Brown worked as a mining engineer in Butte, Montana, until he suffered a serious injury during a mining accident. He returned to Texas where he joined the construction firm founded by his brother, Herman Brown. Dan Root, Herman's brother-in-law, a prosperous cotton farmer, invested in the company. Eventually the company became known as Brown and Root.
Brown was a strong opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Edward A. Clark arranged for a meeting to take place between the Brown and Lyndon B. Johnson. During the meeting Brown complained about the cost of New Deal projects. According to Robert Caro, Johnson said to Herman Brown: What are you worried about? Its not coming out of your pocket. Any money thats spent down here on New Deal projects, the East is paying for.
Brown and Root now grew rapidly as a result of obtaining a large number of municipal and federal government projects. This included the Marshall Ford Dam on the Colorado River. This was worth $27,000,000. In a letter written to Lyndon B. Johnson, George Brown, admitted the company was set to make a $2,000,000 profit out of the deal. In 1940 the company won a $90 million contract to build the Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi.
In 1942 the Brown brothers established the Brown Shipbuilding Company on the Houston Ship Channel. Over the next three years the company built 359 ships and employed 25,000 people. This brought in revenue of $27,000,000. The government shipbuilding contract was eventually worth $357,000,000. Yet until they got the contract, Brown & Root had never built a single ship of any type.
After the war the brothers purchased the Big Inch and Little Inch pipelines. This company later became known as the Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation. The brothers became extremely wealthy and in 1951 established the Brown Foundation. It is estimated that over the next forty years the foundation granted more than $381 million to charitable institutions.
In the 1950s Brown & Root constructed air and naval bases in Spain, France and Guam for the United States government. The company also built roads, dams, bridges, petrochemical plants and large offshore drilling platforms. In 1961 the company won the contract for the $200 million Spacecraft Center in Houston.
On the death of his brother, Herman Brown, George Brown became president of Brown and Root. He sold the company to the Halliburton Company.
Brown later served as director of the Halliburton Company, Armco Steel Corporation, Louisiana Land and Exploration Company, International Telephone and Telegraphy Corporation, Trans-World Airlines, Southland Paper Company, First City Bancorporation and Highland Oil Company.
George Brown died on 22nd January, 1983.
Another important Johnson friendship was in the construction business. This special relationship actually started in 1937 with Brown & Root, the contractors who built the dams needed for LCRA in central Texas. During the war, the company would expand mightily for the war effort as military bases were built everywhere in Texas. After the war, from his new position in the Senate reviewing waste and then preparedness, Johnson was in the middle of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. George Brown and brother Herman Brown remained good friends of Johnson throughout his long political career. Like old money, these old friends were there from beginning to end. Wonder kids from the start, they stayed friends and prospered.
There was another important class of supporters who had entered Johnson's sphere of friends before the 1948 Senate election. This group included the Ling story, but it was more accurately the Murchison story and Big Oil in what was then high-tech business. During the 1950s as money flowed to Big Oil, the huge sums had to be invested somewhere. Construction was a key attraction and major investments went into building, from readymix plants to highways and bridges to high-rises. Murchison and his Big Oil friends had the excess profits needed, called "burn money." Like throwing cash in an incinerator, this was the unexpected cash. They used it to invest in apparently hopeless ventures or into business they knew little or nothing about.
D. H. Byrd attracted their interest because he experimented in airplanes and rockets, important keys to the military industrial complex in the late 1950s. A member of Big Oil, D. H. "Dry Hole" Byrd was well known for his lack of success in the oil business. Finally, when the east Texas field was developed, he bought into it and became wealthy. Through him, the foundations were laid for the military-industrial complex that centered on LTV. With the money flowing everywhere, D. H. Byrd had enough extra to purchase the building that later housed the Texas School Book Depository.' There were notable success stories. John Connally advanced into the Governor's Mansion. Clint Murchison and his Big Oil friends all became the new billionaires and Dallas became Big D. Old friends George and Herman Brown benefited with military construction during the war. After the war they moved into oil. As one example, they helped convert the Big Inch and Little Inch, the emergency wartime oil pipelines, into Texas Eastern and its natural gas pipelines.
I hope you know, Lyndon, how I feel reference to what you have done for me and I am going to try to show my appreciation through the years to come with actions rather than words.
The profit on the subsequent Marshall Ford contract-the contract which brought the total for the entire dam to $27 million-is unknown, but out of a single $5 million appropriation for the high dam, George Brown wrote Lyndon Johnson that Brown & Root's profit was about $2 million ("which," Brown added, "is a nice bit of work"). That appropriation, moreover, was for construction; contractors generally made a higher percentage of profit on excavation contracts. Brown & Root had made a million dollars out of the first contract for the Marshall Ford Dam. Out of subsequent contracts for the dam, they piled, upon that first million, million upon million more. The base for a huge financial empire was being created in that deserted Texas gorge.
Herman Brown was a businessman who wanted value for money spent. His relationships with politicians were measured by that criterion. George Brown, who echoes his brother's thinking, says, "Listen, you get a doctor, you want a doctor who does his job. You get a lawyer, you want a lawyer who does his job. You get a Governor, you want a Governor who does his job." Doctor, lawyer, Governor, Congressman-when Herman "got" somebody, he wanted his money's worth. And with Johnson, he was getting it and more.
Herman Brown was a man who always balanced his books. When he had been asked for a significant contribution to Johnson's 1937 campaign, he had refused to make one. Now, in 1938, Johnson would be running again. Herman Brown let Johnson know that he would not have to worry about finances in this campaign-that the money would be there, as much as was needed, when it was needed. In Ed Clark's words, "Herman gave Lyndon his full weight."
