At this naked moment in the American experiment, when many people perceive civilization on the verge of blowing up in some metaphorical sense, there is an elderly man in California hoping to seize your attention about another possibility.
It is that civilization is on the verge of blowing up in a non-metaphorical sense.
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.”
His life’s work, most of it highly classified, was nuclear weapons—how to maximize the fearsome deterrent power of the U.S. arsenal, how to minimize the possibility that the old Soviet arsenal would obliterate the United States and much of the planet along the way. Perry played a supporting role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which he went back to his Washington hotel room each night, fearing he had only hours left to live. He later founded his own successful defense firm, helped revolutionize the American way of high-tech war, and honed his diplomatic skills seeking common ground on security issues with the Soviets and Chinese—all culminating as head of the Pentagon in the early years after the end of the Cold War.
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.
Nuclear war isn’t the subtext of popular movies, or novels; disarmament has fallen far from the top of the policy priority list. The largest upcoming generation, the millennials, were raised in a time when the problem felt largely solved, and it’s easy for them to imagine it’s still quietly fading into history. The problem is, it’s no longer fading. “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War,” Perry said in an interview in his Stanford office, “and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”
It is a turn of events that has an old man newly obsessed with a question: Why isn’t everyone as terrified as he is?
Perry’s hypothesis for the disconnect is that much of the population, especially that rising portion with no clear memories of the first Cold War, is suffering from a deficit of comprehension. Even a single nuclear explosion in a major city would represent an abrupt and possibly irreversible turn in modern life, upending the global economy, forcing every open society to suspend traditional liberties and remake itself into a security state. “The political, economic and social consequences are beyond what people understand,” Perry says. And yet many people place this scenario in roughly the same category as the meteor strike that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs—frightening, to be sure, but something of an abstraction.
So Perry regards his last great contribution of a 65-year career as a crusade to stimulate the public imagination—to share the vivid details of his own nightmares. He is doing so in a recent memoir, in a busy public speaking schedule, in half-empty hearing rooms on Capitol Hill, and increasingly with an online presence aimed especially at young people. He has enlisted the help of his 28-year-old granddaughter to figure out how to engage a new generation, including through a series of virtual lectures known as a MOOC, or massive open online course.
He is eagerly signing up for “Ask Me Anything” chats on Reddit, in which some people still confuse him with William “The Refrigerator” Perry of NFL fame. He posts his ruminations on YouTube, where they give Katy Perry no run for her money, even as the most popular are closing in on 100,000 views.
One of the nightmare scenarios Perry invokes most often is designed to roust policymakers who live and work in the nation’s capital. The terrorists would need enriched uranium. Due to the elaborate and highly industrial nature of production, hard to conceal from surveillance, fissile material is still hard to come by—but, alas, far from impossible. Once it is procured, with help from conspirators in a poorly secured overseas commercial power centrifuge facility, the rest of the plot as Perry imagines it is no great technological or logistical feat. The mechanics of building a crude nuclear device are easily within the reach of well-educated and well-funded militants. The crate would arrive at Dulles International Airport, disguised as agricultural freight. The truck bomb that detonates on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol instantly kills the president, vice president, House speaker, and 80,000 others.
Where exactly is your office? Your house? And then, as Perry spins it forward, how credible would you find the warnings, soon delivered to news networks, that five more bombs are set to explode in unnamed U.S. cities, once a week for the next month, unless all U.S. military personnel overseas are withdrawn immediately?
If this particular scenario does not resonate with you, Perry can easily rattle off a long roster of others—a regional war that escalates into a nuclear exchange, a miscalculation between Moscow and Washington, a computer glitch at the exact wrong moment. They are all ilks of the same theme—the dimly understood threat that the science of the 20th century is set to collide with the destructive passions of the 21st.
“We’re going back to the kind of dangers we had during the Cold War,” Perry said. “I really thought in 1990, 1991, 1992, that we left those behind us. We’re starting to re-invent them. We and the Russians and others don’t understand that what we’re doing is re-creating those dangers—or maybe they don’t remember the dangers. For younger people, they didn’t live through those dangers. But when you live through a Cuban Missile Crisis up close and you live through a false alarm up close, you do understand how dangerous it is, and you believe you should do everything you could possibly do to [avoid] going back.”
