Peter D. Zimmerman (1941–2021)
By Edward Levine and Pierce Corden
The world of arms control lost a valued colleague on Aug. 27, when Peter D. Zimmerman died at the age of 80. He was inquisitive to the end, querying his doctors about how the devices they were using on him worked. (The same thing happened when fellow scientist and arms controller Phil Coyle died six days later. Intense curiosity about how the world works may be a hallmark of brilliant scientists.)
Pete was a scientist before he was an arms controller, but his upbringing may have prepared him to straddle both worlds. When he was 15, his father, who supervised nuclear weapons storage sites at Manzano Base, on the edge of Albuquerque, gave him a piece of metal and said that someday Pete would understand its significance. The fragment was from an unarmed MK-17 hydrogen bomb (having a yield greater than 10 megatons) that a B-36 bomber had just dropped by accident near Manzano. Nuclear dangers were in the air that Pete breathed, even though his father could not discuss them.
Pete studied at Stanford University and Lund University in Sweden, receiving his Ph.D. in nuclear/particle physics from Stanford in 1967. After postdoctoral work and adjunct positions at the University of California at Los Angeles, the German Electron Synchrotron, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, he joined the faculty at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1974 and became a full professor 11 years later.
In the beginning, no one would have predicted where his nuclear physics work would lead, but then there were those visiting positions. In 1981, he was a research physicist and lecturer at the University of California at San Diego, working with Herbert York on test ban treaty options. In the summer of 1983, he was a visiting researcher at Princeton University, working with Frank von Hippel and Harold Feiveson on the relative utility of tactical nuclear weapons and proposed conventional substitutes.
By 1984, Pete was active in the Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society (APS). He was elected a fellow of the APS in 1990, and the APS gave him its Joseph A. Burton/Forum Award for physics in the public interest in 2004. Also in 1984, Pete became a William C. Foster Fellow at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and was awarded a second consecutive year after that. One of his responsibilities was to backstop the defense and space negotiations with the Soviet Union, and he became an adviser to the U.S. delegation to those talks. His curriculum vitae says that he “demonstrated that strategic defenses lead to an unstable deterrent relationship,” which may not have endeared him to the Reagan administration.
In 1986 he joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he co-edited a book, with Michael Krepon, on the national security implications of civilian remote sensing satellites. This led to teaching and research jobs involving remote sensing and arms control verification, including for a possible Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Contracts with the ACDA included work on what would become the “safeguards” that were proposed when the CTBT was submitted to the Senate for advice and consent and on how to harden nuclear weapons against a terrorist attack and to disarm terrorists’ nuclear weapons.
In 1999, Pete was appointed the ACDA science advisor. This position continued after the ACDA reverted to the State Department and included important work on the CTBT task force. At the beginning of 2001, however, the Clinton administration ended, and Pete was without a job.
Yet, Pete was rather entrepreneurial. Out of the blue, he suggested to Edward Levine, who was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member for disarmament and arms control issues for Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.), that the committee hire him as its chief scientist. The committee may never have had a real scientist, let alone a chief one, but Pete sold the idea and went on to prove that it was a good one.
The year 2001 was eventful. Senators sought to keep the new George W. Bush administration from doing away with Cooperative Threat Reduction and nonproliferation assistance programs. They had to guard against a move to have the Senate return the CTBT to the president so that he could “unsign” it. Then came September 11. Then came the anthrax attacks, which closed the main committee offices for weeks, forcing staffers to work cheek to jowl out of much smaller quarters in the Capitol.
So, what did Pete do? He called up a friend at LSU who specialized in anthrax, probably Martin Hugh-Jones, and gave the committee a direct line to the relevant academic expertise. As they gained knowledge in this area, staff members were able to talk more productively with additional experts about how to combat biological terrorism through improved public health and pathogen surveillance. Pete was the senior co-author of Biden’s Global Pathogens Surveillance Act of 2003, which was twice approved by the Senate. It died in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives because it was a Biden bill, but Pete’s work sensitized the future vice president and president to the importance of preparing for and averting pandemics.
