Global Heroes

How the Cold War's wise men went anti-nuclear.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

In the early 1970s, Bruce Blair spent two years as a Minuteman launch officer, on duty as the missiles stood ready to fire on the Soviet Union at a moment's notice. Later, he worked on a top-secret study of U.S. command and control of nuclear weapons. As a think-tank scholar, he wrote books about nuclear strategy. Yet Blair felt frustrated that he was having "zero impact" on national policy. "I came to the realization, this doesn't work," he recalled. "You have to be a change agent."

So Blair reached beyond the traditional Washington methods of white papers, news conferences, and earnest panel discussions and turned to film, inspired by Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Blair devoted three years to help create a movie about nuclear danger, Countdown to Zero, a rallying cry to abolish all nuclear weapons that this year has become a cornerstone of a re-energized movement for "global zero."

Blair's path suggests a surprising twist: The new global zero movement came not from the grassroots, like the "nuclear freeze" drive of the 1980s, but from policy wonks and pillars of the establishment, from President Barack Obama to former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. With some 22,500 nuclear weapons remaining in the world -- most in Russia and the United States two decades after the Cold War -- the spectacle of the wise men calling for the elimination of the nukes whose deterrent capability they once touted has done the improbable: fuel the rise of a new popular movement to get rid of them.

In the early 1970s, Bruce Blair spent two years as a Minuteman launch officer, on duty as the missiles stood ready to fire on the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. Later, he worked on a top-secret study of U.S. command and control of nuclear weapons. As a think-tank scholar, he wrote books about nuclear strategy. Yet Blair felt frustrated that he was having "zero impact" on national policy. "I came to the realization, this doesn’t work," he recalled. "You have to be a change agent."

So Blair reached beyond the traditional Washington methods of white papers, news conferences, and earnest panel discussions and turned to film, inspired by Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Blair devoted three years to help create a movie about nuclear danger, Countdown to Zero, a rallying cry to abolish all nuclear weapons that this year has become a cornerstone of a re-energized movement for "global zero."

Blair’s path suggests a surprising twist: The new global zero movement came not from the grassroots, like the "nuclear freeze" drive of the 1980s, but from policy wonks and pillars of the establishment, from President Barack Obama to former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. With some 22,500 nuclear weapons remaining in the world — most in Russia and the United States two decades after the Cold War — the spectacle of the wise men calling for the elimination of the nukes whose deterrent capability they once touted has done the improbable: fuel the rise of a new popular movement to get rid of them.

The new push dates back to October 2006. Shultz and physicist Sidney Drell convened a conference at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution to reflect on the lessons of the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in which the two leaders came tantalizingly close to scrapping nuclear weapons altogether. Max M. Kampelman, a top arms negotiator in Reagan’s second term, suggested a renewed drive for zero nukes. "We must learn from the events of September 11 that we are vulnerable — and will become increasingly vulnerable," he said.

After the conference, four prominent wise men of the late Cold War, led by Shultz, teamed up to fulfill the promise of Reykjavik. They wrote an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 4, 2007: "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons." It was signed by Shultz, Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn. The four embraced a phased plan for disarmament, including reductions in nuclear arsenals, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and securing loose nuclear materials. What was new was not the ideas, but the men proposing them. The four didn’t acknowledge any error or misgivings about their past roles in the nuclear arms race — they just pointed out that times had changed. Their idea of elimination was a goal, they said, without setting a deadline.

Around the same time, Obama was launching his presidential campaign, and from the first days in Iowa, he carried the torch for global zero. He pledged not to develop any new nukes, to take missiles off launch-ready alert status, to cut existing arsenals, to ratify a test-ban treaty, and to secure nuclear-weapons materials at vulnerable sites within four years. Early in his presidency, in a speech in Prague, he called for a nuclear-free world, while also cautioning, "This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime."

In December 2008, Blair founded an organization, Global Zero, along with Matt Brown, a former Rhode Island state official and grassroots organizer. When they began to recruit around the world, many prominent figures in Britain, China, Russia, India, and elsewhere were surprisingly eager to join up, from a former British defense minister to Jordan’s Queen Noor to several leading Chinese military strategists. Altogether, Global Zero now has more than 400,000 signatures supporting its four-phase plan to wipe out all nukes worldwide by 2030.

A parallel push came from the four wise men, who took star turns in another film this year, Nuclear Tipping Point, by the Nuclear Security Project. At the film’s end, Nunn makes a strong case for taking nuclear-armed missiles off launch-ready alert, calling the Cold War holdover "absolutely ridiculous, bordering on insanity." It was just the kind of message to resonate with a new generation. Nuclear missiles are still on alert. Really?

Yet the road to global zero is going to be a long one. Obama has already abandoned his pledge to take missiles off launch-ready alert. To coax wavering senators to support his modest arms treaty, he pledged billions of dollars to refurbish the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex. Even the White House, it appears, thinks the weapons will be around for a long while.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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