William J. Perry: A cold warrior | News | Palo Alto Online |


William J. Perry: A cold warrior

Perry, former secretary of defense, strives for worldwide nuclear disarmament

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The walls of William J. Perry's Stanford University offices in Encina Hall are covered with memorabilia. Plaques and banners presented to him by every branch of the United States Armed Forces are mingled with proclamations and images from around the world. But among these many keepsakes, one has particular significance to the former U.S. secretary of defense.

Clustered in a simple frame are a handful of photographs taken during four trips Perry made between March 1994 and June 1996 to Pervomaysk in southern Ukraine. At the site of Silo 110, once commanded by the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, an SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile used to be housed, crowned with six nuclear warheads targeted at the United States. On Jan. 5, 1996, Perry, together with Russian Defense Minister Paval Grachev and Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Shmarov simultaneously detonated a charge that blew up Silo 110, collapsing it on itself into the earth below. In summers now, sunflowers bloom, marking the spot.

It was halfway around the world from Pervomaysk at the Pentagon, on Feb. 4, 1994, that Perry had taken the oath of office and became the United States' 19th secretary of defense, appointed by President William J. Clinton. A mathematician and scientist, high technology executive, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and academic, Perry was above all else a Cold Warrior.

By the time he became secretary the Cold War had ended, but its most deadly legacy lived on. Over the next three years, Perry worked tirelessly to reduce and eliminate as many as possible of the thousands of nuclear weapons the U.S. and the former Soviet Union had stockpiled. And when he left office in 1997, Perry said he believed the United States and rest of the world were moving in the right direction -- towards nuclear disarmament.

Since then, he has become less sure, worried by a broadly emerging proliferation of nuclear weapons and growing access to the ingredients for making them. The Cold War may be 20 years in the past, but Perry, who turned 84 in October, is nonetheless engaged in its aftermath: the danger still remaining in massive U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles and the clamor by countries and rogue military groups to make more of them.

Pervomaysk turned out to be a guidepost on a long journey Perry continues to travel. He is now a Stanford professor with joint appointments at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the School of Engineering, as well as being a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. The mission is more personal now, maybe even bigger: to facilitate worldwide nuclear disarmament.

It is a path he has shared most recently with three well-known partners: former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former U.S. Senator and national security expert Sam Nunn.


A student prodigy, Perry left high school early to study at Carnegie Tech, where he completed three semesters before enlisting in the Army at 18. It was just after World War II, and by his 19th birthday he was serving in occupied Japan, entering adulthood at the start of the nuclear age. In that titanic struggle and ultimate standoff between reigning superpowers, Perry would become a committed Cold Warrior.

At 21, Perry found himself at Stanford, graduating three years later with undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics and a second lieutenant's commission the Army reserves. After three years on active duty, Perry began his career in private industry. It would be two decades before he entered civilian government service, thereafter alternating between it, academia and consulting.

Perry, a Pennsylvania native, has spent much of his adult life in Palo Alto, where together with his wife, Lee, he raised a family. He worked as research director at GTE Electronic Defense Labs in Mountain View and later completed his doctorate, also in mathematics, at Pennsylvania State University. He then co-founded and became president of ESL, a high-technology defense firm initially headquartered on Fabian Way, in south Palo Alto.

Perry's first intense encounter with the probabilities of nuclear war occurred while he was still at GTE.

"I was consulting occasionally with the Defense Department and the CIA on technical issues relating (to) Soviet missiles," he recalled recently. "I got a call from a former Stanford classmate, who at the time was deputy director of the CIA for science and technology, asking me to come back and consult on a problem."

Perry agreed, telling his friend he would rearrange his schedule and travel to the nation's capital the following week. But that was not good enough; the voice on the other end of the line insisted Perry come immediately, which he did, taking a redeye flight that night to Washington, D.C.

"First thing in the morning, he showed me pictures of Soviet missiles deploying in Cuba," Perry said.

It was October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun, but the public still knew nothing of it. Perry was stunned by what he saw. He would spend the next two weeks analyzing intelligence day and night.

"I believed we were going to go to a nuclear war, and I figured every day I was living my last day on earth. So to me, nuclear war was not an abstract issue. It was very, very concrete," he said.

That crisis lasted 13 days -- a thermonuclear exchange between USSR and the United States averted by only the narrowest of margins.

Fifteen years later, Perry moved to the capital at the behest of President Jimmy Carter's administration. Soft spoken, unassuming and widely regarded as a brilliant technologist and gifted administrator, Perry entered government service as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering -- essentially, chief technology officer for the Department of Defense.

