Michael KreponThe Lunch Bunch

Quote of the week:

“I stand and look in the dark under a cloud,
But I see in the distance where the sun shines” — Walt Whitman

Note to readers: This is my 500th post on ACW. Time flies.

Human consciousness is being squeezed out of deliberations over nuclear weapons and arms control. It’s easier to dwell in abstractions or technical detail, and easier still to keep one’s distance. When these dangers become too real — when we think hard about the targeting of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon effects, for example, or what could go badly wrong by accident, malevolent intent, or events spinning out of control — most of us seek refuge in distractions. This is where abolitionists stand tall: their focus is unstintingly on ethics and weapon effects.

Human interaction is also being squeezed out of debates over arms control, disarmament and the Bomb. It’s so much easier to hold fixed views, to stay in one’s lane, to dwell amongst one’s tribe. Those who believe deeply in nuclear arms control and disarmament or the presumed requirements of nuclear deterrence have plenty to say at one another, but little to share. Common ground is getting harder to find.

Growth without change is inconceivable. One of the primary indicators of personal growth is change in the way we think. Growth with change usually requires compromise, or at least a softening and adjustment in our views, but few who toil in the vineyards of arms control and disarmament or maintaining and refining nuclear deterrence change their views about the Bomb. Certainty comes with and is reinforced by the stakes, which are so very great.

Official Washington is full of impasses; we are truly fortunate when we have the means to avoid them in our personal lives. One of the many rewards of living in the Charlottesville, Virginia area is a luncheon date with others who share a strong interest in things nuclear. We’ve been meeting one a month or so for eight years.

We are a diverse bunch. There’s Houston Wood, born and raised in Mississippi, who is a Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia and a renowned expert on centrifuges. He expressed deep skepticism about the U.S. intelligence community’s compliant finding during the George W. Bush administration that Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of aluminum tubes was suitable for this purpose.

There’s Lew Dunn, born and raised in the Bronx, who worked with Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute, served as an Assistant Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Reagan administration, and was a ringleader at the successful 1985 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference. Lew is well known to many ACW readers for his work on the NPT and as a creative thinker on many topics, including how to maintain the health and well being of this Treaty.

There’s me, born and raised in Massachusetts, who worked in the Carter administration and who co-created the Stimson Center nearly 30 years ago. There’s John Redick, who grew up in Charlottesville and wrote about the denuclearization of Latin America for his doctorate at the University of Virginia. John was in on the ground floor of Argentina’s and Brazil’s nuclear abstinence. After living in the midwest, he returned to central Virginia to work at and run the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation.

And there’s Greg Govan, who was born and raised in New Orleans. Greg served in the U.S. Army for 31 years, did two tours in Vietnam, was a liaison officer at the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in divided Berlin — a very dicey assignment — and then did two tours as the U.S. Defense Attaché in Moscow. His last assignment was to lead the U.S. On-Site Inspection Agency implementing treaty obligations to reduce nuclear forces. After retirement, Greg worked at the State Department as its senior arms control representative to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and Open Skies treaties.

We are a diverse lot that has happily found one another. Sitting around the table, we have a Brigadier General and two ambassadors (Lew and Greg). We’ve got three Ph.D.’s (Lew, Houston and John). We’ve got a guy (Houston) who was mentioned in the Hollywood screenplay of Fair Game (2010), the movie about Valerie Plame. We’ve got a native of Central Virginia who found a home in philanthropy, and me, who has thrived in the world of non-governmental organizations.

We enjoy each other’s company. At our monthly lunches, we skip lightly over political differences and dwell on family news, travels and, of course, nuclear issues. I don’t think we could have done this at earlier stages of our careers, but we’ve all grown since then. In some cases, there has been a convergence of views, and where there hasn’t there is tolerance. We’re better listeners now. Male friendship and companionship is a wonderful thing at any age, but it seems more precious to me as I grow older.

