William Perry at All Souls: Humans will err again

Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry discusses the dangers of nuclear war
at All Souls Unitarian Church, October 24, 2016.

Introduction of Perry by Peter Weiss, President Emeritus, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy. Questions and Answers moderated by John Burroughs, Executive Director, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy. 

read the Transcript of Dr. Perry's Speech

“In the nightmare of the dark,
All the dogs of Europe bark;
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate.”

That poem, written on the eve of World War II, could today be a metaphor for the Middle East, where each nation seems to be sequestered in its hate.

But not just the Mideast, where at least nuclear weapons are not in play. The dogs also are barking in Europe, where the hostility could conceivably escalate into a nuclear catastrophe.

Today the United States and Russia have relations that can only be described as hostile, comparable in many ways to the bad old days of the Cold War. Russia has dropped it’s long term policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, it is rebuilding it’s Cold War arsenal of nuclear weapons, it’s flaunting them, and it is threatening it’s neighbors with them, and it is indirectly threatening the United States. The head of Russian media, Dmitri Kiselev, recently wrote: Russia is the only nation capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash. Which of course, is a true statement, the question is why he would think it was an appropriate statement to make. 

Have we simply forgotten the terrible dangers of the Cold War?

Rising to this challenge, the US has begun rebuilding it’s Cold War nuclear arsenal. We seem to be determined to replay Cold War nuclear arms race, with costs estimated at about $1 trillion. I mention that number, it means nothing to me, what does a trillion dollars mean? A lot of money, but well beyond the costs are the terrible dangers. Have we simply forgotten the terrible dangers of the Cold War?

Several times during the Cold War, we faced the danger of a nuclear war by miscalculation, most dramatically during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Have we forgotten the Cuban Missile Crisis? I will never forget it.

To this day, I believe that we averted a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management.

I was there during that crisis, working with a small team that analyzed the intelligence data each day and prepared each night a report for President Kennedy’s morning brief. So I knew exactly what was going on. Indeed, every morning when I went into our analysis center I truly believed would be my last day on earth. After the crisis, President Kennedy said that he thought there was a 1 in 3 chance that the Cuban missile crisis would escalate into a nuclear war.

Kennedy was an optimist.

He did not know, which we now know, that the Soviet Union had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, in addition to the medium range missiles that we were monitoring, and those tactical nuclear weapons already had nuclear warheads, and the crews already had the authority to launch them. If Kennedy accepted the recommendations of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, to invade Cuba, our forces would have been decimated upon arrival with tactical nuclear weapons, which undoubtedly would have escalated into a general nuclear war.

To this day, I believe that we averted a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management.

Today, because of the ongoing hostility between the US and Russia, we are recreating the conditions that could lead to a nuclear war by miscalculation. Russian troops have already engaged in military operations in Georgia, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s justification for those operations included their stated right to protect Russians in those regions.

The same rationale could be applied to the Baltic countries, where there is a large population of Russians, many of whose loyalties are to Russia, not to their native country. This population would be easy to stir up---provide a pretext for Russia to send in troops to assist them. Baltic countries are members of NATO, and an incursion by Russian troops would lead to a military clash between Russian troops and NATO troops. This could be a minor skirmish, and perhaps easily resolved.

But it also could escalate, and if Russia were losing the conflict they might do exactly what they have said they would do; namely use tactical nuclear weapons to gain an advantage. It is supreme folly for Russia or for the US to believe that there is any way to prevent the use of tactical nuclear weapons from escalating into a general nuclear war.

Today, because of the ongoing hostility between the US and Russia, we are recreating the conditions that could lead to a nuclear war by miscalculation

Let me be very clear:  I do not believe that either the US or Russia want or are planning a nuclear war, and I think there is a very low probability that one would start in the way I have just outlined.

But that risk, even though low, is one we should not have to take.

A higher risk is that of an accidental nuclear war. Because of our Launch on Warning policy, an accidental war could result if our missile attack warning system experienced a false alarm.

How likely is that? During the Cold War there were three such false alarms in the US, and two that we know about in the Soviet Union---that figures out to be one every ten years. One of the false alarms in the Soviet Union has been documented in a recently released movie called appropriately: “The Man Who Saved the World”. I urge all of you to see this chilling documentary.

I personally experienced one of the false alarms, and it changed my life forever.

It occurred in October of 1978, when I was the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. I was awoken from a sound sleep at 3am, and as I sleepily put the phone to my ears I heard the voice on the other end introduce himself as the watch officer at NORAD. The general got right to the point. He told me that his computers were showing 200 missiles on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States. For one heart-stopping moment I thought we were about to experience the holocaust that we had narrowly escaped during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the general quickly explained that he had already concluded that it was a false alarm, and that he was calling me to help him determine what had gone wrong with his computer, so that he would have an explanation for the president’s morning brief. 

He told that his computers were showing 200 missiles on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States.

The sequel to that story is that I could not that night determine what had gone wrong, since the indicators looked very much like a real attack, and since the computer seemed to be working properly. It took us three days to determine what had happened: when the computer operators changed shift, the new operator mistakenly put a training tape in the computer, which was of course designed to look like a realistic attack scenario.

It was human error; that is, our system---with all of is safety features---was still vulnerable to a single person erring and bringing about the end of civilization.  Two things saved us from that fate. First, the watch officer that night was exceptionally thoughtful and responsible, for which we can all be thankful. And second, the context for an attack was benign; that is, there were no international incidents underway that made a Soviet attack plausible.

But what if that false alarm had occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or during the earlier Mideast crisis when the US was on DefCon 2. In that context, the watch officer surely would have passed the alarm on to the president, who after being awoken at 3am, would have had less than 10 minutes to decide whether to launch our ICBMs before they were destroyed in their silos. And if he ordered the launch, there was no way of recalling the missiles or destroying them in flight.

Humans will err again; Machines will malfunction again; so false alarms will happen again - And Russian and the US still have the Cold War policy of Launch on Warning.

Humans will err again; machines will malfunction again; so false alarms will happen again.

Today relations between the United States and Russia are hostile. 

Any military clash between Russia and NATO, no matter how small, could provide the context---for either Russia or the US—that made an attack seem plausible. So today, just as in the Cold War, we face the possibility of an accidental war destroying our civilization.

Besides the return of those two Cold War dangers, we have two new dangers today: a regional nuclear war, and a nuclear terror attack.

A regional nuclear war is not a remote possibility.

Just this month Pakistan threatened to destroy India in response to a border skirmish. And this is not just rhetoric. Pakistan has over 100 nuclear weapons, which are more than enough to destroy India, while, of course, India is destroying Pakistan, and in the process, depositing enough soot into the atmosphere to cause a mini nuclear winter. So while a regional nuclear war would be devastating to Pakistan and India, it could also have serious consequences around the world.

A regional nuclear war is not a remote possibility.

The final nuclear danger is an act of nuclear terrorism. This is perhaps the most likely nuclear catastrophe.

We know that Al Qaeda and ISIS have made attempts to get nuclear weapons, and I believe that they would use nuclear weapons if they had them. The barrier to their achieving their objective is the difficulty of making fissile material, the fuel of a nuclear bomb. But if they could somehow obtain just 30 kilograms of enriched uranium they could make an improvised nuclear device that could be delivered in a truck or freighter and detonated with the power of the Hiroshima bomb

Rather than discuss this possibility I am going to show you a short video we made dramatizing a nuclear terror attack. The video is based on a scenario described in the preface of my book. It is hypothetical, but based on factual data. It could happen at any time in Washington, New York, London, or Moscow.

Today there are more than 15,000 nuclear weapons today.  This scenario dramatizes the devastation that could be caused by one of them. And the devastation is more than the 100,000 lives that could be lost, which would be devastating as it is, but the political and the economic and the social collapse that would result from such an attack.

The likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War.

In sum, we have recreated the nuclear dangers of the Cold War---an accidental nuclear war, or a nuclear war by miscalculation; and, since the Cold War ended, two new nuclear dangers have arisen: nuclear terrorism and a regional nuclear war.

