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Commentary | 17 June 2013

My Personal Journey at the Nuclear Brink

 ‘Photo of Bill Perry by Christian Pease, copyright Christian Pease, Light at 11B (’

I have held two different positions in the US government: the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, in which I was responsible for developing and producing all of America’s weapons, including our nuclear arsenal; and the Secretary of Defense, in which I was responsible for all of our country’s military operations. But for the last seven years I have devoted most of my time to the Nuclear Security Project, whose goal is to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons, and ultimately to eliminate them. Many of my colleagues have been incredulous and have asked me how, having spent so much of my career working with nuclear weapons, I could be pursuing the goal of eliminating them.

This is the story of how I arrived at that decision. The story is told using six pivotal experiences in my life, and the lessons about nuclear weapons that I drew from those experiences.

The first experience occurred when I was only 18, serving in the US Army of Occupation in Japan. I was stunned when I saw the ruins that had  been the great city of Tokyo. Then I was sent to Okinawa, where the last great battle of World War II took place – a battle that resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and left the entire island in ruins. I can still remember my shock as our LST landed at Naha, the capitol city of Okinawa. Not a building was left standing; the survivors were living in rubble. So at the tender age of 18 I saw firsthand the devastation of the final six months of World War II, and I reflected that comparable devastation had been inflicted on Hiroshima by just one bomb.


MY FIRST LESSON: One atomic bomb in one instant can inflict the same catastrophic damage that in World War II required tens of thousands of bombs delivered over many months. Even at 18 I understood that this changed everything.

After I completed my Army tour, I went back to college to get a doctoral degree in mathematics. While I was still working on my degree, the Soviets announced a successful H-bomb test. This really caused me to stop and reflect: An atomic bomb has the destructive power of a thousand of the largest conventional bombs; a hydrogen bomb has the destructive power of a thousand atomic bombs. So in less than 10 years mankind increased its destructive ability by a thousand times a thousand, or a million times – it was truly beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend so great a change in so short a time. But I did understand that the danger these new weapons posed to the world was transcendental.

When I completed work on my PhD I took a job with a defense laboratory that developed electronic warfare systems. One of their tasks was designing a missile defense system to defeat the ICBMs then being built by the Soviet Union, and my first assignment was to calculate the effectiveness of such a system. My calculations showed that a “jamming” system would be “successful”; that is, it showed that it could be expected to reduce the instant deaths from a medium-sized nuclear attack from 75 million to only 25 million (not counting the tens of millions more who would die in the weeks to follow).


SECOND LESSON: There is no acceptable defense against weapons as destructive as nuclear weapons – we must instead work to prevent their use.

While working at this laboratory, I also served as a technical advisor to the Defense Department and CIA. One fall day in 1962 I got a call from the Deputy Director of the CIA, asking me to come to Washington to consult on an urgent technical problem. When I arrived there the next morning I was stunned to be shown pictures taken by a U-2 of a Soviet missile deployment underway in Cuba. This was my first exposure to what came to be called the Cuban Missile Crisis. The next eight evenings I worked with a small team analyzing data collected that morning in order to have a report ready for President John F. Kennedy the next morning. I also listened to the President’s speech to the American people with its stark warning: “…will be met with a full retaliatory response by the US on the Soviet Union…” I understood exactly what a full retaliatory strike meant. Indeed, every day I went to the analysis center I thought would be my last day on earth. And I still believe that we avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management.


THIRD LESSON: Despite our best efforts, a nuclear war could occur by miscalculation, and it would destroy our civilization.

In 1977, I accepted a Pentagon appointment as the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. One night during my tenure there, I was awoken by a telephone call at 3am. The watch officer at NORAD told me that his computers were showing 200 missiles on the way  from the Soviet Union to the US. Never  will I forget that phone call – it is still as vivid as if it had happened last night. Fortunately the general had the good sense to recognize that this was a false alarm, and he was calling me to help him figure out what had gone haywire with their computers.


FOURTH LESSON:  Despite our best efforts, a nuclear war could occur by accident, and it would destroy our civilization.

In 1998, India and Pakistan – countries that had fought three bloody wars since World War II – each conducted nuclear tests. They still remain mortal enemies, and the cause of their prior wars – the ownership of Kashmir – is still not resolved. Tensions are high in this region and the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai are a reminder of how volatile the situation remains.


FIFTH LESSON:  Even with the Cold War over, a regional nuclear war is all too likely—one that could easily spread to other countries.          

A few years later, we all witnessed 9-11. As I watched the horror unfold on television, I could only think: What if the terrorists had a nuclear bomb? Up until then terror groups carried out attacks primarily to gain public attention to their cause. Most security scholars believed that terrorists would not attempt mass murder on innocent people, fearing that this would turn the world against their cause. 9-11 radically changed that thinking. Al Qaeda stated clearly that their goal was to kill millions of Americans and Western Europeans, in vengeance for the Muslim deaths they attributed to the West. And their ultimate weapon in such retribution would be a nuclear bomb – if they could get their hands on one.


