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Perry's new class: Nuclear weapons remain dominant threat


William J. Perry talks with college students taking part in his summer program. June 2013.
Photo credit: 
Christian Pease

William J. Perry was only 18 when he found himself surrounded by death, a young U.S. Army mapping specialist in Japan during the Army of Occupation. The atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II had just come to an end. 

“The vast ruins that once had been the great city of Tokyo – nothing, nothing had prepared me for such utter devastation that was wrought by massive waves of firebombing rained down by American bomber attacks,” said Perry, who was then shipped off to the island of Okinawa in the aftermath of the last great battle of WWII.

More than 200,000 soldiers and civilians had been killed in that closing battle of 1945, codenamed Operation Iceberg. 

“Not a single building was left standing; the island was a moonscape denuded of trees and vegetation,” Perry told a rapt audience during a recent speech. “The smell of death was still lingering.” 

The young man quickly understood the staggering magnitude of difference in the destruction caused by traditional firepower and these new atomic bombs.

 “It had taken multiple strikes by thousands of bombers and tens of thousands of high explosive bombs to lay waste to Tokyo,” he recalls. “The same had been done to Hiroshima and then to Nagasaki with just one plane – and just one bomb. Just one bomb.

“The unleashing of this colossal force indelibly shaped my life in ways that I have now come to see more clearly,” said Perry, who would go on to become the 19th secretary of defense. “It was a transforming experience. In many ways – I grew up from it.” 

William J. Perry in 1945 in his U.S. Army Air Corps uniform.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army

Now, nearly seven decades later, the 86-year-old Perry has come full circle. His new winter course will take students back to his fateful days in Japan after the United States became the first – and last – nation to use atomic weapons. He’ll go through the Cold War, the arms race and expanding nuclear arsenals, and today’s potential threats of nuclear terrorism and regional wars provoked by North Korea, Iran or South Asia. 

Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday & Today (IPS 249) – to serve as the backdrop for an online course at Stanford next year – concludes with the declaration Perry made in 2007: The world must rid itself entirely of nuclear weapons. And students will get a primer on how to get involved in organizations that are working on just that. 

“They did not live through the Cold War, so they were never exposed to the dangers and therefore it doesn’t exist to them; it’s just not in their world,” Perry said of millennial and younger students. “I want to make them aware of what the dangers were and how those dangers have evolved.”


Perry and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, both Democrats, joined former Republican Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger in launching a series of OpEds in The Wall Street Journal (the first in 2007) that went viral. Together they outlined how nations could work together toward a world without nuclear weapons.

“I think I have some responsibility since I helped build those weapons – and I think that time is running out,” Perry said in an interview. 

Perry helped shore up the U.S. nuclear arsenal as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, procuring nuclear weapons delivery systems for the Carter administration. Later, as secretary of defense for President Bill Clinton, his priority became the dismantling of nuclear weapons around the world. 

Today, he works on the Nuclear Security Project along with Shultz, Kissinger and Nunn. Former New York Times correspondent Philip Taubman documents their bipartisan alliance in the book, “The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb.” That fifth cold warrior is Sidney Drell, the renowned Stanford physicist and co-founder of CISAC. 

Taubman, a consulting professor at CISAC, will guest lecturer in Perry’s class, along with CISAC’s Siegfried Hecker, David Holloway, Martha Crenshaw and Scott Sagan. Other speakers are expected to include Shultz, a distinguished fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution; Andrei Kokoshin, deputy of the Russian State Duma; Ashton B. Carter, who just stepped down as deputy secretary of defense; Joseph Martz of the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Joeseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund.

The world is far from banning the bomb. According to the Ploughshares Fund, an estimated 17,300 nuclear weapons remain in the global stockpile, the majority of which are in Russia and the United States.



President Barack Obama declared shortly after taking office in his first foreign policy speech in Prague that because the United States was the only country to have used nuclear weapons, Washington “has a moral responsibility to act.” 

“So today, I state clearly and with conviction, America’s commitment to seek the peace

and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama said back in May 2009. 

Perry – a senior fellow at CISAC who received his BS and MS from Stanford and a PhD from Pennsylvania State University, all in mathematics – laments the regression of the movement to dismantle the nuclear legacy of the Cold War. 

Obama has so far not acted on his pledge in his contentious second term, as China and Russia expand their stockpiles. North Korea and Iran are attempting to build nuclear weapons and India and Pakistan are building more fissile material. The U.S. Senate still has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the U.S. and Russia have not moved forward on a follow-up to the New START Treaty. 

Perry recognizes that the issue is slipping from the public conscience, particularly among young people. So he’s putting his name and experience behind a Stanford Online course slated to go live next year. It will correspond with the release of his memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink” and will take a more documentary approach, weaving together key moments in Perry’s career with lectures, archival footage and interviews and conversations between Perry and his colleagues and counterparts. 

"Bill Perry has had a remarkable career and this project draws on his unparalleled experience over a pivotal period in history," said John Mitchell, vice provost for online learning. "We hope his brilliant reflections will be useful to everyone with an interest in the topic, and to teachers and students everywhere." 

At the heart of his winter course, online class and memoir are what Perry calls the five great lessons he learned in the nuclear age. The first four are grim remnants of what he witnessed over the years: the destructive nature of the atomic bombs on Japan; his mathematical calculations about the number of deaths from nuclear warfare; his work for the CIA during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and one pre-dawn call in 1978 from the North American Aerospace Defense Command saying there were 200 missiles headed toward the United States from the Soviet Union. That turned out to be a false, but terrifying alarm. 

His fifth final lesson is hopeful, if not cautionary. It goes like this: 

As secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, Perry oversaw the dismantling of 8,000 nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union and the United States and helped the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to go entirely non-nuclear. In that mission, he often visited Pervomaysk in the Ukraine, which was once the Soviet Union’s largest ICBM site, with 700 nuclear warheads all aimed at targets in the United States. 

On his final trip to Pervomaysk in 1996, he joined the Russian and Ukrainian defense ministers to plant sunflowers where those missiles had once stood. 

“So reducing the danger of nuclear weapons is not a fantasy; it has been done,” Perry said. “I will not accept that it cannot be done. I shall do everything I can to ensure nuclear weapons will never again be used – because I believe time is not on our side.”