Opening remarks by William Perry at the special conference session on the “Intellectual Legacy of the Academician A.D. Sakharov and Issues of Strategic Stability", July 15, 2020

Opening remarks by William J. Perry

at the Special Conference Session on the “Intellectual Legacy of the Academician A.D. Sakharov and Issues of Strategic Stability"

July 15, 2020

When I think of Russians of the Cold War period who had the greatest influence on my thinking, the first three who come to my mind are Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Boris Pasternak.Although their careers were very different, they had one thing in common: a love of freedom, which they pursued eloquently and bravely, in the face of serious governmental opposition and personal danger.Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak were, of course, writers, while Sakharov was a physicist, but they were in many ways, kindred spirits.

I am going to speak today of Andrei Sakharov. He was a brilliant scientist who specialized in particle physics but is best known as the “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb.” Indeed, although he always maintained his interest in particle physics, he was never able to devote enough time to it.

I am not going to talk today about his work on the bomb, which is well known, or his work in particle physics, which is outside of my competence, but his passion for the last several decades of his life, described by Henry Kissinger as follows: “Sakharov was a remarkable man whose heroic insistence on the preservation of human dignity in the Soviet Union was a seminal contribution to the cause of freedom in the world.”

My first-hand information about Sakharov came from my Stanford friend, the late Sidney Drell, who met Sakharov in 1974 at a conference of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. After the conference, Sakharov invited Drell to his apartment, where they talked on into the night, in spite of the language difficulties. This was to be the first of many such sessions, during which Drell developed a deep admiration of Sakharov. Drell has said: “Sakharov’s defining characteristic was a selfless kindness that brought him the respect and admiration of all who knew him. If you meet a man like that, you never forget it.”

Sakharov died too soon: he was only 68, younger than most of us at this conference. After his death, George Shultz and Sid Drell held a conference at Stanford in his honor. And they followed that with a book: “Andrei Sakharov: The Conscience of Humanity.” Some of my comments today are based on what was said of Sakharov at that conference.

Sakharov believed that nuclear weapons represented an existential threat to mankind and expressed the fear that they would someday be used in a catastrophic war. And he was a leader in the campaign to stop nuclear testing. So it is not surprising that he was often asked why he had worked to develop the hydrogen bomb. His answer was straightforward. He said that he understood the terrible nature of the weapon he had helped create, but that the war that Russia had recently suffered had been excessively barbaric, and that the work he had on the bomb was of vital importance to ensure that the victory they had won at such a great cost would not be wasted. He later said: “After more than forty years, we have had no third world war, and the balance of nuclear terror ... may have helped to prevent one. But I am not at all sure of this; back then, in those long-gone years, the question didn't even arise.”

The major turn in Sakharov's political evolution came in 1967, when anti-ballistic missile defense became a key issue in U.S.–Soviet relations. In a secret detailed letter to the Soviet leadership of July 21, 1967, Sakharov explained the need to "take the Americans at their word" and accept their proposal for a "bilateral rejection by the USA and the Soviet Union of the development of antiballistic missile defense," because otherwise an arms race in this new technology would increase the likelihood of nuclear war. He also asked permission to publish his manuscript (which accompanied the letter) in a newspaper to explain the dangers posed by this kind of defense. The government ignored his letter and refused to let him initiate a public discussion of ABMs in the Soviet press.

The next year he became concerned about the adverse environmental effects of testing and began campaigning to end nuclear tests. In particular, he was an early supporter of the LTBT, which would end above ground nuclear tests. When a date was set for the end of atmospheric testing, the Soviet government undertook a crash program to conduct as many tests as they could before the test moratorium took hold. These tests included the atmospheric test of the largest bomb ever tested: the monster bomb that detonated in the atmosphere with the destructive power of 60 megatons. Sakharov had strongly and bitterly opposed that testing, and his opposition was so vehement that it caused a major rift with the Soviet government. Here was a man who had won some of the Soviet Union’s most prestigious awards, including the Order of Stalin, now alienated from the government on a matter of deep principle.