Herman Brown's full weight meant the support not only of Brown & Root, but of Brown & Root's subcontractors, of the banks in Austin with whom Brown & Root banked, of the insurance brokers who furnished Brown & Root performance bonds, of the lawyers in Austin who received Brown & Root's fees, the businessmen in Austin who supplied Brown & Root with building materials, and the local politicians, not only in Austin but throughout the Tenth Congressional District, accustomed to receiving Brown & Root campaign contributions in return for road-building contracts. These men had followed Herman's lead during the 1937 campaign, and had supported Avery. Now they would follow Herman's lead again. When Lyndon Johnson ran for Congress in 1938, he wouldn't have to raise money from Houston merchants, and he wouldn't have to raise money late at night, after a long day on the road. All the funds he needed would be available at his command-more funds, in fact, than he could possibly use.
Franklin Jones, a wry East Texas lawyer who helped found The Texas Observer, is given credit for the maxim, "To understand Johnson, you have to get down to the Brown and Root of the thing." The mutual interests of B & R and Johnson are, of course, well known. Johnson claims credit for the establishment of the Corpus Christi naval air training base, and the shipbuilding yards at Houston and nearby Orange in World War II; but he has denied any personal persuasion in getting the Corpus Christi contract for B & R, or the contracts to build 359 destroyer escorts at the Texas shipyards, or the very profitable defense construction jobs in Texas and Spain and in the South Pacific.
It would be unreasonable to conclude that (1) because Johnson has for years been a powerful man in Washington and (2) because Brown & Root has during the same period become probably the largest construction company in the world, partly as a result of great defense and other federal contracts, both in this country and abroad, this adds up to something crooked. A politician must get his campaign money somewhere, so why not from Brown & Root, as Johnson has done for more than a quarter of a century? Brown & Root probably does as conscientious a job for the government as the next contractor.
Still it is worth noting that Lyndon Johnson, George Brown and the late Herman Brown made an awfully effective team. For instance, there was the little matter of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Center in Houston. Why build it out in the middle of that great dreariness, twenty-two miles from the heart of Houston? Why, indeed, build it in Texas at all rather than in Florida, where billions of dollars already had been poured into developing the nation's launching pad; or in Houston rather than at one of the other twenty cities that wanted the NASA operations so much?
The answer to that lies in Johnson's friendship with George Brown. At the time the NASA site was selected for Houston, and Brown & Root was chosen to build the Space Center, Johnson was head of the Space Council. But also important in the decision was Congressman Albert Thomas of Houston, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee controlling NASA's budget. The late Thomas was a classmate of George Brown's at Rice University and they were very close over the years; Brown established a chair of political science at Rice in Thomas's honor. Brown is chairman of the board of trustees at Rice and has been for a long time. Humble Oil Company, Texas' largest oil company and now a subsidiary of Jersey Standard, has always looked upon Rice as "its" school: the late Harry Weiss, who ran Humble, was on the Rice board of trustees; Walter Fondren, Sr., a founder of Humble, donated the money for the Fondren Library at Rice; Weiss donated the money for establishing Rice's department of geology; a large proportion of each Rice graduating class used to go on the Humble payroll (this is not so true any longer). Johnson's high regard for the oil industry of Texas, and especially for the big companies such as Humble, is of course a matter of heavy record in the Senate.
So there was considerable satisfaction in the hearts of Johnson, Thomas, Brown, Rice, and Humble when NASA came to Houston. Of course, there was some profit, too, in addition to Brown & Root's cost-plus-fee on the $90 million project. Humble Oil gave the 1,000 acres (through Rice) that the government accepted as the nucleus of the Manned Spacecraft Center homestead. Measuring it by present-day land prices, this was at least a $5 million gift.
By the middle of 1937, FDR, worried that deficit spending was leading to high inflation, believed that the government needed to curb its outlays. Ickes, who had jurisdiction over the PWA, feared that money allocated to Texas dams would line the pockets of builders overcharging the government. In the summer of 1937, however, Johnson persuaded the White House to commit another $5 million to the Marshall Ford Dam, a third of the additional $15.5 million promised in 1935. The prospect of throwing some 2000 men out of work and of halting construction on a project that would ultimately save Texas millions of dollars in flood damages played a large part in the decision. Unless the Marshall Ford construction was continued, an LCRA memo warned, 80 percent of the 2500 men on the job would be fired, and floods, like one in June 1935 costing over $10 million, would continue to plague south-central Texas. On July 21, in a ceremony at the White House, James Roosevelt, the President's son and secretary, handed Johnson, who was accompanied by Wirtz and members of the LCRA Board, the President's order granting the $5 million. Joking with the delegation, Jimmy Roosevelt said that Johnson "had kept him busy so much of the time on the Texas project," that he "`will have to catch up on his sleep' now." "`The president is happy to do this for your congressman,' " Jimmy added. In response to repeated prodding by Johnson, the Administration provided another $14 million over the next four years to complete the network of Texas dams. The expenditure paid handsome dividends in lower unemployment, flood prevention, and more abundant and cheaper electric power.
The dam-building also served Lyndon's political interests and the well-being of Brown & Root, a construction company in Austin controlled by George and Herman Brown. With Lyndon's help they won government contracts that turned a small road-building firm into a multi-million dollar business. Their success gave Lyndon a financial angel that could help secure his political future. As Tommy Corcoran put it later, "A young guy might be as wise as Solomon, as winning as Will Rogers and as popular as Santa Claus, but if he didn't have a firm financial base his opponents could squeeze him. When Roosevelt told me to take care of the boy," Corcoran added, "that meant to watch out for his financial backers too. In Lyndon's case there was just this little road building firm, Brown and Root, run by a pair of Germans."