War Stories

How Richard Lugar Quietly Saved the World

The late senator’s trademark arms control bill prevented nuclear chaos—and showed a kind of bipartisanship that is unimaginable today.

Lugar standing next to a wall, smiling.
Former Republican Sen. Richard Lugar waits backstage before introducing Secretary of State John Kerry for a speech on the nuclear agreement with Iran at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Sept. 2, 2015.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Former Sen. Richard Lugar, who died on Sunday at the age of 87, was the most mild-mannered historic figure of our time, a moderate Republican whose signal achievement helped save the world from calamitous chaos. His passing is worth noting because nothing like his achievement could occur, nor could anyone like him rise to power, in today’s political climate.

His great deed was the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act of 1991, co-sponsored with Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn (bipartisan bills were routine in Congress back then), which, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s implosion, authorized $400 million a year to deactivate—over the years—7,500 nuclear warheads, shut down 47 biological weapons centers, retrain 58,000 weapons scientists, and lock up enough fissile material to build thousands of nuclear bombs, throughout the former Soviet republics.

At the time of the act’s passage, Nunn was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Lugar was ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Some Soviet Consulate officials—whom they’d met while monitoring U.S.-Soviet arms control talks in Geneva—approached them with warnings that the world was in trouble. Officers guarding the Soviet nuclear stockpile were deserting in droves, leaving fissile materials and the weapons themselves open to rogue elements and terrorists. The Kremlin needed Western money to pay the guards and Western technicians to build new locks.

There was initial reluctance, especially in some Republican circles, to spend American taxpayers’ dollars to beef up Russian security, but most lawmakers grasped the urgency. The bill easily passed the House and the Senate on voice votes. Over the next several years, “Nunn-Lugar” came to refer to a range of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the post–Cold War era. Its two sponsors traveled frequently to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—the former Soviet republics where nuclear weapons had been based—to witness the dangers, and observe the dismantlement, of missiles, warheads, and bombs.

When I interviewed Lugar a year ago, for a forthcoming book on the history of American nuclear-war policy, he told me about one of his first inspection trips, to the Pervomaisk missile base in Ukraine, where he watched an enormous intercontinental ballistic missile, tipped with several nuclear warheads, being pulled out of its underground silo. He and his hosts took the long elevator ride down the tube to see the launch facility. The first thing he saw, when they reached the bottom, was a guard’s desk and, on the wall behind it, photographs of large American cities. It occurred to him: Those cities had been the targets of that missile. Like most politicians, like most Americans, Lugar—who had been mayor of Indianapolis before winning his first election to the Senate in 1976—hadn’t closely followed the arcana of the nuclear debate before this immersion. The thought made him shiver more than a little—and deepened his commitment to his new mission.

Another historic consequence of all this was the role Lugar played in the education of Barack Obama. As a freshman senator in 2005, Obama nabbed a slot on the foreign relations committee and threw himself into the work. Often, as a hearing rambled on beyond its first hour, Obama and the committee chairman were the only senators in the room. Since the Republicans had taken control of the Senate two years earlier, the chairman was Lugar. Almost 30 years Obama’s senior, he was impressed and took to mentoring the up-and-comer.

After a few of these hearings, Obama asked if he could tag along on one of Lugar’s visits to the former Soviet republics. They went together that August, on a weeklong tour of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons sites. It was an eventful trip: Russian border guards detained the senators for three hours at the airport in the Siberian city of Perm, demanding to search their aircraft, which they suspected was a spy plane. Top Kremlin officials, alerted by the U.S. Embassy, eventually ordered the guards to let the plane leave for its next stop, in Ukraine, and apologized to the senators. During their holdup, Obama and Lugar discussed the issues, and the politics of the issues, more deeply than they had before.

When Obama became president three years later, his signal achievements on nuclear security all stemmed from his tutorship with Lugar. These included the U.S.-Russian New START, or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty; the Iran nuclear deal; and the Nuclear Security Summits, which extended the aims of Nunn-Lugar and resulted in the removal or downgrading of enough highly enriched uranium to build nearly 7,000 nuclear bombs at more than 50 facilities in 30 countries, as well as the installation of radiation detectors at 329 international border crossings.

After six terms in the Senate, Lugar was defeated in the 2012 primary by Indiana’s treasury secretary, a Tea Party candidate named Richard Mourdock, who was subsequently trounced in the general election by Democrat Joe Donnelly. Lugar lost because he was, by then, too moderate for the Republican Party. His enthusiasm for foreign policy, once a plus for Republican candidates, was turned into a mark against him. Lugar’s complacency, a trait of many multiterm incumbents, compounded the trend. One of Mourdock’s catchy lines was that Lugar had spent more time in Moscow, Russia, than in Russiaville, Indiana—and the jab hit a sore spot: Lugar hadn’t lived in his “home state” since 1977, when his Senate career began.

After his defeat, Lugar established the Lugar Center, a Washington-based think tank affiliated with Indiana University and the University of Indianapolis.* Nunn left the Senate voluntarily, 16 years before Lugar, in 1996 after serving four terms, tired of holding a minority seat in a chamber that Republicans had recently taken over.* In 2001, he created, and still co-chairs, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which has carried on the Nunn-Lugar Act’s work with private funding.

There is no one like either of them in the Senate today—lawmakers who also see themselves as diplomats, more devoted to national policy than to party politics—and the country is poorer because of it.

Correction, April 29, 2019: This piece originally misstated that Nunn left the Senate six years before Lugar. It was 16 years before.

Correction, April 30, 2019: This piece originally misstated that the Lugar Center is sponsored by the University of Indiana. It is affiliated with Indiana University and the University of Indianapolis.