Women and International Security

When I became deputy secretary of defense in 1993, my highest priority was the dismantling of 4,000 “loose nukes” leftover from the breakup of the USSR in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, which were to coincide with an equivalent number of U.S. nuclear weapons to be dismantled - this project was known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. This was a critically difficult task, requiring innovative diplomacy coupled with immensely complicated logistics.

To expedite this critical mission, Ash Carter, then the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, helped me to assemble a premier group of four deputy assistant secretaries. All four members of this team were women: Elizabeth Sherwood, Gloria Duffy, Laura Holgate, and Susan Koch. All four were experts on the former Soviet Union and three of them were conversant in Russian, an ability that Ash and I lacked.

During our first visit to Moscow attendant to implementing Nunn-Lugar, Ash and I and the four deputy assistant secretaries faced across the table the Russian minister of defense, General Pavel Grachev, and five other Russian generals. The Russians showed amazement at the composition of our party and radiated skepticism that women could contribute meaningfully to the immense task ahead of us. When General Grachev asked me a complex question about one phase of the implementation, I said, "Dr. Sherwood will have full responsibility for carrying out that part of the implementation, so I will let her answer that question." She did - in Russian, and in considerable detail. Jaws dropped on the Russian side of the table. 

Left to right: U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and Ash Carter

Three years later, when we had successfully completed the last phase of the missile dismantlement and were having a small celebration with General Grachev, a Russian photographer came over to snap a picture of Grachev, Ash Carter, and myself, but Grachev stopped the photographer and said, "Get Liz in this picture. She's the one who made all this happen!" It was a gratifying moment for Liz, and for Ash and myself. And in its own way, a parable of awareness and cooperation needed in the nuclear era. 

“Liz” (Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall) would go on to become the Deputy Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration, lead the U.S. response to destroy Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons during the Syrian Civil War, and published numerous papers and two books on issues of national security and nuclear proliferation. As we commemorate International Women’s Day, let us celebrate the monumental achievements possible when women are given the responsibility and support to fulfill their greatness. These women accomplished this daunting task in 3 years, and all of us are safer because of their skilled and dedicated efforts.

- Bill Perry

This post was adapted from William Perry's memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink

The cover photo shows Dr. Perry and his daughter Robin Perry celebrating International Women's Day in 2016 with some notable women, including (left) Shata Shetty of the European Leadership Network, Baroness Shirley Williams (second from right), founder of the Social Democratic Party, and Dame Margaret Beckett, former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.