The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These Cold War hawks are now championing an end to nuclear weapons

This photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP)

It was an op-ed that turned heads: “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.”

The 2007 piece, co-authored by George P. Shultz, Henry A. Kissinger, William J. Perry and Sam Nunn, laid out the case for disarmament.

“Unless urgent new actions are taken, the U.S. soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence,” they wrote. “Can a worldwide consensus be forged that defines a series of practical steps leading to major reductions in the nuclear danger?”

Their answer: Yes.

The statesmen went on to lay out a path forward, calling for (among other things) a reduction in the nuclear arsenal, the elimination of short-range nuclear weapons and aggressive international efforts to resolve regional conflicts that “give rise to nuclear powers.”

It was the first of four pieces the group would write on  this issue, to be published in 2007 and 2008.

Here's what made the op-ed so revolutionary: The authors were all prominent members of the U.S. national security establishment and hawks who eventually changed their minds. As Philip Taubman, author of “The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb,” explained in his book, each man took a different path to this conclusion.

The world has nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize honors the quest to abolish all of them.

Shultz, a secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, came around earliest. In 1986, he pushed Reagan to sign a historic deal that would have led to disarmament. (The effort fell apart because Reagan was hellbent on a “quixotic” quest to build a nuclear shield.)

Nunn, a Democrat and former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, co-sponsored the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in 1991. The measure directed U.S. dollars toward securing nuclear material and weapons. Even so, at the time, Nunn considered nuclear abolition utopian. But by 2006, Nunn saw disarmament as essential. Perry, a secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, also pushed to limit access to nuclear weapons, heading up an effort to get Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to dispose of their nuclear arsenals.

Kissinger, another former secretary of state, has the shortest record of work on nuclear disarmament. In the 1960s, he promoted the use of nuclear force exercises to spook Russia. He strongly denounced the deal Reagan and Shultz signed with Russia. In reporting out “The Partnership,” Taubman says that Perry explained Kissinger's interest this way: “Henry likes to be front and center of big policy issues of the day, and this put him in that position, even though he didn’t fully agree with all of the conclusions.”

Of course, the argument that they made in the Wall Street Journal wasn't original. The anti-nuclear movement in the United States dates back to the 1950s. The movement incorporated environmentalists, religious organizations and peacemakers. Politicians, too, have been making their positions known for decades. Gen. Lee Butler, former commander of Strategic Air Command, called for the elimination of nuclear weapons in 1996. Cold Warrior Paul Nitze argued three years later that he saw “no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them is costly and adds nothing to our security.”

Even so, what the Wall Street Journal piece did — along with the documentaries and conferences that came after — mattered. As the New York Times put it in its review of “The Partnership”:

Their continuing activism, Taubman writes, “has induced sitting presidents and foreign ministers to embrace ideas not long ago ridiculed as radical and reckless,” and has “powerfully influenced Obama,” who advocates a world without nuclear ­weapons.

These [four] men had done much to foster a nuclearized world, and had prospered for their contributions to its infernal machinery . . . When they broke ranks, Taubman writes, “it was roughly equivalent to John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Jay Gould calling for the demise of capitalism.”

According to Taubman, these efforts provided President Barack Obama significant bipartisan support to declare in 2008, in his first major foreign policy address abroad, “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Even the support of a team of heavyweights, though, hasn't been enough to sustain the anti-nuclear movement in Washington. Since 2009, Taubman told me, “the air went out of the balloon.”

“Anyone involved in the movement was disheartened by what played out,” he said. “And now we're at a free-fall in this area.”

Today, the U.S. government has budgeted billions to develop and modernize nuclear weapons. “Who is going to succeed them?” Taubman asked. “That, I  think, remains unclear.”