William J. Perry is on a mission to warn of a “real and growing danger” of nuclear doom. The 88-year-old former defense secretary [in the Clinton administration] is troubled by the risks of catastrophe from the very weapons he helped develop. Atop his list: a nuclear terror attack in a major U.S. city or a shooting war with Russia that, through miscalculation, turns nuclear. A terrorist attack using a nuclear bomb or improvised nuclear device could happen “any time now — next year or the year after,” he said in an interview with reporters earlier this month.
Perry chooses his words with the precision of a mathematician, which he was before entering the defense world in the mid-1950s. He played a central role in developing and modernizing nuclear forces throughout the Cold War — first as a technology whiz-kid and later a three-time senior Pentagon executive. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis Perry was secretly summoned to Washington to analyze intelligence on Soviet weapons in Cuba.
“Every day that I went to the analysis center I thought would be my last day on earth,” he writes in a newly published memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” He says he believed then and still believes that the world avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management.
In the interview, he recounted a harrowing incident in November 1979 when, as a senior Pentagon official, he was awakened by a 3 a.m. phone call from the underground command center responsible for warning of a missile attack. The watch officer told Perry his computers were showing 200 nuclear-armed missiles on their way from the Soviet Union to the United States. “It was, of course, a false alarm,” Perry said, but it was one of many experiences throughout the Cold War and beyond that he says have given him a “unique and chilling vantage point from which to conclude that nuclear weapons no longer provide for our security — they now endanger it.”
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