From Japan, to Cuba, to Iran—three snapshots of a world changed by nuclear weapons.
William J. Perry, who served as Secretary of Defense during President Bill Clinton’s administration, is regarded as one of the five “Cold Warriors”—along with Henry Kissinger, George P. Schultz, Sam Nunn, and Sid Drell—who, together, have formed an influential group whose activism has profoundly impacted nuclear security. From his role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, to his stint as Defense Secretary, to his more recent involvement in Track 2 talks facilitating the recent Iran deal, minimizing the nuclear threat—introduced to the world stage 70 years ago today—has been one of Perry’s chief preoccupations. The following post was adapted from his forthcoming memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.
“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
—Albert Einstein; 23 May 1946
My journey at the nuclear brink began well before the Cuban Missile Crisis, on an infamous Sunday in 1941, four years before the first atomic bomb was dropped. These were the first stirrings that would lead me to a life encompassing military service, development of Cold War reconnaissance systems, government service, university teaching, and diplomacy—much of it focused on the goal of reducing the nuclear threat.
That historic Sunday came just after I turned fourteen. I was visiting a friend in his Butler, Pennsylvania home when his brother rushed in shouting, “We are at war with Japan! They just bombed Pearl Harbor!” War with Japan had been brewing for more than a year, and many radio commentators had predicted its imminence. My fourteen-year-old response was immediate: I wanted to serve in the war as a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but I feared that the war would be over before I was old enough—and that is just what happened.
On my seventeenth birthday in October 1944, I drove to Pittsburgh, passed the exams for the Army Air Cadet program, and was sworn in, but months later the Air Cadet program was discontinued. After completing a few semesters of college, I enlisted in the Army Engineers. The army trained me in map-making and assigned me to the Army of Occupation of Japan, where I was sent to a base outside Tokyo for training.
Bearing witness to this destructive power irrevocably shaped my life; our world faced an enormous, never-before-seen danger in the nuclear age.
Nothing I had read about the war prepared me for the massive devastation I would see in Tokyo. This once great city was decimated—virtually every building made of wood was destroyed by firebomb attacks. Survivors were living in vast wastes of fused rubble existing on meager rations provided by the Occupation Forces.
In Tokyo, and later in Naha, I saw through my young eyes the unprecedented devastation of modern war. I was witness to a wartime violence of historic proportions, and it was a transformational experience. This devastation had been rendered by thousands of bombs in hundreds of raids; a comparable devastation had been inflicted on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki by just one bomb. I understood in a profound and visceral way that our new unimaginable capacity to inflict horror and ruin had changed everything.
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. I came to understand what Einstein meant when he said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything,” and was haunted by his concluding words: “save our modes of thinking.”
My phone rang on a beautiful fall day in 1962, just a week after I had celebrated my thirty-fifth birthday. I was the director of Sylvania’s Electronic Defense Laboratories, which pioneered in sophisticated electronic reconnaissance systems directed at Soviet nuclear weapons systems. The phone call was from Albert “Bud” Wheelon, my colleague who was the youngest-ever head of the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence, as well as the chairman of an expert group reviewing all intelligence on the Soviet missile and space programs.
He asked me to fly to Washington to consult with him. His sense of urgency alarmed me. Our country was deep in a spiraling nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, which just the previous year had broken the nuclear test ban to detonate their “monster” 50-megaton bomb. I took the night flight to Washington, DC, and met him the next morning.
Without a word of explanation he showed me photos of what I quickly recognized as Soviet missiles in Cuba. My instant reaction was dread. It was all too clear that this deployment could be the catalyst to trigger a nuclear exchange between the United States and the USSR. My study of nuclear effects told me that such an exchange could bring about the end of civilization.