One of our lunch bunch, Greg, has done some reflecting and writing of late. His thinking has evolved more than the rest of us. This was meant for his fellow congregants at church, but he has consented to my entreaty to give his thoughts, below, wider distribution.

I’m a child of the nuclear age, two-going-on-three when the Manhattan Project’s Robert Oppenheimer set the first one off in New Mexico and quoted Hindu scripture. I was a little older, but not much, when a SAC bomber flew at low level over my backyard in a simulated attack on New Orleans as stand in for some Soviet city.

One of my first Army jobs was to have custody of and train to use nuclear land mines. I discovered that the mechanics of making things go boom was a matter of repetition of carefully ordered steps, like close order drill, and that calculating effects was a matter of graphs and charts and checklists that numbed the mind to consequences.

Later I studied deterrence and the mind games of escalation and thresholds, of having nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of insuring that no one else would use them, to counter which you had to convince someone else that you would indeed use them.

Once I sat in an audience of mostly attentive majors while a sincere and obviously concerned flag officer talked us through how he struggled with targeting our strategic missiles to minimize “collateral effects” and wondered at what scale achieving desired effects slid over into destruction of civilized society.

I sat in another classified briefing of very attentive lieutenant colonels who watched a time lapse simulation of an all-out Soviet first strike on the U.S., represented by circles appearing on a map. The gallows humor of cheers when the first circles hit Washington DC quickly melted into stunned silence as massed circles in waves fell on our missile fields, airfields, naval bases, and major industrial complexes. Sobering does not adequately describe being in the presence of a cold, calculated, evil.

As a bookend to an Army career, I inspected Russian and other former Soviet missile sites that would have produced those impersonal circles. And I saw U.S. systems being inspected by Russians. The exquisite plumbing of an ICBM, the stolid reality of a train-based mobile missile, the dedicated crews – all very professional, all hard to relate to my conflicted US targeteer or to the grim march of the circles on the map. All unreal, and all too real.

I attended Sunday school classes at the Army War College chapel taught by a couple of good Presbyterian chaplains. We studied statements on nuclear weapons issued by American churches in the 70s and 80s, especially the excellent Catholic Bishops’ document on whether nuclear weapons could ever be used based on Just War criteria. Not used, the bishops concluded, but could be held only to prevent others’ use. Not even possessed, said Pope Francis over three decades later.

I wrestled with nukes as a particularly thorny part of reconciling being a soldier with being a follower of Jesus. The one serving the use of force, the other serving the model of self-sacrifice in the name of love. My best guide was Reinhold Niebuhr, who post-Nazi Germany recognized an imperative to oppose the aims of the Soviet Union by threatened use of force, recognizing fully that we were doing evil to achieve good and were likely to be too forgiving of our own understanding, intentions, and capacity. It was a call to set aside but never forget the loving embrace of mercy, to do justice, but in the doing to walk humbly with God.

It was very personal, and spiritual. In retirement I played my small part in non-governmental fora to keep pushing the stone up the hill for non-proliferation, for non-use, for strategic stability, and for the distant goal of disarmament. The rock keeps rolling back down, but even if I am not called to succeed, I am not deterred and will continue to bear witness.

I am called to be a witness:

To the fact that nuclear weapons, shrouded in secrecy and with Promethean power and temptation, have not gone away. Do not forget this.

To the fact that, despite the success of getting everyone except the Nuclear Weapon States and those protected by them to solemnly agree that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is illegal, nuclear disarmament is pretty much impossible, that is, this side of Micah’s “time to come” for plowshares and pruning hooks. Do not forget this, or be in despair because of it.

To the humble Presbyterian belief that we still must try to rid the world of such weapons as part of the never-ending task of combating violence in all its manifestations. Do not forget this or turn aside from doing what you can.

To the hope that is within us that we do not act in vain or in vanity. Do not abandon this hope.


  1. John Chick (History)

    Great piece, Michael.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      many thanks, Joel & John–

  2. Joel Ticknor (History)

    Great piece!

  3. Bill (History)

    Michael, congratulations on 500. A terrific piece. Bill