SIXTH LESSON:  A nuclear terrorist attack would cause unimaginable economic, social, and political chaos, and deaths 100 times greater than those on 9-11.

Einstein famously said: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything – save our modes of thinking; we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” But my  thinking, influenced powerfully by those experiences, did  change, slowly but inexorably. Now I am trying to influence “our modes of thinking.”

In 1994, I became the Secretary of Defense and I made my top priority reducing the dangerous nuclear legacy of the Cold War. During my term in office we dismantled about 8,000 nuclear weapons and helped 3 countries – Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus – go entirely non-nuclear. I made four separate trips to Pervomaysk, Ukraine – which had been the largest and most modern of the Soviet Union ICBM sites – to oversee the dismantlement there. On the first visit I saw them take off the warheads. On the second visit I saw them scrap the missiles. On the third visit I saw them blow up the silos. And on the fourth visit I joined the Ministers of Defense of Russia and Ukraine in planting sunflowers in the field that had once been a deadly missile site.

We are all safer because of those actions, and I am proud of the role I played in them. But many tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still remained. So in January, 2007, I joined George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger in the first of a series of op-ed articles in the Wall Street Journal calling the world’s attention to the grave danger posed by nuclear weapons today, proposing steps to reduce that danger and ultimately to eliminate them. Our articles and subsequent meetings provoked an outpouring of support from leading citizens around the world. Informally known of the “gang of 4,” we formalized our ongoing efforts as the Nuclear Security Project and are working in cooperation with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), co-chaired by Sam Nunn and whose board members include Des Browne and myself.

Other “gangs of 4” were formed around the world, each of whom wrote op-eds in their own country. In particular, an especially robust group was formed in the United Kingdom, which has taken the lead in organizing the European Leadership Network(ELN). The ELN has been active in raising public awareness of nuclear dangers through conferences and, most recently, by sponsoring the publication of articles and research on its website.

I was surprised and pleased by this international support for reducing nuclear dangers, but I also understand that such unofficial actions can only go so far. The actions that can make a real difference must be taken by governments, and up to that point no governments had responded. Then in April, 2009, just two months after his inauguration as President of the US, Obama delivered his now-famous speech in Prague, which included the phrase: “I state clearly and with conviction the commitment of the US to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” After Obama’s Prague speech, governments started to take some constructive actions. The most notable actions were the New START – a treaty between the US and Russia reducing the number of deployed nuclear weapons and establishing means for verifying those numbers; and the first two Nuclear Summit meetings – where about 50 heads of state met to establish better means of controlling fissile material around the world.

For a few years I believed that we were really beginning to deal with the deadly nuclear legacy of the Cold War. But in 2011 that progress and forward momentum began to stall out and even reverse. Russia and China are building new nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. North Korea is building a nuclear arsenal and Iran appears to be following in their footsteps. India and Pakistan continue to build more fissile material and to expand their nuclear arsenals, including “battlefield nuclear weapons.”

Besides these discouraging developments overseas, the American Senate still has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the US and Russia have not moved forward on a follow-on to New START, as planned, since Congress shows no sign of being willing to support further initiatives in this area. Their disinterest, I believe, is a direct reflection of their constituencies. The American people simply do not understand the danger  they face today from nuclear weapons – they believe that nuclear dangers ended with the end of the Cold War. Their children, thankfully, are no longer going through “duck and cover” drills at school; thus, the danger must have passed.

But the dangers from nuclear weapons today are not theoretical. They are real – and they are grave. It is true that the likelihood of a nuclear war by accident or by miscalculation has decreased with the ending of the Cold War; but the likelihood of nuclear terrorism or a regional nuclear war is increasing every year. When citizens understand the dangers of nuclear weapons today, the great majority of them will call for actions to reduce those dangers. But since these dangers are not understood  by most of our citizens, the needed actions are not being taken, and we are drifting towards a nuclear nightmare. Only a comprehensive education program can stop that drift. The ELN is taking the lead in conducting such programs and their website will play a key role in that effort. NTI and the Nuclear Security Project in the US, inspired by the example of the ELN, is also moving forward to form a comparable network of interested leaders and scholars in North America.

As a part of my efforts in this field, and with the sponsorship of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, I am writing a book whose main themes I have summarized in this paper. I am also starting an educational program with courses, workshops, and social media content aimed at high school and college students, as well as young professionals just beginning their careers. Even as I do this, I understand that mitigating the nuclear dangers the world faces today may, in fact, seem impossible. But I choose to follow this path, believing as President John F. Kennedy did: “Our problems are manmade; therefore they can be solved by man.” And, I would add, women, too.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.