Brief Pugwash Literature Review
Paul Rubinson
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The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, commonly known as Pugwash, brought together notable scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain to discuss nuclear disarmament in an informal but serious atmosphere starting in 1957. This literature review examines philanthropy’s role in supporting the Pugwash conferences and evaluates the most significant scholarly claims of their impact.


Pugwash is a case of strong philanthropic impact via global catastrophic risk reduction. Its conferences have influenced national and international politics and contributed to international cooperation and nuclear arms control. Pugwash and its co-founder Joseph Rotblat won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to diminish the role of nuclear arms in international politics.

Historians credit the Pugwash conferences with enabling the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty and the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. The 1980s were a high point of Pugwash’s influence on Soviet policy, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev noting that Pugwash scientists were critical in shaping his views regarding nuclear weapons.


The Pugwash conferences persistently struggled to get funding. For the first conference, Pugwash’s founder sent letters to wealthy people around the world asking for financial support, but he mostly received refusals, with a smattering of small contributions.

Fortunately for the scientists, both Aristotle Onassis and Cyrus Eaton eventually made offers to fund and host a conference in 1957, though each man wanted to dictate the location. Eaton’s offer (which the scientists soon accepted) required that the meeting be held in the resort town of Pugwash, Nova Scotia, where Eaton maintained a country lodge.

Eaton is described as a “wealthy industrialist” who advocated accommodation with the Soviet Union in the interest of avoiding nuclear war, a stance that would eventually bring suspicion upon the Western scientists of Pugwash. His money paid for the first conference’s travel expenses, hospitality, and housing, though the participants ran everything on their own.

Pugwash later sought to distance itself from Eaton. His friendly relations with Nikita Khrushchev led anticommunists to attack the group, and Pugwash scientists were frustrated with his interest in publicity and his desire to speak at the conferences. When Pugwash did eventually reject Eaton as a sponsor, the group struggled to find other sources of money.

Historical writing about Pugwash reveals a substantial fixation on funding among the conference’s early organizers, primarily because it was so scarce. For example, by the end of 1964, US Pugwash had only $21,000 in income and spent all but $500 of it.

The financial situation improved in 1965 and 1966, when the Ford Foundation began to supply substantial assistance, including, at one point, about $20,000 per year. Nonetheless, Pugwash seems to have been almost constantly in danger of insolvency; money for staff, office space, conferences, and travel rarely came easily.

Pugwash: Main claims of impact

Historical scholarship credits Pugwash with contributing to discussions that led to agreement on three treaties, with the strongest cases made for the Limited Test Ban and the Antiballistic Missile Treaties.

  • 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty: banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere; tests restricted to below ground, ending the threat of nuclear fallout
  • 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: pledged signatories are not to aid other nations in the pursuit of nuclear weapons; pledged signatories are to pursue nuclear disarmament
  • 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty: limits United States and Soviet Union to one antiballistic missile deployment; effectively prevents use of antiballistic missiles
Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Foundations and philanthropy
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy