There will never be a movie about the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
Leonard Nimoy will not play Dick Lugar.
The reason is that over the course of the program that has been in place for two decades, arguably one of the greatest legislative achievements ever, no one died.
There were no mushroom clouds over American cities or London. Tens of thousands of people were not stricken with sarin gas at Wrigley Field. We didn’t watch images of scores of bodies being removed from the Metro. Weaponized smallpox did not sweep over a continent. We don’t have a radius of thousands of miles of American land unusable due to radiation as seen around Chernobyl.
To the masses and even Hoosier Republican primary voters, Nunn-Lugar is boring. That’s because the “action” was nuanced and played out in obscure places deep in Siberia and in invisible Soviet cities that only appeared to the masses with the advent of Google Earth.
Those attending the talk by Lugar and his Senate partner Sam Nunn – “Diplomacy in a Dangerous World” moderated by NPR’s Steve Inskeep – Tuesday evening at the University of Indianapolis were able to witness and sense the depth of this achievement.
“You could sense a higher purpose and a seriousness of purpose,” said Inskeep, the Carmel native who hosts NPR’s Morning Edition. Inskeep called it the “most successful disarmament program” that rid the world of tens of thousands of weapons of mass destruction.
“Nunn-Lugar is being applied world wide,” Nunn said. “It was applied in Libya. It is being applied in Syria right now on the chemical weapons with the U.S. and Russia. The Nunn-Lugar program was for our security.” Literally, the technicians on the ground amid the vicious Syrian civil war, removing to date about 20 percent of the chemicals thus far, are Russians trained with Nunn-Lugar funding.
It wasn’t quite the same as Texas U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson wheeling from cocaine parties to House conferences where he figured out how to steer millions in appropriations to fund the mujahedin. That was the story in the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Nunn and Lugar were able to attach an amendment to a funding bill for $400 million in funding. There was no way it would have survived a straight up-or-down vote. “What had been wildly opposed in September 1991 was passed in December 1991,” Nunn said.
Nunn and Lugar had spent years developing relationships not only in Congress, but also with the Soviets. Around a round table in Nunn’s Capitol Hill office, the two found themselves with Soviet military leaders who told them, “’You need to know that security is breaking down around nuclear weapons aimed at you. Our troops are not getting paid, and that’s why they are deserting’,” Lugar recalled.
The Indiana Republican and the Georgia Democrat found themselves in Moscow as it careened into financial crisis with unpaid military and weapon researchers overseeing an array of loose nukes, chemicals and biological weapons stored behind chain link fences with padlocks and in chicken coops.
“We went to see Boris Yeltsin and he told us in no uncertain terms” that Ukraine would have to give up its arsenal. Lugar and Nunn subsequently met with Ukraine President Leonid Kravchuk. The Indiana Republican suggested divesting the arsenal might bring a $150 million check from the U.S. “At a press conference with two reporters, one radio, one print, Kravchuk said he had just been offered $175 million,” Lugar said.
“I came to see President Bush and he was very sad over his election defeat to President Clinton, but he wrote a letter to Kravchuk offering $175 million. Every single one of those weapons went to Russia,” Lugar said, with much of the highly enriched uranium recovered shipped to the U.S. to fuel nuclear power plants. “It made a huge difference.”
At one point, President George H.W. Bush said, “Senators don’t do this.”
Pointing to Lugar, Nunn added, “This man is a remarkable leader.”
The senators got a glimpse of the huge stakes. “I visited a silo in Ukraine,” Lugar explained. “This is where a missile had been pulled out. I went down an elevator 13 floors where the guards stayed and on the walls around the table were pictures, beautiful pictures of American cities. These were identified as targets. I thought all the time I was mayor of Indianapolis from ‘68 to ‘75 we were targeted and could have been obliterated. There were enough warheads to knock out all of our major cities, plus the military installations. We were mighty lucky to make it through to that point where these Russians ended up around Sam’s table and they wanted our money, our people.”
Could a Nunn/Lugar partnership happen today?
“The voters are going to have to determine this,” Nunn said. “The voters are going to have to tell both the Republicans and Democrats they are going to have to find solutions. I think the answer is the voters have to understand if they send people to Washington that are basically saying they are not going to yield, you’re asking for dysfunction.”
Conflict and ideologies make for great movies. Nunn and Lugar forged a much more gratifying story.