By Daryl G. Kimball
Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.–an influential nuclear arms control practitioner, advocate, scholar, and mentor for new generations of weapons and security experts–died on August 10 at the age of 87 of cancer at his home in Washington D.C.
Spurgeon was known to his many colleagues and arms control acquaintances the world over as practical, professional, persistent, and incredibly knowledgable and well-connected. He was a walking, talking nuclear arms control Google search engine before there was an internet.
His long career put him in the center of the ongoing struggle to reduce the threat of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction for more than five decades.
Amazingly, Spurgeon served in key U.S. government positions in the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter administrations. He was an analyst, advisor, strategist, and negotiator on issues including the nuclear test ban, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, and more. He continued to play a leading role outside of government as a scholar with the National Academies of Science and as the long-time president and executive director of the Arms Control Association in 1980s and 1990s.
He was born on October 24, 1924, in New York, N.Y. He received a B.A. in 1944 and an M.A. in 1946 in physics from Columbia University and attended the School of International Affairs at Russian Institute at Columbia University in 1946-47.
In 1948 Keeny joined the Air Force and, as a first lieutenant and with a unique background in physics and Soviet studies, he was assigned to the Directorate of Intelligence, Headquarters USAF. While there he was involved in the analysis of the Soviet nuclear weapons test explosion in August 1949 that signaled the first instance of nuclear proliferation.
From 1950 to 1955, he was first an analyst and then Chief of the Special Weapons Section of the USAF, Directorate of Intelligence, which primarily followed the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Until the mid-1950’s he represented the Air Force on the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee that prepared the national assessments of the Soviet nuclear threat.
In 1955 Keeny became a staff member of the Panel on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, serving until 1956. He was Chief of the Atomic Energy Division, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, from 1956 to 1957.
From 1958 to 1969, Keeny served as technical assistant to the President’s Science Advisor, serving under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Starting in 1963, he was also a senior staff member of the National Security Council until 1969, serving under McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger. In this dual capacity, he worked in the areas of military technology, atomic energy, technical intelligence, and arms control.
In 1958 as Technical Assistant to James Killian, Eisenhower’s first Science Advisor, he staffed the advisory committees that led to Eisenhower’s decision to pursue a comprehensive test ban and then served as the staff director for the U.S. delegation to the international Conference of Experts that concluded a test ban could be verified. In the fall of 1958, he was a member of the U.S. delegation to the first negotiations for a test ban, and he continued to be involved in test ban policy issues during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In 1965, Keeny also served as the staff director for the Special Committee on Nuclear Proliferation, chaired by Roswell Gilpatric, which advised President Johnson on nuclear non-proliferation issues. On the basis of this report, Johnson subsequently directed Secretary of State Dean Rusk to complete the NPT despite opposition from the State Department bureaucracy and several key allied governments.
In 1969 Keeny was appointed Assistant Director for Science and Technology of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), serving until 1973. In this capacity, he was responsible for ACDA activities in support of SALT I and for the technical aspects of other arms control areas.
In 1973, Keeny became the director of policy and program development for the MITRE Corporation and was also vice chairman of the Committee on Environmental Decision Making of the National Academy of Sciences.
During this time, he was also chairman of the Nuclear Energy Policy Study Group, which produced a report, “Nuclear Power Issues and Choices” that helped move the United States away from the utilization of plutonium for civil power production. The study concluded that “there is no compelling reason at this time to introduce plutonium or to anticipate its introduction in this century.”
The report documented that the proliferation and safety dangers of the plutonium fuel economy heavily outweighed any possible economic benefit under the most optimistic assumptions for reprocessing, and recommended that a clear cut decision be made “to defer indefinitely commercial reprocessing of plutonium.”
In April 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Keeny to be Deputy Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, where he worked closely with ACDA director Paul Warnke and played a significant role in test ban and nuclear arms limitation talks with the Soviets. During the Carter years, Washington and Moscow were negotiating a second round of strategic nuclear arms limitations (a.k.a. SALT II) and were once again pursuing a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, domestic support for the SALT II diminished and ratification efforts were stopped short. Nevertheless, both the U.S. and Soviet leaders continued to respect the basic limits established by the treaty for many years.
