Thursday, 21 May 2009

Herb York (1921-2009): On Pugwash History and a NWFW

Herb York has died. I would like to share some of his insights: about the imperative of a nuclear weapons free world, and about the Pugwash history.

While a great deal of appropriate attention has gone to the recent ‘revival’ of the notion of a nuclear weapons free world, it is important to note that people like Herb York and others in Pugwash have been out there for decades, paving the way for the many very senior and very important recent voices calling for an eventual end to these horrendous weapons. Here is a quote from York…(from 1971!):

“[O]ur final goal must remain the ideal of general and complete disarmament….Any reasonable extrapolation of history tells us that if we keep all those weapons around they will be used. While no one can say how to get from the present situation all the way to total nuclear disarmament, it is clear that throwing weapons away heads us in the right direction and building more weapons, be they MIRVs, ABMs, or SS-9s, heads us in the wrong direction. We have fussed too much and too long about fine structure. We must begin to focus on directions rather than details.” Herb York, “A Little Arms Control Can be a Dangerous Thing,” War/Peace Report, August/September 1971, pp. 3 - 7

I had the chance to interact with Herb through Student Pugwash. I found him one of the most charming, friendly, and thought-provoking people I have met. My first encounter with him was at my first-ever (senior) Pugwash Conference, in Cambridge, Mass, in 1989, when as a student working on my master’s thesis, I was simply dumbfounded to be in a room with Herb and Dick Garwin talking about technical aspects of nuclear weapons as they related to arms control. I guess Jo Rotblat was there, but it was Herb who made the biggest impact on me: a former weapons lab director--a man with security clearances up the wazoo, who knew the science inside and out--was talking about disarmament! I was hooked…

Following are excerpts from an interview I conducted with Herb York, 28 April 1998.

About the impact of Pugwash:
“The important thing that Pugwash did is it enabled people to meet each other at a time when there were no other good places to do that, particularly East and West. So what matters about Pugwash is not whether they got a certain idea and it doesn’t matter whether or not this idea was adopted. But what matters is that, by example, the fact that Primakov was a member of the Pugwash group and while at Pugwash John Holdren, who is now a member of the White House science advisory committee and Catherine Kelleher, who has been a defense official, were all at the same meetings. That’s what Pugwash did. It got people like them together at a time when there was no other good way for people like them to get together. … And then with others who had other different kinds of connections, like the Kapitsa father and son. The Arbatov father and son. One of the most important of those combinations was Primakov with…Shalheveth Freier….For something like five or six years immediately after the Six-Day War, the primary contact between Moscow and Jerusalem or Tel Aviv was Primakov and Freier meeting either in Pugwash meetings or using that as an alibi for meeting. They were entirely secret, these meetings. They
were fully sanctioned…by both governments. They were the primary way of getting certain detailed messages back and forth.
So the number one thing that Pugwash did was provide a venue. Now the remarkable thing about that was that a lot of people might try to do that. And anybody can identify former officials and invite them to come, but the trick that Pugwash succeeded at was inviting future officials. That’s the trick. That’s the hard part. Primakov wasn’t ex-foreign minister, he became foreign minister.”

“[T]he concrete thing…where [Pugwash was] instrumental in moving immediately to policy was in connection to the ABM Treaty of SALT I. And there it was important. and there one of the important communication channels involved Ruina and Murray Gell-Mann on our side and Millionshchikov and Artsimovich … on their side. They seriously discussed questions of ABM.”
About the Pugwash/Rotblat Nobel Peace Prize:

“I thought it was reasonable [that Pugwash received the Nobel Peace Prize]. I thought that they were a likely candidate for some time….And no surprise that within Pugwash Rotblat got it. I mean, Rotblat does stand out….Without him, it probably would’ve collapsed. It’s just simply his determination that kept it going during some otherwise dry years. …Rotblat is very bossy and very opinionated and that’s what enabled him to keep Pugwash together. And it’s not just that he was like that when he was 90, he was like that when he was 70, 60. It’s not just the rigidity of old age. He’s a terribly rigid person, but he has this dedicated purpose to rid the world of nuclear weapons somehow or the nuclear threat. And it’s the kind of
thing that just seizes his whole life. He has dedicated himself to it and the result of that dedication is he kept Pugwash going. …Pugwash would’ve somehow fallen apart years ago or otherwise gotten off the track except for Rotblat’s determination.”

