Remembering Pete Scoville

Remembering Pete Scoville, 1915–1985

“It can be said with considerable confidence that no American has done more to carry the message of arms limitation to the broadest possible audience.”

—Statement nominating Dr. Scoville for the Rockefeller Public Service Award


Dr. Herbert (Pete) Scoville Jr. was a trained scientist and dedicated public servant who used his knowledge to create public awareness about the importance of nuclear arms control. His long life and career were characterized by a deep commitment to peace, a faith in the power of an informed citizenry, and above all a will and spirit that would never give up.

Dr. Scoville was born in New York City on March 16, 1915. He was educated at Philips Andover Academy and graduated from Yale in 1937, marrying Ann Curtiss of Norfolk, Connecticut, that same year. They went on to have four children: Anthony, Thomas, Nicholas, and Molly.

Dr. Scoville received his PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Rochester in 1942. He worked with the National Defense Research Committee and the Atomic Energy Commission, then served as Technical Director of the Defense Department’s Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, the direct successor of the military atomic-energy activities of the Manhattan Project, from 1948 to 1955.

“Pete Scoville was a scientist who from the very beginning understood the implications of nuclear weapons to human survival. . . . He did not wait like some others until he completed his distinguished government career to acknowledge he should have better understood the problem. Pete Scoville was no ‘Johnny come lately.’ He was a prophet.”

—U.S. Senator John Culver

Dr. Scoville’s three-decade campaign for nuclear arms control began in 1954 when the Pentagon sent him to Bikini atoll, where the U.S. had just detonated a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb, the largest atomic bomb in U.S. history. His team found that more than 7,000 square miles had been contaminated by lethal fallout, and an even larger area by serious fallout. “That is when I really got involved in trying to stop nuclear testing,” Dr. Scoville told the Washington Post. Back at the Pentagon, he began arguing for a test ban treaty.

From 1955 to 1963 he served as Assistant Director for Scientific Intelligence and as Deputy Director for Research at the CIA, where he helped develop the technology required for independent verification of nuclear weapons capabilities without on-site inspection, a vital element of national security and an essential ingredient in arms control treaties.

He resigned from the CIA in 1963 to become Assistant Director, Science and Technology, at the still-new Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). There he helped formulate the U.S. positions on the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty and participated in the original planning for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. He chaired the U.S. delegation to NATO’s Disarmament Experts meetings from 1966 to 1968.

“He understood that leadership sometimes requires adjusting to the popular moods. . . . But he was also aware that true leadership ultimately imposes the obligation to lead and educate public opinion. . . .”

—U.S. Senator John Culver


“Our leaders . . . have lost the path toward peace. . . . Only the peoples of this world can restore the sanity vital to lasting peace.”

—Pete Scoville

Dr. Scoville resigned from ACDA in early 1969. He had come to see an educated and activist public as the key to change, and wanted to devote himself full-time to building a long-term grass-roots constituency for arms control. Accordingly, he set about sharing his knowledge with the public.

He gave dozens of speeches each year, all over the country. “Talking to students, to ranchers, to candidates for public office at all levels—no audience was too small, no town too off the beaten track, no trip too arduous,” said his friend Anne Cahn. He was in constant demand as a speaker and was also a frequent witness before Congress on arms control and nuclear weapons issues.

He wrote countless articles and editorials for the lay public as well as for specialized journals. He published books aimed at interested citizens, includingMissile Madness (1970), a primer on nuclear weapons issues prompted by the debate over deployment of an antiballistic missile system, and MX: Prescription for Disaster (1981), which opposed the highly accurate MX missile as destabilizing and dangerous because it would encourage a Soviet first strike.

“He’s changed a lot of opinions and affected almost anyone in the field.”

—Paul Warnke, former Director of ACDA

From 1969 to 1971 Dr. Scoville was the director of the arms control program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1971 he helped establish the Arms Control Association, and he served as its president from 1979 to 1985.

He also served on the boards of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Council for a Livable World, and the Center for Defense Information, and was a member of the council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. All of these organizations would later become participants in the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship Program.

“My first memory of Pete, as he walked up the ramp from the plane, was that I had never seen such a beautiful smile.”

—Utah State Senator Frances Farley

In 1979 the Carter administration proposed a basing system for the land-based MX missile that would have sent the million-pound missiles shuttling across the deserts of Utah and Nevada on 6,000 miles of specially built concrete “racetracks.” The missiles were to duck periodically into one of two dozen underground hiding places, in what Dr. Scoville called an “insane shell game” designed to keep the Soviets guessing about where they actually were.

Local citizens, including Utah State Senator Frances Farley and her associate Chad Dobson, were outraged. They mobilized and chose Dr. Scoville to contact for help, feeling that his CIA background would give him credibility in their conservative state. “We had no idea what sort of a person he would be,” Senator Farley recalled at a Scoville Fellowship reception in 1988.

