Bill Perry Is Terrified. Why Aren’t You?
How an 89-year-old cold warrior became America’s nuclear conscience.
By JOHN F. HARRIS and BRYAN BENDER
Jan 6 2017
t 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?