A Stark Nuclear Warning

An excerpt from California Governor Jerry Brown's review of My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.
Read the full review in The New York Review of Books.

A Stark Nuclear Warning

Jerry Brown

My Journey at the Nuclear Brink is a rare accounting of the last six decades of American policy in the new age of nuclear danger. Perry makes it clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is great and that even Washington, D.C., is not safe from attack. In fact, he lays out a plausible scenario of how terrorists could fashion an improvised nuclear device and blow up the White House and Capitol Hill, killing more than 80,000 people and totally disrupting our society. Perry also warns that a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan could occur—with devastating global impacts.

Since the book’s publication, the dangers identified by Perry have only intensified: the latest US defense budget proposes spending $1 trillion on nuclear modernization over the next several decades. This modernization plan contemplates a complete update of our nuclear triad, including new cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, ICBMs, and bombers. The Russian defense minister recently announced in response that Russia will “bring five new strategic nuclear missile regiments into service.” This comes after President Putin revealed that Russia will add more than forty new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal.

And, just this month, as the US broke ground on a future missile defense site in Poland and formally activated a missile defense site in Romania, Putin warned: “Now after the placement of these missile defense elements, we have to think how to neutralize the threats for the security of the Russian Federation . . .”

No one I have known, or have even heard of, has the management experience and the technical knowledge that William Perry brings to the subject of nuclear danger. Few have his wisdom and integrity. So why isn’t anyone paying attention to him? Why is fear of a nuclear catastrophe far from the minds of most Americans? And why does almost all of official Washington disagree with him and live in nuclear denial?

Perry himself may provide the answer:

Our chief peril is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of the global public consciousness. Passivity shows broadly. Perhaps this is a matter of defeatism and its cohort, distraction. Perhaps for some it is largely a most primal human fear of facing the “unthinkable.” For others, it might be a welcoming of the illusion that there is or might be an acceptable missile defense against a nuclear attack. And for many it would seem to be the keeping of faith that nuclear deterrence will hold indefinitely—that leaders will always have accurate enough instantaneous knowledge, know the true context of events, and enjoy the good luck to avoid the most tragic of military miscalculations.

While many complain of the obvious dysfunction in Washington, few see the incomparably greater danger of “nuclear doom” because it is hidden and out of public consciousness. Despite an election year filled with commentary and debate, no one is discussing the major issues that trouble Perry. It is another example of the rigid conformity that often dominates public discourse. Long ago, I saw this in the Vietnam War and later in the invasion of Iraq: intelligent people were doing mindless—and catastrophic—things. “Sleepwalking” is the term historians now use for the stupidities that got European leaders into World War I and for the mess they unleashed at Versailles. And sleepwalking still continues as NATO and Russia trade epithets and build their armies and Moscow and Washington modernize their nuclear overkill. A new cold war.

Fortunately, Bill Perry is not sleepwalking and he is telling us, in My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, to wake up before it is too late. Anyone can begin by reading his book.