How an 89-year-old cold warrior became America’s nuclear conscience.
William J. Perry is 89 now, at the tail end of one of his generation’s most illustrious careers in national security. By all rights, the former U.S. secretary of Defense, a trained mathematician who served or advised nearly every administration since Eisenhower, should be filling out the remainder of his years in quiet reflection on his achievements. Instead, he has set out on an urgent pilgrimage.
Bill Perry has become, he says with a rueful smile, “a prophet of doom.”
Nuclear bombs are an area of expertise Perry had assumed would be largely obsolete by now, seven decades after Hiroshima, a quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, and in the flickering light of his own life. Instead, nukes are suddenly—insanely, by Perry’s estimate—once again a contemporary nightmare, and an emphatically ascendant one. At the dawn of 2017, there is a Russian president making bellicose boasts about his modernized arsenal. There is an American president-elect who breezily free-associates on Twitter about starting a new nuclear arms race. Decades of cooperation between the two nations on arms control is nearly at a standstill. And, unlike the original Cold War, this time there is a world of busy fanatics excited by the prospect of a planet with more bombs—people who have already demonstrated the desire to slaughter many thousands of people in an instant, and are zealously pursuing ever more deadly means to do so.
And there’s one other difference from the Cold War: Americans no longer think about the threat every day.
Perry has been at the forefront of a movement that he considers the sane and only alternative, and he has joined forces with other leading Cold Warriors who in another era would likely have derided their vision as naïve. In January 2007, he was a co-author of a remarkable commentary that ran on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. It was signed also by two former secretaries of state, George Schulz and Henry Kissinger and by Sam Nunn, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee – all leading military hawks and foreign policy realists who came together to argue for something radical: that the goal of U.S. policy should be not merely the reduction and control of atomic arms, it should be the ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons.
This sounded like gauzy utopianism, especially bizarre coming from supremely pragmatic men. But Perry and the others always made clear they were describing a long-term ideal, one that would only be achieved through a series of more incremental steps. The vision was stirring enough that it was endorsed by President Obama in his opening weeks in office, in a March 2009 address in Prague.
In retrospect, Obama’s speech may have been the high point for the vision of abolition. “A huge amount of progress was made,” recalled Shultz, now 93. “Now it is going in the other direction.”
More recently he’s added yet another recruit to his cause: California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown, now 78, met Perry a year ago, after deciding that he wanted to devote his remaining time in public service mainly to what he sees as civilization’s two existential issues, climate change and nuclear weapons. Brown said he became fixated on spreading Perry’s message after reading his memoir: He recently gave a copy to President Obama and is trying to bend the ear of others with influence in Washington.
If Bill Perry has a gift for understatement, Brown has a gift for the theatrical. In an interview at the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, he wonders why everyone is not paying attention to his new friend and his warnings for mankind.
Read more at Bill Perry Is Terrified. Why Aren’t You?