Hamburg: Graham, you and I go back as far as almost anybody in this field of prevention of mass violence. Sam Nunn was telling me that he as a young [congressional] staffer, 24 years old, was on a NATO mission in Norway when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. I was in Washington [at an] NIH peer review session on biomedical research grants--and both of us were very scared. It was the first time we realized that a nuclear war could actually occur; it was sort of hypothetical up until then.
Now I don’t know where you were that day, but you had the inspired notion of doing a study--to my knowledge the first early systematic in-depth study--of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That had a powerful effect on me and on my dear colleague [Alex] George. The three of us were sort of a trio on thinking in crisis prevention terms. No matter how much we and the Soviets hated each other, no matter how high the powers of weaponry, you ought to have the good sense and self interest to keep back a step or two from the brink. That came later but it wouldn’t have come had you not done that study.
I was puzzled, what could I do? Your study made people think seriously about what they might do towards crisis prevention. So I wish you’d start off by saying something about how you came to do that study and anything that got updated when you revisited it a few years ago.
Allison: You have been a pioneer in prevention and I’ve learned hugely from you. We first began to work actively together at a crisis prevention shindig that you organized in Switzerland, in which I came in to talk about the Cuban Missile crisis.
Historians now agree that the Cuban Missile crisis was the single most dangerous moment in human history. Kennedy at the time thought the chance of it rolling to war was somewhere around one in three, or even--that’s what he said to his brother.
I was a student at Oxford; I had just arrived as a Marshall scholar. I was sitting in the library and somebody comes in and says, “The Americans and the Soviets are going to blow up the world!” British (coverage) was very different than the coverage in the US newspapers; there was more evenhandedness. But there was very widespread fear that there might be a nuclear war which would be the destruction of Europe.
Later when I studied as an undergraduate at Harvard Tom Shelley taught a course on bombs and bullets and people thought about the risk of nuclear war. C. P. Snow said it was inevitable that there would be a nuclear war. So while I was studying philosophy and continued to be very interested in analytic philosophy, the whole idea of something that catastrophic was motivating as a subject for inquiry.
My thesis as a PhD student at Harvard became Essence of Decision, a book published in 1971. It provided conceptual frameworks for analyzing decisions and actions of government and turned out to be one of the five best sellers in political science in the 20th century.
Now in the missile crisis, the Soviets were sneaking nuclear tipped missiles into Cuba. The US discovered this. There was a week of secret deliberations about what to do, and it went the whole spectrum from “Oh well this is not a big deal” to war--and lots of options in between.
Initially Kennedy ordered a naval blockade--a “quarantine” --of Cuba, and demanded that the missiles be withdrawn. The missiles continued to be constructed, reaching the point of operational readiness. The blockade hadn’t worked. So Kennedy’s kind of at endgame, and he thought about the two options that were live, one being attack, which was the strong preference of many members of the group sitting around the table--attack to destroy the missiles before they became operational because otherwise [in] whatever sort of circumstances nuclear warheads would have been launched against cities like Atlanta, Washington, and Miami. So Kennedy invented an option that was totally outside the box that his advisors had given him, an option that he would never have accepted himself at the beginning of the week. It was only when he considered the unacceptability of the options that were left that he was prepared to be as inventive as he needed to be and as accepting.
When he gave his famous American University speech in which he drew the lesson from the Cuban Missile crisis, he said when one comes to a confrontation with the possibility of war, one should never leave one’s adversary with the choice between capitulation and war. The option that he came up with was a strange mixture of a public demand that the missiles be withdrawn, and a private ultimatum--which was quite bold--in which his brother told the Russian Ambassador that if we don’t hear something in 48 hours you don’t need to talk to us, basically threatening to attack within 48 hours--that was pretty shocking--and then a secret sweetener, that if the Soviet missiles were withdrawn from Cuba within six months the American missiles in Turkey, which the Soviets had been (anxious) about, would be eliminated.