Advice to young people:
“It’s a question of odds and the biggest thing is opportunity. Opportunities do come along, the problem is to, when you see one, ditch everything else and take it if it’s a good one. …That often takes, especially if you’re young and have a family…that can be not only gutsy but can even be harmful...if you’ve got other responsibilities. But opportunity comes to everybody and what you have to do is be ready to seize it, no matter what else you’re doing. …give up everything else that’s career-related. That’s where the talent comes in. Opportunities are related to talent in the sense that you have come to somebody else’s attention because of some talent, even if it’s just for comity, some talent. But the real trick is to then recognize the opportunity and do something about it.”


Please click here for the New York Times obituary (web version, 24 May 2009).

Please click here for the Physics Today obituary (21 May 2009).

Please click here for an obituary from the LA Times (21 May 2009).

Please click here for the obituary from the San Francisco Chronicle (22 May 2009).

Bruce Larkin's website contains (with Herb's permission) the full text of Race to Oblivion: A Participant's View of the Arms Race (1970). Click here for the link.

Here is "Reminiscences from a Career in Science, National Security, and the University: Conversation with Herb York," by Harry Kreisler, 6 February 1988. Click here for the link.


  1. Jeffrey Boutwell, Pugwash Executive Director21 May 2009 at 11:10

    It is truly no understatement to say that Herb was one of the giants of the American national security and arms control communities, and few people embodied as he did the highest standards of intellectual rigor and passionate engagement for seeking what was best for our country and the world community. Herb first attended a Pugwash conference in 1969 - I first met him at the Bjorkliden conference in Sweden in 1984 - and throughout the years he was as strong a supporter as you could find for both the Pugwash Conferences and Student/Young Pugwash.

    I am sure many tributes will be made to Herb in the days ahead, and we will post many of these on the Pugwash website.

    Our best wishes and sympathies go out to Sybil and the family.

    Jeffrey Boutwell
    Executive Director

  2. Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, Pugwash Secretary General21 May 2009 at 13:55

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, Pugwash Secretary General21 May 2009 at 14:23

    I remember with fondness and affection Herbert York.

    He was a very intelligent and articulate person. A person whom I listened to with much interest; talking with him was like talking to the history of arms control itself.

    One a personal note I remember him being proud of his partial Native American heritage and scolding me for not remembering correctly the date of the Alamo battle.

    He remembered everything. He was overweight and once he told me that he and I were somehow alike; I was very happy about his remark, since it was clear that, in his intention, the analogy was not just limited to weight.

    I like to think that people who knew him will always remember his ideas, his message, his humanity and also his modesty, which is a quality so rare to find in public figures nowadays.

    I am very happy to have met and have learned from Herb York.

    Paolo Cotta-Ramusino

    [Note from administrator: apologies for accidentally removing this comment a moment ago]

  4. It was with great sadness that I learnt this morning of the passing of Herbert York. I met him for the first time at the 1999 SPUSA 20th Anniversary Conference at UCSD. I was 21, an inexperienced undergraduate student in International Relations and History and attending my first formal Pugwash event. It was overwhelming - there I was interacting with some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century; leading and eminent figures not only within Pugwash, but also in their own right and their respective fields - united in a common, urgent interest! Of course the awesome presence of sir Jo was everywhere, but I also remember (among so many) Ruth Adam's infectious energy and steadfast optimism, and Herbert York. We shared a few conversations over lunch and during the breaks between of our working group; alas, always too short! I'm not sure one could exactly describe him as a proverbial 'gentle giant', for he certainly struck me as a no-nonsense, well-spoken man. But a giant in the field of arms control he undoubtedly was, and I can echo Paolo's observation that 'talking with him was like talking to the history of arms control itself'. He appeared to be very interested in South Africa's transition to democracy since 1994, but even more importantly: he was passionate about the role of young people in the future of nuclear non-proliferation and arms control. Above all, then, this is what I continue to take forward from my interaction with Professor York: his inspirational example and message of science with social responsibility that shines as a guiding beacon for us all - younger and wiser alike.

    I would like to extend my heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

    Rian Leith
    ISYP Board Member