It was at this time that a second seminal event occurred that helped solidify his commitment to nuclear disarmament. Another call came, this one from an Air Force general at 0300 hours -- 3 a.m.

Perry was told the United States appeared to be under attack. Warning systems were lit up, signaling that hundreds of Soviet missiles were only minutes away from raining warheads down on America.

"That was one of three false alarms I know about. I don't know how many occurred in the Soviet Union," he said. "Any one of those might have turned into nuclear war."

The precarious balance of peace and nuclear terror between Cold War superpowers was deeply impressed upon him.

"I came to believe we were avoiding nuclear war as much by good luck as by good management. And the fate of the world depending on just good luck seemed very unreasonable to me. I had a mounting apprehension that we would go to nuclear war by miscalculation, or by accident, and that these nuclear weapons which were designed for our security were really a danger -- not just to our security, but really to the existence of civilization."

Following the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan, Perry returned to the Bay Area, where he joined investment firm Hambrecht & Quist as an executive vice-president. He later split his time between a technology consultancy and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford.

"At the time I was not in the government," Perry recalled. "I worked in what they call 'track two' -- unofficial."

Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and with it, newly independent Ukraine became the third largest nuclear power in the world, its arsenal larger than that of Britain, France and China combined.

"I went with Senator Nunn and Senator (Richard) Lugar on a trip to Russia and Ukraine, where we explored with the Russians and the Ukrainians what they were doing to try and contain their nuclear weapons," he said.

Both countries were gripped by intense political, economic and social turbulence -- the stability of everything, including their substantial military establishments, was in question. Soldiers were not being paid; discipline was breaking down, the chain of command uncertain.

"It seemed to us to be a very dangerous situation. It was not the kind of danger of the Cold War; it was a different," Perry said. The biggest concern was that one or both governments "would lose control of their nuclear weapons and that they would fall into the hands of a Mafioso or a terror group."

Perry helped the two senators create and advocate for what became known as the "Nunn-Lugar" program. The resulting bipartisan legislation, signed into law in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush, authorized the Department of Defense to assist the Russians and Ukrainians to reassert control of their nuclear weapons.

Under terms of an agreement, Ukraine gave up its arsenal. The world had one fewer nuclear-weapons state.

When Perry returned to the Pentagon in 1993, first as deputy secretary and shortly thereafter as secretary, he found that "the program I helped write I now had the opportunity to help implement. And as secretary of defense, I would say my top priority was working to reduce the deadly nuclear legacy of the Cold War."

Perry traveled extensively as secretary of defense, meeting with international leaders and military and civilian officials, discussing and searching for ways to better control existing nuclear weapons, stop their proliferation and reduce their numbers. During his tenure more than 8,000 nuclear weapons were dismantled by the United States, Russia and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. This represented between 15 to 20 percent of the overall total.

He also worked hard to win the critical backing of the U.S. military establishment that enabled Clinton to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In Perry's eyes, it's an agreement essential to nuclear disarmament and remains to this day un-ratified by the United States Senate -- a fact he calls "a disaster."

"When I left office in 1997 I really thought we were well on our way to curtailing this deadly nuclear legacy. But since then things have first stalled and then turned around. So by 2006 I was concerned that we were drifting again towards the danger of nuclear war -- moving in the wrong direction."


It was a dinner among old friends in 2005 that brought Perry's apprehensions about nuclear proliferation again to the fore.

Perry and his wife dined at the Rickeys Hyatt in Palo Alto with Shultz and Sidney Drell and their wives, Charlotte Mailliard Shultz and Harriet Drell. Drell, an emeritus professor of theoretical physics at Stanford and arms-control expert, was for many years deputy director a Stanford's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

"George mentioned that we were approaching the 20th anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit," Perry said. It was at that 1986 meeting in Iceland that Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state for the Soviet Union, seriously discussed the idea of total nuclear disarmament.

"They were both seeing the end of the Cold War coming to an end. They were both (asking), 'Why do we need nuclear weapons anymore?' But they were not able to implement that."

As the six friends discussed what had happened at Reykjavik and what had not, they considered formally revisiting what Reagan and Gorbachev had envisioned. Later Perry, Shultz and Drell invited many of those who had been at the summit to meet again at a workshop on the Stanford campus. Nunn participated as well.

Out of that workshop Perry, Shultz, Drell and Nunn agreed to write an OpEd piece for the Wall Street Journal that was eventually published Jan. 4, 2007, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons."

