When bipartisanship was king

The situation was perilous. When Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, was attempting to muster support to deal with  loose nukes in the imploding Soviet Union in November, 1991, he faced skepticism in Congress. A recession was brewing and many senators were hesitant to support legislation that would send money overseas. Nunn overcame those doubts with the help of a Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who this week lost a GOP primary race and will leave the Senate after six terms. In the recent campaign, Lugar's opponent said he cooperated with Democrats too often. But as the following story illustrates, bipartisanship proved essential in the face of danger--and in the creation of perhaps the most successful foreign policy initiative by Congress in a generation.

Adapted from my book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (Doubleday, 2009):

With his own eyes, Nunn had seen the chaos on the streets of Moscow, and he knew of the potential for nuclear ccidents and proliferation, but the politicians in Washington seemed oblivious to the dangers. Some senators told Nunn they could not explain in one-minute sound bites why they should support his legislation, so they would not vote for it. Nunn went to the Senate floor November 13, 1991 and tried to break through the mood of indifference with a powerful speech. He said that even after the strategic arms treaty signed earlier in the year, the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union, including the republics outside of Russia, still had fifteen thousand nuclear warheads to destroy, and needed help. “Unfortunately, nuclear weapons do not just go away when they are no longer wanted,” he said. The Soviet Union was short of storage space, transportation, dismantlement plants and equipment for radioactive materials handling. Nunn had learned these details from Viktor Mikhailov, the deputy minister of atomic energy, who visited Washington and pleaded for help.

“Do we recognize the opportunity we have today during this period in history and the great danger we have of proliferation, or do we sit on our hands and cater to what we think people want to hear in this country?” Nunn asked. “What are the consequences of doing nothing?”

Nunn wondered what kind of one-minute explanation his colleagues would need if the Soviet Union fell into civil war like Yugoslavia, with nuclear weapons all over. “If helping them destroy 15,000 weapons is not a reduction in the Soviet military threat, why have we been worrying about these 15,000 weapons for the last 30 years? I do not see any logic here at all,” he said. The United States had spent $4 trillion during the Cold War, so $1 billion to destroy weapons “would not be too high a price to pay to help destroy thousands and thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons,” Nunn insisted.

“We have the opportunity for an unprecedented destruction of the weapons of war,” Nunn declared. Yet he warned, “We are going to sleep—to sleep—about a country that is coming apart at the seams economically, that wants to destroy nuclear weapons at this juncture but may not in the months and years ahead.”

“Are we going to continue to sit on our hands?” he asked. Faced with opposition, Nunn then pulled back the legislation.

Hours later, Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of Gorbachev’s perestroika, spoke with senators in the Capitol at an early-evening reception, impressing on them the urgency of the crisis. Two days later, Nunn relaunched his efforts. Two top officials of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada—Andrei Kokoshin and Sergei Rogov—were both at that moment in Washington. The institute had long been a meeting point between American and Soviet experts on defense and security issues. Nunn invited them to a small lunch, to which he also brought Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a leading Republican voice on foreign affairs. At the lunch, Kokoshin and Rogov warned that power was slipping away from Gorbachev by the minute, and that in a “worst-case scenario,” nuclear weapons could be caught up in the struggle for power among the Soviet republics. This was a volatile, dangerous situation, they said, urging America to “wake up.” Lugar told journalist Don Oberdorfer of The Washington Post that the lunch with Kokoshin and Rogov was “a very alarming conversation.”

On November 19, Ashton B. Carter, the Harvard physicist, came to Nunn’s office for a brainstorming session, along with Lugar; William J. Perry of Stanford University, who had been examining the Soviet military-industrial complex; David Hamburg of the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and John Steinbrunner of the Brookings Institution. Carter drove home the point that a Soviet collapse, now clearly visible from the daily news reports coming out of Moscow, was an immense security threat. “This is completely unprecedented,” Carter recalled saying. “Never before has a nuclear power disintegrated.”

The next day, November 20, Lugar announced his support for immediate action on legislation in a floor speech. He decried the “quarrelsome” mood in Congress in the face of “strategic danger” to the country. “Nuclear weapons do not simply fade away; they must be disabled, dismantled and destroyed,” he said.

On November 21, at an 8 A.M. breakfast, Nunn brought sixteen senators from both parties to the Senate Armed Services committee room, where the trillions of defense spending had been authorized over the years. He told them what he had seen in Moscow and turned the floor over to Carter, who delivered a presentation without notes. Carter said command and control over nuclear weapons could not be isolated from the troubles of society. “It’s not something that you can take for granted, that it’s all wired up in some way, and it will be okay,” Carter recalled telling the senators. The clarity of his presentation had an instant impact. The addition of Lugar was critical. Within days, Nunn and Lugar had turned around the Senate and gathered the votes for new legislation to set aside $500 million to deal with the Soviet nuclear dangers.

Visiting President Bush at the White House, Nunn and Lugar found him ambivalent. “I remember that he wasn’t saying no,” Nunn said. “He just was very cool to the whole idea. I think he was sensing the political dangers of it.” While Bush stood on the sidelines, Congress moved swiftly. The Senate approved the Nunn-Lugar bill by a vote of 86–8. Later, the total was reduced to $400 million, and it passed the House by a voice vote.

Nunn and Lugar took a gamble with history. Skeptics suggested it would be best to let the former Soviet Union drown in its own sorrows—to go into “free fall.” Nunn and Lugar did not agree. They helped Russia and the other former Soviet republics cope with an inheritance from hell. It was never going to be easy for a country so turbulent as Russia to accept the hand of a rich and powerful rival, and it wasn’t. Suspicions, delays, misunderstandings and errors were abundant in the years after the Soviet collapse. But overall, given the immense size of the Soviet military-industrial complex and the sprawling nature of the dangerous weapons and materials, the Nunn-Lugar gamble paid off.

And the gamble showed that bipartisanship can get things done.

The latest Nunn-Lugar scorecard of weapons dismantled and destroyed is here.


Nunn and Lugar in 2007/ David E. Hoffman