William J. Perry
William J. Perry; drawing by James Ferguson

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 increased by a million times the destructive capability of the conventional bombs that had been available during World War II. Children were taught to “duck and cover” under their desks and public buildings prominently displayed signs showing where to take shelter in case of nuclear attack.

Perry’s first job at the Electronic Defense Laboratories was “to evaluate a proposed electronic countermeasure system” intended to jam “the guidance signal of an attacking Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).” After careful study, he reported that jamming could successfully reduce fatalities from a medium-size nuclear attack by about two thirds, that is, from 75 million immediate deaths to 25 million. But he later noted that this estimate did not take into account long-term deaths from radiation and “nuclear winter.” Nor did it include the tens of millions of wounded who couldn’t be treated or the total disruption of the economy and the fabric of our society.

This was the moment when Perry concluded that there could be no acceptable defense against a mass nuclear attack, an opinion from which he has never deviated. Many political leaders, including several presidents, have disagreed with Perry and have sponsored various types of anti-missile defense systems, the latest being the ballistic missile defense system now being installed in Eastern Europe.

Perry recalls that it was the fear of nuclear annihilation during the cold war that unleashed the billions of federal dollars that supported the secret defense work that began in Silicon Valley and then propelled it forward. As much as anyone, Perry is aware of the ways, secret and public, that technical innovation, private profit and tax dollars, civilian gadgetry and weapons of mass destruction, satellite technology, computers, and ever-expanding surveillance are interconnected. But he now uses this dark knowledge in an effort to reverse the deadly arms race in which he had such a pivotal role.

Perry was there at the beginning, as part of the elite and highly classified Telemetry and Beacon Analysis Committee, set up by the CIA and the National Security Agency to assess Soviet ICBMs. He was also on the team that analyzed the photographic images that our U-2 spy planes began collecting in 1956, until the program ended four years later when the Soviets shot down the plane piloted by Gary Powers. He was also part of the team assembled in 1959 by Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, to determine whether or not there was a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. In fact, there was no gap but the report Perry worked on was kept secret for decades, as he reveals in his book.


Then, during the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Perry was chosen to be a part of the small group of analysts who worked day and night gathering information about the Soviet missiles being deployed on the island. They examined photographic and other data and prepared a written report that was delivered to President Kennedy each morning.

When President Kennedy addressed the nation and said that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be met by “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” Perry knew exactly what that meant. He had been studying such nuclear strategies for ten years. Each day as he went to the analysis center, he thought to himself that this would be “my last day on earth.”

Perry says it was by luck that we avoided a nuclear holocaust in the Cuban crisis. Years later, we found out that there were some additional and dangerous circumstances that might have pushed us into nuclear war.

First, Perry writes, the Soviet ships approaching the blockade imposed by the US had submarine escorts that were armed with nuclear torpedoes. Because of the difficulty with communications, Moscow had authorized the submarine commanders to fire without further authorization. When an American destroyer tried to force a submarine to surface, both its captain and the political officer decided to fire a nuclear torpedo at the destroyer. A nuclear confrontation was avoided only because Vasili Arkhipov, the overall commander of the fleet, was also present on the submarine. He countermanded the order to launch, thereby preventing what might have started a nuclear war.3

Second, during the crisis, an American reconnaissance plane stationed in Europe wandered off course and flew into Soviet airspace. The Soviets immediately scrambled attack aircraft as did American fighters from an airbase in Alaska. The Americans were armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. Fortunately, the American reconnaissance pilot discovered he had blundered into Soviet airspace and flew away before any Soviet intercepts arrived.

At about the same time an American ICBM was launched from Vandenberg Air Base. Though this was a routine launch intended as a test, it could have easily been misinterpreted by the Soviets. Luckily, it wasn’t.

Tragically, despite coming so close to nuclear annihilation, the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States did not make any effort to slow nuclear competition; they did just the opposite. Perry sees here the operation of “surreal…thinking” utterly at odds with the new reality of nuclear weapons. Yes, the hotline between Washington and Moscow was established, but otherwise strategic thinking in both the US and the Soviet Union went on as though nothing had happened.

Perry points out several particularly troubling aspects of the crisis. There were, he writes, advisers on both the Soviet and US sides who wanted to rush into war. The media, for their part, treated the crisis as “a drama of ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’” Finally he observes that political leaders seemed to gain approval with the public based on their willingness to initiate a war.

As a result, an even more sophisticated competition began, in nuclear warheads and in the vehicles to deliver them. Dean Rusk, the US secretary of state at the time, triumphantly declared that “we’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”4 If that was meant to imply that America had won, he was wrong. The Soviets just stepped up their nuclear efforts and so did the US, each building thousands of dangerous nuclear devices that if ever used could obliterate large swaths of humanity.

President Obama with Sunao Tsuboi, a survivor of the US’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, during a ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, May 2016. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is at left.

Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux

President Obama with Sunao Tsuboi, a survivor of the US’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, during a ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, May 2016. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is at left.

Perry candidly recognizes that the nuclear threat also meant very good business for defense laboratories such as his own employer, Sylvania. His work there focused on understanding the Soviet missile and space systems and he found the challenges of this high-tech spying exhilarating and highly profitable. His mission was gathering cold war intelligence by technical means. But Sylvania had a problem. It was a world leader in manufacturing vacuum tubes at a time when the new solid-state technology was emerging. But Perry saw clearly that Sylvania’s analog technology would soon be replaced by digital technology based on Fairchild Semiconductors’ new solid-state devices, together with new small, high-speed computers then on the drawing boards of companies like Hewlett Packard. He decided it was time to strike out on his own and with four partners founded ESL, Inc.


The work of the new company would be top secret and it could not disclose either its products or customers. Nevertheless, during the next thirteen years, ESL, by winning one government contract after another, grew to over a thousand employees. Historically, the interpretation of intelligence had been exclusively reserved to government agencies, but several of the most critical targets of intelligence had become highly technical. They included ICBMs, nuclear bombs, ballistic missile defense systems, and supersonic aircraft. To collect data on these sophisticated weapons systems, Perry explains, required technical reconnaissance equally as complex. The federal government began to contract with private companies possessing the requisite knowledge and skills, and ESL was in the vanguard. Under Perry’s leadership, his company won long-term contracts for analyzing telemetry and beacon and radar data, and became indispensable to the national effort to understand the nature and extent of the Soviet threat.

The next step for Perry came with the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, when the new secretary of defense asked Perry to become undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. For the next four years, Perry threw himself into this work and, drawing upon all that he had learned, directed America’s major step toward improving competence on the battlefield. The strategy had three elements: (1) intelligent sensors to locate all enemy forces in real time; (2) smart weapons that could strike targets with great precision; and (3) stealth systems that could evade enemy radar. The great paradox of the nuclear age is that deterrence of nuclear war is sought by building ever more lethal and precise weapons. In Perry’s case, that was his mission and he carried it out with imagination and extraordinary skill. The problem he faced was that the Soviet army was seen to have a three-to-one edge in conventional forces, leaving America only with its nuclear forces to deter the Soviets from advancing into Europe.

The answer, concocted by both public and private experts, was to create a “radically novel and highly sophisticated offset strategy.” Through technology, America would offset the Soviet military superiority on the battlefield. The results included the F-117 and B-2 stealth bombers, smart artillery shells, short- and long-range cruise missiles, and reconnaissance aircraft.

Their utility had to wait more than a decade to be shown when, at last, during Desert Storm in the first Gulf War, the American military demonstrated its clear superiority. As Perry writes, “the F-117 flew about a thousand missions in Iraq, dropped about two thousand precision-guided munitions, of which about 80 percent hit their targets,” an accuracy previously unimaginable. “Not a single aircraft was lost during the nightly runs over Baghdad,” despite the “hundreds of modern Soviet-designed air defense systems.”

Success unfortunately can lead to overconfidence and I wonder whether the success of the first Gulf War lulled George W. Bush into thinking that another war could be fought with similar results. We now know that technical prowess can’t necessarily overcome the human factors of ethnic division, historical enmity, and religious belief.

Perry was responsible for important technological advances with respect to US nuclear forces. He helped launch the B-2, a strategic nuclear bomber, capable of use in both nuclear and nonnuclear missions; revitalized the aging B-52 with air-launched cruise missiles; put the Trident submarine program back on track; and made an ill-fated attempt to bring the MX ICBM, a ten-warhead missile, into operation.

Although he didn’t believe that nuclear deterrence required that we match our adversary weapon for weapon, he acceded to the political pressure to keep up with the other guy. Then as now, Perry writes, he believed that America would possess all the deterrence it needs with just one leg of the so-called triad: the Trident submarine. It is very difficult for armies to track and destroy it, and it contains more than enough firepower to act as a deterrent. The bombers provide only an insurance policy for the unlikely contingency of a temporary problem with the Trident force, and also have a dual role in strengthening our conventional forces. Our ICBM force is in his mind redundant. Indeed the danger of starting an accidental nuclear war as a result of a false alarm outweighs its deterrent value.

Many experts agree, but presidents follow the political and highly dangerous path of sizing our nuclear force to achieve “parity” with Russia. Such a competitive and mindless process always leads to escalation without end.5

Perry tells us that parity is “old thinking” because nuclear weapons can’t actually be used—the risk of uncontrollable and catastrophic escalation is too high. They are only good for threatening the enemy with nuclear retaliation. Our submarine force, equipped with nuclear weapons, is virtually invulnerable and can perform that deterrent function well. (It should be noted that the doctrine of deterrence is severely criticized by those who worry about the implications of threatening mass slaughter.6)

Through his first period at the Defense Department under President Carter, Perry showed great confidence in the power of high technology to offset enemy forces and protect American security. But in 1994, when he became President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, the US faced an entirely different set of security problems. The cold war was over, and the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union were located not only in Russia, but also in three new republics that were not capable of protecting them.