For people who follow the national security priesthood, the dire scenarios are all the more alarming for who is delivering them. Through his long years in government Perry invariably impressed colleagues as the calmest person in the room, relentlessly rational, such that people who did not know him well—his love of music and literature and travel—regarded his as a purely analytical mind, emotion subordinated to logic and duty.
Starting in the 1950s as a technology executive and entrepreneur in some of the most secretive precincts of the defense industry, he gradually took on a series of high-level government assignments that gave him one of the most quietly influential careers of the Cold War and its aftermath.
Fifteen years before serving as Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, Perry was the Pentagon official in charge of weapons research during the Carter administration. It was from this perch that he may have had his most far-reaching impact, and left him in some circles as a legendary figure. He used his office to give an essential push to two ideas that transformed warfare over the next generation decisively to American advantage. One idea was stealth technology, which allowed U.S. warplanes to fly over enemy territory undetected. The other was precision-guided munitions, which allowed U.S. bombs to land with near-perfect accuracy.
During the Clinton years, Perry so prized his privacy that he initially turned down the job of Defense secretary—changing his mind only after Clinton and Al Gore pleaded with him that the news media scrutiny wouldn’t be so bad.
The reputation he built over a life in the public sphere is starkly at odds with this latest highly impassioned chapter of Perry’s career. Harold Brown, whoalso is 89, first recruited Perry into government, and was Perry’s boss while serving as Defense secretary in the Carter years. “No one would have thought of Bill Perry as a crusader,” he says. “But he is on a crusade.”
Lee Perry, his wife of nearly 70 years, is living in an elder care facility, her once buoyant presence now lost to dementia. Perry himself, lucid as ever, has seen his physical frame become frail and stooped. Rather than slowing his schedule, he has accelerated his travels to plead with people to awaken to the danger. A trip to Washington includes a dinner with national security reporters and testimony on Capitol Hill. Back home in California, he’s at the Google campus to prod engineers to contemplate that their world may not last long enough for their dreams of technology riches to come true. He’s created an advocacy group, the William J. Perry project, devoted to public education about nuclear weapons. He’s enlisted both his granddaughter and his 64-year-old daughter, Robin Perry in the cause.
But if his profile is rising, his style is essentially unchanged. He is a man known for self-effacement, trying to shape an era known for relentless self-promotion, a voice of quiet precision in a time of devil-take-the-hindmost bombast. The rational approach to problem-solving that propelled his career and won him adherents and friends in both political parties and even among some of America’s erstwhile enemies remains his guide—in this case, by endeavoring to calculate the possibilities and probabilities of a terrorist attack, regional nuclear war, or horrible miscalculation with Russia.
“I want to be very clear,” he said. “I do not think it is a probability this year or next year or anytime in the foreseeable future. But the consequence is so great, we have to take it seriously. And there are things to greatly lower those possibilities that we’re simply not doing.”
Perry really did not expect he would have to write this chapter of his public life. His official career closed with what seemed then an unambiguous sense of mission accomplished. By the time he arrived in the Pentagon’s top job in 1994, the Cold War was over, and the main item on the nuclear agenda seemed to be cleaning up no-longer-needed arsenals. As defense secretary, Perry stood with his Russian counterpart, Pavel Grachev, as they jointly blew up missile silos in the former Soviet Union and tilled sunflower seeds in the dirt.
“I finally thought by the end of the ‘80s we lived through this horrible experience and it’s behind us,” Perry said. “When I was secretary, I fully believed it was behind us.”
After leaving the Pentagon, he accepted an assignment from Clinton to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear development program—and seemed agonizingly close to a breakthrough as the last days of the president’s term expired.
Now, he sees his grandchildren inheriting a planet possibly more dangerous than it was during his public career. No one could doubt that the Sept. 11 terrorists would have gladly used nuclear bombs instead of airplanes if they had had them, and it seems only a matter of time until they try. Instead of a retreating threat in North Korea, that fanatical regime now possesses as many as eight nuclear bombs, and is just one member of a growing nuclear club. Far from a new partnership with Russia, Vladimir Putin has given old antagonisms a malevolent new face. American policymakers talk of spending up to $1 trillion to modernize the nuclear arsenal. And now comes Donald Trump with a long trail of statements effectively shrugging his shoulders about a world newly bristling with bombs and people with reasons to use them.
