Nation & World

Nunn wants to eliminate nukes

5 min read

‘Now, we can’t see the top of the mountain. We’re going to have to get to the base camp.’

Sam Nunn, former Democratic senator from Georgia (1973-97), is well known as an eminence in the realm of U.S. security policy.

But there was a time when he was just a young lawyer who had never been abroad — or even north of Washington. Just a few months out of law school, he was working as a staff attorney for the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. His boss asked him to fill in for him on a three-week tour of NATO bases in Europe.

The timing was significant: October 1962, in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis — “the most dangerous moment in human history,” as it has since been called.

The young Nunn got a top-secret daily security briefing during his travels, which took him, at one point, to Ramstein Air Base in Germany at the peak of the crisis. There he met with the U.S. Air Force four-star general who, sitting a few feet from an impressive array of communications equipment, told Nunn that if he received orders to deploy his nuclear-armed aircraft, he would have just seconds in which to respond — to get them up into the air before Soviet jets took them out on the ground.

“That was my introduction to the possibility of nuclear war,” Nunn told a Harvard audience last week at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum of the Institute of Politics. “It made a huge impression on me, and I made a decision then that if I ever had an opportunity to help reduce the nuclear dangers and to raise the nuclear threshold, so that everybody would have more time before they undertook this kind of God-awful, almost planet-ending kind of military response and action, I would try to do it.”

Nunn was at Harvard on Oct. 17 to deliver the first Robert S. McNamara Lecture on War and Peace. The lecture took the form of an interview by Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and was followed by questions from the floor.

Robert S. McNamara himself, secretary of defense from 1961 through 1968 and now 92 years old, was present at the lecture with his wife, Diana, and was given the honor of asking the first question from the floor: “Do you think it’s practical to organize an international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons within five years?”

In January 2007 Nunn joined with William Perry, secretary of defense under President Clinton, and two former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, to write an article published in The Wall Street Journal calling for “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” At last week’s Forum, Nunn acknowledged that this vision, put forth by a quartet that Allison called “four of the bluest chips in the national security business,” would take some time to achieve.

“It won’t happen within five years,” Nunn said in response to McNamara’s question. “Right now we can’t see the top of the mountain. We’re going to have to get to the base camp.”

Nunn has also been active in efforts to secure “loose nukes” through the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which he chairs with TV mogul Ted Turner.

Among the other points Nunn made:

The need to slow things down

“We’ve got to get weapons off hair-trigger alert,” Nunn said. “We’ve got to work with Russia on warning time. It makes no sense for them to have only a few minutes to decide whether to fire all their nuclear weapons.” He also noted that over the past 10 years, Russia has dropped the “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons.

The need to include Russia

Nunn was sharply critical of the United States, Europe, and Russia for failing to devise a Euro-Atlantic security architecture that includes Russia. Noting that some analysts seem to believe that Russia needs to be isolated, Nunn commented, “Look at the map and see how you’re going to isolate Russia. That’s a joke.”

Rethinking NATO

NATO needs to rethink itself, and bring its military and political sides back into sync, Nunn said. “We’re bogging down in Afghanistan.” Moreover, the possibility of admitting Georgia or Ukraine, or even Russia, to NATO raises numerous questions that haven’t been thought through, he said. “How are we going to defend Georgia? What about Ukraine?”

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, he said, “we used NATO to signal you’re accepted in the West.” Had the European Union, a nonmilitary organization, been used to send that signal, it “would have changed the psychology” of the region, Nunn said.

Missile defense

Nunn distinguished between missile defense, which he supports, and “star wars,” which he does not. He also noted that had the United States taken up the Russian offer to base part of its missile defense system on Russian soil, there would have been an opportunity for constructive diplomacy in other ways.

He noted pointedly, “We haven’t seen what we paid Poland” to win its cooperation on the missile defense sites. If the United States has had to give Warsaw security assurances going beyond Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter, that suggests that NATO is losing credibility.


“Pakistan is probably the most dangerous country on the face of the earth,” Nunn said. Its archrival, India, is also nuclear-armed, and has an advantage in conventional weapons.