In Memoriam: Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr. (1924–2012)

Matthew Bunn

With the passing of Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr. on August 10, the world lost a courageous leader in the struggle to control the horrifying dangers posed by nuclear weapons. In a career that spanned the nuclear age, Spurgeon was a determined and persistent warrior for a nuclear policy based on reason and restraint.

His first job, in 1948, was tracking the Soviet atomic bomb project for Air Force intelligence. He continued to focus on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy throughout his remarkable career. In the late 1950s, Spurgeon moved to the office of the president’s science adviser, where he worked on the Eisenhower-era efforts to ban nuclear testing. He was a key staffer for the Gaither Committee, but disagreed with the hawkish call to arms of the 1957 final report.

Spurgeon served in the White House during the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon and was often the most informed expert for all things nuclear, serving on the staffs of the National Security Council and the science adviser. In the early 1960s, he played a key role in the Gilpatric Committee, which first identified the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a major threat to U.S. national security and laid out a policy approach that led to the negotiation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

In 1969, Spurgeon became assistant director for science and technology at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). He was a central player in all of the decisions that led to the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

During Nixon’s second term, Spurgeon left the government and worked at the MITRE Corporation, where, among other activities, he directed the seminal study Nuclear Power Issues and Choices, which set the terms of the elite debate over nuclear energy at the time, and in particular made a prescient case for forgoing reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, given the broad availability of uranium and the proliferation hazards of separating plutonium.

Spurgeon then returned to government in the Carter administration, when Paul Warnke hired him as ACDA deputy director. There, Spurgeon took the lead in the Washington backstopping for SALT II and played a major part in the numerous nonproliferation struggles of the late 1970s.

When President Ronald Reagan came into office, with an agenda of overturning SALT II, confronting the Soviet Union, and building up the already vast U.S. nuclear arsenal, Spurgeon left government and became a resident scholar at the National Academy of Sciences. While there, he led the drafting of the invaluable book Nuclear Arms Control: Background and Issues, which made the case for the arms control enterprise Spurgeon had done so much to build and which was then under sharp attack.

During that time, he helped establish the academy’s Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), which played an important role in keeping U.S.-Soviet dialogue going when government-level relations were virtually frozen. The committee also provided a back channel where many ideas that later found their way into negotiated agreements were first discussed.

Spurgeon served on CISAC for decades, as it produced a series of crucial studies on matters ranging from the future of nuclear weapons policy to disposition of excess weapons plutonium to monitoring of nuclear warheads and fissile materials and as the committee’s agenda expanded to include dialogues with scientists and nuclear experts from Europe, China, and South Asia. A major non-nuclear item on the expanded agenda was a program on control of biological weapons.

In 1985, Spurgeon took over as president and executive director of the Arms Control Association (ACA). Working with Jack Mendelsohn, his deputy director; Gerard C. Smith, the SALT I negotiator who was then chairman of the board; and others, Spurgeon led the way in strengthening and expanding the ACA, increasing the size of the staff, turning Arms Control Today from a small newsletter to the journal of record in the field, launching a series of press conferences and media campaigns on key topics of the day, and greatly enlarging the organization’s portfolio of publications.

Under Spurgeon’s leadership, the ACA became the principal nongovernment voice advocating an expanded use of the tool of arms control to promote U.S. and international security. (Contrary to the view of some critics, Spurgeon and the ACA never advocated arms control for its own sake, but rather pushed arms control as one critical element of an overall national security policy.)

Throughout his career, Spurgeon had a remarkable eye for talent. He brought in key technical experts at ACDA, such as James Timbie, who has played a critical role on myriad arms control issues ever since, and Edward Ifft, who became a senior arms control negotiator and deputy director of the On-Site Inspection Agency.

Notable hires at the ACA included James P. Rubin, who later became assistant secretary of state and spokesman for the State Department; Michèle Flournoy, who served until recently as undersecretary of defense for policy, making her the highest-ranking woman in the history of the department; Lee Feinstein, later deputy director of policy planning at the State Department and then ambassador to Poland; Jon Wolfsthal, until recently Vice President Joe Biden’s nonproliferation adviser; Wade Boese, currently chief of staff to Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller; and many others. He also helped create an internship program whose alumni list now reads like a who’s who of the next generation of arms controllers.

