Perry Speaks at American Bar Association Symposium on Nuclear Weapons

William Perry spoke with nuclear law expert Jonathan Granoff at the American Bar Association Symposium on Nuclear Disarmament.


Over a 60-year career largely in military and national security affairs, William Perry served in a variety of positions, rising from an enlisted man in the Army Corps of Engineers after World War II to becoming the country’s 19th secretary of defense, serving from February 1994 to January 1997.

A mathematician by background, Perry experienced firsthand the aftermath of the U.S. nuclear attack of Japan, the tensions of the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s and the nuclear downsizing of the U.S. and Russia in the post-Cold War period. Given he has seen so much tension and turmoil in the world over that span of years, you would think the 88-year old Perry believes the world is in a better position to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. He doesn’t.

Perry outlined his concerns at the 2016 Spring Meeting of the ABA Section of International Law in New York on Thursday, April 14. He was interviewed for nearly 90 minutes by Jonathan Granoff, an attorney, author and international advocate who is president of the Global Security Institute.

Perry served in several roles at the Pentagon, including deputy secretary of defense (1993-94) and as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering (1977-81). He also was President Clinton’s second defense secretary, and was instrumental in forging a cooperative relationship with the Russians in the mid-90s.

The discussion mirrored the title of his recent book, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” The book, from Stanford University Press, tells the story of Perry’s coming of age in the nuclear era, his role in trying to shape and contain it, and how his thinking has changed about the threat these weapons pose.

“I wrote the book because the nuclear dangers we face today are greater than they were during the Cold War,” Perry said. “Our policies are in no way commensurate with the dangers.”

He specifically signaled what he saw as real possibilities of a nuclear terrorist attack in major U.S. cities and a regional nuclear war — such as between India and Pakistan — that would have profound repercussions throughout the world.

The other fear that Perry cited is an attack induced by human error. He recounted getting a call at 3 a.m. as secretary of defense saying the military’s computers were reporting that the Russians had launched an attack. Then as now, the military was in a “launch or lose it” mode.

Because there were no other warning signals or friction between the two nations that suggested the plausibility of an attack, the U.S. stood down. The computer warning turned out to be a false alarm. Three days later it was attributed to human error.

Perry warned the audience that these mistakes are real, and lamented the deterioration of U.S-Russian relations as posing a threat that might lead to a different outcome the next time such a warning arises. “These kinds of mistakes are not movies or mistakes (in fiction) we read about,” he said.


This article was reposted with permission from the American Bar Association website