On a brisk Tuesday night in Washington, DC’s tony Cleveland Park neighborhood, hundreds of concerned citizens gathered at Washington National Cathedral to hear some unpleasant truths from former defense secretary William Perry.
Perry was there as part of the cathedral’s Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program to address what he believes is the very real danger of an accidental nuclear conflagration between the United States and Russia, now that relations between the two nuclear superpowers have deteriorated to their lowest point in the quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Perry recalled his own experiences during the first Cold War, when, as a young man, he served in the Army during the occupation of postwar Japan, and later, when he served as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering under President Jimmy Carter, and, later still, from 1994–97, when he served as Pentagon chief under President Clinton.
California Governor Jerry Brown has written, “I know of no person who understands the science and politics of modern weaponry better than William J. Perry.”
Perry recalled that, during the first Cold War, both the United States and the USSR experienced multiple nuclear false alarms that could have resulted in planetary catastrophe.
Perry recounted one such incident that he experienced firsthand, when, in November 1979, during his time as undersecretary, he was awakened by a 3 am phone call from a watch officer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The watch officer informed Perry that 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched at the United States by the Soviet Union.
It was quickly determined that this was a false alarm—but Perry noted that, because relations between the United States and the USSR were relatively stable at that time, there was reason to question whether the information from NORAD was correct.
But what if, asked Perry, such a false alarm had occurred during a time of heightened tension, as during the Cuba or Berlin crises, or even today?
Perry warned that the nuclear risk has not abated since the end of the first Cold War—indeed, the risk has only grown. Said Perry, “The likelihood today of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than during the Cold War.”
“Today, inexplicably to me, we are recreating the geopolitical hostility of the Cold War and we are rebuilding the nuclear dangers of the Cold War. We are doing this without any serous public discussion, or any real understanding of the consequences of these actions: we are sleepwalking into a new Cold War, and there is a very real danger we will blunder into a nuclear war.”