"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
Herbert York (1921-2009)

Katherine Magraw

Herbert York, who began his career as a Manhattan Project nuclear physicist and later became a champion of arms control, died May 19. He was 87.

Recruited for the Manhattan Project before he was 21, York's career in weapons research and technology advanced rapidly. He was the first director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, holding that post from 1952 to 1958. He also was the co-founder and first chief scientist of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in 1958 and a member of the first President's Science Advisory Committee from 1958 to 1961.

These early experiences convinced him that there was no technological fix to the United States' dilemma "of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security." As he would later write in his seminal book Race to Oblivion: A Participant's View of the Arms Race (1970), "If we continue to look for solutions in the area of military science and technology only, the result will be a steady and inexorable worsening of this situation."

York subsequently devoted himself in and out of government to the pursuit of arms control. He was particularly associated with efforts to ban nuclear weapons testing and was named by President Jimmy Carter to be ambassador and chief negotiator for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) negotiations from 1979 to 1981. The talks made considerable progress until they were scuttled by opposition from the United States and Soviet Union. York later wrote that the CTBT engendered more opposition from the nuclear weapons establishment than any other nuclear weapons issue.

York argued that the opposition to arms control and a test ban was rooted in an "over belief in technology" and a personal attachment to nuclear weapons, not the proxy issues of the day, such as verification. As the proponents of the CTBT prepare to urge U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty, negotiated and signed during the Clinton administration, then rejected by the Senate, York's analysis is still relevant.

Neither financial interests nor strategic reasoning explained the views of proponents of the arms race, York argued, although he noted that most did derive some of their income from their involvement with nuclear weapons. Rather, "psychic and spiritual needs" motivated them because they derived "a very large part of their self-esteem from their participation in what they believe to be an essential-even a holy-cause."

In 1961, York became the first chancellor of the University of California at San Diego. He soon found that he preferred working with students to the administrative duties of the chancellor. He taught physics, chaired the department, and in 1983 founded and directed the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, which conducts research and seminars on conflict resolution and promotes international efforts to avoid war. In 1989 he became director emeritus. He also served as adviser to the president of the University of California and to the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories on the future of the nuclear labs.

York was involved with the Pugwash movement, meeting several times with Soviet counterparts to discuss arms control issues, and served on the boards of the Federation of American Scientists and the Council for a Livable World.

York's writings about the history and nature of the nuclear arms race are perhaps his most enduring legacy. In his six books, he fashioned such compelling concepts as the "fallacies of the last move," in which politicians unthinkingly assumed their measures would produce no countermeasures, and the "ultimate absurdity" of relying on computers and automated steps to initiate a nuclear attack.

A man with broad interests, York will be remembered by family and friends for his conversational skills, his easy and affable manner, and a love of learning that knew no bounds.

Katherine Magraw is director of the Peace and Security Funders Group. She has held positions in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and Department of State, where she was responsible for the test ban negotiations during the Clinton administration. She met Herbert York when she was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student studying the history of efforts to ban testing.