Princeton research scholar Bruce G. Blair was an Air Force launch-control officer for Minuteman ICBMs in the early 1970s, a posting that shaped the rest of his career and led him to become a leading figure internationally in nuclear arms policy. He died of a stroke July 19, at 72.
That early experience, at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, “illuminated for me the speed at which this process unfolds and how there’s really no latitude to question an order” to launch, Blair told PAW in 2018. “It sensitized me to the magnitude of devastation at stake, which is humongous. And it sensitized me to the law of war and the humanitarian dimensions of what would really constitute justifiable self-defense.”
Born in Creston, Iowa, Blair earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois before joining the Air Force, which assigned him to Malmstrom’s ICBM missile alert facility, where he served shifts in a big, hollow, metal egg with strong shock absorbers tucked 60 to 120 feet below the surface.
Blair’s subsequent research at Yale, the Brookings Institution, and Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment focused on the command-and-control procedures for nuclear weapons. His work “provided much of the impetus for better hotlines, more realistic nuclear exercises, and the decisions to ‘de-target’ nuclear weapons in peacetime,” said Michael O’Hanlon ’82 *91, a Brookings scholar who met Blair in 1985.
Frank N. von Hippel, an emeritus professor of public and international affairs, called Blair, who was appointed to the University’s Program on Science and Global Security in 2013, “the major figure in bringing to the attention of policy makers and the public the danger of accidental nuclear war.” John Pike, the director of globalsecurity.org, said that “only a handful of others are in his league.”
A major study Blair wrote for Congress on the topic was deemed by top military officials to be so sensitive that it barred Congress and Blair himself from accessing it after it was completed.
Despite this absurdist roadblock, Blair helped convince the Air Force to change the “unlock codes” for Minuteman missiles that crews had set as “00000000.” He also alerted the world to the “dead hand” system that allowed Russia to conduct nuclear launches even after its leadership was incapacitated. And he pushed for ending “hair-trigger alert” status for nuclear weapons.
Blair, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, “would often find surprising partners to help push his ideas, ranging from the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, to former Commander of U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces Gen. James Cartwright,” said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-policy specialist at Harvard University.
In 2008, Blair co-founded Global Zero, a group that aimed to “stop the spread of nuclear weapons, secure all nuclear materials and eliminate all nuclear weapons.” Working with Cartwright, he unsuccessfully urged the Obama Administration to enact a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons.
Blair continued to run Global Zero while teaching at Princeton. “Bruce was greatly impressed by the intellectual caliber of the Princeton community,” said his wife, Sally Onesti Blair, whom Blair met when she was a doctoral fellow in foreign policy. “Our time together on campus and in town were some of the happiest years of my life.”
Blair’s fears grew during the political ascent of Donald Trump. In the 2016 campaign, Blair starred in a campaign commercial for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, sitting in a decommissioned ICBM control capsule and saying, “The thought of Donald Trump with nuclear weapons scares me to death.”
“In the past, not many of us concerned ourselves with the rationality of the leadership,” he told PAW in 2018. But Trump’s rise “really underscored that point.”
Louis Jacobson ’92 is a staff correspondent with PolitiFact.