Pete also led committee efforts to understand and combat the threat of nuclear or radiological terrorism, arranging very effective classified briefings and public hearings. His work alerted and educated members of the Senate and aided the committee’s bipartisan promotion of nonproliferation efforts in the executive branch. Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2003, and the Democrats, after keeping Pete on for a year, had to let him go.
So, what did Pete do? The entrepreneur got himself a professorship at King’s College London and led the Centre for Science and Security Studies, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Later, he was the physical science adviser to the Graham-Talent Commission to prevent weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. He also continued to do studies for U.S. agencies while managing to survive a series of life-threatening medical conditions.
Finally, in 2020, he felt better and joined a presidential campaign, becoming one of the policy volunteers who lent their expertise wherever it could be used. He enjoyed that immensely and was always up for a challenge. When one colleague proposed reviving the ACDA, Pete signed up to flesh out that idea and loved it.
As a scientist, Pete favored analytic conclusions over ideology. He was a fervent arms controller, but never supported complete nuclear disarmament, which he feared would lead to a revival of massive conventional wars. Although he was very sensitive to the dangers posed by nuclear power, he believed that it had to be part of any solution to the challenge of global warming.
Finally, Pete was a happy husband to his wife, Eva Zimmerman, and the proudest of proud papas to son Eric and daughter Rebecca. As one mourner remarked to Pete’s daughter at his funeral, “You may not know us, but we know everything about you!” His life was not always easy, but it was challenging, often fun, and truly a lifelong learning experience.
Pete made signal, important contributions to the fields of arms control and nonproliferation. He treated life as
a laboratory in which to learn and do good works. In his case, the experiment was a success.
Edward Levine is a retired professional staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (1976–1997) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1997–2011). Beginning in 1971, Pierce Corden worked at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, then as an office director at the State Department, focusing mainly on nuclear testing and United Nations issues. He retired in 2007 after 5 years as director of administration for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization's Provisional Technical Secretariat.
Philip E. Coyle III (1934–2021)
By Lisbeth Gronlund
Phil Coyle was a rare and magnificent bird.
He was one of the small handful of scientists who worked in the classified world of the Pentagon and weapons laboratories but also collaborated with those of us working on the outside to challenge U.S. policy on nuclear weapons and missile defense.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of Phil’s involvement, which strengthened the analysis and recommendations made by members of the nuclear peace and security community and gave them credibility.
Phil was the consummate insider. He spent more than three decades working on nuclear weapons and related programs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, rising to associate director and deputy to the director of the lab by the time he left in 1993. He then spent seven years in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, serving as director of operational test and evaluation (OT&E), an internal watchdog that oversees the testing programs of major military systems.
A decade later, in 2010-2011, he had a year-long stint as associate director for national security and international affairs in President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was given a recess appointment because Obama believed that Phil’s work as director of the OT&E office would anger pro-missile defense senators and stand in the way of congressional approval.
Decades ago, I and several of my physics colleagues who were active in the anti-nuclear movement decided to leave academic physics and apply our technical backgrounds to assess and critique U.S. nuclear weapons programs. Every institution needs independent oversight and public accountability, but none more so than the Pentagon and the weapons labs. We only had access to unclassified information, but found we could use physics to understand and shed useful light on key military programs.
Our ability to do so benefited tremendously from talking to Phil and other insiders to fully understand the unclassified information and put it into context.
The Pentagon and the weapons labs frown on such interactions. A few years ago, I wrote a report critiquing the Obama administration’s plan for building new warheads. Three scientists working in the classified realm reviewed the report, but two of them did not want to be acknowledged by name. I thanked the third scientist, an academic who regularly consults for the weapons labs, in the acknowledgments. He later took part in a small, high-level meeting in the Pentagon. The first presenter put up their first slide, which was the cover page of my report, and said to him, “I see you’ve joined the dark side.” It was not a joke.
I do not know if Phil experienced this type of negative feedback, but he was knee deep in a culture that viewed outside critics as the dark side. When I first came to know Phil, he was heading the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) and was clearly deeply committed to getting the facts about the weapons systems he reviewed out to policymakers and the public. I think he viewed the arms control community as allies, not the enemy.
