Thomas Graham Jr. worked for six U.S. presidents over 27 years, spending 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,” says Graham, who now serves as president of the Washington-based Lawyers Alliance for World Security.
How immediate is that threat? Last November, Graham told National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor 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.” Asked about this nightmarish projection months later, Graham says that nothing since has convinced him it was invalid. “Subsequently, I’ve thought about the question and discussed it with people I trust,” he says, “and I still hold to that estimate.”
It’s not a situation that Graham, now 68 and living in Bethesda, ever expected to face when he was negotiating with the Soviets. As Graham details in his recently published memoir, Disarmament Sketches: Three Decades of Arms Control and International Law, the 250-odd employees of ACDA managed to enshrine an alphabet soup of international agreements between the early ’70s and the late ’90s, most of which are still being enforced. Graham says that a key factor aiding in the Cold War-era negotiations was the relationship he and others 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: “There is no such thing as a free launch.”
Graham’s long career allowed him to witness firsthand many landmark moments in the Cold War and its aftermath. He was in Prague the day the Velvet Revolution overthrew the communist government; he also served on the first U.S. government delegation to visit Kazakhstan, Belarus, and the 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 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permanent, traveling to 47 countries over a two-year span.
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 the left of State,” Graham says. “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.” —Louis Jacobson
Graham will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, July 1, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 1200 F St. NW. For more information, call (202) 347-3686.