Nuclear Disarmament

Democratic Candidate Sargent Shriver Jr. in Harlem

JP Laffont/© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

During the 1970s, Sargent Shriver found himself in a unique position to pursue global peace. With business taking him frequently to Moscow, Shriver decided to leverage this new-found connection with the Eastern superpower to de-escalate the mounting tension of the Cold War and lobby for a reduction of the American stockpile of nuclear arms.

Initially, Shriver sought to spread his agenda through political channels, entreating Jimmy Carter to endorse a peaceful “Common Existence” between the US and the Soviet Union. He was losing sway within the Democratic party, however, and was not able to have much influence over Carter’s moderate position, particularly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. With Russia’s advance into Central Asia threatening to seize control of oil supplies in the Persian Gulf, Carter felt pressure to abandon his plan of limiting nuclear proliferation in the United States in favor of a more aggressive stance.

What little influence Shriver might have had during the Carter administration all but disappeared when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. He signed a letter urging the new president to take a more pacific stance on the use of nuclear arms, but the plea went unacknowledged.

Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Sargent Shriver set up a meeting on October 20, 1981, inviting a small group of influential policymakers to Avondale. Present were Herbert “Pete” Scoville, long-time expert on weapons technology, Robert McNamara, then head of the World Bank, Paul Warnke, Carter’s chief negotiator during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, George Kennan, author of “X” document, William Colby, former head of CIA, Gerard Smith, a childhood friend and a national leader in arms-control negotiation, and Father Bryan Hehir, director of policy for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The group ultimately agreed that any nuclear strike whatsoever would be a catastrophic horror to be avoided at all costs. And so, after a thorough discussion, the group decided their best approach to the issue would be to publish an article promoting a “No First Strike” policy, whereby the United States would pledge not to deploy a nuclear strike in an armed conflict unless nuclear force had already been used by another power.

After months of back and forth (which often seemed tedious and wasteful to Shriver), the group finally decided to publish the article with Foreign Affairs, a prominent foreign policy journal at the time. Bundy and McNamara would be named as the article’s primary authors, with Kennan and Smith as named coauthors. All said and done, the article was published April 7, 1982.

While promoting nuclear disarmament in the political sphere, Shriver also considered the other avenues he had available to him for advocating the idea of a “No First Strike” policy—in particular, the Catholic Church. As Bundy, McNamara, Kennan, and Smith wrote their article for Foreign Affairs, Bryan Hehir (with Sargent Shriver’s encouragement) began drafting a pastoral letter to all Catholic dioceses in the United States that would “echo the moral arguments being made in the Foreign Affairs article”. The first draft arrived at Sarge’s office in June of 1982 and, after some thorough edits from Sarge himself, was released in early October of the same year.

Many felt that it was not the Catholic Churches place to weigh in on nuclear arms policy, but Shriver felt strongly that the church not only had a right, but moreover had a duty to pay attention to such global issues. He coauthored a letter with Gerard Smith to this affect that was sent to Ben Bradlee and A. M. Rosenthal, editors of The Washington Post and the New York Times, on November 17.

As the controversy grew over the Catholic Church’s involvement in the issue of nuclear disarmament, so too did Sargent Shriver’s resolute belief that this was a necessary effort on the part of the Church to make a statement toward the proliferation of peace on earth. On May 2, 1983, the American bishops of the Catholic Church voted almost unanimously (238-9) to endorse the letter written by Hehir, ensuring its publication in dioceses all over the country.

Sargent Shriver’s effort to stop nuclear proliferation and lobby for peaceful common existence was not only a true test of his political will and acumen, but also allowed him to explore his political drive along a central axis of faith. After all, to consider and promote a “No First Strike” policy requires substantial courage, an iron commitment to upholding peace and non-violence in the world, and a steadfast faith that others, given the choice, will abide by that same promise.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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