He went back to the table and didn’t even inform half of the people who were sitting at the table that he had actually done this complicated deal--so there were layers and layers of fascination. Can you really play Russian roulette? In effect, you have a revolver, pull it up to your head, and fire--and you survive. What lesson would you take away from that? The lesson that people who lived through that crisis took from it was “Never again! We cannot survive such confrontation and crisis!” [Kennedy] Gorbachev, McNamara, Bundy, Rusk all came to have a different idea about what was required after this experience. Gorbachev said in a wonderful letter, “you can smell the burning in the air.” McNamara describes how he was looking out on the Saturday night thinking this was his last Saturday night. A battlefield type of experience often changes somebody’s perspective.
All this led to a high degree of motivation about preventing other future confrontations. That led to a hotline, so at least you can communicate back and forth, and led eventually to the nonproliferation treaty. All that was incorporated in the American University speech.
Kennedy’s life was cut short and Gorbachev's role also was cut short, but I think the lesson of the missile crisis was not that we know how to manage crisis, even though this one was barely managed. As my study and many subsequent studies have shown, there were many, many close calls, many almost out of control. Kennedy kept thinking at the end of the week, “How could this possibly happen, why is somebody not controlling this?”--hoping that they would control all the millions of instruments that were moving independently in both the American and Soviet government at the time. So the big big lesson to take away was prevention; work to develop relationships and reality in such a way you don’t have to play Russian roulette with 2 or 3 bullets in the chamber.
Hamburg: When your study came out and I had a chance to discuss it with Alex George and others, I decided it would be desirable if we could discuss it with Soviet counterparts. Alex had formulated a set of principles for crisis management based largely on your study. While they were compelling in their logic, they were also exceedingly difficult. Your study motivated me, with the help of the late great biologist Josh Lederberg, to explore whether they would like to have a conference of a few Americans, a few Western Europeans, and a few Soviets--all scholars of some standing, but from different fields--to go into this and take as a starting point the crisis management regime because the Soviets seem more amenable to that. I told them I wouldn’t be chair unless I could have you. We hadn’t met yet, but I had you as the main resource in the field, and Alex.
You were kind enough to adapt from existing docudramas some vivid examples of what went on during the crisis to get across to the Soviets how many things could have gone wrong from forces all over the world--bellicose, disturbed individuals even in high positions, all kinds of things.
Allison: And the US tested an H bomb in the Pacific right in the middle of the crisis. The US launched a missile from Vandenberg on a space mission, but it was from the same Air Force base in which there were missiles with warheads that would have been launched against Russia. A US U2 on an air sampling mission looking around the Soviet periphery actually flew over Soviet territory the day before the end of the crisis, leading to Gorbachev's wonderful letter which says, “What the hell are we supposed to expect? We see this U2 coming, thinking maybe it’s coming over Moscow to try to do a decapitation attack. Our fighters scramble, so they could have easily shot it down.” A U2 was shot down over Cuba on the last Saturday again, surprising Gorbachev. When he knew what had happened he was shocked, so the thing was getting out of control.
Hamburg: At our Geneva meeting you were able to impress on them first of all the difficulty of crisis management. They thought that was fine and were a little bit uneasy about the extent to which we were fostering a kind of technology transfer. Then half way through that week you and Alex and I planned breakfast. We would say “We got away with it once; we probably couldn’t get away with it again. Let’s talk about crisis prevention.” They were very suspicious. By the way, their delegation was not on the level of the US or the European delegations. In fact, their top guy was a KGB guy with a veneer of scholarship. Nevertheless, they were there and the three of us did [all we could] to lay out the advantages of a crisis prevention approach. They remained very suspicious. In the evenings the chairman of their delegation and I as a chairman were to meet. His suspicion was extreme that we had some kind of trick in mind that would have the effect of disarming or greatly weakening them. I recall that you were very persuasive for the rest of that week. We can’t say that they accepted anything. I thought it was a failure despite your valiant efforts. Then a week or ten days later I got a cable saying, “Can you come and spend a week or two with us to talk about this approach?”
I couldn’t, but I persuaded you and Alex-- not at the same time, separately. The two of you were terrific. At your own expense you met with Soviet counterparts and began to work on them to take this back to their leaders. Over a period of time--and that was a kind of turning point--they began to think preventively.
Allison: I’ve forgotten the details, but I’d say you were the source for me of the metaphor of the distinction between management and prevention. I think you brought it out of medicine: when there’s a problem, [changing] activities that had gone on before might have prevented the problem. Arbatov finally got it--and I think it may have been because he had a small heart attack. In any case his conceptualization of it was that if you have a heart attack it’s very important to have a good emergency room that deals with you; but isn’t it even better that you do something before so that you wouldn’t have a heart attack?