"But there were three Democrats and one Republican," recalled Perry, who was raised a Republican but joined the Democratic Party during his Army service. "And George very wisely observed that he wanted this to be a bipartisan or a non-partisan activity, and that we ought have it even. So Sid Drell stepped off to the side in favor of Henry Kissinger."

"We have tried from that time forward to keep this totally out of partisan politics. And all you have to do is follow what is happening in politics today to understand within partisan politics it is very hard to move forward."

It was the start of a close collaboration that would gain international attention. The quartet has since written two additional pieces for the Journal.

In the January 2007 column, the four made their case for abolishing the most powerful weapons of mass destruction ever devised -- and the bulwark of America's strategy of deterrence and national policy since the early 1950s.

"The end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete. Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective," they wrote.

Since the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II, there have been numerous calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons, several by sitting presidents -- including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan and more recently President Barack Obama.

Yet the overall reaction from media commentators and others to "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons" was different, evoking a broader response with a tinge of possibility.

"The first difference was the Cold War had ended. It was over," Perry said. During the Cold War, advocating nuclear disarmament "did not get serious attention."

"Second, and I think this is an important point, was that the four names on that OpEd were all people who had participated in the development of the weapons themselves or in the policies controlling those weapons," he said. "And so it cast a different light on the recommendation.

"It was hard for the people opposed us to point to the four of us and say, 'They don't know what they are talking about,' or 'They are just theoretical people.' All of us had dealt with the practical issues of national security. So that, I think, made a difference."

But there are still many credible doubters, even among those with whom Perry is professionally and personally close.

"There are serious people who have listened to these arguments and have rejected them, and I understand that," he acknowledged.

But in Perry's view, they do not "adequately face what I think is a very real prospect that we are drifting towards the use of nuclear weapons or even a nuclear war. It seems to me that prospect is getting more likely each year in the last few decades.

"So, it's not just the matter of a terrorist getting a nuclear bomb, although that's probably (the) No. 1 worry, but also the possibility of a nuclear war starting. The probability of that happening is not fully recognized or understood by most people. And the horror of such a result is not fully understood by most people. Part of our mission is to try to make people face those two realities."

This is not to say Perry believes the United States can simply do away with its nuclear arsenal. He is not a unilateralist; he is an activist who believes caution does not equate to inaction or that rigid adherence to a strategy is sensible in the future because it worked in the past.

It was Perry who chaired the 2009 Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. Its final report opened with this statement: "U.S. nuclear strategy begins with the central dilemma that nuclear weapons are both the greatest potential threat to our way of life and important guarantors of U.S. security."

That dilemma will face the world for at least another decade, Perry said, but weight should be put on understanding the threat and trying to eliminate it, while still recognizing nuclear arms as part of the country's security strategy.

To him the central question is "how you deal with deterrence as you start to bring down the nuclear weapons; how you maintain deterrence and why; and how you could approach a world in which deterrence is achieved not through nuclear weapons but through other means."


There are currently nine declared or assumed nuclear-weapons states. Five of them, including the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China, are signatories to the 1970 Nuclear No-Proliferation Treaty. Three others refuse to sign: India, Pakistan and North Korea. One -- Israel -- is "opaque" and makes no admission of such weapons. Iran is widely suspected of developing them but denies it.

And then there are non-state actors -- terrorist organizations with no borders to defend or national threat to deter. The danger is that one of them will somehow find a way to purchase or steal either a nuclear weapon or the fissile materials needed to fabricate one, and then use it in an attack, Perry said.

"No terror group that I know of, no matter how well-funded and how well-organized, has the capacity themselves to make fissile material. It's a huge industrial undertaking, and it's quite visible ordinarily when it's undertaken," Perry said. "So I do not see a danger of a terror group themselves making a nuclear bomb from scratch."

However, "every time a new state enters the nuclear club, becomes capable of making fissile material, it simply further increases the vulnerability that a terror group will be able to get fissile material. Therefore, if we can control the bombs that I think today are adequately controlled, and we can control the fissile material, which I do not believe today we are adequately controlling, then we can keep that from happening."

Perry believes leadership in denuclearization needs to begin with those who own the most -- the U.S. and Russia.

"To try and get other nations in the world, particularly the nuclear powers, to participate in this -- all of them are holding back saying, 'What are the United States and Russia doing?' So the United Sates and Russian must lead in this move for denuclearization," he said.

