Bruce G. Blair, who served in an underground missile bunker with his finger on the proverbial button before becoming a leading crusader for dismantling the hair-trigger protocols for launching nuclear weapons, died on Sunday in Philadelphia. He was 72.
The cause was a stroke, his wife, Sally Onesti Blair, said.
As a launch control officer stationed near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, responsible for 50 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles — each armed with a nuclear warhead 100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that demolished Hiroshima in 1945 — Dr. Blair was so disquieted by the damage they could inflict and the dangers posed by an accidental liftoff that he went on to devote his career to disarmament.
The experience “illuminated for me the speed at which this process unfolds and how there’s really no latitude to question an order,” he told Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2018. “It sensitized me to the magnitude of devastation at stake, which is humongous.”
As a nuclear policy scholar and writer, Dr. Blair sought to persuade world leaders to adopt a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons, and to shrink and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
He also sought to limit the unilateral authority the president of the United States has to order a nuclear assault, and to buy time in the split-second decision-making needed in response to a potential threat — especially the roughly 12 minutes between an attack order and the irreversible missile launch.
Sometimes his goals were more modest. In 1977, for example, he persuaded the Air Force to reprogram the “unlock codes” that supposedly safeguard Minuteman missiles. All the locks had been set at “00000000” to make it easier for crews to remember.
“One would be hard pressed to find anyone else in our community who has had a greater impact on reducing the risks from nuclear weapons,” said Prof. Alexander Glaser, co-director of Princeton’s Science & Global Security program, where Dr. Blair had been a research scholar since 2013 while also running Global Zero, an organization he founded that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Dr. Blair directed a review of the military’s nuclear command for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment from 1982 to 1985. He was a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution from 1987 to 2000.
In 1999 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the so-called genius grant, for having “developed compelling alternative proposals for ‘de-alerting’ nuclear weaponry that would substantially diminish the possibility of inadvertent nuclear strikes.”
Among his many books was “Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat” (1985). He was also executive producer of the documentary film “Countdown to Zero” (2010) and established or ran a number of think tanks and advocacy groups, including the Center for Defense Information (later known as the World Security Institute) and the Nuclear Crisis Group.
Bruce Gentry Blair was born on Nov. 16, 1947, in Creston, Iowa, to Donald Blair, a hardware salesman who was a veteran of 17 bomber missions over German during World War II, and Betty Ann (Bruce) Blair, a homemaker.
After graduating from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1970 and serving in the Air Force from 1970 to 1974, he began graduate studies at Yale. He left to work for the congressional office in Washington and returned to Yale to complete his doctorate in operations research in 1984.
Dr. Blair’s marriages to Cindy Olsen Hart and Monica Manchien Yin ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, his survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Carrie Blair Shives and Erica Blair Lockney; a daughter from his second marriage, Celia Paoro Yin-Blair; a son from his third marriage, Thomas Onesti Blair; his mother; three sisters, Kathy Donzis, Jill Firszt and Jann Jarvis; and seven grandchildren. He lived in New Hope, Pa.
In a statement, Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and a co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, who wrote legislation to help Russia reduce its weapons stockpile, called Dr. Blair “an extraordinary public servant who committed his life to reducing nuclear risks around the world.”
Dr. Blair never forgot his time in a missile bunker. He wanted warheads separated from missiles, and he feared that weapons could be acquired by terrorists or rogue states.
In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times in 1993, he warned of a Soviet doomsday system that could automatically launch a nuclear counterattack even if Moscow’s military command were wiped out. On another occasion, interviewed for the PBS program “Frontline,” he said, “We need to recognize that the primary challenge that we face today is not deterrence but a failure of control, particularly in Russia.”
In 2017, he wrote in The Times that outside hackers could seize control of American missile systems. The previous year, he had voiced concern during the presidential campaign that Donald J. Trump lacked the “responsibility, composure, competence, empathy and diplomatic skill” to keep nuclear deterrence from failing “by intent, accident or miscalculation.”
In short, Dr. Blair worried a lot.
“He was ponderous, and at times almost melancholy,” Michael E. O’Hanlon wrote in a tribute posted on the Brookings website, “given the enormity of the problems he was wrestling with, and how seriously he took his responsibilities for trying to help save humanity from itself.”