An Improbable American Life: Stanley A. Weiss, 1926–2021

There is a story that BENS founder Stanley Weiss loved to tell about the first trip he took on behalf of the organization to a global hot spot with a group of business executives, to Israel in April of 1996.  

It was, he later recalled in his memoir, the trip that set the tone for every other BENS trip to follow, not as a “travel agency for globe-trotting CEOs,” but rather, “with a specific purpose: to connect with people of influence, to create special relationships that could be multiplied and expanded later in ways that advanced America’s national security interests and goals.”

To have real impact, he realized, the group needed to “come in at the level of the national security infrastructure” of the nation they were visiting, which is exactly what they did in Israel. 

One executive chose to stay a few days longer. As he was leaving, as Weiss told it, he was carefully interrogated by airport security officials, who said, “Can you tell us who you saw?” 

The executive replied, “Well, I saw the president, the prime minister, the minister of defense, your top generals, and a number of diplomats.”

The official said, “Look, this is Israel. This is no joke. Who did you see?”

Again, the executive said, “I met with the president, the prime minister” … and went through the litany again.

The official called in a tough-looking guy, who said, “I don’t care if you’re an American. This is no joke. Who did you see while you were here?”

Again, “I met with the president, the prime minister …”

The official paused for a moment, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Well, listen. You’re either going to jail … or to the VIP room.”

It was exactly the kind of story that Weiss, an irrepressible raconteur who died last month at the age of 94, loved to tell: one that mixed high stakes and great purpose with an old-fashioned sense of humor that never allowed him to take himself or others too seriously, a man whose first rule in life was, “Don’t Be Boring.”

The fact that he regularly found himself in the company of presidents, prime ministers, and diplomats—let alone that he created the world’s premier non-partisan, not-for-profit organization of business executives dedicated to advancing America’s national security priorities—is, as even he admitted, a highly improbable American story, proof that the world is shaped by ordinary people who push themselves to do extraordinary things.

It’s the kind of story you only see in the movies, which is appropriate since his life and entire career trajectory was literally changed by a movie.

Born to a working-class family in south Philadelphia, Weiss grew up more concerned with the fleeting success of his beloved Phillies baseball team than he did world events—until the Second World War radically altered his focus.

Wanting to join his older brother in the South Pacific, he signed up for the U.S. Army just three weeks after his 17th birthday.  Seventy-six-years ago last month, he was being readied to participate in the full-scale invasion of Japan, a deadly mission expected to launch from the island of Okinawa (which had just seen a combined 150,000 Japanese and U.S. troops killed in a three-month battle), likely leading to a massive number of G.I. casualties. But then his hero, Harry Truman, ordered the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war.

“Those bombs,” he wrote decades later, “took more than 200,000 lives—but they probably saved mine.”

Attending the Georgetown School of Foreign Service (recommended to him by a British diplomat friend who turned out to be a member of the so-called “Cambridge Five,” the most infamous Soviet spy ring of the Cold War) Weiss had “no job prospects, no money, and little idea of what I was going to do after graduation.” One night, he went to a screening of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart as a down-on-his-luck American who searches for gold in Mexico. He decided on the spot to move to Mexico to seek his own fortune—even though he had never been to the country, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have the first clue about how to search for gold.

Armed only with a paperback, How to Look for Minerals and Metals, in a region of Mexico known for danger, outside a town whose nickname translates to “a sunny town for shady people,” Weiss developed one cardinal rule for business: Don’t Die. He never found gold but, learning to follow columns of ants deep in underground mines, he discovered manganese—a mineral required for a range of products, including as a strengthening agent for nuclear weapons. Going town to town, “listening carefully and connecting with people,” he built a network of manganese suppliers across Mexico.

It made him a fortune. He co-founded American Minerals, Inc., which became a leading mineral processing company, eventually merging with Premier Refractories to form American Premier. Later, he co-founded Premier Magnesia, which became the largest supplier of magnesia and Epsom salts in North America. He was also a partner in the Soviet-American Trading Corporation, at one point responsible for 80 percent of all trade between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Along the way, his zest for living took him from the company of legendary artists and poets in Mexico, to writers and beatniks in 1960s San Francisco and Hollywood; from summers on the French Riviera to friendships with three of the men who played James Bond; from glamorous parties in Gstaad and Phuket to power politics in London and Washington, DC.

After nearly 25 years in business, he craved greater purpose, to give back to the country he loved. At the urging of his Gstaad friend and neighbor, John Kenneth Galbraith, he took up residence at Harvard University’s Center for International Studies.  In conversation about nuclear weapons, he was horrified to learn, as he wrote, that “the prevailing experts were stuck in a world of abstract theories … bantering all too casually about mutually assured destruction and the need for more nuclear weapons on our side – apparently, to avoid utter annihilation.”