Perry knew Hillary Clinton well professionally, and says he admired both her and Bill Clinton for their professional judgment though he was never a personal intimate of either. He was prescient before the election in expressing skepticism about how voters would respond to the dynastic premise of the Clinton campaign—a healthy democracy should grow new voices—but was as surprised as everyone else on Election Day. Donald Trump was not the voice he was looking for, to put it mildly, but he has responded to the Trump cyclone with modulated restraint. Perry said he assumes his most truculent rhetoric isn’t serious, the utterances of a man who assumed his words were for political effect only and had no real consequences.
Now that they do, Perry is hoping to serve as a kind of ambassador to rationality. He said he is hoping for audiences soon, with Trump if the incoming president will see him, and certainly Trump’s national security team, which includes several people Perry knows, including Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis.
There is little doubt the message if the meeting comes. “We are starting a new Cold War,” he says. “We seem to be sleepwalking into this new nuclear arms race. … We and the Russians and others don’t understand what we are doing.”
“I am not suggesting that this Cold War and this arms race is identical to the old one,” Perry added. “But in many ways, it is just as bad, just as dangerous. And totally unnecessary.”
Perry had been brooding over the question for a year. It was in the early 1950s, he was still in his 20s, and the subject was partial differential equations—the topic of his Ph.D. thesis. A particular problem had been absorbing him, day in and day out, hours and hours on end. Then, out of nowhere, a light came on.
“I woke up in the middle of the night, and it was all there,” Perry recalled. “It was all there, and I got out of bed and sat down. The next two or three hours, I wrote my thesis, and from the first word I wrote down, I never doubted what the last word was going to be: It was a magic moment.
The story is a reminder of something definitional about Bill Perry. Before he became in recent years an apostle of disarmament, before he sat atop the nation’s war-making apparatus in the 1990s, before he was the executive of a defense contractor specializing in the most complex arenas of Cold War surveillance in the 1960s, he was a young man in love with mathematics.
In those days, Perry had planned on a career as a math professor. His attraction to math was not merely practical, in the way that engineers or architects rely on math. The appeal was just as much aesthetic, in ways that people who are not numbers people—political life tends to be dominated by word people—cannot easily comprehend. To Perry’s mind, there was a purity to math, a beauty to the patterns and relationships, that was not unlike music. Math for Perry represented analytical discipline, a way of achieving mastery not only over numerical problems but any hard problem, by breaking it down into essential parts, distilling complexity into simplicity.
This trait was why Pentagon reporters in the 1990s liked spending time around Perry. When most public officials are asked a question, one studies the transcript later to decipher a succession of starts and stalls, sentence fragments and ellipses, that cumulatively convey an impressionistic sense of mind but no clear fixed meaning. Perry’s sentences, by contrast, always cut with surgical precision. It was one reason Clinton White House officials often held their breath when he gave interviews—Perry might make news by being clear on subjects, such as ethnic warfare in the Balkans or a nuclear showdown in North Korea, that the West Wing preferred to try to fog over.
“I’ve never been able to attack a policy problem with a mathematical formula,” he recalled, “but I have always believed that the rigorous way of thinking about a problem was good. It separated the fact from the bullshit, and that’s very important sometimes, to separate what you can from what you would hope you can do.”
Perry wishes more people were familiar with the concept of “expected value.” That is a statistical way of understanding events of very large magnitude that have a low probability. The large magnitude event could be something good, like winning a lottery ticket. Or it could be something bad, like a nuclear bomb exploding. Because the odds of winning the lottery are so low, the rational thing is to save your money and not buy the ticket. As for a nuclear explosion, by Perry’s lights, the consequences are so grave that the rational thing would be for people in the United States and everywhere to be in a state of peak alarm about their vulnerability, and for political debate to be dominated by discussion of how to reduce the risk.
And just how high is the risk? The answer of course is ultimately unknowable. Perry’s point, though, is that it’s a hell of a lot higher than you think.
Perry invites his listeners to consider all the various scenarios that might lead to a nuclear event. “Mathematically speaking, you add those all together in one year it is still just a possibility, not a probability,” he reckons. “But then you go out ten, twenty years and each time this possibility repeats itself, and then it starts to become a probability. How much time we have to get those possibility numbers lower, I don’t know. But sooner or later the odds are going to get us, I am afraid.”
Almost uniquely among living Americans, Bill Perry has actually faced down the prospect of nuclear war before— twice.
In the fall of 1962, Bill Perry was 35, father of five young children, living in the Bay Area and serving as director of Sylvania’s Electronic Defense Laboratories—driving his station wagon to recitals in between studying missile trajectories and the radius of nuclear detonations.