Hamburg: I think you are right--there’s both a personal and intellectual grasp there.
Allison: Something clicked for him in that proposition; and quite a lot of Soviets in those days behaved in such a way, drinking and smoking and absence of exercise, that affected their probability of having a heart attack. And I remember him saying, Yes, we need to get better ambulances to get us faster to emergency rooms, and we need to have doctors that are able to give [us] something to help [us]. In any case, once you’ve had a heart attack you’re in big trouble so we should be thinking about how we can prevent having heart attacks.
Hamburg: You saw that Arbatov began to get it and you also saw that he was the gatekeeper to other Soviet intellectuals who were defense-related, security-related. You went there, and you brought them here and you cultivated relationships that continue to the present day like nobody else. I wish you’d say something about that because it provided a context in which you could communicate the issues that they initially rejected.
Allison: I think it grew out of the Geneva meeting and the following visit to Moscow. Arbatov was the head of the Institute of USA and Canadian Studies, established to be a kind of third window to the world to complement the foreign ministry and the KGB. It was extremely important in the period of Andropov, so the relationship between the KGB and the Institute of USA and Canadian Studies was always quite tight; the deputy was always the KGB guy--Bogdanov at that time. Arbatov had a great sense for talent, so he would recruit extremely talented people; but he also had a good sense of maintaining relationships with the structure of power. He would hire the son of the guy who was about to become [powerful]. But he had a more positive agenda through the whole period and was a positive factor. I remember Lukin who became the ambassador to Washington and now he’s the ombudsman for Putin.
After you went to Carnegie you funded what became the Crisis Prevention Group.
Hamburg: Chaired by you and Arbatov.
Allison: Yeah, one of the more influential Track II groups. Thanks to your largess in Carnegie they met initially in the Florida Keys at a place where you could ride dolphins. Arbatov thought he had gone to heaven.
I remember the first time we went to the facility--I think in the winter of ’85. It was certainly after the Star Wars speech by Reagan. In any case we are meeting at this nice Keys resort and all the Soviets are persuaded that this is a CIA front for sure. The people are sitting around in a Jacuzzi drinking Pina Coladas They think this is extremely well done, but they don’t seem to be listening. We are having our intense meetings but then there would be a couple hours in the afternoon where they could go swim, see the dolphins. So this was for many of them the first time to see what it’s like in a successful society in which people are free, they take their families to a nice resort they sit around and have a good time.
I took Arbatov fishing one afternoon. When we were out there Arbatov said there had been a lot of discussion about Star Wars. Reagan had said the US was going to put up some magical shield and make their nuclear weapons quote “impotent and obsolete.” This had a big big impact in Moscow and I said “What do you really think about this, that’s not really feasible is it?” and he said, “A lot of people think it’s not feasible. At the meeting we had a lot of experts that said no no, this is just a concept; there’s no technology that does this.”
I said, “I’m not a scientist so I can’t judge. Sounds hugely implausible to me.” But I was mischievous and I said, “Have you ever heard of the Astrodome?” and he said, “No, what is it?” I said, “Well, these guys in Texas made this roof that goes over a whole football stadium and covers the whole thing.” He said, “No no no” I said, “ Would you like to see it?” he said, “Well yeah, we should”.
So after that meeting we went to Houston and look at this thing and he said, “You think they can put this whole thing over the whole country?” I said, “I don’t know; it’s not my thing.” I think they thought American technology was magical. Particularly for policy types who were not technical types, the Star Wars imagery did have a motivating component. But I think in the main what was learned in those meetings both by them and by us was that in confrontations between the US and Russia anything like the Cuban Missile crisis we simply wouldn’t survive--if there’s a 1 in 3 chance and you do that 2 or 3 times it gets tougher to survive and the consequences are getting worse all the time. In 1962 maybe there would have been 100 million people killed; but in the mid-’80s we would have succeeded in killing everybody--so completely out of proportion with any conceivable purpose. I became personally more persuaded that these guys for sure didn’t want to go there.
