Stanford Engineering Hero William J. Perry looks ahead to North American energy independence and back at a career In national defense

Print view

A professor emeritus of Management Science and Engineering, Perry has advised presidents, served as Secretary of Defense and dismantled nuclear weapons

William J. Perry has been an entrepreneur, soldier, professor, businessman and national leader. Now he is a hero as well.

Perry, former U.S. secretary of defense, is the latest person to be inducted as a Stanford Engineering Hero, joining a select group of Stanford alumni or former faculty whose life work has profoundly advanced the course of human, social and economic progress.

Heroes are selected annually by a panel of distinguished subject-matter experts and technology historians.

Perry, now 86, ran the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. He is perhaps best known today for his efforts to control nuclear arms. Nuclear war, or the threat of nuclear war, has been a guiding force in Perry’s life. At Stanford, he directs the Preventive Defense Project, is a senior fellow at Freeman Spogli Institute and is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor (emeritus) in the Department of Management Science and Engineering.

Raised during the Great Depression in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, Perry served after World War II in the Army of Occupation in Japan. In that capacity he witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the many other Japanese cities that had been reduced to rubble by conventional bombing.

When the Army sent him to California after his tour of duty in Japan, Perry discovered that he no longer wanted to attend college in Pennsylvania. “I was amazed by the San Francisco Bay Area,” Perry said in a recent interview. “Everything seemed new, everything seemed possible . . . I decided to transfer to Stanford . . . anything was possible here.”

Former defense secretary WIlliam Perry and Stanford associate professor Yi Cui

Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry listens to Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science, during a visit to Cui's lab in October. (Norbert von der Groeben)

Perry earned his BS from Stanford in 1949 and his MA in 1950 before returning to Pennsylvania State University, where he earned his PhD in mathematics in 1957. By then, “the Cold War was becoming very dangerous and very hot,” he said.

So instead of becoming a professor as he intended, Perry returned to Mountain View, Calif., to work at Electronic Defense Laboratories. It was during this period that he got a top-secret summons to Washington to help then-President John F. Kennedy interpret intelligence photos of Soviet launchers during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“I can well recall sitting in my hotel room, listening to his broadcast where he (President Kennedy) basically told the Soviet Union that we were prepared to go to nuclear war with them if anything happened,” Perry said.

But the world stepped back from the brink. Perry went on to serve from 1977 to 1981 as an undersecretary of defense under President Jimmy Carter, before becoming the 19th secretary of defense in the Clinton administration from February 1994 to January 1997.

As secretary of defense, he succeeded in winning agreements that led to the dismantling of about 8,000 nuclear warheads.

“We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Perry told an overflow crowd at the NVIDIA Auditorium on the night of his award.

The audience included Martin Hellman, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford. Hellman, who was previously named a Hero for his co-invention of public-key cryptography, has also been an arms control activist.

In his remarks at the Heroes event, Perry focused on the nation’s energy future.

“By the time the freshmen entering Stanford this year graduate, we will have what I would call energy independence,” Perry predicted, defining this as the ability of the combined North American economies of Canada, Mexico and the United States to become net exporters of energy.

He said his upbeat views had been bolstered during visits earlier that day with Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science, and Chaitan Khosla, a professor of chemical engineering, who discussed their work on batteries and biofuels, respectively.


William Perry shares his thoughts about energy's impact on the environment, manufacturing and the federal budget. 

Although he is a great believer in alternatives, Perry said his prediction of North American energy independence rested primarily on the prospect that domestic production of natural gas and oil will be greatly increased through fracking, a drilling process that uses pressurized fluids to push deposits out of deep underground veins.

“Fracking will buy us a 10-year grace period to bring up to scale these emerging sustainable technologies,” Perry said.

That said, Perry acknowledged the possibility that fracking could lead to environmental problems such as groundwater contamination, but “we know what they are, and we know how to solve them,” Perry said, adding that companies have the responsibility to drill properly and that regulators must exercise the proper oversight. “And I’m a little uneasy about both of those,” he said.

Indeed, Perry said the single greatest threat to his positive energy outlook was the risk of what he called a “Three Mile Island” accident with fracking, referring to the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania that has stymied nuclear power in the United States ever since the incident occurred in 1979.

Nevertheless, Perry told listeners, he considers positive surprises, such as better batteries and solar cells, more likely than a fracking disaster as he looks into the nation’s energy future.

Perry said his optimistic nature owes a lot to Stanford’s “innovative atmosphere, the feeling that you can try anything here,” which he sensed as a young man fresh from post-war Japan.

“I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve visited other places,” he said. “But what’s here in Silicon Valley, the heart of which is Stanford, is absolutely unique and is a tool for transforming our society for the better.”

To review a recording of the Heroes’ ceremony and Perry’s speech click here.

Last modified Fri, 18 Jul, 2014 at 14:02