Skip to main content

The Ben Sanders Collection

Michal Onderco

The Ben Sanders Collection on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive includes materials from the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Nonproliferation (PPNN) and offers a new look into civil society and non-governmental nonproliferation expert networks at the end of the Cold War.

Members of the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Nonproliferation (PPNN) at the A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Japan, 1992.
Members of the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Nonproliferation (PPNN) at the A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Japan, 1992.

Launching the Ben Sanders Collection

Today we are launching the Ben Sanders Collection on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive. This collection consists of selected documents from the private archive of Benjamin Sanders, a former Dutch diplomat, United Nations official, and an executive director of a leading nonproliferation network of experts.

Focused largely on the functioning of the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Nonproliferation (PPNN), the Sanders materials offer a new, hitherto unseen look into civil society and non-governmental nonproliferation expert networks at the end of the Cold War.

The PPNN was founded in 1986 by Ben Sanders and John Simpson, a professor at the University of Southampton. The organization’s original goal was seemingly simple: to make sure that the diplomats, who were to take part in the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension Conference, could make informed decisions. The PPNN’s solution to this problem was to create a platform where diplomats who entered the nuclear field could find a one-stop-shop of information about the NPT. The PPNN provided opportunities for a core group of experts to meet regularly and discuss developments in nuclear politics. These experts included serving officials acting in their personal capacity, but also independent experts familiar with international nuclear issues.

More importantly, the PPNN provided a platform for diplomats from countries across the world to learn the ins and outs of the NPT and to meet their counterparts from other countries. Through conferences on four continents, the PPNN helped to nurture and inform a network for diplomats from dozens of countries.

The PPNN developed two main vehicles to spread information: publications and conferences. The publications included a quarterly Newsbrief, which was designed to provide an overview of current affairs. Various occasional publications conceptualized more in-depth treatments of particular issues. Publications kept diplomats from over 117 countries abreast of the most recent developments in the world of nuclear non-proliferation.

The conferences were organized in such a way that it made it possible for diplomats to interact with one another across the existing political lines. At the conferences, diplomats learned from leading experts about the technical details of nuclear politics and heard extensive presentations on the mechanisms of extension as well as on the NPT’s institutional background.  You can learn more about the PPNN in an open-access paper recently published in the International History Review.

The Ben Sanders Collection will be helpful to any historian and political scientist trying to understand nuclear non-proliferation in the late 1980s and in 1990s; to any expert on any of the countries operating nuclear technology for any purpose (whether peaceful or military) needing reliable source of data; and to any scholar interested in how non-governmental expert organizations work. For this reason, we hope that the collection will be widely read.

What is included in the Collection?

The Ben Sanders Collection includes numerous papers from the Sanders’ private archive, which, as of April 2021, he still holds at his home. We are today publishing but a small part of it, which nevertheless offers a unique insight into the nonproliferation debates at the end of the Cold War and the early post-Cold War years.

There are three main types of documents that we are publishing today:

  • Sanders’ correspondence: We are publishing Sanders’ selected letters to other diplomats and/or their letters to Sanders. We selected letters that contain policy discussions or any other issues beyond personal exchanges. These letters often contain candid assessments of policy situations in various parts of the world.

Importantly, we excluded letters which Sanders wrote (or which were written to Sanders) in which third persons’ character or scholarly abilities were discussed, such as book reviews, or assessment of work of other scholars (despite his life-long work in diplomacy, Sanders was rather direct in his letters). Such letters are often related to still active academics, and we did not want to create any unnecessary grievances.

  • PPNN documents: Sanders, in his capacity as PPNN’s Executive Director, contributed to numerous PPNN documents. These documents include the (anonymized) minutes of discussions among the nonproliferation experts in late 1980s and throughout 1990s, including their assessment of emerging nuclear threats from Iraq, North Korea, India and Pakistan; the transformation of the export control regimes; and changes in the relationship between the two superpowers.

These documents are usually chairman’s summaries, sometimes written by Sanders and at other times by Simpson. They were written in an anonymized fashion and the free spirit of discussion was preserved. These summaries provide insights into how the nonproliferation experts thought about the changes which were ongoing in the “nuclear” world.

One of the most interesting and memorable exchanges in the collection are the recollections from the first meeting of South African officials with representatives of other Southern African states, shortly after South Africa admitted having built and destroyed nuclear weapons. These summaries provide insight into the tense moments of discussions about the South Africa’s actions and thinking.

  • The PPNN Newsbrief: The PPNN published a quarterly magazine which included a curated selection of everything that happened in the nuclear world. Sanders personally edited the Newsbrief throughout its publication. While the magazine was originally meant to be internal only, it quickly became a sought-after and widely-distributed outlet.

The Newsbrief offers meticulous referencing to sources of all data and information in multiple languages. (Sanders himself is multilingual and as editor, actively solicited submissions in languages he did not speak.) All events that happened at major international forums, or were reported in the press, made their way to the Newsbrief. He also added comprehensive reviews of published works, and analyses of events which happened. By 1995, the Newsbrief was sent to almost 3,000 recipients in 117 countries.

We hope that these documents will be helpful for scholars trying to understand the politics and history of the nuclear era, particularly in relation to the period of late 1980s and 1990s.

Who is Ben Sanders?[1]

Benjamin ("Ben") Sanders, was born 1927 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, to a journalist father with a background in music and art, and an actress mother. He had an extensive classical education in Holland, combined with much horse riding. He then studied international relations and law, in the United States, at George Washington University and Columbia University (MA international relations 1950), and the Netherlands, University of Amsterdam (international law degree 1955).[2] 

After graduation, he found employment in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, working on the then-new topic of nuclear affairs, as one of the rare officials interested in the development of a "safeguards" system to ensure the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In this, Sanders was one of few diplomats to combine interest in politics with an interest in technical aspects. In 1958, he was seconded to the newly established IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency Vienna, to assist in the development of an international "safeguards" system, in which quality he was especially involved in the elaboration and negotiation of agreements on rules for the application of safeguards at specific nuclear installations. 

In 1978, Sanders moved to the UN in New York, to work in its newly created disarmament department, where he headed the nuclear section, until his mandatory retirement in 1987. In that capacity, he was the Deputy Secretary General of the 1980 NPT Review Conference, and Secretary General of the 1985 NPT Review Conference. When he reached compulsory retirement age from the UN, he met John Simpson of the University of Southampton who helped him set up the PPNN. 

Until 2002, Sanders served as PPNN's Executive Director and as editor of the quarterly PPNN Newsbrief, which offered extensive information on events in the nuclear field from across the world. He also continued advising diplomats in the field of non-proliferation: he was advisor to the President of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, and repeatedly advised the Dutch delegations to the NPT Review Conferences.  

In 1988, The Queen of the Netherlands appointed Sanders to Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau.


[1] Sanders provided the information for this section, which was lightly edited for clarity and flow.

[2] Sanders discussed his early childhood in much detail in an interview in the University of Amsterdam alumni magazine SPUI. See the text in Dutch at

About the Author

Michal Onderco

Michal Onderco

Professor of International Relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam; Affiliate at Peace Research Center Prague

Michal Onderco is Professor of International Relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam and affiliate at Peace Research Center Prague. He studies international security, with focus on nuclear politics and on domestic politics of foreign policy. He authored Networked Nonproliferation (Stanford UP, 2021) and Iran's Nuclear Program and the Global South (Palgrave, 2016). In 2018-2019, he was a Junior Faculty Fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation

Read More

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Nuclear Proliferation International History Project

The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more