Where he resided was not then called Silicon Valley, but the exuberance and spirit of creative possibility we now associate with the region was already evident. The giants then were Bill Hewlett and David Packard, men Perry deeply admired and wished to emulate in his own business career. The innovation engine at that time, however, was not consumer technology; it was the government’s appetite for advantage in a mortal struggle against a powerful Soviet foe. Perry was known as a star in the highly complex field of weapons surveillance and interpretation.
So it was not a surprise, one bright October day, for Perry to get a call from Albert “Bud” Wheelon, a friend at the Central Intelligence Agency. Wheelon said he wanted Perry in Washington for a consultation. Perry said he’d juggle his schedule and be there the next week.
“No,” Wheelon responded. “I need to see you right away.”
Perry caught the red-eye from San Francisco, and went straight to the CIA, where he was handed photographs whose meaning was instantly clear to him. They were of Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba. For the next couple weeks, Perry would stay up past midnight each evening poring over the latest reconnaissance photos and help write the analysis that senior officials would present the next morning to President Kennedy.
Perry experienced the crisis partly as ordinary citizen, hearing Kennedy on television draw an unambiguous line against Soviet missiles in this hemisphere and promising that any attack would be met with “a full retaliatory response.” But he possessed context, about the capabilities of weapons and the daily state of play in the crisis, that gave him a vantage point superior to that of all but perhaps a few dozen people.
“I was part of a small team—six or eight people,” he recounted of those days 54 years earlier. “Half of them technical experts, half of them intelligence analysts, or photo interpreters. It was a minor role but I was seeing all the information coming in. I thought every day when I went back to the hotel it was the last day of my life because I knew exactly what nuclear weapons could do. I knew it was not just a lot of people getting killed. It was the end of civilization and I thought it was about to happen.”
It was years later that Perry, like other more senior participants in the crisis, learned how right that appraisal was. Nuclear bombs weren’t only heading toward Cuba on Soviet ships, as Kennedy believed and announced to Americans at the time. Some of them were already there, and local commanders had been given authority to use them if Americans launched a preemptive raid on Cuba, as Kennedy was being urged, goaded even, by Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay and other military commanders. At the same time, Soviet submarines were armed and one commander had been on the verge of launching them until other officers on the vessel talked him out of it. Either event would have in turn sent U.S. missiles flying.
The Cuban Missile Crisis recounting is one of the dramatic peaks in “My Journey on the Nuclear Brink,” the memoir Perry published last fall. It is a book laced with other close calls -- like November 9, 1979, when Perry was awakened in the middle of the night by a watch officer at the North American Aerospace and Defense Command (NORAD) reporting that his computers showed 200 Soviet missiles in flight toward the United States. For a frozen moment, Perry thought: This is it—This is how it ends.
The watch officer soon set him at ease. It was a computer error, and he was calling to see whether Perry, the technology expert, had any explanation. It took a couple days to discover the low-tech answer: Someone had carelessly left a crisis-simulation training tape in the computer. All was well. But what if this blunder had happened in the middle of a real crisis, with leaders in Washington and Moscow already on high alert? The inescapable conclusion was the same as it was in 1962: The world skirting nuclear Armageddon as much by good luck as by skilled crisis management.
Perry is part of a distinct cohort in American history, one that didn’t come home with the large-living ethos of the World War II generation, but took responsibility for cleaning up the world that the war bequeathed. He was a 14-year-old in Butler, Pennsylvania when he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack in a friend’s living room, and had the disappointed realization that the war might be over by the time he was old enough to fight in it. That turned out to be true—he was just shy of 18 at war’s end--a fact that places Perry in what demographers have called the “Silent Generation,” too young for one war but already middle-aged by the time college campuses erupted over Vietnam. Like many in his generation, Perry was not so much silent as deeply dutiful, with an understated style that served as a genial, dry-witted exterior to a life in which success was defined by how faithfully one met his responsibilities.
Perry said he became aware, first gradually and over time profoundly, of the surreal contradictions of his professional life. His work—first at Sylvania and then at ESL, a highly successful defense contracting firm he co-founded in 1963—was relentlessly logical, analyzing Soviet threats and intentions and coming up with rational responses to deter them. But each rational move was part of a supremely irrational dynamic – “mutually assured destruction” – that placed the threat of massive casualties at the heart of America’s basic strategic thinking. It was the kind of framework in which policymakers could accept that a mere 25 million people dead was good news. Also the kind that in one year alone led the United States to produce 8,000 nuclear bombs. By the end, the Cold War left the planet with about 70,000 bombs (a total that is now down to about 15,500).
