Stanford Magazine
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Stanford Magazine

MEETING OF THE MINDS: Drell with Sakharov in 1989. (Photo: Harvey Lynch/Hoover Archives)

The Friendships of Sid Drell

On the uncommon bonds of an uncommon man.


There are many ways to remember Sid Drell, whose affiliation with Stanford spanned nearly seven decades before his death in the waning days of 2016. He was a renowned theoretical physicist, leading light and deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (now the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory), pioneering champion of nuclear arms control, adviser to multiple American presidents, winner of the National Medal of Science and many other awards, gifted musician, and, above all, devoted husband and father. One daughter, Persis, now serves as Stanford’s provost.

There was another exceptional quality, one that went largely unremarked in the obituaries. It was Drell’s great gift for forging friendships. He sustained a number of enduring relationships over the course of his life, including a close and wonderfully productive professional partnership with Pief Panofsky, the founder and longtime director of SLAC.

This remembrance is about two of those friendships — with Andrei Sakharov and George Shultz.

Drell’s bond with Sakharov, the Soviet physicist and political dissident, was remarkable and inspiring. Born of their common scientific interests and concerns about nuclear weapons during Drell’s visits to the Soviet Union in the 1970s, the friendship developed into an uncommon fight for liberty, free expression and the defense of human rights. During some of the darkest days of the Cold War, Drell rushed to Sakharov’s defense when KGB agents hauled the Soviet scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner from his Moscow apartment in 1980 and hurled him and his wife, Yelena Bonner, into internal exile in Gorky for daring to criticize the Kremlin.

Drell rallied American scientists to denounce the Kremlin, drafting petitions, sending letters and organizing protests on Sakharov’s behalf. When Sakharov managed to smuggle a landmark essay about nuclear dangers out of Gorky in 1983 through his network of Soviet friends, it was addressed as an open letter to Drell, and soon appeared in Foreign Affairs.

The warmth of the relationship was evident in another Sakharov letter that made its way to Drell from Gorky. “This time I want to write you not an ‘open’ letter but a most ordinary one, and to thank you with all my heart.”

Drell liked to say of Sakharov, borrowing a line from Anatole France’s eulogy of Émile Zola, “His destiny and his courage combined to endow him with the greatest of fates. He was a moment in the conscience of humanity.”

Sakharov might have said the same of Drell.

When Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, permitted Sakharov to return to Moscow in 1986, Drell and Sakharov were soon in touch. They reunited in Moscow in 1987, and Sakharov traveled to Stanford to visit Drell two years later. The flame of friendship never dimmed. In 2014, 25 years after Sakharov’s death, Drell co-hosted a multiday Hoover Institution symposium about Sakharov and his legacy.

With Mikhail Gorbachev, right, and his translator in 1988. (Photo: Stanford Archives)

The other co-host was George Shultz. It was a fitting role, as Shultz and Drell grew to be the best of friends after Shultz returned to Stanford in 1989, having served for seven years as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state. Shultz was a lifetime Republican, Drell a Democrat in spirit, if not in party affiliation. Shultz, an economist, and Drell, a physicist, lacked a common intellectual base. Yet, once they met for the first time at Stanford, they were drawn together by a powerful mutual commitment to human rights and a determination to reduce nuclear threats, even abolish nuclear weapons. The relationship was cemented by their affection for Princeton, their alma mater, and a lighthearted penchant for donning garish orange Princeton jackets and ties.

Anyone who spent time together with Drell and Shultz in recent years could see that this was a special fellowship, animated by a rare degree of warmth and mutual respect. When it came to combating nuclear threats, they were a perfect match — statesman and scientist working together to warn the world that nuclear dangers were rising, not declining, in the decades after the end of the Cold War. They joined forces with three other Cold War veterans — Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn — to press for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Drell and Shultz, seated side by side, became a familiar sight in the Annenberg conference room at Hoover, where the two men would host meetings about nuclear weapons, human rights and other international issues. Shultz, as former secretary of state, presided over many of the sessions, but it was always clear he knew some of the most trenchant comments of the day would come when he turned the floor over to Drell.

With Shultz in 2010. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Last autumn, as Drell, in declining health, neared his 90th birthday, Shultz invited a group of Drell’s colleagues from the worlds of science, government, music and Stanford to join Drell at Hoover for a look back at his multifaceted career and accomplishments. Drell was clearly touched by the event.

“We just clicked,” Shultz said of his friend earlier this year, not long after learning of Drell’s death. •

Philip Taubman, ’70, adjunct professor at Stanford and former New York Times bureau chief in Moscow and Washington, chronicled Drell’s career in his 2012 book, The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb.



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