For the next eight days I worked intensively with a small team analyzing data collected each to day to make a report delivered by the director of the CIA to President John F. Kennedy. Every morning US tactical reconnaissance aircraft conducted low-level flights over Cuba and took high-resolution pictures of known and suspected missile and weapons sites. I was on one of two analysis teams, trying to determine from the photos critical information about the Soviet missiles being deployed: How many and what type were they? How soon would they be operational? When would the nuclear warheads be mated to the missiles?
When I was not in the back room analyzing intelligence data, I was watching the political drama unfold on television, with President Kennedy ordering our navy to stop Soviet ships from crossing a designated line and the Soviet ships continuing to steam toward it. What was at stake was spelled out in unambiguous terms by the president in his speech to the American people, with its stark warning that nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be met with a “full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
I understood exactly what a “full retaliatory response meant.” In the decade before the Cuban Missile Crisis, I had been studying nuclear scenarios and their consequences.
Although the Cuban Missile Crisis ended without war, I believed then, and still believe, that the world avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management. Indeed, during those eight days in October, every day that I went to the analysis center, I thought would be my last day on earth.
Today, US-Russia relationships are at an all-time low since the ending of the Cold War, and neither our official diplomacy nor our Track 2 programs have had much traction in turning this unfortunate situation around. But even as we look for new ways to work with Russia, we cannot ignore the potential danger from other nations with nuclear programs.
One pressing issue has been the growing concern over Iran, its nuclear activities, and the prospect that it would enrich its uranium and develop nuclear weapons. During the George W. Bush administration, the European Union negotiated fruitlessly with Iran to forswear enriching its uranium. When the Obama administration took office, it actively joined in those talks—a good idea—though the talks remained stalled for some time. I thought this impasse the highest priority for Track 2 talks, and Sig Hecker and I, invited to Geneva to talk with the Iranian national security advisor, hoped that we might find an opening that could be useful to American official negotiators.
My past motivation to remain a part of a Track 2 dialogue on the Iranian nuclear program has been my belief that an Iranian nuclear arsenal could lead to a catastrophe.
From 2007 to 2012, I was involved in four Track 2 meetings with Iranian officials, my objective to speed progress in official discussions held to prevent an Iranian nuclear arsenal. The first two meetings, one in Geneva and one in Amsterdam, were with the Iranian national security advisor; the last two, held in New York City, were with the Iranian foreign minister and were held in the margins of his UN meetings.
My past motivation to remain a part of a Track 2 dialogue on the Iranian nuclear program has been my belief that an Iranian nuclear arsenal could lead to a catastrophe, but the Track 2 talks have been (thankfully) replaced by serious official negotiations. As of this writing, the US-European negotiating team has reached an agreement with Iran. But this agreement has powerful detractors in the United States, Israel, and Iran. The detractors in the United States and Israel are driven by the fear that the treaty provisions are too weak and Iran will exploit the treaty to build a nuclear arsenal (as North Korea exploited their IAEA membership). The detractors in Iran are apparently driven by the fear that the treaty is too strong and will succeed in preventing Iran from building a nuclear arsenal. Both of course cannot be right, and in fact I believe that neither is.
They are simply reflecting the common problem of treaty negotiation—any compromise solution that is accepted by both sides of the negotiation is destined not to satisfy the extremists on both sides. If I were the American negotiator, I could easily negotiate a treaty that would satisfy all factions in the United States—but only if I were able to sit on both sides of the negotiating table! If this agreement were to fail because of domestic opposition in the United States, the outcome would be no restraints on the Iranian program and no cooperative monitoring of what they are in fact doing in their program. The extremists in Iran would undoubtedly like that outcome, but it is hard to see how any American or Israeli can think it a desirable one.
This danger of Iran going nuclear emphasizes that we are now in a new chapter in the perilous nuclear age. Two long-familiar dangers are growing—nuclear proliferation and inadequate security at too many of the far-flung nuclear facilities throughout the world. The nuclear security challenges differ much from those of the Cold War and present their own grave complexities and a steeply mounting imperative for vigilance and international cooperation.
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