“I think probably everybody who was involved in nuclear weapons in those days would see the two sides of it,” Perry recalls, “the logic of deterrence and the madness of deterrence, and there was no mistake, I think, that the acronym was MAD.”
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.”
“We have less danger of an all-out war with Russia,” in Nunn’s view. “But we have more danger of some type of accident, miscalculation, cyber interference, a terrorist group getting a nuclear weapon. It requires a lot more attention than world leaders are giving it.” Perry’s goal now is much more defensive than it was just a few years ago—halting what has become inexorable momentum toward reviving Cold War assumptions about the central role of nukes in national security.
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, which he reviewed for the New York Review of Books. 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.
“He is at the brink! At the brink! Not WAS at the brink—IS at the brink,” Brown exclaimed. “But no one else is.”
A California governor can have more influence, at least indirectly, than one might think, due to the state’s outsized role in policy debates and the fact that the University of California’s Board of Regents helps manage some of the nation’s top weapons laboratories, which study and design nuclear weapons. Brown, who was a vocal critic in the 1980s of what he called America's "nuclear addiction, reviewed Perry's recent memoir in the New York Review of Books, and said he is determined to help his new friend spread his message.
“Everybody is, 'we are not at the brink,' and we have this guy Perry who says we are. It is the thesis that is being ignored."
Even if more influential people wake up to Perry’s message—a nuclear event is more likely and will be more terrible than you realize—a hard questions remains: Now what?
This is where Perry’s pragmatism comes back into play. The smartest move, he thinks, is to eliminate the riskiest part of the system. If we can’t eliminate all nukes, Perry argues, we could at least eliminate one leg of the so-called nuclear triad, intercontinental ballistic missiles. These are especially prone to an accidental nuclear war, if they are launched by accident or due to miscalculation by a leader operating with only minutes to spare. Nuclear weapons carried by submarines beneath the sea or aboard bomber planes, he argues, are logically more than enough to deter Russia.
The problem, he knows, is that logic is not necessarily the prevailing force in political debates. Psychology is, and this seems to be dictating not merely that we deter a Russian military force that is modernizing its weapons but that we have a force that is self-evidently superior to them.
It is an argument that strikes Perry as drearily familiar to the old days. Which leads him the conclusion that the only long-term way out is to persuade a younger generation to make a different choice.
His granddaughter, Lisa Perry, is precisely in the cohort he needs to reach. At first she had some uncomfortable news for her grandfather: Not many in her generation thought much about the issue.
“The more I learned from him about nuclear weapons the more concerned I was that my generation had this massive and dangerous blind spot in our understanding of the world,” she said in an interview. “Nuclear weapons are the biggest public health issue I can think of.”
But she has not lost hope that their efforts can make a difference, and today she has put her graduate studies in public health on hold to work full time for the Perry Project as its social media and web manager. “It can be easy to get discouraged about being able to do anything to change our course,” she said. “But the good news is that nuclear weapons are actually something that we as humans can control...but first we need to start the conversation.”
It was with her help that Perry went on Reddit to field questions ranging from how his PhD in mathematics prepared him to what young people need to understand.
“As a 90s baby I never lived in the Cold War era,” wrote one participant, with the Reddit username BobinForApples. “What is one thing today's generations will never understand about life during the Cold War?”
Perry’s answered, as SecDef19: “Because you were born in the 1990s, you did not experience the daily terror of ‘duck and cover’ drills as my children did. Therefore the appropriate fear of nuclear weapons is not part of your heritage, but the danger is just as real now as it was then. It will be up to your generation to develop the policies to deal with the deadly nuclear legacy that is still very much with us.”
For the former defense secretary, the task now is to finally—belatedly—prove Einstein wrong. The physicist said in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
In Perry’s view the only way to avoid it is by directly contemplating catastrophe – and doing so face to face with the world’s largest nuclear power, Russia, as he recently did in a forum in Luxembourg with several like-minded Russians he says are brave enough to speak out about nuclear dangers in the era of Putin.
“We could solve it,” he said. “When you’re a prophet of doom, what keeps you going is not just prophesizing doom but saying there are things we do to avoid that doom. That’s where the optimism is.”