An expert on national defense and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 100th Congress (1987-1989), Sam Nunn (born 1938) was elected to the United States Senate from Georgia from 1972 until his retirement in 1996.
Sam Nunn's capacity for winning Democratic senatorial elections in Republican years classified him as a "Boy Wonder" of Georgia and the New South. In 1972, when Richard Nixon took nearly 70 percent of the vote in his state, Nunn won his first election to the United States Senate by a comfortable 54 percent against Republican Fletcher Thompson. Again in 1984, when Ronald Reagan captured Georgia by over 60 percent, Sam Nunn won his third election, against Mike Hicks, by a whopping 80 percent. And in the 1984 election he had the support of his Republican senatorial colleague from Georgia, Mack Mattingly.
Born in Perry, Georgia, on September 25, 1938, Sam Nunn was the son of Samuel A. and Elizabeth (Canon) Nunn. Educated in Perry's public school system, where he was a star basketball player, he grew up in a family steeped in learning and politics. His father, a well-known lawyer-farmer, was a dedicated reader and collected an excellent library which Sam Jr. patronized avidly. His uncle, the nationally-known Carl Vinson, set records for congressional service, concentrating on duties as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Sam and his older sister were raised in a strict Protestant atmosphere which brought them to Perry's Methodist Church regularly, under the influence of their mother Elizabeth Nunn, who survived her husband into her 80s, still living in the family home in Perry in 1986.
As a result of his family's political connections, young Sam Nunn had the opportunity to meet many Georgia politicians, including Senator Herman Talmadge, with whom he later served as junior senator during the twilight of Talmadge's career.
Nunn attended Georgia Institute of Technology from 1956 to 1959, then took time out for a stint in the Coast Guard. Returning to civilian life, he graduated with a B.A. from Emory University in 1960 and earned his LL.B. two years later. For a while he practiced law and in 1965 married Colleen O'Brien, with whom he had two children, Mary and Samuel.
In 1968 he won his first election to the Georgia House of Representatives. To him, it was a stepping stone to the federal House of Representatives, but a planned congressional district which would win him that prize failed to be organized, forcing him to try for the United States Senate in 1972. As a newcomer barely out of his 30s, he had little hope of success—even Carl Vinson felt it was too soon— but Nunn surprised everyone by winning.
From his first days in Washington he concentrated on defense, working with the giants of both parties to learn and develop without regard to ideological factionalism. He disagreed, but without rancorous and divisive rhetoric. When he believed in an issue, he voted for it, whether it was a Carter initiative or one from Reagan. His moderation earned him praise from the more conservative press and political leadership of the nation. His 1981 ratings from Americans for Constitutional Action (conservative) was 71, while Americans for Democratic Action (liberal) gave him a 35. These figures do not explain Nunn's Democratic Party values nearly as much as does his membership in the D.L.C. (Democratic Leadership Council). He founded this organization in 1985 with other moderates such as Charles Robb, Joseph Biden, and Lawton Chiles to restore the South and West, as Nunn put it, to "… the mainstream of American politics"; other goals were a strong national defense, commitment to arms control within reason, and retention of civil rights gains. Among other D.L.C. members, Nunn was perhaps more conservative, as evidenced by his early support for the Strategic Defense Initiative (known popularly as "Star Wars") and aid to anti-Communist "Contra" forces in Nicaragua.
As a senator, Nunn showed that he was capable of innovation and creativity as well as of the hard work required to master the details surrounding America's national defense. He became expert in defense terminology and had the capacity, tenacity, and wit to see defense issues in the larger context of fiscal integrity and future planning.
The bipartisan "build down" proposal, which Nunn co-authored with Republican senator William Cohen of Maine, provided both the United States and the former Soviet Union with the flexibility necessary to replace and modernize their multifarious systems of weapons while at the same time reducing the number of warheads in each arsenal. The purpose was to allay American fears of Russian long-range missiles and Russian fears of American long-range bombers.
Nunn's ideological credentials and his grasp of details made him a formidable foe of Pentagon waste and inefficiency. He was hostile to stretchouts—long periods of funding for weapons development and production—since they tended to bleed the nation of its resources while providing nothing in return. He opposed the controversial new B-1 B bomber on grounds that it could not accomplish its primary mission—namely, to dodge Soviet defenses and strike at internal targets in Russia.
In late 1986, in the wake of the Democratic victory in the Senate, Nunn and his policies were advanced to national stature. By early 1987 he was being selected by four or five percent of Democratic voters as their first choice for presidential candidate in 1988. Regardless of the results of polls and primaries, Sam Nunn, who took over chairman-ship of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 100th Congress (1987-1989) from his Republican friend Barry Goldwater, had become a national figure.
Nunn was known for his unusual consistency in ideals, regardless of party politics. He wasn't happy with the idea of waging war, favoring a strong defense to prevent war instead. As a result, he opposed the sending of troops to Kuwait in 1991, when Republican President George Bush was in office. He also opposed Democratic President Bill Clinton's sending American troops into Haiti and Bosnia. In a controversial move, he opposed Clinton's policy of allowing homosexuals in the military.
Towards the end of his career in the Senate, Nunn became concerned about social issues. In 1995 he backed Empower America, a consumer advocacy group which wanted sensational talk shows to tone down their content.
Retirement from the Senate
In 1996, Nunn decided to retire from the Senate. As one of the last Southern conservative democrats, Nunn's departure was seen as a direct blow to the both the Democrats and to Congress. Since his retirement Nunn has taken on a role of statesman, occasionally giving lectures on matters of foreign policy. Congressional Quarterly Weekly (August 17, 1996) called Nunn a potential candidate for the year 2000 presidential elections.
No books and few biographical periodical articles exist on Sam Nunn. His most significant contribution to the disarmament issue, the strategic "build-down" concept, is described in Alton Frye, "Strategic Build-Down: A Context for Restraint," Foreign Affairs, (Winter 1983); his growing importance in national politics is discussed in R. W. Apple, Jr., "Delivering the South," New York Times Magazine, (November 30), 1986. □
In 1972, Nunn won the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Richard Russell of Georgia, longtime head of the Armed Services Committee. He served on that committee (1973–96), and as chair (1987–94), becoming one of the most influential senators on military and arms control issues.
A conservative southern Democrat, Nunn was often at odds with liberal Democrats and Republicans. In the late 1970s, he urged major increases in NATO's conventional firepower and advocated the neutron bomb and the adoption of national service. He was also a significant critic of SALT II. Building bipartisan alliances, Nunn obtained several key weapons systems and blocked the Clinton administration's plan for equal rights for gay men and lesbians in the military.
Reflecting concerns in the military, Nunn initially opposed the idea of a ground war against Iraq in 1991, and he helped avert a military invasion of Haiti in 1994. For more than a decade, before he retired in 1996, Nunn was the dominant voice in the Senate on defense policy.
[See also Haiti, U.S. Military Involvement in; SALT Treaties.]
John Whiteclay Chambers II