We Ought to Go to Zero

Ploughshares Fund is conducting interviews with some of our first donors - recording their stories of why they initially took a risk on Sally Lilienthal’s big idea. Board member and former Ploughshares executive director Gloria Duffy interviews Lew Butler, our first chairman of the board below. The interview has been edited and condensed for space. A shorter version appears in this quarter’s newsletter.


Gloria: How did you first hear of Ploughshares?

Lew: Sally, who I had known for a while through other peace activism, came to see me one day at my office. She told me that she wanted to start a foundation to work on international issues and asked me to a meeting at her house. I've got the records of that first meeting, and there were a whole bunch of people that, not only I didn't know, but that I had never heard of -- should have heard of -- but had never heard of.

One of them was Owen Chamberlain. I've told that story before. I'm sitting next to Owen on a couch, and Sally realizes that I'm about to ask Owen what he does for a living, and she pokes me or kicks me, or does something and I managed to change the subject. At the break, Sally tells me the man's got a Nobel Prize in Physics at UC Berkeley. The other one was a friend of Phil's (Sally’s husband); named Jack Service. Jack Service seemed just the nicest and quietest guy and seemed to know something about international stuff. I realized later that it was John Stewart Service, who of course had been accused of being a traitor to the United States, and a communist, and everything else. I thought that was pretty interesting, we'd got a guy whose whole diplomatic career started with Mao, and had been vindicated years later, and we've got a Nobel Prize winner for a board member. We might actually do something with this outfit.

At the meeting, Sally started the conversation actually talking about human rights: she'd done Amnesty International. The only subject was international affairs, and we were debating what kind of international affairs, or human rights or Central American issue we would tackle. There were all kinds of stuff floating around the room. That’s when Chamberlain, the quietest, nicest man says, “there are all kinds of problems in the world but there's only one that will destroy civilization, and that's nuclear weapons.” There was this great quiet in the room. So that was it.

G: So the group came to a consensus that they should try to do something about nuclear weapons. What was your reaction? Did you immediately see what a group in San Francisco could do about it?

L: I had no idea we could do anything, but it seemed like the right subject. But it wasn't clear that we could have any effect on anything, so we felt that we might as well pick the biggest problem. We had no money, we had no office, we had no staff. So why not?

G: That was the time of the Reagan strategic buildup, there were a lot of wild statements about being able to survive and win a nuclear war. Not to mention the extreme tension between the US and the Soviet Union. How much did that have to do with selecting the field that Ploughshares would work in?

L: It didn’t have much to do with our initial decision. By the time we started working on it, though, it wasn't too hard to get the picture that the Cold War could mean the end of civilization and that was going to happen because of the advanced weapons. So that certainly made us more serious.

G: When did you first see something that Ploughshares could do that seemed concrete and effective?

L: I remember the first time when it really struck me that we actually might have an effect on something. Sally was telling me about funding a guy who had gone down to talk to the Argentinians and the Brazilians. They both were nuts enough to want to have nuclear weapons because they didn’t like each other. So we funded this guy, and he was trying to talk them out of it. That was David Albright. I don't know whether David talked them out of it or not, but both countries stopped. And I thought, well that's not bad.

G: I think one of my first observations about making a difference was when Ploughshares funded NRDC to do a test of seismic verification of nuclear testing in the Soviet Union, where the Reagan administration and the US arms control experts had been saying how difficult it was to verify, to make any agreements with the Soviets because you couldn't verify what they were doing. So Ploughshares funded a group of seismoligists and other scientists who got on a ship and took some equipment over there and monitored seismic activity, and it demonstrated how that kind of verification could be done.

L: Well that was by far the biggest deal for Ploughshares, when that came along. Sally said, we're going to give NRDC five thousand bucks so that it can go to Moscow and make a deal with the Soviet Academy of Science. The big question then was would we fund putting in the seismic stations. Well, at that point our grants were five or ten or fifteen thousand dollars, Sally wanted to give them $100,000 - ten times what we had ever done before. And we gave it to them.

At that point, a trip was organized for all of us to go to the Soviet Union, in September of 1988. Sally was to be the key person on the trip, but it included Tom Layton and I and our wives and so on, and even our daughter who had just graduated from college, who spoke Russian.

While we were there, the Russian patriarch put on a luncheon for us. But Sally was sick. So I became the nominal head and we went to meet with this group they put together. Among the group was Andrei Sakharov and Etienne Velakov, who was a hero at Chernobyl. There were lots of toasts, lots of vodka.

Around five o’clock, Sakharov spoke for about thirty minutes about how he wanted to get rid of the Soviet Army and put all the nuclear materials underground and totally eliminate nuclear weapons. Which was remarkable, because he was one of the fathers of the Soviet bomb. At the end, he looked at me and asked, “don’t you agree?” I said, “well, Dr. Sakharov, I don't think it's up to a whole bunch of Americans to tell the citizens of the Soviet Union what they ought to be doing.” And his response was, "why don't you try?" Well of course, at the same time, the seismic monitoring stations that we had funded were being installed outside of Semipalatinsk, the Soviet testing grounds in Kazakhstan.
That is when I actually realized you could do something about nuclear weapons.

G: Do you think there's something about the nuclear issue that there needs to be stewardship and action over a long period of time in order to see results?

L: About five hundred years. You know we can't dis-invent this, can we? Who knows how long Ploughshares can last, but thanks to Owen Chamberlain and Sally, we got it right at the start and I'm just glad I've lived long enough to see the president of the United States say we ought to go to zero.

Photo: Peter Fedewa