Michael KreponHeroes of Arms Control

Quote of the week:

“Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”  — Lewis Mumford

Building something of lasting importance is hard work; tearing it down is comparatively easy. In this troubled time when the nuclear safety net is being shredded, let us briefly pause to give tribute to its master weavers. I’ve gotten to know two of them better by doing research for my book on the rise, demise and revival of nuclear arms control. These two men were present at the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency — William C. Foster and Adrian “Butch” Fisher. During their tenure as Director and Deputy Director from 1961-69, the “Hotline” was created, and the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the Outer Space Treaty and the Nonproliferation Treaty were negotiated. Not bad for government work.

Bill Foster was reserved, formal, low key, and confident in his capabilities. During World War I, he left MIT to join the Army Air Corps. He was a public relations-savvy, trans-Atlantic businessman, having served as Director and Vice-President for Public Affairs of the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. Habitually dressed in white shirt, dark suit and thin dark tie, he looked like one of the martini-drinking Mad Men in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency.

While Foster did enjoy martinis, he was no mere PR flack. He had solid government credentials, having served as the Director of Purchases Division at the War Department during World War II, as a leading figure and then Administrator of the Marshall Plan, as Undersecretary of Commerce and then as Deputy Secretary of Defense, working with Robert Lovett during the Korean War.

Foster’s credentials as a defender of national security were indisputable. He led the U.S. delegation to the 1958 Surprise Attack Conference and was a key figure in the Security Resources Panel, more commonly known as the Gaither Commission, named after and briefly led by Ford Foundation Chairman H. Rowan Gaither. The Gaither panel recommended major increases across the board in defense spending, particularly on strategic forces and limited nuclear warfare capabilities, recommendations that President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were not inclined to support. Foster’s role in the Gaither Committee not only reaffirmed his bone fides as a supporter of defense preparedness but also strengthened his ties with fellow Committee member John J. McCloy.

McCloy was a member in excellent standing of candidate John F. Kennedy’s  braintrust.  JFK also asked Foster to enlist, but Foster politely declined as he had agreed to serve in the same capacity for Richard Nixon twenty-four hours earlier. Nonetheless, he added, “I would always be available to help.” Kennedy continued to pursue Foster after his election, who was then in the process of setting up new business opportunities. He initially begged off, but the delayed timing of ACDA’s creation in the fall of 1961 proved to be a good fit. Foster severed his business ties and corporate board memberships and signed up for the job. He was well aware that one reason for his selection was to help round up Republican support, which he did willingly.

Foster became a strong advocate for ACDA’s agenda. Before he died, he asked that donations on his behalf be sent to the Arms Control Association, which he helped establish after leaving government service.

Butch Fisher was a highly effective deputy, complementing Foster with an outgoing personality and a bulging rolodex file. The son of a Tennessee congressman, Fisher led a charmed life, attending St. Albans and the Chaote School, then off to Princeton where he played football, then to Harvard Law and the Law Review, then to Washington where he clerked for Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter. Fisher also worked short stints at the War and State Departments. In World War II, he navigated bombing missions over Europe and then served as a legal adviser during the Nuremburg trials. Fisher again worked briefly at the Commerce Department and the Atomic Energy Commission before landing quite nicely as Dean Acheson’s legal advisor at the State Department.

Resumés like this were rare, even in those heady days for Establishmentarians. Fisher tried lawyering at a prestigious firm but his heart wasn’t in it. He then became a vice president and counsel for the Washington Post, but this, too, was not completely satisfying. He wanted to be in on the action where his lawyering and political skills could provide entré into matters of high policy. In his oral history for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Fisher tells the story of how, on New Year’s Day in 1961, “My wife and I were having milk punch with Felix and Marian Frankfurter and Dean and Alice Acheson over at the Frankfurters’ house. And I sort of said, ‘You know, I think I’d like to get back into government. Maybe the thing for me to do is to call McCloy and see if he’d like an assistant.’’’ Needless to say, his high-ranking position at ACDA was a done deal.

Fischer assembled an extraordinary team, including George Bunn, Betty Goetz (later Betty Goetz Lall), Herbert “Pete” Scoville and Larry Weiler, who recently passed after a long life, purposefully lived.

I’d love to know more about Butch Fisher, but am having trouble finding his grandchildren and his papers. Any help in this regard would be much appreciated.


  1. Anon (History)

    Heros of Arms Control:

    Professor Krepon and Professor Lewis

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      You are kind.
      It’s easy to write about this stuff. It’s really hard to succeed at bureaucratic politics and international negotiations.

  2. Anon (History)

    Prof Krepon,

    You and Prof. Lewis, and others arms control teachers before and after you, decided on a career teaching the following generations on how to avoid catastrophe. That your blog is open and free makes it all the better. I just wanted to thank you. You are this anonymous poster’s hero.

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