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Perry: 'Nuclear dangers are grave, imminent'

Former cabinet member speaks at Palo Alto church where he sang in choir

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."

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Like this comment
Posted by Dave Smullin
a resident of Los Altos
on Jul 17, 2009 at 5:57 pm

This story evidences much of the experience which drives Bill Perry to his conclusions.

Listening to him during a 10+ day Stanford College convinced me that few have his gift for non-judgemental thinking.

He is not exaggerating. Our families are in the peril he describes.

Class of 1965, Berkeley Law (Boalt Hall) 1968

Like this comment
Posted by Harold
a resident of University South
on Jul 18, 2009 at 3:43 am

who are the atom terroists?

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2009 at 8:53 am

Well, I am completely in favor of abolishing all the nuclear weapons in the world also, but of course the problem is that tyrants will not let go of theirs and will require force to get rid of them, so who will do that job? And what weapons will the "good guys" use to abolish the tyrants and get their nukes?

Sort of like I would love to abolish all guns, but how do you get the guns from the criminals unless your gun is bigger? Then, eventually, the only ones with guns are those in govt, then there is no ability for the people to defend themselves against an out of control govt ( which is where our right to bear arms came from).

So, how do we defend ourselves from out of control tryants from other countries, if we don't have 'better" weapons to knock out theirs? If we have less defensive capabilities than a country that wants to take us over..then we get taken over by that country. Simple historical human nature.

Can't change human nature. We can only accept it and work with it. Not one tribe, village, group, city, or society that failed in its ability to defend itself has survived at any time in history. Name me one ( that isn't protected

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2009 at 8:59 am

By the way, I have to comment on an error in this article, about the "stalling" in the drop of nuclear weapons since Clinton years..the USSR and the USA both quietly dropped their arsenal number by ..1/2 I believe ( though I could be wrong,,I just remember a surprisingly big amount) from 2001-2006. IN fact, both sides dropped their number of nukes by much, much more than in all the Clinton years. Clinton years were stalled by too much legal finagling and talking, so little happened compared to the first half of this decade. I suspect a political party affiliation at work here again..too bad. I was interested until i read that mistake, which threw the rest of the article in doubt for me...

Will look for my reference if anyone cares.

Like this comment
Posted by P
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 18, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I agree with your recollection and I found the citation. Bush and Putin agreed to reduce warheads stockpiles by two thirds during a meeting they had Nov 14, 2001. (see: Web Link ) Either because that agreement was overshadowed by the events of 2 months prior, or because the press prefers to emphasize Bush's blunders over his successes, this dramatic and historic reduction goes rather unheralded.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

If everybody follower the rules an unarmed society might work. How do we assure everybody follows the rules, all the time? Students???
[So I ain't Kay Kaiser]

Like this comment
Posted by P
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 18, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Right Walter....If I beat my swords into plowshares, how do I then prevent spending the rest of my days plowing for those who kept their swords?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 18, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Some folks want the security of slavery.

Like this comment
Posted by Dick Duda
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 18, 2009 at 9:19 pm

I don't think that George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn (to name just a few) want "the security of slavery."

Perry never said that getting rid of nuclear weapons would be quick and easy. But the danger of not working on controlling the nuclear problem far exceeds the risks of working on it. Time is not on our side.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2009 at 3:38 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

You cannot unring a bell nor uninvent nukes. You dare not weaken your own defenses based on a scrape of paper.

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2009 at 6:28 am

Thanks P for finding it. I thought I read the actual number reduced just a few months ago in the WSJ, but I can't find the reference. Maybe it was somewhere else. Will keep looking.

Your and Walter's pithy comments are right on.

The actual consequences count much more than the intentions, and if we weaken ourselves relative to those who wish to destroy us, then we will be destroyed. Human nature.

Like this comment
Posted by PA ONE
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 19, 2009 at 10:31 pm

LETS HOPE PA is the main target!!! community improvment

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