A Nuclear Success Story

On Christmas Day in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, resigned his position and handed over his powers, including control of the Soviet nuclear launch codes, to Russian president Boris Yeltsin. The Cold War was officially over and people around the world celebrated. But some in the U.S., including Senators Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar, were worried—the dissolution of the Soviet Union had overnight led to the creation of three new nuclear-armed countries: Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

These new countries were struggling to put together functioning governments and had few resources and little expertise to handle the legacy of the decades-long nuclear arms race left behind in their territory. Furthermore, as Nunn and Lugar knew all too well, the security for the nuclear material in these new countries was often woefully inadequate, leaving this material vulnerable to being stolen by terrorists or rogue nations.

Perry (fourth from left, black hat) staring into Soviet ICBM silo

The senators prepared legislation that authorized the US to pay to secure what came to be known as “loose nukes”; however, the Nunn-Lugar program was largely ignored by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Cold War thinking still dominated the security world, while Bill Perry and Dr. Ash Carter were developing new ways of thinking about security, called Preventive Defense, that focused on preventing potential conflicts before they could start.

After the election of Bill Clinton, Bill Perry rose to the position of Secretary of Defense. With the help of Ash Carter and a team of (mostly female) security experts, we were able to safely remove and dismantle over 8,000 nuclear weapons, and countless missiles and bombers, and neutralize the threat of these loose nukes. But the task was fiendishly difficult, complicated by a reluctant Congress, prickly politicians from the new countries, unique technical problems, and several near-death travel experiences in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Planting sunflowers in former Soviet missile field (Perry, front right, Ash Carter, rear right)

Hear the dramatic story of how we were able to denuclearize three countries in three years, directly from the participants: Senator Nunn, Secretary Perry, Secretary Carter, and Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, one of the key members of the US team.

William Perry, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Gen. Grachev, and Ash Carter


Dr. Ash Carter

25th U.S. Secretary of Defense; 31st U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense; Director, Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Bill Perry @SecDef19

19th U.S. Secretary of Defense; Co-author, THE BUTTON: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

Sam Nunn

Former U.S. Senator, former Chair, Senate Armed Services Committee; co-founder, Nuclear Threat Initiative; Distinguished Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech

Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randal @LSRTweets

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Distinguished Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech

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