My Story By Barry Blechman

Editor’s Note: My Story is an autobiographical series written by the experts and team at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. Each story details the people, places, and events that led the author to dedicate their career to resolving some of the world’s most pressing global challenges to peace and prosperity. We continue this series with Stimson Co-founder Barry Blechman.

It all started with 'Duck and Cover'...

The 1950s and early ‘60s were scary times — especially if you were a kid.

Drills in school in the event the Russians blasted us with nuclear bombs were bad enough. Pictures in the newspaper and on TV of a totally deserted Times Square because of a nation-wide evacuation drill were even worse. The Russians, we were told, had more bombers (and later more missiles). I was so concerned that I became a junior air raid warden to try to help (and because you got a neat white helmet and arm band). And I then proceeded to nag my parents relentlessly until they reluctantly stocked a basement closet with canned goods, water, a radio, flashlights, and batteries. This was supposed to permit us to survive a nuclear attack on New York City. Ha, Ha! Subsequently, I learned this was an even bigger lie than the so-called bomber and missile gaps.

School children in Brooklyn, New York hold a 'duck and cover' drill in 1962.

But then came the Cuban missile crisis. This time the threat was real and really scary.

By then I was in college and had been steered toward studying international relations by a wonderful professor, Alfonse Castagno. An article in the New York Times about the crisis showed a picture of the Pentagon with all the lights on late at night. Defense officials, it said, were sleeping in their offices to manage the crisis. Neat! I had found my calling and, after graduation and picking up a master’s degree, went to work in the Pentagon.

The other piece of my professional story came from my family. My mother was a bookkeeper and my uncle an accountant. From them, I developed an affinity for numbers and an appreciation for budgets. Always impatient with ambiguity, I appreciated that budgets necessitated choices, the setting of priorities. Indeed, during the 1970s, I led the Brookings Institution’s Defense Analysis Program and co-authored its annual report on the federal budget called, Setting National Priorities.

Each year, we described the administration’s budget and presented alternatives to the choices that had been made. Our defense section was the first time that analyses of defense choices were presented to the public in the same way that decisions were made in the Pentagon. Given that it was the anti-Vietnam, anti-Nixon era, the Democratic Congress seized on the work and I became as much of a rock star as is possible for an academic. The fame led to involvement in Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign and an appointment to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which was confirmed by the U.S. Senate (thus making me officially “Honorable.”)


The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

September 28, 1977

The President today announced that he will nominate Barry M. Blechman, of Reston, Va., to be Assistant Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. His area of responsibility would be weapons evaluation and control, and he would replace Robert M. Behr, resigned.

Blechman was born April 7, 1943, in New York City. He received a B.A. from Queens College in 1963, an M.A. from New York University in 1964, and a Ph.D. from Georgetown University in 1971.

From 1965 to 1966, Blechman was an operations research analyst for the Army's Strategy and Tactics Analysis Group. From 1966 to 1971, be was on the professional staff at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he participated in several major studies of force structure issues and directed two studies on political-military questions.

Since 1971 Blechman has been a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is head of Brookings' Defense Analyses Staff.

Blechman is a consultant to the Defense Department and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of numerous articles.


My stint as a high-ranking political appointee was a turning point. One fourth of the work was unique.

Negotiating with Soviet government officials on behalf of the United States was both exciting and humbling. Traveling around the country to muster support for arms control agreements was fun and interesting. Three-quarters of the time, though, I spent shuttling from meeting to meeting arguing with representatives of other agencies about things which, in retrospect, were completely irrelevant. By the end of Carter’s term, I had decided that I could accomplish much more outside the government than within it — and would have a better time besides.

After brief stops at various think tanks, I founded my own consulting firm — DFI International — and five years later, together with Michael Krepon, the Stimson Center. The Center's philosophical core was a maxim that originated with John McCloy (Stimson’s assistant as secretary of war). “You can accomplish almost anything in Washington, so long as you are willing to give other people the credit.” Thus, many of Stimson’s projects consist of working groups in which high ranking former government officials, legislators, and senior people from the private sector debate specific issues with the help of Stimson staff, issue reports, and work to bring their recommendations to fruition through a politically informed strategy. Most recently, for example, I convened a group of very senior military officers and civilian officials for the Peterson Foundation. The group first agreed on a new military strategy for the United States and, then, a budget designed to implement that strategy.

During the 1980s I worked closely with Senators Sam Nunn and John Warner on a number of projects to reduce nuclear dangers.

Then U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (seated, right) and U.S.S.R. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze sign the Nuclear Risk Reductions Centers Agreement in 1987.

We managed to persuade the Reagan administration, for example, to create a new direct means of exchanging military information between the U.S. and the USSR called “Nuclear Risk Reductions Centers.”

In the early 1990s, I led a Stimson project which raised serious questions about the utility of tactical naval nuclear weapons and made clear that the Navy itself would be happy to be rid of them. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Bush Administration did just that. I also realized at that time that it was now possible to conceive of eliminating nuclear weapons — the only true way to end the threat of nuclear devastation.

We convened a group chaired by General Andrew Goodpaster, which including such senior foreign policy officials as Fred Ikle, Robert McNamara, and Paul Nitze. For the first time, these representatives of the foreign policy establishment recommended that the United States work to eliminate all nuclear weapons — a course of action that could not have been mentioned in Washington not many years before. Through a Stimson trustee, Alton Frye, we also managed to persuade the Council on Foreign Relations to convene a working group on the issue — also a first. Subsequent Stimson work showed how the technical obstacles to disarmament could be overcome and elucidated the political obstacles to that goal from the perspectives of advanced nuclear nations. Most recently, we worked hard (and successfully) to support the negotiation and implementation of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

So, sixty plus years after a young boy hid under his desk waiting for the flash that would signal the coming end of the world, I’m still trying to eliminate the risk of nuclear war. We’ve made some progress, and I like to think that I and Stimson played important roles in what was accomplished. But, even though far fewer in number, the damn things still exist and that flash could occur at any second … NOW … for example, destroying all that we love.

All I can say is that it is essential for all of us to keep trying.


Barry Blechman co-founded the Stimson Center.

Innovative Ideas Changing the World


US Federal Civil Defense Administration; Walter Albertin; White House Staff Photographers

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