Web Exclusives: Features

Posted April 30, 2002

Keeping annihilation at bay
Thomas Graham ’55 reflects on three decades of arms control and disarmament

By Louis Jacobson ’92

Thomas 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), he’s 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. "There’s 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 — who’d 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 material."

Asked about this nightmarish projection five months after he first offered it, Graham said that nothing since had convinced him it was invalid. "Subsequently, I’ve thought about the question and discussed it with people I trust," Graham said. "And I still hold to that estimate."

It’s 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, "there’s 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 isn’t like a poker game, where you try to beat the other guy, because you’re dealing with sovereign governments," he said. "If the objective is to negotiate an agreement that’s 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. There’s a lot of hard bargaining, of course, and you always have to be alert and careful about what you do. But it’s 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 Graham’s book, he was well connected with his government’s 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 don’t 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 Graham’s 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 Graham’s 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, Graham’s 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 counsel’s 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 Graham’s 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 ACDA’s 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 can’t have good policy if you don’t have all views represented and competing against each other."

Graham usually didn’t deal with presidents directly; his most substantial contact, he said, was with President Reagan and with the first President Bush. In Graham’s 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 II, CFE."

That record of success suggests why Graham, despite his Republican identification, feels so alienated by George W. Bush’s 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 he’s 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 world."

For now, Graham — who’s preparing to teach, write two more books, and continue lobbying for arms control — said he’s "relatively pessimistic" about the hope for progress anytime soon. "I’m not saying it’s 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 there’s 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.

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