Sam Nunn represented Georgia for twenty-four years in the U.S. Senate, where he distinguished himself by his passion for legislation concerning public policy, foreign affairs, and citizen participation. He continues to serve on many national organizations and boards that further these interests.
Samuel Augustus Nunn was born on September 8, 1938, and reared in the small town of Perry, in middle Georgia. He attended the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, and Emory Law School, where he graduated with honors in 1962. He served on active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard and for six years in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve before entering politics. Nunn began his political career as a Democratic member of the Georgia General Assembly in 1968.
U.S. Senate Career
Nunn ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972 and won. He was reelected three times, serving continuously from 1972 to 1996. During his long tenure there, Nunn was a member and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He was a member of the intelligence and small business committees and the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition (1987). His passion for foreign policy and military affairs led him to concentrate on global issues, particularly issues concerning the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world. He attributes his lifelong interest in military and global affairs to his experience working for the House Armed Services Committee when he was just out of law school, to the impact of Robins Air Force Base on the state’s economy, and to Georgia’s (and the South’s) promilitary climate in general.
In 1985 Nunn, along with U.S. senators Lawton Chiles and Charles Robb, and U.S. representative Richard Gephardt, formed the Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC), the wing of the Democratic Party that sought to maintain a moderate, middle-of-the-road stance on most issues. Nunn believed that the swing vote in America would respond well to the moderate message of the DLC, which is widely credited with creating the “New Democrat” agenda on which Bill Clinton was elected U.S. president in 1992.
Nunn sponsored legislation in 1989 that encouraged greater citizen participation in the service of the country by offering educational benefits, including federal loans and scholarships, in return for up to two years of public service in a “civilian service corps” or in the military.
As his career progressed, Nunn recognized the critical need for engagement with Russia and the former Soviet republics in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. The landmark Nunn-Lugar Act (1991), which he drafted with Senator Richard Lugar, sought to provide incentives to the former Soviet republics to dismantle their nuclear weapons swiftly and safely. For their pathbreaking work both Nunn and Lugar were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the years 2000 and 2001. In 2001 Nunn was given an award for his life’s work by the Eisenhower Institute on U.S.-Soviet relations.
In 1991 Nunn voted to oppose U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Many have speculated, and Nunn himself has admitted, that the negative vote ensured the early demise of his presidential candidacy in 1992. Before the vote Nunn had been widely viewed as a viable Democratic candidate for president. After the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf War (1990-91), however, Nunn found that his earlier stance in opposition was untenable with the larger public and took himself out of consideration for the presidential race.
Although he is no longer in public office, Nunn has continued to underline the importance of cooperative global efforts to limit the spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. He is cochairman (with Ted Turner) and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a foundation created in 2001 to reduce the threat to the world of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The NTI aims to bring greater accountability and transparency into the process of arms control. Nunn has urged Americans to become more involved in debating issues and policies designed to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He advocates greater access to laboratories and weapons facilities on the part of Russia and the United States, to build the kind of trust that would lessen the threat of confrontation and eventually lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. He recommends a similar path of cooperation among all states to eventually achieve a world free of weapons of mass destruction.
Nunn also is a board member for the Concord Coalition, a grassroots nongovernmental organization that seeks to educate citizens about the fiscal problems and challenges facing the United States.
Nunn is a retired senior partner with the law firm of King and Spalding in Atlanta, and a distinguished professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. In addition, he serves on numerous boards of such publicly held corporations as the Coca-Cola Company, Dell Computer Corporation, General Electric, and Scientific Atlanta. In 2011 he was inducted as a Georgia Trustee, an honor conferred by the Georgia Historical Society and the Office of the Governor.
Nunn and his wife, Colleen, have two children, Michelle and Brian.