Reagan articulated early on the proposition that a nuclear war can never be won and must therefore never be fought. He thought that he would talk to these guys and find some way to deal with them; and they would discover our form of life and government was better than theirs. I think that the concepts of what you could do concretely to prevent crisis and then ultimately what you could do to change the character of the relationship became where the conversation went.
Thanks to you and Carnegie, we had this preventing nuclear war project at Harvard. When they asked you to be head of Carnegie I had recruited you to come to Harvard to run health policy and management at the Kennedy School and the Med School and the school of Public Health. So I said, “Don’t do this thing, you have too much important work to do at Harvard.” You said, “After spending most of my life on one side of the table with a tin cup asking for contributions, I find the idea of being on the other side of the table with a pitcher too attractive. But one of the early gifts is going to be to the Kennedy School that’s going to require you to focus on this issue because this is the most important issue.”
You induced me, Joe [Nye,] and Al Carnesale to be the three principal investigators in this Avoiding Nuclear War Project, which initially produced a book called Hawks, Doves and Owls. It traced the paths to nuclear war, but more importantly asked what were the key factors that would make it likely and then what specific actions could you take to reduce the likelihood? Having worked our way through that, we went to the next round in a book called Fateful Vision, which remains an interesting book. What it did was say, don’t count on nuclear deterrence to work forever. It’s quite stable as a mechanism; you can’t attack me without basically committing suicide. But it has a fatal flaw. If by accident or miscalculations or unauthorized use this thing should be triggered we are both dead--and all the people in our society, even all the species. How much sense can that make? So what Fateful Vision did was to explore alternative visions that would be consistent with surviving. One of those was a world in which you’d have zero or low numbers of nuclear weapons. But what turned out to be the most interesting of the alternative futures was one in which the Soviet Union was transformed. There was a chapter on that, which said “Could you imagine in 25 years that the Soviet Union and its relationship with the US would change as much as the US relationship with China changed after Nixon went to China?.” Most of the criticism of the book at the time was “Oh these people have really bought into some version of fuzz”
Hamburg: That cluster of activities--the various books, the many national and international conferences that you had, and your growing set of relationships with Soviet counterparts--many knowledgeable people have told me no nongovernmental activity had as big an effect on diminishing the risks of a nuclear war as the Harvard Preventing the Nuclear War Project.
I’m very interested in the institution building aspects of preventing mass violence. Now you were Dean of the Kennedy School, which you had built greatly in quantity and quality and which was arguably the most respected school of its kind in the world and is today. You kept building the institution and strengthening the components that would be helpful to prevent mass violence. I wish you’d say something about building the institution and the institution’s strengths. It’s very special not only in intellectual activity in prevention but in the contact between scholars and the policy people.
Allison: I had the great fortune to come along at the right time: there was the label of the school but no concept or strategy for building the school. I was 37 years old, the youngest-ever Harvard Dean. There wasn’t anything there, so one could be bold and experimental. In trying to think of a mission statement, we came up with the thought that Harvard needed to build a school of government and public policy that would serve society’s demands for excellence in government. In many ways Harvard’s other major professional schools--of business, law, and medicine--served similar demands in their respective professions.
The concept was that Harvard in the 18th century made up a medical school at a time when people didn’t know much about medicine, and the training of doctors wasn’t very good, and the practice of medicine wasn’t very good. Then you had the law school in the19th century: trying to train lawyers at a time when most people who became lawyers didn’t go to law school. Then you had the beginning of the business school in the 20th century; but most business entrepreneurs don’t have to go to business school. Bill Gates didn’t have to go to learn to do what he does--or Warren Buffet to learn to do what he does.
Our mission statement communicated the proposition that university-based analysis and research and teaching and training should have a connection with the real world of practice. That is very different than the mission of the department of political science or the department of economics or faculty of arts and sciences. In the strategy there were 3 basic pillars. One was the graduate degree program, which would be the equivalent of teaching business school students, law school students, masters of policy, and masters of public administration. The second was the executive program, for people already in responsible jobs; they come for a shorter period of time. The first of those we did were for new generals and admirals and their civilian equivalents--they are not going to sit still for two weeks if you are going blah blah blah. The third and most important stood on a foundation of research centers that were trying to advance policy level knowledge about the most important challenges, in a way that would clarify those problems for society and inform their teaching. Now the first of the research centers for the School was the Center for Science and International Affairs. Its main focus was all things nuclear. This started with the founding director Paul Doty and McGeorge Bundy when he had gone to the Ford Foundation. I got Bundy to endow it so that it became a permanent research center, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs that I am the director of today. But it became a base for building competence on all the sets of issues to do with nuclear issues, particularly war and peace or security, or international security and elements of it. And Al Carnesale had actually been recruited to be the first deputy director of that.