Sakharov then determined to express some of his ideas in writing, and in May 1968 he completed an essay entitled "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom." Commenting on this essay he said:“I went into some detail on the threat posed by thermonuclear missiles – their enormous destructive power, their relatively low cost, the difficulty of defending against them. I wrote about the crimes of Stalinism and the need to expose them fully (unlike the Soviet press, I pulled no punches), and about the vital importance of freedom of opinion and democracy.”

This essay marked a critical turning point for Sakharov, from which he never turned back. He certainly knew that the government would have a very adverse reaction to it. In fact, after this essay was circulated and then published outside the Soviet Union Sakharov was banned from conducting any military-related research.

But at that point Sakharov simply doubled down. In 1970 he became a founding member of the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR, which became active in several prominent human rights cases. He became the subject of KGB reports and came under increasing pressure from the government. In 1972 he married the human-rights activist Yelena Bonner, established a correspondence with Solzhenitsyn, and began meeting with Western correspondents. The Soviet government’s media campaign began targeting both Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, and only intensified after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, which called him “a spokesman for the conscience of mankind.”

Sakharov later said: "At first I thought, despite everything that I saw with my own eyes, that the Soviet State was a breakthrough into the future, a kind of prototype for all countries," and that it took "years" for him to "understand how much substitution, deceit, and lack of correspondence with reality there was" in the Soviet ideals. Sakharov was arrested in 1980, following his public protests against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and was sent to internal exile in Gorky, a city that was off limits to foreigners.

Between 1980 and 1986, Sakharov was kept in Gorky under Soviet police surveillance. In his memoirs he mentions that their apartment in Gorky was repeatedly subjected to searches and heists. His period at Gorky is marked by a remarkable level of defiance, most notably in several hunger strikes where the government force-fed him to keep him alive.

Shortly after Gorbachev came to power he decided to allow Sakharov to return to Moscow, where he was able to meet with his Russian friends as well as colleagues from abroad. During this period he renewed his acquaintance with Sid Drell, who told me of the times he met with Sakharov in his apartment, resuming their pre-Gorky talks.

We were all shocked at his early death. Shortly after his death, Sid planned a conference at Stanford to reflect on his life. He also helped organize a special book where many of Sakharov’s friends wrote essays honoring him. Sid would be the ideal person to be giving the paper I am giving today, but sadly, Sid passed away several years ago. Another person who could best describe Sakharov’s unique significance was his colleague in the human rights movement, Lev Kopelev, who said about Sakharov:

“And he suffered. He suffered the suffering of every man. I don’t know if I can explain it, the soul of Sakharov who suffers for each suffering man. He loved his work; he loved his physics; he can’t live without his physics. But when he got a phone call that someone is arrested or someone had been searched, he got up and got a taxi or trolley.”

Sakharov lived in an era where the Soviet Union was ruled by an authoritarian government, and where the hostility between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was intense and dangerous. And he was a voice for sanity and decency at a time when it was desperately needed. At the time of the Stanford conference on Sakharov, we thought those days were behind us. But we were wrong. Today an authoritarian government rules in Russia and increasingly is being emulated in the U.S., as the Trump administration whittles away at our democratic institutions, especially the rule of law. And the hostility between our two countries has reached Cold War levels again. The danger of a nuclear confrontation has returned to Cold War levels; indeed, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist rates it as somewhat more dangerous than during the Cold War. But today we do not have Sakharov to speak of those dangers posed by our enormous nuclear arsenals, and of the need for our governments to respect human rights. So as we look back at the remarkable life of Sakharov, it is not enough to admire him. We should also seek to emulate him.

I would like to end my paper by quoting Kopelev on Sakharov:

“The majesty of his spirit; the power of his intellect; the purity of his soul; his chivalrous courage and selfless kindness feeds my faith in the future of Russia and mankind.”