Sam Nunn on Cold War & nuclear weapons

Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn speaks in Russia during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. // Photo courtesy of Associated Press

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World Word II and the start of the Cold War, a conflict that shaped former United States Senator Sam Nunn’s time while serving in Congress, as well as his work afterwards with the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

On Oct. 14, Nunn discussed how nuclear weapons still pose a threat to the world today in a talk with the Georgia Historical Society.

Nunn, who was born in Macon, Georgia, attended Tech, Emory University and Emory Law School. He then served in the U.S. Coast Guard and Georgia House of Representatives before being elected in 1972 to the U.S. Senate.

One of his earliest experiences with the intersection of foreign policy and nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, during which he was attending a NATO Conference with the Armed Services Committee in Europe.

“We were actually briefed by the Air Force with photographs and all the classified information, sort of every step of the way once the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out,” said Nunn. “… We were at Wiesbaden Air Force Base, which was sort of the head of the U.S. Air Force Europe, on the night where it really looked like we were going to war.”

That night, Nunn sat next to the top Air Force General in Europe during dinner.

“He had a whole big computer back [with] him with all sorts of communication equipment,” said Nunn. “During the course of the dinner, he told me that he had about 20 to 30 seconds, once he got the signal, to basically turn loose his aircraft to go after the Soviet Union, because we thought we were going to war.”

This experience shaped his view of nuclear war.

“That brought home a sense of reality to me about the dangers of nuclear war that had an effect on the rest of my life,” said Nunn. “… It brought home to me two things: how close we came to war and how much subjective judgment was involved in the [John F.] Kennedy decisions and the [Nikita] Khrushchev decisions to avoid war and second, how little warning time we had.”

Nunn points out that during the 1960s, leaders had more decision time because planes flew much slower.

“Having very little decision time in a moment of great crisis is extremely dangerous for the world and that’s, to me, one of the prime goals we should have today, which is to give both U.S. and Russian leaders more time so that we do not move into a nuclear war by blunder,” said Nunn.

New technology adds additional danger.

“When you introduce cyber and possible interference in command and control and warning systems, I still very much worry about compressed decision time,” said Nunn.

“And if I had my way today, and I’ve told President Obama this, I’ve told President Trump this and I’ve told President Putin this, that if I had my way, the leaders would call in their military and say ‘Look, we have a mutual existential interest to give each other more warning time.’”

He emphasizes that it is to everyone’s benefit this technology works correctly.

“The chances … of a nuclear war by accident miscalculation are much greater than the chances of a deliberate premeditated attack,” said Nunn.
Besides the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nunn reflects on an inspection trip in 1974 to the U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons Base in Germany.

“It was highly sensitive in terms of security,” said Nunn. “… The top generals will tell you, ‘Everything’s fine, we got security.’ As we were walking around a sergeant handed me a crumbled note and said, in effect, ‘Senator, this is all B.S., if you’ll join my buddies and me in the barracks, we’ll tell you what’s really going on.’”

The sergeant revealed to Nunn the true state of the base, such as malfunctioning electronic fences, no guard dogs patrolling the perimeter and frequent alcohol and narcotics use among the guards.

Nunn was so alarmed by what he heard, he immediately returned to the U.S. and met with Secretary of Defense Jim Schlesinger to discuss how to better protect these weapons.

“You also need to listen to the sergeants and the enlisted people out there who are on the front line, because they can tell you what’s really going on and they will be usually pretty darn frank about telling you what the problems are,” said Nunn.

Besides Nunn’s work internationally, his time in the Senate included the Watergate Scandal. The question of giving one person the sole power to launch powerful weapons was central to his thought process.

“Do you want one person as the sole authority to be able to launch a nuclear war and destroy God’s universe?”

“Do you really want one person to make that decision?” said Nunn.

“My answer after a long number of years is no, but to move beyond sole authority and to continue to have the kind of deterrence you need is a very tricky proposition and would require the Congress to organize itself in a very different way than it is organized today because somebody’s got to be able to make a rapid decision.”

Currently there are nine nuclear powers: the U.S., Russia, France, United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel.

“After the Soviet Union broke up, three countries gave up all their nuclear weapons, because Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all inherited a part of the Soviet arsenal that was on their territory,” said Nunn.

“But after a lot of work in the Clinton administration, and people didn’t realize that was going on, we and Russia working together got three of those countries to give up their nuclear weapons.”

Both the U.S. and Russia have much smaller inventories now than during the peak of the Cold War.

“We’ve gotten rid of a lot of the most destabilizing weapons, which are the theater short range nuclear weapons that were stationed in Europe by the Soviets and by the United States,” said Nunn.

“We still have too many of them, but those are the most destabilizing weapons because you deploy them near the front lines which means if there is a war, all of a sudden the commander has got to make a decision.”

“Do you get permission and use them, permission from the president, or do you let them get overrun and captured?”

Relating decisions about the usage of nuclear weapons to presidential politics, Nunn served under six presidents during his terms as a Senator:

Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. As commander-in-chief, presidents have the sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons.

“It is a moral question, but every military commander is charged with the responsibility of carrying out orders from the commander-in-chief,” said Nunn.

“But those orders have to be moral orders, and how do you determine that?”

“Do you have 10 New York lawyers come in in the middle of a crisis and say, ‘This is legal and moral’? No, so it gets down to judgment.”

One way a president could reduce the risk of nuclear war is deterrence by promise of retaliation and assuring survivability.

“The problem today that I think we could cut some of the risks, certainly not all of it, [is] if we made a position known in America that we will not use nuclear weapons first, we would only use them in response,” said Nunn.

“Now to do that, you have to be able to survive a nuclear attack.”

However, he believes this is not the best solution.

“Anyone that has really looked at this and thinks deterrence is going to prevent nuclear use forever, I think is postulating a best case which is highly unlikely, and so I think we have to begin to rope off the existential interests we have with countries like Russia and China and we have to have disagreements in a lot of other areas, but still come back and say, ‘We’ve got to deal with each other, we have mutual interest of survivability,’” said Nunn.

In conclusion, Nunn reiterates there is currently less of a chance of premeditated nuclear attacks than there was during the Cold War, but with a more compressed decision time for leaders, there is a higher risk of a mistake.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do so that our children and grandchildren can live in a world that does not have the perils of nuclear, biological and climate change, all of those things hanging over us,” said Nunn.