The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb
By Philip Taubman
HarperCollins, 2012, 496 pp.
On the evening of October 12, 1986, as the Reykjavik summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev broke up, a huge crowd of journalists, including myself, waited expectantly, not knowing of the drama that had unfolded over the previous two days. When Secretary of State George Shultz took the podium at the press conference, I noticed the U.S. arms control negotiator, Max Kampelman, standing off in the wings. His face sagged with disappointment. Shultz then went on to describe how the two leaders had come close to the deal of the century—to eliminate all nuclear weapons—before breaking up in disagreement over limits on Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.
Kampelman, a Washington lawyer and conservative Democrat who had worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), was Reagan’s chief negotiator at the Geneva arms control talks. I recall he was near tears. Many of us jumped to the conclusion Reykjavik was a colossal failure. In the years since, however, it has become clear that what began at Reykjavik eventually bore fruit. The summit was a significant turning point toward the end of the Cold War arms race.
I saw Kampelman again at an October 2006 conference at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution to examine the lessons of Reykjavik. It was a fascinating meeting that brought together many of the players from the Reagan years. Kampelman delivered a short paper, saying the world must get on with Reagan’s vision of eliminating all nuclear weapons. Kampelman pointed out that although the Cold War was over, nuclear terrorism and proliferation remained serious threats.
At the time, Kampelman’s talk seemed a bit irrelevant and woefully idealistic. Yet, I learned from Philip Taubman’s new history, The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb, that Kampelman’s paper was the start of something larger. He had published an op-ed in The New York Times on April 24, 2006, and was discussing the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons with Steven Andreasen, who had served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
Before the Hoover conference, Shultz kept his distance from Kampelman’s idea. According to Taubman, after hearing Kampelman’s talk, Shultz suddenly declared he was in favor of abolishing all nuclear weapons, “the first time since the Reykjavik summit itself that Shultz had publically endorsed the idea.”
This moment led to an op-ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2007, headlined “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Signed by Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the article called for a new consensus to end global nuclear danger. The piece also reflected the involvement of Sidney Drell, a theoretical physicist and arms control specialist. (Drell and Kampelman did not sign the op-ed.)
The article outlined a series of interim steps, then declared, “We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.” For those who had followed these statesmen through their long careers, it was a startling shift, a change of direction that demanded some explanation. The core of Taubman’s book provides that explanation.
This is not a dense book about arcane arms control negotiations, but rather an accessible chronicle of each participant’s intellectual journey, based on interviews with all of them. The tone of the book is reflective and explanatory. Taubman reported for The New York Times for 30 years, including stints as bureau chief in Moscow and Washington, and is now a consulting professor at Stanford University.
Getting to Zero
Separate from the wise men but along a parallel track, a broadly based movement known as Global Zero began to galvanize public opinion worldwide toward a phased elimination of all nuclear weapons. The Global Zero movement deserves its own book; Taubman notes it only briefly.
The Global Zero campaign and the wise men’s efforts sprouted from the same conclusion: the time has arrived to retire the Cold War nuclear overhang of weapons and launchers and to prevent other countries from pursuing and enlarging their own arsenals. President Barack Obama’s Prague speech in April 2009 endorsing the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world was in the same spirit, although Obama added, “This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime.”
The truth is that, despite the lofty statements by Obama, the wise men, and Global Zero, Russia and the United States still cling to absurdly high levels of nuclear warheads, far more than is necessary for the security of either country. U.S. military strategists know this, but do not often like to discuss it. Leaders of each country ought to be more frank, but for political reasons are not.
Obama may be proud of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which reduced the number of operationally deployed warheads on each side to 1,550, but he should be appalled that the United States still maintains another 2,800 or so in a strategic “hedge,” or reserve, not covered by the treaty. The reserve originally was justified by Perry in 1994 as necessary because of a “small but real danger that reform in Russia might fail.”The hedge may have been prudent then, but has outlived its original justification and its usefulness. The size of the reserve could be reduced by half immediately. (The other justification for the reserve was to provide technical backup.) Yet, there is almost no discussion about this in public. As I read Taubman’s book, I kept wishing that the subjects would go beyond their periodic op-eds and speak out more forcefully as a group, as some of them have done individually. These men enjoy great credibility around the globe, and they are uniquely positioned to spread the message that security no longer rests on possession of massive nuclear stockpiles.
In my experience, both Russians and Americans have grown complacent about nuclear weapons, as if they disappeared with the Cold War, when they did not. The election year has frozen U.S.-Russian arms control; a dispute lingers on missile defense; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty remains unratified by the United States; and the fate of nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea is uncertain.