Determined to create a realistic narrative, he founded the Nuclear Information Resource Service to provide objective information about nuclear power. Unhappy with the Carter Administration, he co-founded a third political party, the Citizen’s Party, and recruited environmentalist Barry Commoner to run in the 1980 U.S. presidential election.

Stanley Weiss and Ike photoBut it was at a conference in the spring of 1981, at the University of Groningen in the northern Netherlands, where Weiss realized the purpose that would consume the next 25 years of his life.

The focus of the conference was on how to prevent a nuclear war in Europe. For three days, he listened to a long parade of experts—including academics, activists, retired military officers, clergy, strategic experts, and politicians—when he realized, as he later wrote, that “the problem was being addressed from every professional point of view except one: No one from the vastly successful business communities of Western Europe or the United States had been asked to contribute.”

“In that moment,” he added, “my entrepreneur’s eye began to see what wasn’t there: a business organization that would work on security issues with businesslike pragmatism … where business leaders would use their influence for real change for the country … and push for concrete results.”

“And that,” he wrote, “is how BENS was born.”

Starting with a gut instinct about what he wanted to build, Weiss reached out to Jim Morrison, a Texan and policy maven for independent businesses he had first met at the Senate Small Business Committee. Together, starting in the summer of 1982, they adopted what he called “the British model of planning” – that is, instead of creating a master plan with layers of meticulous detail “like the French,” he preferred to “muddle through,” writing, “I improvised each of the organization’s vital parts. I screwed up every step of the way and then adjusted until something worked.”

For the next three years, much as he had done in Mexico traveling from town to town to build his first network of manganese suppliers, Weiss traveled from city to city across America to meet one-on-one with business executives. He pitched his vision: that “American business leaders had a real but still unrealized political power to influence security issues if we could just find a way to mobilize them.” Slowly, he recruited member after member, while also learning how to raise money for the growing organization. The first letters were too strident on nuclear issues, out of tune with the non-partisan nature of business, with “lots of nasty notes back from executives who didn’t like to be shouted at.”

But “quickly,” he wrote, “I learned the art of the fundraising letter … as I became proficient at making them very, very personal. If there is an art to it, it’s merely acknowledging that taking time to celebrate the person at the other end of the request isn’t just important—it’s everything.”

Building BENS also meant overcoming a life-long terror of public speaking. Before his first speech to an influential audience in a private home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Weiss fought off terror “with several weeks of frantic preparation, drafting a thirteen-page text.” It was a disaster. He stumbled over every line and talked way too long, later calling it “one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.” But a glowing story on the gathering the next day in the New York Times didn’t mention the speech, just the power of the idea behind BENS.

“Why,” co-host Jane Pauley asked Weiss the next morning on Today, “did a group of business executives care about national security issues?” “Because being dead is bad for business,” replied Weiss, who used the memorable retort as the title of his 2017 memoir.

The business leaders he recruited in the following years were “risk takers, entrepreneurs at heart … who burned with an inner fire, a passion for our country … who were drawn to BENS because they thought the business side of the Pentagon ought to run as well as the country’s best corporations … and joined to help fix what they believed was broken.”  They adopted the mantra, “More isn’t better. Less isn’t better. Better is better.” Their focus was clear: “Preventing the use of even one nuclear weapon.” In contrast to the many “think tanks” in Washington, BENS set out to be a “Do Tank.”

And “do” they did. BENS would have an outsized impact on American politics. Reflecting back on that work while readying for the BENS 25th anniversary dinner in 2007, where he would relinquish the role of BENS Chairman that had consumed him for a quarter-century, Weiss couldn’t help but see “snapshots” from the previous years. As he recounted in his memoir, those moments included:

  • The time BENS testified before Congress in 1984, to freeze federal spending, when influential Georgia Senator Sam Nunn said, in a line that reflected his pride in BENS’ mission, “Mr. Weiss, you are the first businessman who ever came to see me who wasn’t asking for something for himself.”

  • The first BENS gala, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the prescient farewell address of President Eisenhower. The gala featured a memorable speech by Eisenhower’s son, David – making clear that BENS was created to do exactly what Ike said the country, led by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” needed. The morning before the dinner, the space shuttle, Challenger, blew up, leaving the country in abject grief. The dinner was cited as proof that America’s business leaders were committed to rallying the country and getting back on track.

