I know of no person who understands the science and politics of modern weaponry better than William J. Perry, the US Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997. When a man of such unquestioned experience and intelligence issues the stark nuclear warning that is central to his recent memoir, we should take heed. Perry is forthright when he says: “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”1 He also tells us that the nuclear danger is “growing greater every year” and that even a single nuclear detonation “could destroy our way of life.”
In clear, detailed but powerful prose, Perry’s new book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, tells the story of his seventy-year experience of the nuclear age. Beginning with his firsthand encounter with survivors living amid “vast wastes of fused rubble” in the aftermath of World War II, his account takes us up to today when Perry is on an urgent mission to alert us to the dangerous nuclear road we are traveling.
Reflecting upon the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Perry says it was then that he first understood that the end of all of civilization was now possible, not merely the ruin of cities. He took to heart Einstein’s words that “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our modes of thinking.” He asserts that it is only “old thinking” that persuades our leaders that nuclear weapons provide security, instead of understanding the hard truth that “they now endanger it.”
Perry does not use his memoir to score points or settle grudges. He does not sensationalize. But, as a defense insider and keeper of nuclear secrets, he is clearly calling American leaders to account for what he believes are very bad decisions, such as the precipitous expansion of NATO, right up to the Russian border,2 and President George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, originally signed by President Nixon.
In his foreword to the book, George P. Shultz describes Perry as a man of “absolute integrity.” His record is remarkable: Ph.D. in mathematics, vast technical training and experience in high-tech business, management of research and weapons acquisition as an undersecretary of defense under President Carter, and deputy secretary and then secretary of defense under Bill Clinton.
Perry writes that he started young, at the age of twenty-six in 1954, as a senior scientist at Sylvania’s Electronic Defense Laboratories in what is now called Silicon Valley. Today we think of this part of the world as the home of Apple, Google, and Facebook, but back then the principal work was defense, the business of mass destruction. Within ten short years after the end of World War II, both the Soviet Union and the United States had developed hydrogen bombs, which…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.