“Few people if any combined his hard-headed realism with a deep conviction that the good guys would win.”

—Franklin Long, Pete’s longtime colleague and fishing partner

Dr. Scoville proved to be a tireless ally of what became the National Campaign to Stop the MX. He spoke to Utah’s governor, the leaders of the Mormon Church, newspaper publishers and TV station owners, and a joint meeting of the Utah state legislature that was covered by all the state’s media. He wrote, traveled, enlisted the aid of his expert peers and colleagues, hosted the legions of visitors brought to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress, and lobbied Congress himself.

It was a struggle that ended in victory two years later, when President Carter canceled the racetrack basing mode.


“A public ferment against this nuclear madness at last is brewing. It must be nurtured, fertilized, and propagated across the lands. . . .
Let us fervently hope that public outcry will be in time.”

—Pete Scoville


Dr. Scoville was a key initiator of the National Campaign to Save the ABM Treaty; an early proponent of a ban on MIRVed missiles; an opponent of the neutron bomb; and a supporter of the movement for a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze that swept the country in the early 1980s. In 1979 he spent two months in Europe, urging NATO to reject the U.S. bid to put cruise and Pershing missiles on European soil, another move he considered destabilizing.

He was also in the forefront of the opposition to the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) and was appalled by the administration’s general bellicosity about limited nuclear war. “Every single one of those guys in the administration doesn’t seem to understand nuclear weapons are dangerous,” he said in 1983. “They think nuclear threats are great to throw around.”

“Pete was fated, as we are fated, to live in a time of ascendant irrationality, of myopic jingoism. If others grew weary and discouraged, Pete resolutely continued to be the voice of quiet sanity, of authority based on knowledge, of mature judgment. From Pete’s example, we draw resolve to give all our strength to the causes that give meaning and nobility to the human experience.”

—Marshall Shulman, founding director of the Harriman Institute


Dr. Scoville’s friends recall him as a warm, humorous, and congenial man who enjoyed people, parties—and fly fishing. Even after hip replacement operations stemming from osteoarthritis left him reliant on canes for walking, he continued to wade out into thigh-deep water in the rivers of the West to pursue his hobby. The canes didn’t slow him down politically either. “The sight of Pete Scoville in full stride, leaning forward, black canes clicking along the floor, was enough to put the fear of God into anyone who dared sneer at arms control in his presence,” recalled Jeff Porro, an editor of Arms Control Today.

He received many honors during his lifetime, including the Rockefeller Public Service Award, which was bestowed upon him in 1981 for “mobilizing his energies, his scientific knowledge, and his political insight in an effort to create a public awareness of the importance of arms control to American and international security.”


His other awards included the Distinguished Intelligence Medal from the CIA; the Superior Honor Award from ACDA; the Hutchison Medal for distinguished public service from the University of Rochester; and the Claude Moore Fuess Award for distinguished contribution to public service from Phillips Andover Academy. From 1970 to 1985, he was a member of the board of directors of the Public Welfare Foundation.

“The energy, enthusiasm, and passionate search for a better world that Pete brought to bear in everything he undertook were infectious and inspiring: they gave courage to the fainthearted, caused more than one hidebound hawk to rethink his misguided positions, and instilled a dedication and sense of purpose in many young minds.”

—Tom Halsted, founding Executive Director of the Arms Control Association


Dr. Scoville lost his four-year battle with cancer on July 30, 1985, at the age of 70, but his spirit and legacy continue via the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship, a living embodiment of his interest in encouraging young people to pursue careers in arms control and public service. Pete’s alma mater, Phillips Andover, also established an annual Scoville Prize, in his memory, for the best essay on nuclear weapons issues.

In addition, the Union of Concerned Scientists established the Herbert Scoville Jr. Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Arms Control, and the Natural Resources Defense Council named one of its three seismic stations monitoring the Nevada nuclear weapons test site in his honor.

“He is a source, an inexhaustible source, of energy and purpose that runs today in all of us. For cherishing the miracle of our existence, for rationality and tolerance, and for the hope and confidence that we shall survive, to realize our humanity. Pete is a North Star.  We can take our bearings on him.”

—Gerard Piel, publisher and chairman of Scientific American

Dr. Scoville’s other posthumous awards include the Arms Control Association’s William C. Foster Award for outstanding service in arms control, and the American Committee on East-West Accord’s Kennan Award for Leadership in U.S.-Soviet Affairs.

“Persons privileged to know Pete Scoville knew him as a friend marked by charm and compassion, but above all as an articulate person of vast sanity,” eulogized one of his hometown newspapers. “If the world is beginning to edge a bit back from the abyss, it is in no small measure because of Pete Scoville’s work and influence.”