My Life on the Nuclear Brink – Review

My Life on the Nuclear Brink – Review
Book by William Perry
Reviewed by Trudy Reagan

Pacifists may argue that it is a bad choice to do weapons work at all. William Perry, Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, would probably argue that by leaving this job to others, the results could be far worse. Would we suspect that someone who spent his entire career in the defense industry, first as a private contractor and then as a government official, would be nuclear weapons’ biggest critic? Yet, in a 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal, Perry’s name appeared along with former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, and Senate arms expert Sam Nunn, calling for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Perry’s new book, My Life on the Nuclear Brink (Stanford Press), will be engrossing for those who worked actively over the years for nuclear disarmament and arms reduction; and for those who came of age during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1946, Perry was assigned by the Army Corps of Engineers to map post-war destruction in Tokyo and Naba, Okinawa. It bore in upon him that the total devastation he saw caused by many bombs in some places was visited on Hiroshima with only a single bomb. It was a formative experience. Perry relates that one of his contemporaries objected that Congress was using nuclear bombs as if they were poker chips. “They are not. They are forces of nature.” Unfortunately, people in that generation, with those first-hand experiences, are dying off.

In Perry’s early career as an engineer, he worked on mitigating the danger of nuclear attacks by technical means. In 1961, President Kennedy formed the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, in which Perry worked. There he met Wolfgang Panofsky and Sid Drell, with whom he would work on these issues for the rest of their careers. In 1962, as an employee of Sylvania working on spy equipment, Perry was called to Washington in the perilous days of the Cuban missile crisis to confirm that photos over Cuba did indeed reveal missile sites.

Under President Carter, Perry became Undersecretary of Defense in 1977. Rather than escalate the nuclear arms race, he promoted “offset technologies” – stealth technology to evade enemy radar, GPS satellites, and other revolutionary technologies to create “aggressively better regimes for safety.” Perry was witness to some frightening near misses of the nuclear age that few heard about. With little information to guess the enemy’s intentions, it was too easy to interpret “attack” signals wrong.

When President Carter lost the Presidency to Ronald Reagan, Perry lost his position in government. Reagan put his energies into the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), nicknamed “Star Wars,” which Perry criticized as a “forlorn idea of defense against nuclear attack,” one easily evaded by launching cheap decoy missiles.

Out of office, Perry joined the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, with his colleagues Panofsky and Drell. There they pursued “track two diplomacy,” informal meetings with their Soviet counterparts to advance work toward new negotiations.

In a dramatic meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the two presidents discussed eliminating nuclear weapons. It took Perry’s breath away. Alas, the negotiations fell apart. On the other hand, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was negotiated, requiring both sides to abolish a whole class of shorter-range missiles, verified by intrusive inspections. More agreements followed under George H. W. Bush.

Then the USSR dissolved, and the continent was in turmoil. Independent Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus all had poorly secured nuclear arsenals. Ukraine alone had two thousand loose nuclear weapons. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar inserted funds in the defense budget to deal with the problem. When Clinton became president in 1992 and Perry became Secretary of Defense, Perry snatched money from other departments to implement the Nunn-Lugar agreement. Under this agreement, the US helped with the complex and costly process of dismantling nuclear weapons on both sides. Ironically, to make a nuclear bomb is cheaper than to destroy it.

While Perry was overseeing this process in Ukraine, a local general took him into a silo to watch a practice nuclear “launch” on US cities. Perry felt chilled to realize that in the US, operatives at that moment were doing the reverse. “Indeed, never has the surrealistic horror of the Cold War been more vivid to me.”

It is heartbreaking to read that by the time Clinton finally got the SALT II treaty ratified by Congress and signed it, the Russian legislature, the Duma, refused to ratify. Four years later, by the time the Duma did pass SALT II, the US had moved NATO forces up to Russia’s borders, provoking Putin to veto SALT II. Today, Russia has begun building a new class of nuclear missiles with multiple warheads, MIRVs, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is in limbo, tempting all the nuclear powers – China, Pakistan, India, Russia, and the US – to begin nuclear testing again. Recently, Russia invaded Ukraine and abandoned the long-standing international “no first use” policy toward nuclear weapons. We seem to be on the cusp of a new arms race.

Although nuclear arsenals have been drastically diminished on both sides of the Atlantic, they are still at the “overkill” level.  In this very discouraging time, Perry continues to work in retirement on “track two diplomacy” with his colleagues at Stanford and Harvard. Perry says he’s discouraged, but “it’s not a fantasy that we can greatly reduce the transcendental danger posed by nuclear weapons.” He sees that limited goals will continue to have limited success, unless they are tied to the ultimate goal of abolition of all nuclear weapons. His recent book outlines some hopeful straws in the wind. You can read more about his personal project at ~~~

Trudy Myhrr Reagan is a visual artist and founder of the group, Artists Using Science and Technology. She is a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PYM).