Nuclear Family


(ANASTASIA YEE/The Stanford Daily)


When Washington looks for advice on nuclear deterrence, disarmament and nonproliferation, it knows it can look to Stanford.

Among the crop of nuclear experts who hold positions at the University, two munched on popcorn with the president in the White House movie theater earlier this month, one co-chaired the panel that produced the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report in February, one testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2008 upon returning from a fifth visit to North Korea, one serves as a founding member of a scientific advisory board to the government and another is a former top security adviser to the Mongolian government. And then there are the handful who consistently publish, informally advise and passionately teach on matters of nuclear policy and technology every year.

Together, this crop of former policymakers, advisers and scientists constitutes what many call one of the country’s most concentrated hubs of nuclear expertise. And with the current administration’s focus on nuclear security, this hub is consistently being tapped, from 2,500 miles away, by the nation’s powers that be.

The Policy Men

George Shultz’s Hoover Institution office looks as if it came straight out of one of the three national departments he has led as secretary: Labor (1969-1970), Treasury (1972-1974) and State (1982-1989). A rug like that found in every president’s Oval Office lies in the center of a small seating area. A model of the Air Force One on which Shultz flew with Presidents Nixon and Reagan sits on the glass coffee table. Books, photographs and Washington mementos line the wooden shelves. And then there is Shultz, impeccably dressed in a starched shirt and pressed khakis, seated at a busy yet neat desk by the corner windows. Just above his head, framed on the wall, is a personal note from Reagan, thanking Shultz for his service to the nation.

Shultz, who turns 90 this year, has had had ties to Stanford since 1968, when he became a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Since rejoining the University in 1989, he has published numerous books, articles and essays on social security, the economy and his years as Secretary of State. But in the last few years, his focus has shifted to what he now calls a lifelong passion: the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

As a marine fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II, Shultz was introduced to nuclear weapons in the same way the rest of the world was. Bound for port in California, where U.S. forces were to be formed into the groups that would attack the Japanese homeland, he heard the news.

“Hardly out of port, we heard something called an atomic bomb had been dropped, and there wasn’t anybody on the ship who had the vaguest idea of what that was,” Shultz recalls. “Ship sails on, then we hear another one had been dropped. By the time we hit port in San Diego, we heard the war was over.”

It was, of course, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. Shultz remembers celebrating the end of the war, but then coming to the grave realization that has, since then, inspired him in his campaign to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons: “You see the pictures of Hiroshima, and you say to yourself, what utter devastation.”

At Stanford, Shultz has led the organization of three major conferences centered on the steps the United States and the rest of the international community can take to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The first was held at the Hoover Institution in October 2006, on the 20th anniversary of the summit at Reykjavik between President Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. (Shultz sat next to Reagan there.) The second took place a year later, and the third was held in September 2009. Hoover is already organizing the fourth, to be focused on nuclear deterrence, which will take place Nov. 11-12 of this year.

Today, Shultz also is a member of the “Gang of Four,” a self-proclaimed “nonpartisan” group of former statesmen who, in three op-ed essays in The Wall Street Journal, have tried to make the case for a world free of nuclear weapons to a global audience. Also members of the group are former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn, as well as former Secretary of Defense William Perry ‘49 M.S. ‘50, a professor at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and School of Engineering.

Perry served as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering from 1977 to 1981, under President Carter. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1988 until, in 1993, he became deputy secretary of defense and, a year later, Secretary of Defense under President Clinton. Perry returned to Stanford after, he said, growing frustration with a partisan Congress led him to resign in 1997.

Today, Perry, 82, co-teaches an autumn quarter course called Technology and National Security and is a frequent and popular speaker around campus, but he also remains involved in security-related policy matters. Defense Secretary Robert Gates chose Perry to co-chair the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review earlier this year, and, along with the remainder of the Gang of Four, he met twice with President Obama to discuss the United States’ nuclear posture. The group joined Obama earlier this month in the White House theater to view “Nuclear Tipping Point,” a film based on the four statesmen’s efforts to curb the nuclear threat.

When asked why he left the science and technology industry to choose the policy path he did, Perry often quotes Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The Scientists

“I’m a scientist, not a negotiator or a politician.”

Sidney Drell, a theoretical physicist who has taught at Stanford since 1960, sat behind stacks of papers in his Hoover office. A stone’s throw from Drell’s corner office is another corner office: that of Shultz — “a good friend.”

The two men have lunch together often, and it was in late 2005, at about Christmas-time, that their discussion reached a tipping point.

“We were both expressing growing concern with nuclear proliferation,” Drell said, picking up a graph that happened to be right in front of him and tracing with his finger the number of nuclear weapons over time. “Knowledge about how to make these weapons was spreading. In particular, suicidal terrorists may not be able to build a bomb, but if they get their hands on the material or on one of these bombs . . . .” His finger trailed off the edge of the page.

The lunch friends decided in 2006 to initiate a formal campaign, housed at Stanford, to initiate steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons. This campaign resulted in the three conferences held at Hoover, and Drell served as the key scientific adviser to the Gang of Four. The only reason his byline isn’t on the three Wall Street Journal op-eds, Shultz and Drell said, is because he isn’t a former statesman whose name would catch attention.

But Drell has been intimately involved in the policy implications of science and technology for the last 50 years. In 1960, a group of young scientists came together under the belief that, according to Drell, “a new generation of academic scientists who are at the top of their games should work on national security,” and he was invited to be a founding member. Called JASON, the group today is sponsored by the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and U.S. intelligence agencies, among others, and its mission is to advise the U.S. government on matters of science and technology.

