was among the few people to have held four of the top posts at the Pentagon, starting as an assistant secretary under Bill Clinton. By the time Mr. Obama nominated him as secretary of defense in 2014, he had worked in almost every corner of the department, including nuclear policy, logistics and weapons development.

“Ash was the best-prepared secretary of defense in our history,” Graham Allison, who worked alongside Mr. Carter at Harvard and the Pentagon, said in a phone interview.

s an assistant secretary of defense in the early 1990s, Mr. Carter directed Pentagon efforts to secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet states, renew the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and reach an agreement with North Korea to freeze its nuclear program. At the same time, he was among the few people to raise concerns about the growing risk of what he called “catastrophic terrorism.”

He returned to the Pentagon under President Obama, first as under secretary overseeing logistics and procurement — essentially the country’s chief weapons buyer — and then as deputy secretary.

In the first role, he faced a rapidly shifting security environment in Iraq and Afghanistan and a wave of budget cuts. He solved both problems by cutting programs to develop futuristic weapons and shifted that money to more immediate needs, like drones and mine-resistant vehicles to protect service members from roadside bombs.

“It’s no exaggeration to say there are countless Americans who are alive today in part because of Ash’s efforts,” President Obama said when he nominated Mr. Carter to succeed Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.

Unlike Mr. Hagel, who was often criticized for his passivity, as secretary Mr. Carter was unafraid to speak out. In a 2015 interview with CNN, he all but openly criticized Mr. Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State, and in 2017 he publicly questioned the decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of leaking classified information.

“He had a certain level of principle, a certain level of logic, and if you didn’t get it, that was it,” John Gans, a vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation who served as Mr. Carter’s chief speechwriter, said in a phone interview. “There was an engine at the top of his head that was totally different than you or me.”

Mr. Carter clashed with other members of the cabinet over the renewed threat posed by Russia, at a time when many experts inside and outside the government still held out hope for better relations. Among his first steps as secretary was to increase America’s military presence across six former Soviet bloc states, including the Baltic countries.

“We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot, war with Russia,” he told reporters in 2015. “But make no mistake, the United States will defend our interests and our allies, the principled international order and the positive future it affords us all.”

He believed in the importance of hard power — America’s ability to use its military prowess to shape global politics — a position that also sometimes put him in tension with others in the Obama White House. In 2015, he announced that in the face of Chinese encroachment into the South China Sea, the United States would “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

That statement was stronger than some in the administration would have liked, but it has since won bipartisan support and become a cornerstone of America’s new, more hard-edged policy toward China.

Washington Post, “Ashton Carter, defense chief who opened combat roles to women, dies at 68

Ashton B. Carter, a longtime adviser on nuclear and strategic policies who served as defense secretary in the last years of the Obama administration, overseeing the opening of military combat roles to women and helping boost Pentagon ties with Silicon Valley, died Oct. 24 in Boston. He was 68.


Mr. Carter, a Rhodes scholar and theoretical physicist, never served in the military. But he had important roles in shaping defense policies over more than three decades — including trying to contain the spread of nuclear technology after the collapse of the Soviet Union and redirecting Pentagon priorities to confront China’s growing military reach in East Asia.

Mr. Carter guided U.S. policy in the Middle East during the rise of Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq, and later engaged in academic studies on counterterrorism.

He also brought significant internal changes within the military. In 2016, Mr. Carter opened the armed forces to transgender men and women to enlist with some exceptions. The policy was repealed by the Trump administration and then reinstated under President Biden last year.

At the Bulwark, longtime friend and fellow national security professional Eric Edelman mourns his passing.

Ash was arguably the smartest person I have ever met, although that wasn’t immediately apparent on our first encounter. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance at Yale, where I was a Ph.D. student. Wearing his helmet and carrying his lacrosse stick, he seemed like any other Yale jock type. He quickly disabused me of the stereotype. Assigned to my section of the American diplomatic history course taught by Professor Gaddis Smith, he demonstrated the powerful intellect I would observe at work over the ensuing half-century. Although he was a history major, his interest in American history was, at the time, tangential to his real focus, which was medieval history. He wrote a senior thesis on an obscure element of British medieval canon law (picking up enough Greek and Latin on his own to complete it) while double majoring in particle physics. His physics senior thesis on quarks was published before he had even graduated. Even though I was a third year graduate student and he was a junior when we met, he nonetheless managed, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, to finish his Ph.D. in physics a few years before I finally completed mine in history.

We stayed in touch over the years, often joking about my having been his “teacher” as an undergraduate, because we both made our careers in national security affairs and our paths would cross repeatedly. Ash began his career writing detailed studies and critiques of possible basing modes for the proposed MX intercontinental ballistic missile (a very controversial topic in the Carter-Reagan years), ballistic missile defense (also controversial in the era of Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal) and ground-breaking unclassified studies of nuclear command and control, including an important article in Scientific American (which remains in the syllabus for my course at Johns Hopkins SAIS on nuclear strategy), and an edited volume on the subject, Managing Nuclear Operations. He worked in the congressional Office of Technology Assessment and briefly in the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense before teaching at Harvard. He had done all of this by the age of 35. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer’s bon mot about Mozart: It is people like that who make you realize how little you have accomplished in life.

By that point, the most important part of Ash’s public career remained ahead of him. In the first term of the Clinton administration, he served as assistant secretary of defense with responsibilities for nuclear weapons policy, arms control, and counter-proliferation policy. He returned to the academy in 1996 to co-chair the Preventive Defense Program with former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and the Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group with former CIA Director John Deutsch. For many years, Ash was a member of the Defense Department’s Defense Science Board and Defense Policy Board (where he continued serve until his untimely passing).

Ash returned to the Pentagon in the Obama administration, serving as under secretary for acquisition, deputy secretary of defense, and ultimately secretary of defense in the final two years of Obama’s second term. In that capacity, he forged the strategy that would ultimately lead to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and re-introduced the idea of “great power competition” as an organizing principle for defense strategy—notwithstanding well reported White House unease with his framing of the nation’s national security challenges. He also worked tirelessly to harness the world of emerging technologies to the Defense Department’s work.

Ash was the modern incarnation of the “defense intellectual”—someone who combined a deep understanding of the technical side of national defense with an historian’s sensibility about the nature of the national security challenges that the United States faces. He was often, if not always, the smartest person in the room and was noted for not tolerating fools gladly. He was unafraid of going against the grain of his peers, his party, or accepted conventional wisdom— endorsing, for example, the proposed low-yield W-76 warhead on submarine launched ballistic missiles and the nuclear submarine launched cruise missile proposed by the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. He valued America’s allies but did not fetishize our alliances. When he was Secretary of Defense, he worried about wayward allies like Turkey and how to deal with them. His tough-minded approach to national defense has, sadly, been vindicated by the challenges the U.S now faces from Russia and China.

The loss of Ash’s distinguished voice on national security affairs could not come at a worse time. I will personally miss his friendship and counsel, but the nation will even more dearly miss one its most serious students of national defense.

The trio of Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford was likely the strongest team of top leaders at the Pentagon in my lifetime.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andy says:

    I didn’t realize he was that old, but 68 is still too young. He was a good SECDEF who wasn’t afraid to speak up for his principles.

  2. Scott says:

    I never worked in the Pentagon so my experience with SecDefs was minimal (Air Staff is another matter). But from afar I always favored the rational technical or managerial types like Harold Brown, William Perry, Robert Gates, and Ash Carter instead of the politicians like Les Aspin, Don Rumsfeld, or Chuck Hagel.

    Carter was one of the good ones.