As if it were out of the pages of a spy novel, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn's 25-year pursuit of nuclear safety began when a stranger shook his hand and pressed a crumpled note into his palm.
Nunn had just completed an inspection of a tactical nuclear weapons base in Europe and had been told by more than one general that the base's security was top-notch. But a base sergeant who slipped Nunn the note had a different assessment and an earnest request: "Urgent I see you after work at the barracks . . ."
"So I slipped off and went to meet him," said Nunn, who went on to report to then U.S. Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger that the base was vulnerable to attack and was being protected by guards high on drugs and alcohol.
"Over the next couple of years, we dramatically improved our security of weapons in Europe," said Nunn, longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a native of Perry. "Coming out of that experience, I got very interested, stayed interested and remain interested in nuclear safety and security."
His expertise on the subject and on military affairs in general has been widely recognized. A new federal building in downtown Atlanta bears his name, as does the School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. And last month, it was announced that Nunn, who retired from the Senate in 1996, and current U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., have been nominated for the coveted Nobel Peace Prize for their work to reduce the threat of nuclear war.
Three international figures -- Rolf Ekeus, Sweden's ambassador to the U.S.; David A. Hamburg, president emeritus of the Carnegie Corp. in New York; and William C. Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies -- nominated Nunn and Lugar for having the vision to propose, push through and oversee execution of the bipartisan Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
As a result of that legislation, which passed in 1991, the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine have given up their strategic nuclear weapons, and several thousand ballistic missiles, launchers and bombers have been destroyed, Potter said.
"Most notably, 5,014 warheads that were on strategic systems aimed at the United States have been deactivated," he said. ". . . International peace and security have been improved substantially . . ."
Nunn -- who these days divides his time between Atlanta and Washington with fairly frequent side trips around the world and to Perry -- said he was overwhelmed by the nomination.
"Their glowing report of our role . . . was a great honor . . . even if they had just written us and not the whole Nobel committee," he said in an interview from Washington last week.
Gordon Giffin, who was Nunn's legislative director in the 1970s and is now U.S. ambassador to Canada, said the Nobel Peace Prize would be "fitting recognition for the work [Nunn] has done and continues to do."
Giffin described Nunn as "one of the brightest people I've ever known. …