William Perry was once awakened at 3 a.m. to learn that computers were showing 200 Soviet nuclear missiles on their way to the United States -- a false alarm, one of several.
But the danger of nuclear conflict is greater today than at any time since the Cold War decades, he warned a full-house audience at the Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist Church Thursday night.
"The nuclear dangers we face are grave and imminent and will not wait until we are ready to deal with them.
"I am driven first of all by my conviction that the gravest danger our nation faces today is a terror group detonating a nuclear bomb in one of our cities," Perry said.
He has personally participated in blowing up an old Soviet missile silo and planting sunflowers in its place.
During his talk at the church -- where he sang in the choir for 25 years -- Perry told first-hand stories of his experiences first as a developer of nuclear weapons and now as a leading advocate for their abolition.
The problem is urgent, he told the audience, assembled by the "Faith in Action Task Force" on nuclear disarmament at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.
With nuclear weapons programs in Russia, China, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, the world is at "tipping point of proliferation, Perry said, reiterating warnings he has made in the past.
"If Iran and North Korea cannot be contained, I believe that we will cross that tipping point, with consequences that will be dangerous beyond most people's imagination," he said.
Perry, 81, a top research scientist during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, once oversaw the development of the B-2 bomber, the MX missile, the Trident submarine, the Trident missile and the Tomahawk missile.
"While I saw the risks in building those deadly weapons systems, I believed that they were necessary, given the very real threats we faced during the Cold War.
"However, after the Cold War ended, I believed that it was no longer necessary to take those terrible risks," he said.
As secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, he managed the dismantling of nearly 10,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and the former Soviet Union and helped three nations, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine, completely eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.
"At the time, I believed that we were well on our way to mitigating the deadly nuclear legacy of the Cold War," he said.
"But since then the effort has stalled -- even reversed," and Perry said he has grown increasingly alarmed.d
In 2006, he joined former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn to form the Nuclear Security Initiative, dedicated to alerting the world to the growing danger from nuclear weapons and working toward their reduction and ultimate elimination.
His experience as a Cold Warrior makes him acutely aware of the world's vulnerability to nuclear weapons catastrophe, Perry said.
In 1962, early in his career as a scientist at the Electronics Defense Lab in Mountain View, he received a call from a Stanford classmate who was at the CIA, asking him to come to Washington to consult on a technical problem.
When Perry offered to rearrange his schedule to fly the following week, the friend said, "'You don't understand, I need to talk with you right away.'"
Arriving in Washington after an overnight flight, Perry was stunned to be shown satellite photos of a Soviet missile deployment underway in Cuba.
"For the next 13 days I was part of a small team that worked every night studying the latest technical intelligence available so that President Kennedy had the benefit of that analysis the following morning," Perry said.
"Every day when I went to our analysis center I thought it would be my last day on earth.
"And to this day, I believe that we avoided a nuclear catastrophe as much by good luck as by good management."
Perry said the 3 a.m. phone call, in 1978, about 200 Soviet missiles heading to the U.S., was one of three false alarms he knew of that occurred in the United States.
"I don't know how many more might have occurred in the Soviet Union," he said.
"The risks of a nuclear catastrophe have never been academic to me," he said.
Perry, Shultz, Kissinger and Nunn met with President Barack Obama prior to Obama's April trip to Prague, where Obama declared: "I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons."
Perry shared photos of a 2008 trip to North Korea and recounted his delight when the New York Philharmonic played the Star Spangled Banner in Pyongyang and received an extended standing ovation from the North Korean audience.
Perry and his national security colleagues met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March, and were told by the Russian leader that he is eager to resume serious arms control discussions with the United States.
He said he was intrigued to learn that Medvedev gets much of his information on world events by browsing the Internet every morning before he goes to the Kremlin.
"I was confident that our two presidents would hit if off -- both are young, both are smart, both are good listeners, and both are internet savvy," he said.
Obama has set the stage for real progress by his speech in Prague, his commitment to work for a new global treaty banning the manufacture of fissile material and his backing of international efforts to support a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, Perry said.
If an arms-reduction treaty is signed with Russia this December, as anticipated, the next task will rounding up 67 U.S. Senate votes for confirmation, Perry said. He urged the church members to do everything in their power to persuade senators to support the treaty.
Even with a treaty, Obama still faces the problem of dealing effectively with nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, Perry said. Pyongyang's recent nuclear tests are "the most dangerous development since the ending of the Cold War," he added.
After a long career between Palo Alto and Washington, Perry now spends many of his days working with young security specialists at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, where he is a professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Engineering.
Perry said at 81 he is still taking "redeyes" to Washington, D.C., and extended trips to Delhi, Moscow and Beijing because "I do not believe that time is on our side.
"I will also share with you my conviction that, having helped build our nuclear arsenal, I have a special responsibility to help dismantle it."