Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

George Bunn (center) with Ambassador Thomas Graham (left) and Scott Sagan (right), 2001.
Photo credit: Rod Searcey

April 23, 2013 - CISAC, FSI Stanford In the News

George Bunn, CISAC professor who helped curb nuclear arsenals, dies

By Beth Duff-Brown

George Bunn, one of the world’s most revered advocates for a world without nuclear weapons and a consulting professor at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation for two decades, has died.

“Negotiator of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, dean of the University of Wisconsin Law School, professor at Stanford, world traveler, mentor to many young people fighting the good fight for a world without nuclear weapons – and my father,” said his daughter, Jessie Bunn. “Let’s remember him with love and funny stories.”

A memorial service will be held this summer in Palo Alto, where Bunn still played his flute and sang in the church choir, and home to Stanford University, where he could be seen riding his bike to his office in Encina Hall well into his 80s.

His family said Bunn, 87, died of spinal cancer on Sunday.

Bunn studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and joined the Navy toward the end of World War II. In 1945, Ensign Bunn joined the crew of the USS Logan, a Navy troop transport ship bound for the invasion of Japan. The atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki prevented that tour.

“As he was to have been part of the force to invade Japan, he was convinced that the atomic bomb saved his life – yet he devoted most of the rest of his life to the effort to bring the fearsome power of nuclear weapons under international control,” said his son, Matthew Bunn, himself a nuclear nonproliferation scholar at Harvard’s Belfer Center.

Bunn was a leading figure in the early days of nuclear arms control in the 1960s. During the Kennedy administration, he drafted the legislation that created the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and became the agency’s first general counsel.

He is best known for having helped negotiate the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the landmark international compact that helped to curtail the use of nuclear weapons worldwide. Today, only eight countries have successfully detonated the bomb.George Bunn was a national treasure." - Scott Sagan

Bunn later became U.S. ambassador to the Geneva Disarmament Conference, and taught as the U.S. Naval War College and the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he also served as dean.

Matthew Bunn explained how his father, in the summer of 1967, had been instructed by the Johnson administration not to compromise on the verification provisions of the NPT. But Bunn and Culver Gleysteen worked out a compromise with the two Soviet negotiators, Roland Timerbaev and Vladimir Shustov, as they hiked the mountains above Geneva and then jotted down their provisions as they rode a cable car back down.

“That act of disobedience paved the way for the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect nuclear facilities all over the world,” the younger Bunn said.

That act also launched a long friendship with Russian negotiator, Timerbaev.

"This friendship was based on mutual trust and our common and profound understanding of what is needed to preclude nuclear catastrophe, which helped our governments to negotiate the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the foundation stone for mankind's efforts to build the world free of nuclear weapons," Timerbaev told CISAC.

“George Bunn was a national treasure,” said Scott Sagan, the Caroline S. G. Munro Professor of Political Science and a senior fellow and former co-director at CISAC.

“Not only did he perform a crucial service to national security in his role as a negotiator of the nonproliferation treaty and other arms control treaties, but he also imparted his wisdom to a whole generation of lawyers and political scientists trying to understand how best to reduce the danger nuclear weapons in a modern world.”

Christopher Chyba, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University who also worked alongside Bunn as a former CISAC co-director, calls the NPT the cornerstone of nuclear nonproliferation. “In my view, the entire world is in his debt,” he said.

With a law degree from Columbia University, Bunn first worked for a Washington, D.C., law firm and defended several people accused of communist leanings during the McCarthy era. Active in Democratic Party politics – and an Adlai Stevenson delegate in the 1965 Democratic convention – Bunn also worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and drafted the order that desegregated all AEC facilities.

     In my view, the entire world is in his debt." - Christopher Chyba

 He spent the last two decades of his professional career at CISAC as a consulting professor who lectured and continued his research into arms control.

“To me and his many colleagues, George was a giant – both personally and professionally – as well as a virtual encyclopedia on all aspects of striving to make important progress in reducing the dangers of nuclear weapons through treaties and better understanding of the horrors they can create,” said Sidney Drell, a professor of theoretical physics (emeritus) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford.

Bunn published “Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians” (Stanford University Press) in 1992, which included a negotiator's history of the important provisions of and commentary about the NPT.

In 2006, he co-edited with Chyba the book, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy: Confronting Today’s Threats,” which addresses the role nuclear weapons should play in today’s world.

Lynn Eden, associate director for research at CISAC and a Cold War and nuclear history scholar, remembers Bunn as a great man with “a big voice, but not a big ego.”

“Every year he came in his red tartan vest and played flute at the annual Christmas party,” she recalled. Eden would tease him about his hair turning green from the chlorine in the campus swimming pools. “I was always met with a big booming laugh.”

Bunn is also survived by his other son, Peter, and grandchildren Claire and Nina. The family is asking that memorial contributions be sent to the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. (

Elizabeth Gardner, CISAC’s associate director of programs, recalled how she began working in 1988 as an arms control officer at the State Department, where people still spoke of Bunn with reverence.

“At CISAC, it was a privilege to see him in action – his unfailing kindness to all, his work ethic, and his quiet and rock solid devotion to public service. At Stanford, as at the State Department, his legacy endures.”

Topics: Nuclear nonproliferation | United States