Keeping annihilation at bay
Thomas Graham 55 reflects on three decades of arms control
By Louis Jacobson 92
Graham Jr. 55 worked for six U.S. presidents over 27 years
much of that time cajoling skeptical arms-control negotiators
from both East and West to take actions that could reduce the risk
of nuclear war. But now that Graham is retired from the Arms Control
and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), hes more worried than ever
about the fate of the world.
"Except for the Cuban Missile Crisis and a few other crises,
I think that things are more dangerous now than at any period during
the Cold War," Graham said in an April interview in Washington,
where he now serves as president of the Lawyers Alliance for World
Security. "Theres a serious risk that unstable countries
or terrorist organizations will come into possession of nuclear
weapons and will use them."
How immediate is that threat? In November, Graham received a call
from columnist Stuart Taylor, asking to quantify the risk of nuclear
war. Graham whod taken the call on a cell phone in
the middle of the night in Moscow emphasized, somewhat groggily,
that the best he could do was to offer a "guess." "My
judgment," Graham told Taylor, "is that in the next year,
there is perhaps a 10 percent risk of a major nuclear event in a
large city, and in the next five years, perhaps a 50 percent risk.
This risk would include the theft and use of an actual nuclear weapon,
the fabrication and detonation of a crude nuclear device from fissile
material, as well as a radiological bomb, possibly based on fissile
Asked about this nightmarish projection five months after he first
offered it, Graham said that nothing since had convinced him it
was invalid. "Subsequently, Ive thought about the question
and discussed it with people I trust," Graham said. "And
I still hold to that estimate."
Its not a situation that Graham, now 68, ever expected to
face when he was negotiating with the Soviets over how many conventional
and nuclear weapons each side could live with. During the Cold War,
the consequences of nuclear war were unimaginable namely,
the end of civilization as we knew it. But at least the likelihood
of it ever coming to pass was known to be relatively low.
Now, by contrast, "theres a much higher risk of a gradual
deterioration of the world order, and of the use of weapons of mass
destruction in cities by terrorists or unstable countries,"
Graham said. "Civilization is imperiled, not by instant obliteration,"
but by a succession of more localized attacks.
This is not to say that Graham and his colleagues in the arms-control
community believe that they undertook a fools errand. As Graham
argues in his recently published memoir, Disarmament Sketches:
Three Decades of Arms Control and International Law (University
of Washington Press), the 250-odd employees of his ACDA piled up
some impressive accomplishments over the course of three decades.
These are highlighted by an alphabet soup of international agreements
negotiated and signed since the early 1970s: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT); the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); the Conventional
Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty; the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty;
the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC); the Chemical Weapons Convention
(CWC); the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; and the various
incarnations of SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) and START
(Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty).
For Graham, agreements like these had to be crafted with the utmost
care. "Arms-control negotiation isnt like a poker game,
where you try to beat the other guy, because youre dealing
with sovereign governments," he said. "If the objective
is to negotiate an agreement thats meaningful and lasting,
it has to be an agreement that both parties consider not only acceptable,
but in their interest. You not only have to protect the interests
of your country but also figure out where the interests of the other
countries lie. Theres a lot of hard bargaining, of course,
and you always have to be alert and careful about what you do. But
its not the same as negotiating to buy a house. You want to
find something all parties will eventually support."
During the Cold War, negotiations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
were always tense. "There was some socializing between the
two sides, but it was very limited," he said. "During
the Cold War, strategic negotiating sessions were some of the only
means we in the U.S. had of relating to the U.S.S.R. It was the
only window we had, really. So those meetings were tightly controlled
and rather formalistic."
Still, personal relationships between negotiators did matter. Graham
said that one of the key factors in those discussions was the relationship
he and others had forged with the Soviets lead negotiator,
Victor Karpov. Described in the book as "gregarious" and
"witty," Karpov once cracked up the U.S. delegation at
a tense moment in missile negotiations when he joked, in perfect
English, that "there is no such thing as a free launch."
Though Karpov had a "serious drinking problem," according
to Grahams book, he was well connected with his governments
leaders and convinced Graham that he was completely trustworthy.
"Personalities do make a big difference," Graham said.
"To be a good negotiator, you have to develop a reputation
for honesty and being able to deliver." While the Cold War
meetings tended to be tightly scripted by government officials back
home, negotiators could at times attempt carefully crafted improvisations
to get around deadlocks.
"It was possible from time to time to say to your opposite
number, Victor, I dont have the authority to say this,
but it seems that it might be possible that if you were willing
to do X, then I might be able to persuade my government to do Y.
Do you think your government can do X? Then you would both
go back to your capitals and see whether it was in your interest
to pursue it."