  • The groundbreaking report BENS issued in 1994 that contained damning evidence that twenty-six of the twenty-seven major bases to be shut down by the Base Realignment and Closure process either hadn’t closed or had reopened under new names with federal tenants. The report caused a sensation, was featured on 60 Minutes (Weiss was quoted calling the Pentagon’s actions “political pork at its worst”) and was credited with getting the closure process back on track—eventually leading to actions at more than 450 obsolete locations, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

  • Former Defense Secretary Bill Perry coming to a BENS dinner to say thanks for BENS’ role in passage of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. He showed a slide show. Slide one was a fully armed Soviet SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile, still in its silo, aimed at the U.S. Slide two showed the same silo a year later, empty, its missile destroyed, its warheads disarmed. Slide three showed a patch of sunflowers growing where the silo had been filled in.

  • A high stakes meeting with the CEO of the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association, former Marine Corps colonel Fred Webber, where BENS proposed that the two organizations join forces to urge passage of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It was a treaty to prevent the use of grotesque chemical armaments, which had languished in the U.S. Senate for more than a decade. After BENS made its pitch, Webber simply extended his hand and said, “We’re in.” And it made all the difference.

  • A call from a high-ranking official at the CIA asking if BENS members could help set up a venture capital fund to create the kinds of cool weapons and gadgets used by James Bond and invented by “Q,” the scientific genius who ran the weapons lab. “I told them it was the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard, and I promised to help. Within a few weeks, we had 12 BENS venture capitalists who loved the idea, and helped to create In-Q-Tel. Now it can be told: the “Q” in In-Q-Tel literally stand for the “Q” from the James Bond film.”

  • A story that ran in the Calcutta Telegraph in India on September 26, 1997, with a lead that read, “Why did the United States president, Bill Clinton, undoubtedly one of the busiest heads of state, seek a meeting with the Indian prime minister, I.K. Gujral, in New York at the United Nations? The answer is a four-letter word: BENS. Business Executives for National Security.” A BENS trip to India that summer helped restart relations between the two countries, culminating in a Clinton visit to India in 2000, the first by a U.S. President in 21 years. “BENS,” Weiss mused, “is my kind of four-letter word.”

  • Another Secretary of Defense, Bill Cohen, sitting at the head of a long conference table filled with BENS members, saying he wanted BENS to play an “instrumental role” in reforming the way our military did business. It led to the “Tail-to-Tooth Commission,” which inverted a familiar military term: the “tail-to-tooth ratio.” The Commission provided a way for the Pentagon to reduce the costs of support activities (the tail) while investing the billions saved into combat capabilities (the tooth), leading to what Cohen called “a revolution in military business affairs.” “I was told,” Weiss recalled, “that people had posted our road map on their walls at the Pentagon.”

  • The global ambassador who, taken aback by Weiss’ suggestion that he should end his support for a certain leader known for committing horrific human rights abuses, retorted that BENS should change its name to “Business Executives for Global Security.” To which Weiss couldn’t resist replying, “Sure, that would be great – we’ll change our name to BEGS.”

Above all, he felt a “profound sense of gratitude” for the incredible business leaders whose leadership helped turn BENS into a force for change, the staff that endured his occasional outbursts to build a lasting institution of extraordinary purpose, and the terrific CEOs he was privileged to work with—Lieutenant Colonel Ty Cobb, Lieutenant General Tom McInerney, General Chuck Boyd, General Montgomery C. Meigs, General Norty Schwartz, and General Joseph Votel. Even after he stepped back from daily leadership responsibilities, he continued to delight in hosting a Mexican holiday party—what he called his favorite event of the year—and nothing made him happier than seeing current and former BENS staffers in attendance.

Reflecting back on his life, Weiss wrote:

“I sometimes think of all the things that wouldn’t have happened in my life if the invasion had gone forward … I think of the remarkable people I’ve been privileged to meet … of the opportunities I’ve had to create a better world … of the magical ride I’ve had with my wife Lisa, the love of my life for more than half a century … and the full circle I’ve come from having my life saved by the bomb, to selling minerals that made the bomb possible, to emerging as a philanthropist to assure that not one nuclear weapon will ever be used again. I’m not sure if that makes me a success or a hypocrite, an idealist or a realist—part of the solution or part of the problem. You probably aren’t sure either. But wherever you come out, I think you’ll agree: That it’s an improbable American life.”

“In the end,” he concluded, “I guess I ended up finding gold after all.”

All of us at BENS will cherish Stanley’s memory forever. We send our deepest love and sympathy to Stanley’s wife, Lisa Popper Weiss; his daughter, Christina Weiss Lurie, his son, Anthony Weiss; and his grandchildren Milena Lurie, Julian Lurie, Sacha Weiss, Tessa Weiss, and Lucas Litchfield.

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