We quickly learned that any report that criticized a weapons program and was authored by scientists without a security clearance would be met with a fierce counterattack, usually not on the merits of the analysis but on the credibility of the authors. The Pentagon or the weapons labs and hostile members of Congress would simply dismiss an unfavorable report, saying the authors did not know what they were talking about because they did not have a security clearance.
Yet, if Phil or another scientist insider was a co-author, that kind of criticism simply evaporated. The Pentagon had to respond to the merits of the report. Hostile members of Congress had to take it seriously. Sympathetic members
of Congress could use it to ask the Pentagon and administration difficult questions and to request reports and studies. I was fortunate to co-author two reports with Phil.
It was during the Clinton administration that Phil was DOT&E, leading an office created in 1983 by Congress to prevent the kind of situation that occurred repeatedly during the Vietnam War when U.S. soldiers died because their weapons malfunctioned. Its mandate was to ensure the Pentagon adhered to a “fly before you buy” policy, meaning it would only purchase a weapons system once real-world operational testing, not just contractor computer graphics, demonstrated it would work as intended. The Pentagon also had to spell out the military requirements for these systems in advance so the test program would be appropriate and could not succumb to defense contractor lobbying or parochial interests and buy a new weapon that met only some of its requirements.
Phil, widely known as a straight shooter, was the ideal person to become DOT&E.
His work on the inside was invaluable to those of us on the outside fighting the U.S. plan to deploy the national missile defense system intended to defend against long-range nuclear-armed missiles. President Bill Clinton was slated to make a deployment decision in 2000 before leaving office.
The program had become much less ambitious since President Ronald Reagan launched the “Star Wars” program in 1983. The goal was now to defend against a handful of missiles launched by North Korea, rather than Reagan’s fantastical goal of defending against thousands of Soviet missiles. Yet, it was still nowhere close to meeting its objectives, and our technical analysis made the case that it never would.
The DOT&E annual reports to Congress, which must include an unclassified version, were invaluable. They laid out in gory detail the limitations of the test program and (politely) took the Pentagon to task for exaggerating the successes of the missile defense tests. Phil was not just a straight shooter, but an expert marksman.
On September 1, Clinton announced he would not begin deploying a national missile defense system, stating “I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology, and the operational effectiveness of the entire [national missile defense] system, to move forward to deployment.” It was clear he had received the message from Phil and the OT&E office loud and clear.
Under the George W. Bush administration, the Pentagon simply ignored the ongoing DOT&E criticisms of the program. It dropped the fly-before-you-buy requirement, essentially arguing the system was so important to national security that there was not time to make sure it worked properly. It also dropped all the requirements for the system. The program was now “capabilities driven,” meaning advocates would take what they could get. The Bush administration began deployment in 2002.
After stepping down as DOT&E, Phil became an integral member of our community. His next job was senior advisor to the president of the Center for Defense Information, a nongovernmental organization working on military security issues.
Later, he joined the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation as a senior science fellow. He served on the boards of directors of the Center and the Arms Control Association.
He continued to be a thorn in the side of missile defense advocates or, perhaps more accurately, an entire thorn bush. He understood the issues in detail and knew when the Pentagon was exaggerating or downright lying. He was unfailingly polite but direct.
The icing on the cake was that Phil was such a lovely person and interacting with him was such a pleasure. It was oddly charming that he used a flip phone and the email address of his wife, Martha Krebs, a physicist. The couple have four children.
Weapons lab directors, his government colleagues, and people working at peace and security organizations variously described him as a “man of high integrity” and a “very kind, supportive, and upbeat leader” who was “peaceful in his mannerisms and kind in his demeanor” and “committed to facts, good judgment, and moving a situation forward.” One admirer noted, “He asked great questions in a way that didn't threaten people, but let them know he understood the arguments and identified the weaknesses.”
The U.S. peace and arms control community has suffered a great loss.
Lisbeth Gronlund is a research affiliate of the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.