And then after you went to Carnegie, when we were doing the Avoiding Nuclear War Project, I got Joe Nye to become the director of the center. And so the fellows who worked on the Avoiding Nuclear War project that you funded at Carnegie were fellows at the Center for Science and Nuclear Affairs. A huge number of people work in the space currently, and I think the combination of these elements, that is, a place that was advancing policy-relevant knowledge about the most important challenges--what challenge more important than nuclear war?--and a combination of people who were first class analysts on the one hand and [people] who aspired to or had been actually spending some time in government on the other gave a different quality to the mix. Today at the center we have two or three deputy secretaries of defense, a director of the CIA, and we had half a dozen who had been assistant secretaries of defense or state. There’s no gap between practice and policy-relevant knowledge, it’s all a part of the common conversation. The executive programs were then extended to international programs. The program for more than twenty years [has been] done jointly with American generals and Russian generals in the same room. If you look at the Russian general staff, you now have 1,000 people who have taken this program; and when one goes to the defense ministry there’s a huge number of people that have been in an executive program or they are talking about it. I’m doing a class now on nuclear terrorism.
Hamburg: Much of it is shared with American generals.
Allison: Yes, with the American generals and Russian generals all in the same room having a discussion, because this is a common problem the two parties face. Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar give a lot of credit to work done at the center as part of the intellectual and practical inspiration for the Nunn-Lugar initiative.
The single most important congressional initiative in national security since World War II, and then the cooperative nuclear threat reduction program, come pretty directly from the cooperative denuclearization book that we did at the center. Right through you can find pretty tight threads between ideas generated in such a setting and then actions taken in government--sometimes by people who go and get briefings and sometimes by people that have come through the executive programs.
Just as an anecdote, remember early on in Putin’s regime the submarine Kursk that nobody could do anything about. Well, they had two years later a similar thing. It was on the Pacific side and it was stuck under water. The people were going to drown and an American mini-sub came and saved the guys. How did this happen? A guy who had been a Russian admiral picked up the phone and called an American. It would have taken a week to go through the channels up to Putin. So he calls up a guy he knows from this program and he says, “We got some guys who got stuck. Anything you can do? Again, an American would have taken a week to get approval. He just did something and then put the thing in the system; and by the time it was approved by either side [the submarine] had already been saved.
Hamburg: So many side effects grew out of your knowledge and stature, and the stature, resources, and international contacts of the center. I got you together with Hisashi Owada--he’s a member of Sam Nunn’s board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative now—a jurist of the International Court of Justice. Owada was the most effective permanent representative in the United Nations during his term as ambassador of Japan at the United Nations. You and he teamed up on a paper that our Carnegie Commission felt a need to add: what can the established democracies do to prevent deadly conflict? It was difficult because many countries in the UN felt that anything like that would be an intrusion or domination by powerful democracies on weaker or poorer countries.
You and Owada did a paper that laid out a set of principles that could be applied both in interstate and intrastate war. It was one of the best sellers of the Carnegie Commission and had ramifications around the world. It had an effect on Kofi Annan and world leaders who saw powerful insights as to how the established democracies could help to prevent deadly conflict without unreasonably or unfairly imposing themselves on others, but rather [by] being truly helpful in the most constructive sense to avoid catastrophic events because of the strengths and principles of democracy.
Allison: Basically, if I think about Hamburg and prevention I have these thoughts: first, that you’ve been right from the beginning about prevention. You think about the consequences a decade from today if everybody stays in the business-as-usual scenario, and then identify and motivate actions today that cause things to turn out differently later. That’s been a huge contribution and a big lesson I’ve learnt from you.
The second is the Truman proposition, which you embody better then anybody I’ve known in an academic entrepreneurial world: there is no end to what someone can accomplish if they are prepared to let others have the credit.