As President Reagan entered office amidst renewed tensions with Russia, Keeny and his long-time friend and collaborator Wolfgang Panofsky made a common sense argument for reducing arsenals to what was necessary for nuclear deterrence only. They warned against proposals to build up the U.S. arsenal and find new, more “credible” roles and missions for nuclear weapons. In their Winter 1981/82 article in Foreign Affairs, “Nuclear Weapons in the 1980s: MAD vs. NUTS,” Keeny and Panofsky wrote:
“The principal danger of doctrines that are directed at limiting nuclear conflicts is that they might be believed and form the basis for action without appreciation of the physical facts and uncertainties of nuclear conflict. The failure of policymakers to understand the truly revolutionary nature of nuclear weapons as instruments of war and the staggering size of the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and the Soviet Union could have catastrophic consequences for the entire world.”
They concluded that: “The principal hope at this time is … in recognizing the nuclear world for what it is and seeking to make it more stable and less dangerous.”
In 1981, Keeny became the scholar-in-residence with the National Academy of Sciences, coordinating their project on international security and arms control, and for many years afterwards, he served on the NAS Committee on International Security and Arms Control, contributing to several of its seminal reports, including its 2002 report on “Technical Issues Related to the CTBT” and its important 1997 report on “The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” which recommended that:
“… the use of nuclear weapons be limited to a core mission of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others” and called for “a program of progressive constraints to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,000 total warheads each and then, if security conditions permit, to a few hundred warheads, provided adequate verification procedures and transparency measures have been implemented.”
That was good advice then and is even more appropriate now.
From January 1985 to July 2001, Keeny was President and Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, which was formed in 1971 by several of his former government colleagues to support pragmatic arms control solutions. While at ACA, Keeny was a go-to source for reporters and editors writing on the nuclear arms control issues of the day, he testified before Congress and continued to be consulted by those in government on key issues, and ACA became a more influential voice on U.S. arms control policy.
Under Spurgeon’s leadership and prodding, the organization’s journal, Arms Control Today, developed from a newsletter to a full-fledged monthly journal, which physicist Hans A. Bethe once praised as “by far the best magazine in the field.” Arms Control Today received the 1991 Olive Branch Award for “outstanding” coverage of international security for a notable series of articles on the potential for terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons material in the former Soviet Union.
Spurgeon set high standards for his team and his colleagues. Along with his long-time ACA deputy director Jack Mendelsohn, Spurgeon had a knack for finding and attracting talented, hard-working young staffers.
During the Keeny era, ACA served as a training ground for dozens of national security and arms control leaders and scholars, including: Matthew Bunn, Jamie Rubin, Michele Flournoy, Lee Feinstein, Dunbar Lockwood, Victoria Holt, Greg Webb, Jon Wolfsthal, Evan S. Medeiros, Sarah Walkling, Peter Scoblic, Wade Boese and many more. Along the way, some of them even improved their touch football skills at the games Spurgeon organized and played on weekends near his home in northwest D.C.
Before I joined ACA in 2001, when I was the director of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, I recall that Spurgeon was always looking for more effective ways to advance the coalition’s work on our priority issues, including ratification of START II and negotiation of START III, ratification of the CTBT and President Clinton’s decision on whether or not to deploy unproven strategic ballistic missile interceptors.
One of the topics that we talked about frequently was the CTBT. With his long and direct experience on the issue of the nuclear test ban and the test ban treaty (which he spoke about in an extended interview on C-SPAN in 2003), he devoted significant energy to making the case for the CTBT through congressional testimony, ACA briefings, and through his “Focus” editorials in Arms Control Today.
At Coalition working group meetings and in our numerous phone conversations before and after I arrived at ACA, Spurgeon always provided good, practical advice, encouragement, and support.
Following his ACA years, he continued to provide ideas and insights on future issues for arms control and disarmament verification, he pushed and prodded for progress on unfinished tasks, and worried and warned about new nuclear dangers, including the potential spread of nuclear weapons and risk of nuclear terrorism.
Through his long and illustrious career, Spurgeon was in the right places at the right times to help advance some of the most important arms control initiatives that reduced the risks of the Cold War nuclear arms race and more. As one of the original architects of the nuclear arms control regime, Spurgeon helped make the world a safer place.
Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr. was married for 59 years to Sheila Spear Keeny, who was active with the League of Women Voters. Sheila died in 2011. He is survived by their three children, Christopher Keeny of Edgemont, N.Y., Virginia Keeny of Los Angeles and Spurgeon M. Keeny III of Chevy Chase, and four grandchildren.
A memorial service is being planned for this fall in Washington. More details on the life of Spurgeon Keeny will be published in the forthcoming issue of Arms Control Today.
The Arms Control Association invites you to share your recollections of his contributions via http://www.armscontrolnow.org in the comments section below. Personal condolences and messages can be sent to <[email protected]> and will be forwarded to the Keeny family.