The New START treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and narrowly ratified by the U.S. Senate in December 2010, "was a small but important step in that direction. I say 'small' because it did not involve very substantial reductions. And even the reductions it made were addressed only to operational nuclear weapons and only to strategic nuclear weapons."

Russia and the U.S. have thousands of strategic weapons that are not operational. Each country, but especially Russia, has many thousand more that are considered "tactical." The latter are much smaller, harder to track, and therefore easier to steal and use. New START excludes non-operational and tactical nuclear weapons.

"So it is a small step. Why I call it an important step was because it got the United States and Russia talking again seriously about reduction in nuclear weapons," he said.

New START established a standard inspection regime and, in effect, has both countries accepting public accountability for their nuclear weapons.

"Those are great standards, and now we need to get them applied to much more substantial reductions -- absolute reductions," including tactical and strategic weapons, operational or not.

So for Perry, after New START, "We have a long way to go, but it was a useful first step."

New START not withstanding, however, Perry said the ratification of another treaty -- the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) -- remains a key test of U.S. leadership. The treaty was passed by the United Nations General Assembly and signed by Clinton in 1996 but rejected by the U.S. Senate.

The Test Ban Treaty prohibits "any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion," and its ratification is one of eight "urgent steps" towards nuclear disarmament outlined in "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons."

President George W. Bush opposed the treaty and it languished during his two terms in office. Then in his 2008 campaign Obama stated: "As president, I will reach out to the Senate to secure the ratification of the CTBT at the earliest practical date."

As of today Obama has not done so. Perry thinks this results directly from "the intense struggle over the New START treaty, which barely passed for ratification. And the New START Treaty, in my judgment, was non-controversial."

From the viewpoint of Perry and his three colleagues: "If it is not brought up -- if the United States does not ratify it, then I think it will really bring an end to the moves we have taken to try and get nuclear weapons under greater control.

"The failure to ratify it leaves nations such as India and China open to testing again, which I believe would not only be bad for the world as a whole but would be a setback for U.S. security as well. So I can see not only nonproliferation reasons for the U.S. ratifying the treaty. I can also see very substantial benefits to U.S. security by going ahead and ratifying this treaty."

He is concerned by what appears to be ever increasing levels of partisanship in the areas of national security and foreign affairs that "stem from the general political climate in the United States today that has nothing to do with this issue that we are talking about."

So great is the partisanship, that "it is hard to imagine even in the most important national security issues where the politics stops at the water's edge," he said.


In March of this year Perry, Shultz, Kissinger and Nunn authored their third opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Near the end of it appears a declarative sentence: "A world without nuclear weapons will not simply be today's world minus nuclear weapons."

Perry explained recently: "The world we are looking to has to have some international way of dealing with conflict, that focuses on preventing the conflict in the first place, dealing with the causes of conflict. We are very far from that world today."

Wars will continue, and as long as they do, there are those who will strive to get hold of the most powerful weapons attainable to them, including nuclear weapons.

"The world we live in today would be a dangerous world even without nuclear weapons. And without nuclear weapons, there would be a huge impetus to rebuild them. So we have to deal with those problems, too," Perry said.

It is evident the neither Perry, nor Kissinger, Nunn or Shultz, ever believed their call for the denuclearization of man's weaponry would or could yield easy results, no matter how much attention and visibility it may enjoy. Their individual and collective experiences preclude such comforts. But in the absence of credible, on-going efforts to reverse the spread of nuclear armaments, they are certain the threat will only grow.

"We have to inform people," Perry said. "The huge task before us today is an education task."

To facilitate this learning process and make it more accessible, the four of them appeared together in the feature-length documentary film, "Nuclear Tipping Point," released in January 2010.

"Nuclear Tipping Point" is narrated by actor Michael Douglas and introduced by former secretary of state and retired Army general Colin Powell. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, also appears in the film.

"Invite a dozen friends to your house, and play it for them and discuss it," Perry said. "And if we have neighborhood groups all over Palo Alto and all over California and all over the United States meeting and discussing these issues, then that provides the body of knowledge which will lead our politicians to care about the problem and take actions about the problem.

"That will only deal with the problem in the United States. But in this problem, the leadership must come from the United States. If we do not lead on this problem nothing will happen," he said.

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Christian Pease is a photographer, writer and co-founder of Light at 11B Studios. He can be reached at christian@light11b.com

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Like this comment
Posted by Gary Waldeck
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Nov 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm

This is a must read interview! Thank you for sharing it.
We should all be grateful for men like William Perry and his colleagues. Their cool thinking and intellect has benefitted all of us. They are my heros!

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