During the Cold War, Drell’s research at JASON focused on technical intelligence, specifically missile detection in the Soviet Union.

“One always hoped that one could get rid of them [Soviet and U.S. weapons], but it never seemed a reality,” he said, “and so one was focusing one’s efforts on trying to stabilize the arms race.

“This was difficult because they [the U.S.S.R.] were operating behind an iron curtain,” he added. “That’s why intelligence was so important.”

Today, Drell continues to advise friends like Shultz and Perry, but he is, at heart, an educator. Since 1960, he has never left his Stanford professorship (save brief health-related breaks), even while serving at JASON, on presidential and other advisory committees and on several governing boards, including those of the Los Alamos and Livermore national laboratories. On a Friday afternoon last week, the 83-year-old could have been found in a Hoover conference room, hunched by a young student who was having trouble with her physics homework.

On the influence of education on policy, Drell likes to say, “The more you know, the more likely you are to act intelligently.”

It’s a mantra that also drives the work of Siegfried Hecker, co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). From 1986 to 1997, Hecker served as the fifth director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was founded during World War II as a secret, centralized facility to coordinate the scientific research of the Manhattan Project. J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb, was the laboratory’s first director.

A student of materials science, Hecker never wanted to study nuclear weapons. But he recalls his first orientation at Los Alamos — in 1968, when he was a post-doctoral fellow — as having a transformative effect on his outlook toward nuclear-related work.

“Then-Director Norris Bradbury stood up and said, ‘We don’t build nuclear weapons to kill people; we build nuclear weapons to buy time’ until the leaders around the world can resolve the problems in other ways,” Hecker said. “The more I thought about that comment, the more it made me feel at ease to contribute to the nuclear weapons business.”

And that’s exactly what he has done for the last 40 years. While director of the laboratory, which is owned by the Department of Energy, Hecker was in Washington every two to three weeks to brief the Secretary of Energy and other officials on the lab’s work.

“The customer was the U.S. government, and we were the supplier, specifically our R&D [research and development],” Hecker said.

This meant Hecker frequently interacted with many branches of government, including the Navy (on missile design), the Pentagon, the president’s science adviser and NASA.

“I wouldn’t call it overwhelming,” he said. “But it’s what we call a quantum jump from technology to policy. I was thrown into the policy ocean and had to learn how to swim.”

Fortunately for Hecker, he was a quick study, and he continued to serve as director through the tumultuous years of 1990 and 1991, when three notable “game-changers” were taking shape: the collapse of the Soviet Union, a tightening regulatory environment surrounding the laboratory and an increasing focus by the government on technological competitiveness, specifically vis-a-vis Japan. He finally stepped down from the directorship in 1997 and remained a senior fellow at the lab until 2005, when he came to Stanford.

Since his days in Los Alamos, Hecker has engaged in what is known as track-two diplomacy — that is, nongovernmental, nonofficial diplomacy. Over the past 18 years, he has fostered cooperation with Russian nuclear laboratories to secure ex-Soviet fissile material, which can be used to build nuclear weapons, and in 2004, Hecker made his first trip to North Korea as a track-two diplomat. Since then, he has made four additional trips to the clandestine nation, visiting its Yongbyon nuclear facility, speaking with its top scientists and even holding, in his hands, a jar of its refined plutonium.

“As a nonofficial, you can explore things that the official government representatives cannot explore,” Hecker said of track-two work. “Nothing sticks, nothing is written down specifically, and it’s not a negotiation — it’s a discussion.”

Still, each time he returns, Hecker immediately debriefs U.S. officials in the Department of Energy, the State Department or the National Security Council. In addition to sharing his findings with officials, Hecker also publishes a piece of work on each trip in order to educate the public on North Korea.

“That’s important because at home, especially in the last 20 years or so, there has been such a partisan split, and you often hear people say things that are simply wrong about North Korea,” he said. “One is trying to make them appear 10 feet tall, and the other is saying they can’t tie their shoes.”

At Stanford, Hecker co-teaches, with Perry, the autumn course Technology and National Security, and he teaches a spring-quarter sophomore seminar on nuclear weapons, terrorism and energy. And while he doesn’t officially sign on to the efforts of Perry and Shultz, he views his role, which is almost purely technical, as complementary.

“They’re talking about getting to a world with no nuclear weapons,” he said, “and I want to make sure we don’t blow it up until we get there.”

Stanford, the ‘Hub’

When Hecker left Los Alamos five years ago, he knew he wanted to teach, but he could have gone anywhere. In the end, he chose Stanford.

“If Stanford didn’t have people like Bill Perry, Mike May, Scott Sagan and John Lewis, I wouldn’t have come here,” Hecker said. “I came here because of them and because of the nuclear focus, because that’s what I wanted to dedicate the rest of my career to.”

Sagan, the co-director of CISAC, emphasized Stanford’s ability to bring together state leaders and policy experts in a track-two fashion during times when they can’t officially engage each other in talks. After the 1998 nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, for example, CISAC hosted former Indian and Pakistani officials and military leaders “to discuss stability in South Asia in ways that were constructive and necessary at the time,” Sagan said.

“Stanford has a long, long tradition in helping behind the scenes,” he added.

“It really is a kind of hub for work in this area,” David Holloway, a professor of international history and political science, said of Stanford. “It’s hard to think of a better place to be for somebody working on these issues.”

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Devin Banerjee was president and editor in chief of Volume 236 of The Stanford Daily, serving from June 2009 to January 2010. He joined The Daily's staff in September 2007. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @devinbanerjee.