The White House nuclear weapons implementation study, now being written, might be the next chance for a serious debate in the United States about dramatically lower levels of nuclear weapons, and that will not come until next year. Hopefully, it will not be timid.
Throughout the Cold War, nuclear weapons profoundly changed the lives and thinking of those who worked on them as designers, policymakers, or negotiators. At the dawn of the atomic age, it was the physicists. After the war, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the team that built and tested the first atomic bomb, warned of a nuclear arms race, the impossibility of defense against the bomb in war, and the need for international control of the atom. In 1983, a time of deep tensions with Moscow, Reagan watched a made-for-television movie, The Day After, while at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. In his diary, Reagan wrote of the film, “It has Lawrence, Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done...very effective & left me greatly depressed.”
An important question raised by Taubman is whether the men in The Partnership feel any remorse about their past actions. Taubman addresses the subject, but struggles to find a definitive answer. “None of the five men would call their current effort an act of repentance for their leading roles in maintaining the Cold War nuclear balance of terror,” he writes. “Yet there is an undeniable patina of atonement inherent in their effort. Having witnessed the birth of the nuclear age in 1945 and devoted the best years of their lives to sustaining America’s nuclear might, they seem determined in their twilight years to convince the world that nuclear weapons must be abolished before it is too late to prevent the destruction of New York, Washington, London, or some other urban center.”
The evolution of the wise men has been gradual. Nunn is a good example. In his Senate years, he was a strong supporter of deterrence, but was kept up at night by worry about nuclear weapons accidents, and he worked to set up joint warning centers with the Soviet Union to prevent a disaster. Nunn also worried about the nuclear tripwire in Europe, where NATO forces relied on battlefield weapons to stop a potential Warsaw Pact conventional invasion. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Nunn gave a forceful Senate floor speech demanding action on legislation to help secure and dismantle the enormous stock of weapons left over. At first, his fellow senators balked, but Nunn persevered. The Nunn-Lugar legislation, approved and signed into law in 1992, was an example of real congressional foresight in global affairs. Yet on the larger question of nuclear abolition, Nunn “warmed to it slowly,” Taubman says.
Perry “comes closest to a sense of expiation,” Taubman writes. “‘My generation was responsible for building up this fearsome nuclear arsenal,’ he sometimes tells his Stanford students. ‘I helped create these deadly weapons, and therefore I believe that I have a special responsibility to dismantle them.’”
Kissinger is in many ways the most conflicted and the one who seems to harbor the deepest doubts about the initiative. Taubman quotes a Kissinger friend as saying, “He doesn’t really believe it. He’d love to figure a way to get out of it.” Kissinger tells Taubman that he signed on because of his respect for the others and that he “might not have gone all that distance had I done it by myself.”
Taubman writes, “Henry Kissinger, after all, approved the development of multi-warhead clusters that could be loaded atop missiles and aimed at different targets, a fateful step that made the Cold War even more volatile by making land-based missiles vulnerable to attack.” Taubman also recalls that Kissinger “risked nuclear miscalculation when he and [President] Richard Nixon used American nuclear force exercises in 1969 to unnerve the Kremlin about American intentions in Vietnam and again in 1973 to keep Moscow from intervening in a Mideast war.” Kissinger also was the author of a best-selling 1957 book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, that envisioned limited nuclear strikes as a strategy for deterrence or war-fighting. “Nuclear war should be fought as something less than an all-out war,” Kissinger wrote. “Limited nuclear war represents our most effective strategy against nuclear powers or against a major power which is capable of substituting manpower for technology.” Does Kissinger still think that he was right about limited nuclear war?
“They were dedicated Cold Warriors,” Taubman concludes of the men in the partnership. “And by that yardstick, their present effort to eliminate nuclear weapons seems all the more improbable.”
David E. Hoffman is author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. He was a White House correspondent, Moscow bureau chief, and foreign editor of The Washington Post.
1. Max M. Kampelman, “Zero Nuclear Weapons,” in Implications of the Reykjavik Summit on Its Twentieth Anniversary: Conference Report, ed. Sidney D. Drell and George P. Shultz (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2007), pp. 97-104. See Max M. Kampelman and Steven P. Andreasen, “Turning the Goal of a World Without Nuclear Weapons Into a Joint Enterprise,” in Reykjavik Revisited: Steps Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, ed. George P. Shultz et al. (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2008), pp. 429-447.