Perry gave these “loose nukes” his highest priority. He was able to arrange for the dismantling of all of the thousands of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. He movingly tells of visiting a silo built for the Soviet SS-19 missile and watching it disintegrate in a cloud of smoke. Earlier he had visited the site and was briefed by young Russian officers on how the hundreds of missiles under their control would have been fired at targets in the United States. Observing a practice countdown at a site that at that very moment was targeted by American missiles, he realized what an absurdity had been created by nuclear competition.

There followed heady days, under SALT II, when thousands of missiles and warheads were destroyed and huge quantities of chemical weapons eliminated in both Russia and the United States. Loose nuclear material was secured and Russian nuclear scientists were actually given nonmilitary work at a technical institute established in Moscow. This was all made possible through a program (that is now discontinued) sponsored by two senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, for which Congress provided substantial funding. In retrospect, Perry sees this destruction of weapons and sustained cooperation between Russia and the United States as a minor miracle. Both countries even cooperated militarily during the war in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995.

But such goodwill did not last long. In 1996, Richard Holbrooke, then an assistant secretary in the State Department, proposed to expand NATO by bringing in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic nations. Perry thought this was a very unwise move and should be delayed at all costs. A prominent group of fifty leading Americans, both conservative and liberal, signed a letter to President Clinton opposing NATO expansion. Among the signers were Robert McNamara, Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley, Paul Nitze, Richard Pipes, and John Holdren.7 It was to no avail. Perry was the lone cabinet member to oppose President Clinton’s decision to give Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic immediate membership in NATO.8

That year, 1996, turned out to be the high point in Russian–American relations. The NATO expansion began during President Clinton’s second term. After President George W. Bush was elected, NATO was expanded further to include more nations, reaching all the way to the Russian border. Bush also withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and started deploying an ABM system in Eastern Europe, thereby repudiating the important achievements of Richard Nixon and fostering the illusion that a defense could successfully defeat a determined attack of nuclear missiles.

My Journey at the Nuclear Brink is a rare accounting of the last six decades of American policy in the new age of nuclear danger. Perry makes it clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is great and that even Washington, D.C., is not safe from attack. In fact, he lays out a plausible scenario of how terrorists could fashion an improvised nuclear device and blow up the White House and Capitol Hill, killing more than 80,000 people and totally disrupting our society. Perry also warns that a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan could occur—with devastating global impacts.

Since the book’s publication, the dangers identified by Perry have only intensified: the latest US defense budget proposes spending $1 trillion on nuclear modernization over the next several decades.9 This modernization plan contemplates a complete update of our nuclear triad, including new cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, ICBMs, and bombers. The Russian defense minister recently announced in response that Russia will “bring five new strategic nuclear missile regiments into service.” This comes after President Putin revealed that Russia will add more than forty new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal.10

And, just this month, as the US broke ground on a future missile defense site in Poland and formally activated a missile defense site in Romania, Putin warned: “Now after the placement of these missile defense elements, we have to think how to neutralize the threats for the security of the Russian Federation…”11 (emphasis added).

No one I have known, or have even heard of, has the management experience and the technical knowledge that William Perry brings to the subject of nuclear danger. Few have his wisdom and integrity. So why isn’t anyone paying attention to him? Why is fear of a nuclear catastrophe far from the minds of most Americans? And why does almost all of official Washington disagree with him and live in nuclear denial? Perry himself may provide the answer:

Our chief peril is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of the global public consciousness. Passivity shows broadly. Perhaps this is a matter of defeatism and its cohort, distraction. Perhaps for some it is largely a most primal human fear of facing the “unthinkable.” For others, it might be a welcoming of the illusion that there is or might be an acceptable missile defense against a nuclear attack. And for many it would seem to be the keeping of faith that nuclear deterrence will hold indefinitely—that leaders will always have accurate enough instantaneous knowledge, know the true context of events, and enjoy the good luck to avoid the most tragic of military miscalculations.

While many complain of the obvious dysfunction in Washington, few see the incomparably greater danger of “nuclear doom” because it is hidden and out of public consciousness. Despite an election year filled with commentary and debate, no one is discussing the major issues that trouble Perry. It is another example of the rigid conformity that often dominates public discourse. Long ago, I saw this in the Vietnam War and later in the invasion of Iraq: intelligent people were doing mindless—and catastrophic—things. “Sleepwalking” is the term historians now use for the stupidities that got European leaders into World War I and for the mess they unleashed at Versailles. And sleepwalking still continues as NATO and Russia trade epithets and build their armies and Moscow and Washington modernize their nuclear overkill. A new cold war.

Fortunately, Bill Perry is not sleepwalking and he is telling us, in My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, to wake up before it is too late. Anyone can begin by reading his book.