Thus I believe that the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War.

In spite of this grim assessment, I would like to end my talk on a positive note. I am based at Stanford University, and spend much of my time with students and other young people. I am inspired every day by their intelligence, optimism, and willingness to work for a better and a safer world. They have been in the vanguard of the actions to protect the world from a disaster caused by drastic climate change, and they are beginning to assume leadership in the nuclear area as well.

I have more or less given up on my generation, who lived through the Cold War, to deal effectively with the deadly nuclear legacy we created. My goal is to help educate the generation just coming of age, the millennials, who have not been warped by Cold War thinking.

To that end, I have formed a small project, The William J. Perry Project, to carry out that education project. The first output of that project is my recent memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink”. I believe that I described today’s nuclear dangers very well in that book, but I also realize that much more is needed. I recognize that it will be read only by tens of thousands, most of whom will be of elites, nearly all of whom will be adults.

I have more or less given up on my generation, who lived through the Cold War, to deal effectively with the deadly nuclear legacy we created.

So I have been working with a small group of young people who are helping me craft my message using a younger sensibility so that it is more likely to be heard, understood, and shared by their peers. And we have to get this message across, not to tens of thousands, but to millions, which means we have to go to the internet. That does not mean dumbing down the message, but rather using media in smart way and sharing it in the online venues where millennials go for news and information. In that spirit, our project prepared for YouTube the video that I showed you on nuclear terrorism, and we have other such YouTube videos in production.

And our project has produced a Massively Open Online Course, “Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday and Today”, that can be accessed, not just by hundreds of students at Stanford, but hundreds of thousands students worldwide.

The course has just gone online, and it is not limited to students---anyone here can go home tonight and sign up for it---it is free and has no required exams. You don’t take it for a grade---you take it to learn the facts about nuclear dangers and what we can do to lower those dangers. The director of education for our project, David Perry is with me tonight.  He also has in the planning stage three shorter MOOCs, which I expect we will be bringing on line next year.

Besides these long-term educations projects, there is an urgent need for real diplomacy to heal the dangerous rupture between the United States and Russia. Since official diplomacy has not been effective, we are turning to unofficial, or Track 2 diplomacy. Some of our students at Stanford have organized a study group with other American college students teamed with a comparable group of students in Russia. They meet twice a year, once at Stanford and once in Russia, and discuss ways of improving US/Russia relations.

Two weeks ago I met with them at Stanford, along with Governor Brown of California and the governor of Tyumen province in Russia. And we will follow up next year with a meeting in Russia. It’s a sad commentary on the state of relations between the US and Russia, but this may be the only serious effort underway today to improve relations between our two countries. Remarkably, it is being organized and carried out entirely by young people in Russia and young people in the US, the governors and I were only their guests at the Stanford meeting.

In sum, by working with young people I hope to help influence a new generation dedicated to ending this terrible threat of nuclear extinction facing us today. I know this is pursuing an ideal that seems unattainable, but I will nevertheless continue my pursuit, in spite of being often asked: Aren’t you being a naive idealist pursuing such unrealistic goals? 

My answer is borrowed from Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. He spent his latter years working for political reform in the Soviet Union; what a hopeless task that must have seemed! When a friend wrote to him that he was being too idealistic, he wrote back:

“There is a need to create ideals even when you cannot see a path to achieving them. Because when there are no ideals, then there is no hope.”

— Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb

Sakharov did pursue his ideals, and by doing so he kept hope alive in the Soviet Union for major political reforms, reforms that did indeed come, but sadly, are fading away again.

Even when my friends accept that it may be worth pursuing one’s ideals, they note my age and ask politely why I don’t simply settle down to enjoy my golden years in that Garden of Eden known as Palo Alto, California.

But retirement is not on my agenda:  I will continue in my quest to avoid a nuclear catastrophe as long as I am able. For I believe that time is not on our side; And I believe that having helped develop our nuclear weapons I know better than most how to dismantle them, and I believe that I have a special responsibility to do so.

Or I could answer them with lines from Robert Frost:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep;
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Thank you.