The Seal

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A small object reminds Steven Saum that good leadership can create great things.

Tucked inside my desk drawer at home, amid the jumble of flash drives and batteries, souvenir pens and tins of mints, I keep a piece of paraffin. It’s ochre yellow, a couple inches across, edges smoothing like a piece of sea glass in the making.

It’s a souvenir given to me years ago when I was visiting an army base in western Ukraine. The paraffin was part of the seal atop a silo that had housed a nuclear missile once targeted across the ocean.

But the missile had been removed and dismantled from that base near Khmelnytskyi, the warheads shipped back to Russia. I was at the base because I was working for the U.S. Embassy, directing the Fulbright program and other academic exchanges, trying to build connections between Am erican and Ukrainian scholars and students.

Two U.S. senators were en route to that army base, too — Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Dick Lugar — for a ceremony that included the final explosion destroying the silo. This was part of a program the senators had created as the Soviet Union fell apart: a way to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the former U.S.S.R. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan all agreed to give up their nukes. The program also funded environmental cleanup and housing for displaced officers.


I remember looking down into that silo and thinking, with gratitude: We have made the world a little safer.

Months after the senators visited, the secretary of defense came to plant a sunflower where once that nuclear missile stood, planting a symbol of hope and prosperity in a country that’s also one of the top producers of sunflower seeds on the planet.

When I heard about Senator Lugar’s death at the end of April, like many I was saddened that we had lost a great statesman. I pulled from the shelf a book of speeches that I’d edited for The Commonwealth Club of California. The senator had generously written for the book jacket copy: “Of all the blessings a society may have, leadership is the most essential.”

And of course I went looking for that piece of paraffin — for a reminder that we have done things that are good, in the spirit of cooperation and larger purpose. And wanting to hold a talisman of hope.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine.