Containing Soviet Nuclear Fission: Senator Sam Nunn and Cooperative Threat Reduction

Mark Thomas-Patterson is an MA candidate in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studies US and Russian history. He was a recipient of the Rose Library’s Rose Library Short-Term Award Fellowship, which he used to research in the Senator Sam Nunn papers.

Mark Thomas-Patterson

I came to the Stuart A. Rose Library and Archives to look at Senator Sam Nunn’s papers for research for my MA thesis, which examines the development of US security cooperation with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In particular, I wanted to understand the development of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program and how Senator Nunn promoted foreign aid to a former rival of the United States. However, as I began to look through Emory’s collections, I soon realized that Nunn’s concern about reducing the risk of nuclear war predated the breakup of the Soviet Union and that his role as a defense thinker and policy leader was much broader than I had previously recognized.

Sam Nunn. From the Sam Nunn papers.

Sam Nunn was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1938 and grew up in the nearby town of Perry. He began his undergraduate education at Georgia Tech before transferring to Emory University. After graduation, he interned for his great-uncle Representative Carl Vinson, the powerful chair of the House Armed Services Committee. This experience helped inspire Nunn to run for the Senate, and he did so and won in 1972.[1] Nunn developed a reputation as an independent thinker on defense who was deeply concerned about nuclear command and control and proliferation. Following a 1974 visit to Europe, he became concerned by how NATO doctrine relied upon US theater commanders employing tactical nuclear weapons to repel a Soviet advance, as well as the low morale of many of the American troops guarding these weapons.[2] This experience helped spark Nunn’s leadership in arms control and preventing nuclear war. Nunn sought to address this by sponsoring a bill to create nuclear risk reduction centers.[3] The Sam Nunn papers gave me valuable insights into how Nunn advocated for these centers through a record of Nunn’s comments at a meeting with members of the executive branch on March 22, 1985. In this meeting, Nunn explained that the risk reduction centers would allow Washington and Moscow to communicate if either side accidentally launched a nuclear weapon and when either side planned on carrying out military exercises. Moreover, Nunn argued that these centers could also provide another forum for arms control talks as well as for sharing information on third-party nuclear threats.[4] As the Reagan administration’s arms control program picked up pace following the Geneva Summit of 1985, Nunn continued to argue for the centers, and they eventually were established in 1987. Nunn’s advocacy for the nuclear risk reduction centers shows that his concerns surrounding nuclear weapons, in fact, predated the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Nunn’s concern about nuclear issues redoubled following the August Coup of 1991 when a group of hardline Soviet officials tried to overthrow Gorbachev in an effort to preserve the USSR and the Communist Party’s dominance. Nunn strongly condemned the coup, urging the White House to declare the new Soviet government illegitimate.[5] On August 29, 1991, Nunn received a phone call from his friend Andrei Kokoshin, the deputy director of the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, a prestigious Soviet think tank. Kokoshin asked Nunn to come to Moscow to witness the aftermath of the August Coup, which had ended on the 22nd of that month. Nunn soon arrived at the Russian Parliament, where he was jeered by protesters who mistook him for a member of the deeply unpopular Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies. While at the parliament, Nunn asked General Pavel Grachev, who had recently pledged loyalty to Yeltsin, whether Soviet nuclear weapons were secure, to which the general gave no concrete answer.[6]

Sam Nunn in the Soviet Union. From the Sam Nunn papers.

Following his August visit to Moscow, where he had been shocked by the lack of information on the status of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, Nunn began to work with fellow Democrat Les Aspin of Wisconsin, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee. U.S. support for the Soviet Union’s arms control efforts had gained momentum in late September 1991, when Bush, after extensive conversations with Gorbachev, made massive unilateral cuts to the US nuclear arsenal. Encouraged by this signal, Nunn and Aspin began to draft new legislation that would enable the Secretary of Defense to spend $1 billion of the Department of Defense’s budget on providing both humanitarian and security aid to Russia. Nunn’s office formulated a plan to engage the Soviet Union on security issues, including funding civilian jobs training for retired Soviet officers, transforming Soviet military industry into civilian companies, and assisting the USSR in dismantling rusting nuclear submarines in the Arctic Ocean.[7]

One element of particular use from Nunn’s files were the transcripts of hallway conversations in the capital that would otherwise be difficult to find. In one of these, Nunn explained the importance of his bill to a reporter, stating: “sitting back and not taking the initiative and not understanding the sort of situation they are in over there, we could, basically, be creating a monster of a military threat around the world in the future.”[8] Being able to read these conversations in their entirety gives me a much fuller idea of what Nunn’s opinions were beyond the excerpts quoted in newspapers.

Block, Herbert L., “That’s Not Our Problem,” December 6, 1991, Washington Post, Soviet Aid, Box 340, Sam Nunn Papers.

