Former Secretary of Defense William Perry (right) delivers the Second Annual Robert McNamara Lecture on War and Peace. Belfer Center Director Graham Allison moderated the JFK Jr. Forum event.
Photo by Martha Stewart
William Perry: The World Must Dismantle All Nuclear Weapons
Former Secretary of Defense Delivers Annual Robert McNamara Lecture on War and Peace
March 1, 2011
Author: James F. Smith, Communications Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry recalls three searing personal experiences that helped him conclude the world must dismantle all nuclear weapons.
Perry told a Harvard Kennedy School audience that he spent the early part of his engineering career building the most frightening nuclear weapons systems on earth, from the MX missile to the Trident and the Air Launched Cruise Missile.
In October 1962, he got a call from a friend in the CIA, telling to fly immediately from California to Washington. For the next 13 nights, he worked in a team of specialists analyzing photos from U2 spy planes of Soviet missile sites being constructed in Cuba, providing President Kennedy updated information each morning to make decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Every day that I went to our analysis center I truly believed would be my last day on earth,” Perry said.
Delivering the second annual Robert McNamara Lecture on War and Peace on Feb. 24 in the Kennedy School’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Perry described his personal journey from Cold War weapons hawk to nuclear disarmament campaigner. Forum moderator Graham Allison, director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, called Perry one of the Four Horsemen of disarmament. In 2007, Perry banded together with former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn to lobby for total dismantling of the world’s nuclear arms.
Perry recalled a second experience, 16 years later, when he was Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. He was awakened at 3 a.m. by a phone call from the watch officer at North American Aerospace Defense Command.
“The general got right to the point, telling me that his computers were indicating 200 missiles were on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States. I immediately woke up, “ Perry said. “The computer alert of course was a false alarm. The general was calling me in the hopes that I might help him help him figure out what the hell had gone wrong with his computers so that he’d have something to tell the president the next morning.”
Perry said that was one of three false alarms he knows of in which Soviet missiles were thought to be screaming toward the United States, “and I don’t know how many more might have occurred in the Soviet Union.”
“So I had a close personal experience with the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe that could have resulted in no less than the end of civilization,” Perry said. “And to this day, I believe that we avoided nuclear catastrophe as much by good luck as by good management.”
The third event took place when he served as Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, from 1994-97. The end of the Cold War had persuaded him that nuclear arms no longer made sense, and he resolved to make nuclear disarmament the top priority of his tenure. In overseeing the dismantling of missiles, Perry visited a former ICBM site in Ukraine.
“On the first trip I was taken to the control center, where the officers in charge conducted a practice countdown for me…. Never has the full horror of the Cold War been clearer to me than standing there watching those young officers practice launching 700 nuclear warheads at targets in the United States,” Perry recalled.
On his third visit, he joined with other secretaries of defense in planting sunflowers on the former ICBM site.
“Ministers of defense planting sunflowers! And the sunflowers really did grow there, too,” Perry said. “I thought this was something symbolic. But I’ve since learned that sunflowers are very important in Ukraine, the most important cash crop. So there was no symbolism at all as far as the Ukrainians were concerned.”
Perry, a professor at Stanford and co-director of the Preventive Defense Project, said he was proud that his tenure saw the destruction of more than 8,000 nuclear weapons. But the progress stalled and went into reverse, with the combined threats of terrorism and weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.
At the age of 84, Perry pledged to keep traveling the world to make the case for disarmament rather than retire to the good life of Palo Alto. He earned a standing ovation as he concluded his address by quoting Robert Frost: “but I have promises to keep; and miles to go before I sleep; and miles to go before I sleep.”
Watch a video of Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry's remarks at the IOP website.
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