More than hiring capable people, he also created an environment of intense focus on particular goals; regular brainstorming on positions and tactics; quick-turnaround writing that he insisted be clear, accurate, concise, and precise; and constant interaction with the policy community inside and outside government. This mixture provided outstanding training for a career as a policymaker or nongovernmental policy entrepreneur. No one who participated in the countless discussions in Spurgeon’s office of how to react to the latest arms control developments and proposals will soon forget them—or the workings of Spurgeon’s incisive and stubborn mind. He shaped all of us who worked for him; we are all part of Spurgeon’s enduring legacy.

Spurgeon was not a mesmerizing public speaker, but he was a wordsmith of considerable skill, who wrote with precision, passion, and care. Often after a press conference at which other speakers had seemed more enthralling, the cold black and white of the transcript would reveal misty thinking and leaps of logic on their part, but every point of Spurgeon’s hit home.

Often, Spurgeon would assign a junior staffer such as myself to write the first draft of an editorial for Arms Control Today, but such drafts never satisfied him. After several rounds, our goal became to get a version that was close enough that it showed him the path he wanted to take himself, provoking him to throw it in the trash and start over rather than sending us back for yet another redraft. This was outstanding training for writing short, punchy policy assessments.

In private, Spurgeon was often quick with a quip. One of my favorite Spurgeonisms, though, was said without any intention of being funny. In discussing the possibility that the Reagan administration would put forward an arms control proposal dramatically different from those then under negotiation, Spurgeon warned, “You have to be careful not to rock the boat by throwing a wet cat on the table, or the whole thing might come unraveled.”

Spurgeon was not a narrow specialist but a broadly cultured man, having grown up in a home frequented by leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. He had broad interests in history and science, was an admirer of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and was an avid gardener. His wife, Sheila, who passed away last year, was his steadfast partner, entertaining literally thousands at their home in the service of arms control and using her calm and charm to smooth seas Spurgeon had managed to roil. They both were devoted to their three children.

Spurgeon had an encyclopedic knowledge of the technology and history of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, but more than that, he had a profound understanding of several crucial truths. First, the awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons means that they really can serve no useful purpose but deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Second, any use of nuclear weapons carries with it enormous dangers of escalation to all-out nuclear war, making it extremely dangerous to pursue any doctrine that might mislead policymakers into thinking they could undertake controlled, limited use of nuclear weapons without running terrible risks. In 1981, Spurgeon and his friend and intellectual partner Wolfgang K.H. “Pief” Panofsky wrote a seminal article in Foreign Affairs, “MAD vs. NUTS: The Mutual Hostage Relationship of the Superpowers,” arguing that mutual assured destruction was simply a fact of the nuclear age, arising out of the very existence of large and survivable U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals, and that attempts to get around this fact with elaborate doctrines of limited nuclear war—which they labeled “nuclear utilization target selection,” the NUTS of the title—were even crazier than relying on MAD.

Third, expanding weapons arsenals are not only a symptom but also a cause of mistrust among nations. Negotiated restraint—arms control—can reduce military dangers, avoid wasting resources on unneeded weaponry, build confidence, and reduce the risk of war. It should be pursued even with adversaries one deeply distrusts. Of course, not every arms control agreement succeeds in these objectives. The continued expansion of the strategic nuclear forces of the Soviet Union and the United States long after the arms control process began was surely one of the great regrets of Spurgeon’s life.

Today, we live in a world in which the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms competition that animated so much of Spurgeon’s career is long past. The risk of U.S.-Russian nuclear war has declined dramatically, although it has not disappeared. The active U.S. nuclear stockpile today is finally heading down to the levels of the Eisenhower administration, when Spurgeon first joined the White House staff. Arms control—the tool Spurgeon did so much to build, promote, and preserve—is now a commonplace fact of international life, from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to the NPT and its associated regime to arms agreements incorporated in cease-fires all over the world.

Yet Spurgeon recognized that terrible dangers remain, along with many thousands of nuclear weapons and oceans of conventional arms still killing tens of thousands every year. From Iran to North Korea to the nuclear confrontation in South Asia to the possibility of nuclear terrorism, there is much left to do to reduce nuclear dangers. Now it is up to a new generation to use the tools and the insights that Spurgeon left behind to carry on his work.


Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, worked closely with Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr. at the Arms Control Association from 1986 to 1992 and at the Committee on International Security and Arms Control from 1992 to 1995. He is a member of the ACA Board of Directors.