Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

2002

George Lee Butler

George Lee Butler receives the Heinz Award for Public Policy for the clarity of his vision about the risks and dangers of nuclear weapons, for the courage with which he expressed and implemented it, and for the impact that he has had on the way in which the United States and the world view nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War period.

Virtually single-handedly, and at personal risk to his own career, General Butler questioned whether large numbers of nuclear weapons were needed for national defense, and inspired politicians, military officers, academics and ordinary citizens to re-examine their views and reassess their priorities.

George Lee Butler's early career as a young Air Force Academy graduate established what soon became a characteristic blend of intellect and action. After finishing first in flight school, he studied international relations at the University of Paris. In 1968, after volunteering to lead F-4 fighter missions in Vietnam, he spent a further six months as aide to the commander of the war's air operations.

In 1974, he was assigned to the Air Force's Directorate of Plans at the Pentagon, and was called upon to help prepare positions on the upcoming U.S. - Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). To his surprise - and dismay - he discovered that many of the controversies surrounding the Soviet nuclear threat were based as much on bureaucratic politics as on hardheaded assessments of strategic vulnerability. As he became increasingly privy to the highest reaches of strategic planning, he became increasingly skeptical about its underlying rationale.

In 1991, named as commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), General Butler assumed control of some 5,700 deployed nuclear warheads. Appalled to find that many of the sites marked as nuclear targets still reflected the overkill strategies of the Cold War era, General Butler revised the list, eliminating thousands of sites, and creating new strike options that involved using nuclear weapons against only a small number of targets.

Having recommended and planned for the closure of SAC in 1992, General Butler remained to head its much-reduced successor, the Strategic Command (STRATCOM). On the eve of the resumed U.S. - Russian START II arms talks, he urged the negotiators to adopt lower ceilings of nuclear weapons. Many observers felt that General Butler's active, open and articulate advocacy for arms limitations contributed to his being passed over as General Colin Powell's successor as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

General Butler's retirement from the military in 1994, after 33 years of service, marked the beginning of a new and more public career of commitment to rethinking the role of nuclear weapons. He was invited by the Australian government to be a member of the Canberra Commission, studying the feasibility of abolishing nuclear weapons. In a series of public statements, beginning with a major speech at the National Press Club in 1996, he called for the outright abolition of nuclear weapons. In 1999, he and his wife founded the Second Chance Foundation, dedicated to promoting responsible global reduction of nuclear dangers.

Despite the fact that his beliefs were frequently not in keeping with official policy, congruent with professional bias or conducive to personal advancement, George Lee Butler has been willing to take the risks required to do what he felt was right. He has made the world a better place by drastically decreasing the numbers of, and the planned uses for, nuclear weapons.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.

Speech

3/12/2002 - Acceptance Speech

Thank you, and good evening ladies and gentlemen. You do me great honor this evening. I feel especially privileged to be among such a distinguished group of honorees. On behalf of myself and my family I thank the Heinz Foundation for this affirmation of a quest spanning over a quarter-century: to help walk mankind back from the brink of nuclear self-destruction.

While this quest is not unique to me, it was, as the Foundation noted, surely unique for me to undertake such a role. It is not one that came easily nor readily. My sense of urgency and obligation grew in proportion to my access to classified information, my exposure to the risks of military operations and my alarm at the unbridled appetite for sustaining or acquiring nuclear arsenals notwithstanding the end of the Cold War.

Nor, as you also observed, is it a role easily played. While not surprised, I was nonetheless bemused by the reaction to my views, which ranged from condemnation to adulation. I discovered following my speech to the National Press Club in late 1996 that it is indeed possible to become simultaneously an icon and an iconoclast. On one memorable day, I received both a scathing rebuke from a former colleague, and a letter informing me I had been selected Sweetheart of the Year by the Grandmothers for Peace. I was immediately reminded of Harry Truman's advice to "always tell the truth - half your audience will be astonished and the other half gratified."

Breaking ranks in the nuclear weapons arena is risky business, not so much because of state secrets but because truth is so much in the eye of the beholder. It is a world of sweeping assertions and heroic assumptions, taken largely on faith, which if proved wrong would have apocalyptic consequences. But, for me, over time, a compelling truth emerged, the product of too many crises born of human frailty and the failure of both men and machines. Today, as the delicate balance of Cold War terror is better understood, and we witness the willing brinksmanship of new nuclear antagonists, this truth is starkly evident: we human beings are not to be trusted with the capacity for such boundless, wanton destructiveness. Our appetites, our egos, our fears and our enmities stand all too ready to brush aside the cautions of deterrence and to eagerly brandish the nuclear saber.

Yet, there is reason for hope. In this country, I see greater recognition that nuclear weapons are an affront to civilized norms, that a single such device poses an intolerable threat, and that the United States has both a moral and a security imperative to loosen their grip on our safety and our humanity. After a prolonged period of dismay, I am modestly heartened by recent events. The Bush administration has approached the task of reducing nuclear dangers with conviction and the promise of concrete results. While critics may quarrel over the detail of the Nuclear Posture Review, its direction is encouraging: fewer delivery systems, less reliance on offensive deterrence, and a greater focus on threatening capabilities rather than preconceived enemies. Over time, that will translate into less relevance, more secure postures and even greater antipathy for these ultimate weapons of mass destruction.

In closing, let me underscore my admiration for Senator John Heinz, and for this extraordinary program you have created to preserve and expand his legacy. I know he would understand the motivation and the purpose of my quest. I have only to consider the goodness of my wife, the shining integrity of our children and the wondrous innocence of our grandchildren to know where my obligation lies. May God bless you and our great nation in its quest to rid the world of terror in all of its forms.
George Lee Butler
George Lee Butler