George Bunn, who helped negotiate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, dies at 87

April 25, 2013

George Bunn, a leading figure in the field of arms control who helped draft and negotiate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, limiting the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide, died April 21 at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 87.

He had spinal cancer, said his son Matthew Bunn.

In 1945, while serving in the Navy, Mr. Bunn was on a ship bound for Japan when atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to World War II.

“He was convinced that the atomic bomb saved his life,” Matthew Bunn, an arms control specialist at Harvard University, said Thursday. “Yet he devoted most of the rest of his life to the effort to bring the fearsome power of nuclear weapons under international control.”

In the early 1960s, Mr. Bunn drafted the legislation that created the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Bunn was the first general counsel of the agency, which was designed to be independent of the interests of the military and State Department.


George Bunn, a leading figure in the field of arms control who helped draft and negotiate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, died April 21 at the age of 87. (Rod Searcey/The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University)

“George, by being the person who drafted the legislation for the arms control agency, was central to this whole era where arms control in our government had an independent voice,” said Thomas Graham Jr., who later served as general counsel of the ACDA and helped negotiate a series of arms reduction treaties. “Many of the treaties wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for this agency.”

Mr. Bunn had a key role in developing the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 but was best known for his work in developing the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After drafting the treaty, he hiked in the mountains near Geneva with his Soviet counterparts, jotting down ideas while riding a cable car and ultimately coming to an agreement.

When the treaty was signed in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Mr. Bunn as the U.S. representative to what is now the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, which seeks to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

“He was an inspiration to all of us who followed and worked on arms control in the U.S. government,” Graham said Thursday.

George Bunn was born May 26, 1925, in St. Paul, Minn. His father was a law professor, federal judge and justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1945, Mr. Bunn served in the Navy. (Because he had no middle name, he was sometimes misidentified as George N. Bunn — for “None.”)

Mr. Bunn went to law school at Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1951. Even then, he had the goal of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. He worked for the Atomic Energy Commission in the early 1950s before joining the Washington law firm now known as Arnold & Porter.

As an attorney, he defended government workers accused of having communist sympathies and handled a restaurant desegregation case in the District.

Mr. Bunn left Washington in 1969 to teach at the law school of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He eventually became the school’s dean.

From 1982 to 1986, he taught at the National War College in Newport, R.I. He joined the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University in 1986 and became a widely respected teacher and authority on global arms reduction.

Mr. Bunn published a history of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, “Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians,” in 1992 and was the co-author of many articles. He was co-editor of a 2006 book, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” about the place of nuclear weapons in the modern world.

His marriages to Fralia Hancock and Anne Coolidge ended in divorce.

Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Jessie Bunn of San Francisco, Peter Bunn of Barneveld, Wis., and Matthew Bunn of Watertown, Mass.; and two granddaughters.

“The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was abolished in 1999,” Graham said. “There’s been only one treaty concluded since.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.