As the Cold War melted away and the threat of global thermonuclear
war receded, Graham and his colleagues were allotted more freedom
at the negotiating table often because of benign neglect.
"When I was working on the extension of the NPT, it was not
really on the radar screen of the White House until the last few
months before it was signed [in 1995]," Graham said. "Because
of that, I was able write my own instructions. So I did."
The occasional creative fudge also came in handy, Graham said. One
time, Turkey and Greece two longtime enemies split
over where a line should be drawn to demarcate the limits of the
CFE Treaty. After protests and delays, the parties were able to
agree on a border that zig-zagged from town to town in Turkey, then
in the negotiators deliberately enigmatic language
traveled "from thence to the sea." To make sure
that no eyebrows were raised unnecessarily, the U.S. drew up a map
in which a box of boilerplate text obscured the portion of the map
where the "thence to the sea" line actually ran.
Graham, who now lives in Bethesda, Maryland, grew up in Kentucky,
where his family was active in Democratic politics the only
kind of politics that mattered in the state then. Going to Princeton
and majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School profoundly influenced
Grahams worldview, he said.
"Substantively, Princeton opened the world to me," he
said. "Kentucky was a wonderful place, but was insular. I knew
nothing about the world outside the U.S. before I went to Princeton.
In a practical sense, Princeton also helped me with networking.
There was a cultural bias when I was there toward public service."
Although Grahams senior thesis dealt with American attitudes
toward the Soviet Union, his route to the State Department was roundabout.
He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1961 and held a total of
seven jobs over the next nine years a clerkship, staff jobs
on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch, and stints working
for two law firms.
He continued to be a Democrat until 1968, when he was "horrified"
by the violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Graham
volunteered to work for the Nixon campaign, alongside Melvin Laird,
the future defense secretary and, conveniently, Grahams cousin.
Though Graham has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations,
he has officially been a Republican ever since.
Graham was hired by the Air Force general counsels office
in 1969, and then, after a year, applied for a job with a little-known
agency known as ACDA. He remained there for the next 27 years, serving
as general counsel for more than half that time and eventually rising
to the post of acting director.
In addition to hammering out the details of numerous treaties, Graham
was in Prague the day that the Velvet Revolution overthrew the Communist
government, and he served on the first U.S. government delegation
to visit Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine three former Soviet
Republics that, thanks in part to Grahams efforts, agreed
to give up independent control of the old Soviet nuclear weapons
on their territory. Later, during the Clinton years, Graham led
the fight to make the NPT permanent, traveling to 47 countries over
a two-year span, some of them multiple times, including Egypt, which
he visited seven times.
Because of ACDAs narrow focus and the inevitable tension between
its mission and military necessities, the agency though bipartisan
was often perceived as being somewhat left of center. "One
time a military officer described it to me as the State Department
being on the left, the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the
right, the Joint Chiefs of Staff further to the right, and ACDA
as further to left of State," he said. "I tend to think
he was right. We would all clash, and out of that would come the
best policy. You cant have good policy if you dont have
all views represented and competing against each other."
Graham usually didnt deal with presidents directly; his most
substantial contact, he said, was with President Reagan and with
the first President Bush. In Grahams estimation, Reagan in
his second term became committed to arms control; Clinton started
off strong before being distracted by personal scandal. But, he
said, "Bush Sr. was the president most committed to arms control.
A lot was achieved during his presidency, including START I, START
That record of success suggests why Graham, despite his Republican
identification, feels so alienated by George W. Bushs record
on international cooperation. "The current President Bush seems
to believe that the reason his father lost his reelection effort
was that he is alienated the right wing of the Republican Party,
so hes determined to let no one get to his right," Graham
said. "In addition, the administration decided to bring into
the government at high levels people who do not believe that arms
control and non-proliferation treaties are worth having. Because
of this, he has displayed a rejectionist attitude from the very
beginning toward multilateral agreements, as well as a strong tendency
toward freeing up the U.S. from any obligations to the rest of the
For now, Graham whos preparing to teach, write two
more books, and continue lobbying for arms control said hes
"relatively pessimistic" about the hope for progress anytime
soon. "Im not saying its hopeless the situation
could change, the personnel could change, or the president could
change his mind," he says. Asked whether it would be possible
to regain momentum after a break in negotiations, he said that "some
of it can. But some of it could be irretrievably lost, because these
processes are so complicated and difficult. I think that theres
a risk of so much damage being done in the next few years that it
will take a long time to repair it."
Louis Jacobson 92
Louis Jacobson 92 covers politics, policy and lobbying for
National Journal magazine in Washington.