The bill, once proposed, however, ran into heavy congressional opposition, as many in Washington believed that the “peace dividend” should be spent at home before being sent to a former rival. In the face of harsh bipartisan criticism, Nunn and Aspin pulled the bill.[9] Nunn was about to get a second chance. Soviet officials reported, and the US Ambassador in Moscow, Robert Strauss, confirmed an increasingly dire situation in the USSR. On November 19, Senator Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, an influential Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attended a briefing led by Harvard professor Ashton Carter. Carter had written a report, “Soviet Nuclear Fission: Control of the Nuclear Arsenal in a Disintegrating Soviet Union,” which recommended deeper American involvement in Soviet disarmament and defense industry conversion to avoid nuclear proliferation from the USSR. Carter’s briefing reinforced many of Nunn’s concerns about the dangers of Moscow losing control of its nuclear arsenal. Thoroughly swayed, Lugar joined Nunn to propose the “Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991,” colloquially referred to as Nunn Lugar.

The two senators fought hard to sell the bill to Congress. Nunn reached out to Aspin to drum up support in the House; Carter briefed senators from both parties on the dangers of Soviet nuclear collapse. Unlike the previous Nunn-Aspin bill, the Nunn-Lugar proposal had a much narrower scope, providing $500 million solely to help the Soviet Union dismantle nuclear weapons. Further, Nunn and Lugar also sought to assuage conservative Republican concerns about the bill—the Russian military would get no aid outside of the strictly defined bounds of the program, and all work had to proceed through American contractors. The bill passed the Senate with an overwhelming vote of 86-8; Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware proclaimed Nunn-Lugar “the most cost-effective defense expenditure in US history.”[10]

Photo of Sam Nunn and Bill Clinton, signed by Bill Clinton. From the Sam Nunn Papers.

Nunn’s press files further showed me that he continued to lead nuclear risk reduction discussions once Nunn-Lugar had been passed. He criticized the Bush administration for its slowness in dispensing the aid that had been appropriated and called upon the White House to appoint a cabinet-level figure to coordinate aid distribution to the USSR.[11] He also called upon the United States to tackle the problem of nuclear knowledge proliferation and provide aid to underemployed scientists who might otherwise sell their services to third parties.[12] President Bill Clinton acted upon this suggestion and appointed Strobe Talbott as Ambassador at Large to the Newly Independent States in 1993.

My visit showed me that I needed to reconsider the role of the legislative branch in shaping US foreign policy. Nunn’s press archives were particularly helpful as I was able to track how Sen. Nunn’s attitudes towards arms control and nuclear risk reduction changed over time, while the papers also challenged some of my assumptions. Nunn brought up Soviet scientists as a proliferation risk in a PBS interview in October of 1991, stating: “Now what we’ve got is the break up of the Soviet empire with tens of thousands of engineers and skilled people there that know how to make nuclear weapons and know how to make chemical and biological weapons. So we have a proliferation of knowledge of [w]eapons of mass destruction that we’re going to have to deal with.”[13] I hope to return to Emory University in the near future to look at Sam Nunn’s Senate Armed Services Committee Files, which will soon be released. These files will provide a fuller picture of how Nunn sought to direct US foreign policy as well as the challenges that he faced.

[1] Frank L. Jones, Sam Nunn: Statesman of the Nuclear Age, Congressional Leaders (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2020), 13–16.

[2] Jones, 20.

[3] “S.Res.329 – 98th Congress (1983-1984): A resolution expressing the support of the Senate for the expansion of confidence-building measures between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., including the establishment of nuclear risk reduction centers, in Washington, and in Moscow, with modern communications linking the centers.” May 3, 1984.

[4]  “Senator Sam Nunn, Risk Reduction Meeting,” March 22, 1985, Box 332, Sam Nunn Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[5] “Williams: Soviet Union, Coup, 1991,” Box 282, Sam Nunn Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[6] Jacob W. Kipp, “Andrei Afanasievich Kokoshin,” in Encyclopedia of Russian History, ed. James R. Millar (Gale, 2004),; Jones, Sam Nunn, 225–28.

[7] Jones, Sam Nunn, 229–31.

[8] Hallway Stakeout. re: Soviet Aid. Wall Street Journal, November 13, 1991. Box 269, Sam Nunn Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[9] John T. Shaw, Richard G. Lugar, Statesman of the Senate : Crafting Foreign Policy from Capitol Hill (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2012), 64,

[10] Jones, Sam Nunn, 235–42.

[11] Scheiffer, Bob, and Sam Nunn. Face the Nation, CBS, December 15, 1991. Box 269, Sam Nunn Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[12] Sesno, Frank, and Sam Nunn. re: Soviet Union. CNN International Hour, CNN,  December 18, 1991. Box 269, Sam Nunn Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[13] Elaine Sciolino, “Soviet Brain Drain Poses Atomic Risk, U.S. Report Warns: 900,000 in Nuclear Work,” New York Times, December 31, 1992.; MacNeill, Robert, Malcolm Wallop, Pete Domenici, and Sam Nunn. MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, PBS, October 1, 1991. Box 269, Sam Nunn Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.