A little-noted ceremony last week in our nation’s capital — or rather, in a very large and distinctive pentagonal building right across the Potomac from it — marked the 25th anniversary of an all-but-forgotten event.
Unnoticed, perhaps; anything but unimportant.
Twenty-five years ago, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the old Iron Curtain, especially the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal was no longer under the control of an enemy nation.
The terrifying reality was that it wasn’t really under control at all.
In 1991, two security- and defense-minded senators — Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana and Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia — came up with an idea that would have been unthinkable only months earlier: Offer our former Cold War antagonists, for the survival of the whole planet, U.S. assistance, including financial help, in locating and safeguarding nuclear weapons and materials stockpiled across Russia and its former Soviet satellites.
The result was the bipartisan Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991, informally known as the Nunn-Lugar amendment. It authorized $400 million in Pentagon funds to help former Soviet nations disable and destroy weapons and create safeguards.
“This was a brand-new problem in those days — brand-new to history, really, requiring new thought,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said at the May 9 ceremony honoring Nunn and Lugar. “And while people had considered accidental nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis and the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ movie, they tended to think [in terms of] first-strike capabilities, mutually assured destruction and the like. All important.”
What the two senators considered that few others had, Carter said, was that without the mutual threat of a nuclear enemy, “deterrence alone would not protect us against destruction in the new situation … This new form of nuclear danger required something new.”
Nunn and Lugar have remained active in this effort in their post-political careers as founding members of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an international nonprofit whose membership has included such luminaries as Pete Domenici, Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry and Georgia communications pioneer Ted Turner.
The ceremony concluded with dedication of the Nunn-Lugar Conference Room near the Defense secretary’s office.
“From this day on,” Carter said, “anyone who enters the Nunn-Lugar room … will walk past a plaque that reminds them of the forward-thinking programs, the bipartisan cooperation, and the enduring legacy of Senators Nunn and Lugar.”