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Posted on February 13, 2018 - 4:14pm
Written by Alyssa Roby
William J. Perry, the 19th U.S. Secretary of Defense and notable Cold Warrior, has had a long and illustrious career in national defense and diplomacy—a career that began almost by chance, but that became a lifelong calling. Perry has devoted his life to reducing the nuclear threat, first in the private sector, and later in government, education, and diplomacy. Along the way, he has experienced the terror and relief of narrowly avoiding nuclear conflicts, touching moments of solidarity with enemies, and countless triumphs and disappointments in his mission to strengthen international cooperation on nuclear issues.
Perry did not always intend to pursue a career in defense, but world events and personal circumstances seemed to push him in that direction, even from a very young age. When Perry was just 14 years old, the bombing of Pearl Harbor inspired him to one day join the U.S. Army. Since World War II ended before he was old enough to enlist, he left high school early to join the Army Air Cadet program and get started on a degree at what was then Carnegie Tech. To his disappointment, the Air Cadet program was then discontinued, and at age 18, he instead joined the Army Engineers.
It was Perry's time stationed in Japan with the Army Engineers that first gave him a glimpse at the destructive power of modern warfare, and it left a deep impression on him. In Okinawa, where he had been sent to make detailed maps of the terrain, he saw a once-beautiful island in complete ruins. According to Perry in his 2015 memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, "Bearing witness to this destructive power irrevocably shaped my life. It impressed on me that our world faced an enormous, never-before-seen danger in the nuclear age: not only the ruin of cities, as happened many times in World War II, but the end of our civilization."
After his time in Japan ended, Perry and his wife, Lee, moved to California. There, Perry received his B.S. and M.S. in mathematics from Stanford University while at the same time joining the Army Reserve. Perry envisioned becoming a professor of theoretical mathematics and was eager to earn his Ph.D. He was able to do so eventually by moving to Pennsylvania with his family, where he pursued his studies at Penn State, taught mathematics, and worked part-time for a defense company. Perry admits that this first job in defense was taken more out of financial necessity than a passion for national defense, but he discovered that he enjoyed and excelled at using his mathematics background to solve problems related to defense technology. Perry soon committed himself to a career in defense, and in 1954, he began working for Sylvania's Electronic Defense Laboratories.
In 1962, Perry got a call that would upend his life and place him at the center of a national nightmare. By now, Perry was director of Sylvania's Electronic Defense Laboratories, which specialized in reconnaissance technology against the Soviet Union. The call was from the CIA: Perry was needed as part of a team advising President Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis. During this time, Perry was privy to information that would not become public for many years—such as the number of near-misses and narrowly-avoided catastrophes that occurred during this period. From American pilots accidentally wandering into Soviet airspace and barely recognizing the mistake in time to avoid nuclear war, to Russian nuclear submarines exercising last-minute restraint in firing missiles, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, according to Perry, "as much by good luck as by good management". This tense and frightening experience solidified Perry's growing concern over the nuclear threat. For him, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a "summoning" that would shape the rest of his life's work.
By 1963, Perry was ready to move on from Sylvania, in part because he believed that digital technology was the way of the future, and had grown frustrated with Sylvania's reliance on analog technology. He was, of course, right—and that year he started his own company, ESL, Inc., in what is now called Silicon Valley. ESL was devoted to staying on the cutting edge of technology, applying it to Cold War defense problems. By 1977, Perry had grown the company into a great success, and had gained a lot of valuable experience in both managing a large and creative workforce and working quickly to evolve technology to defense's ever-changing needs. But his life was about to take another dramatic turn. That same year, he was asked to become Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Carter administration.
In his new role, Perry was responsible for overseeing the famous "Offset Strategy" of the Cold War era. The goal of the strategy was to compensate for the Soviet Union's numerical advantage in conventional troops with innovative new American technology. Perry was behind a number of famously successful initiatives during this time, including the development of the GPS technology that is so universally utilized today, the F-117 stealth bomber that was essential to victory in Desert Storm, and high-precision smart weapons.
Despite his many successes, Perry expresses regret that focus on the Soviet Union distracted the U.S. government from preventing proliferation in other parts of the world. According to Perry’s memoir, "Today we face a regrettable legacy of failed efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation; that spread is now much harder to stop than it would have been during the infancy of those programs." While nonproliferation efforts were successful at the time in South Korea and Taiwan, the world is now dealing with the consequences of inaction in countries like Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Iran, a legacy that Perry has sought to address throughout his later career.
In 1980, Perry returned to civilian life to work in investment banking. But in 1993, he was back at the Pentagon, now as Deputy Secretary of Defense. In 1994, the notorious "Black Hawk Down" incident forced President Clinton to ask Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to step down, and Perry found himself unexpectedly considering the offer to take over Aspin's position. Perry eventually accepted, with a little convincing from Al Gore.
As Secretary of Defense, Perry became known for his emphasis on diplomacy, his deep concern for the wellbeing of American troops and military families, and his insistence on finding ways to cooperate with nations not friendly to the United States. He became the first U.S. Secretary of State to make an official visit to Mexico, even though he was discouraged from doing so due to the historic enmity between Mexico and the American military.
When a new crisis erupted in North Korea, Perry insisted on using diplomacy first over military action, and at the time, was able to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear program. In 1991, when Haitian militants overthrew the Haitian government, Perry was able to help avoid a military invasion through diplomacy. He also points out, however, that luck played a disconcerting role in avoiding this conflict—a theme that reappears throughout his career. In his memoir, he recounts, "Indeed, history is replete with examples of military conflicts, or even wars, that started because of poor communications between the parties, or simple miscalculations about the other party’s intent. In the nuclear era, these are miscalculations of unimaginable consequence."
Perry had promised President Clinton that he would serve only one term as Secretary of Defense, and he kept his word. After leaving the Pentagon for civilian life, Perry embarked on a new journey, one that would entail working in education, Track 2 diplomacy, and the creation of his own organization devoted to ending the nuclear threat, the William J. Perry Project. Today, Perry is as devoted to his cause as ever, traveling the world to speak on issues of nuclear security and encourage cooperation and diplomacy over military action.
With the recent resetting of the Doomsday Clock in January 2018, it is clear that the world is once again edging toward the brink of nuclear disaster, a fact that Perry readily points out. Recent world events, especially the alarming behavior of North Korea, mean that Perry’s work is far from complete. In spite of today’s frightening international political scene, it is comforting to know that the world has a tireless Cold Warrior in William Perry, working to end one of the greatest threats of our time.
Join the Origins Project and our co-sponsors, the Stanley Foundation and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for an Origins Dialogue: Stepping Back from the Brink - A Discussion of National Security with William J. Perry on Friday, February 16, 2018 at 7 pm at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Live-streaming at https://asunow.asu.edu/asulive. Find more information and order tickets at https://origins.asu.edu/events/dialogue-william-perry.
Perry, W.J. (2015) My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.