My Journey at the Nuclear BrinkStanford Security Studies, 2015, 276 + xxi pp., $16.00
The ancient Greek lives chronicled by Plutarch exhibit the perfidy of human beings in all its manifold guises. There are unprincipled turncoats like Alcibiades, self-righteous bumblers like Nicias, and shameless rabble rousers like Cleon—all deeply flawed but also indelibly etched in our cultural memory. Then there are largely forgotten characters like Aristides. If politics in democratic Athens was a blood sport, Aristides was its moral conscience. Plutarch says this of him: “Altogether admirable was his steadfast constancy amid the revulsions of political feeling. He was not unduly lifted up by his honors, and faced adversity with a calm gentleness, while in all cases alike he considered it his duty to give his services to his country freely and without any reward, either in money or, what meant far more, in reputation.”It is an apt description of another man, born 25 centuries after Aristides, who has now produced a memoir of his life and times: My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. William Perry is—by the testimony of all who worked with him and by the witness of this autobiography—a thoroughly decent man. Not just that, he was a successful and consequential public servant, first as Under Secretary of Defense and ultimately as Secretary of Defense. If our military is technologically superior to its possible adversaries, if our non-commission officers are the best (and the best treated) in the world, if the “loose nukes” left behind as the Soviet empire receded have been turned into nuclear fuel for U.S. power plants, we owe all these achievements in large measure to Bill Perry.But whereas Donald Rumsfeld’s disastrous second tour as Secretary of Defense will be remembered as a cautionary tale by generations yet unborn, Bill Perry is already half forgotten. The wages of sin may be death, but as Plutarch teaches, the wages of virtue—in Washington as in ancient Greece—can often be obscurity. That has been Perry’s fate, and this memoir, for all its many virtues, is unlikely to change it.My Journey at the Nuclear Brink is meant above all to convey grim tidings about the growing danger of nuclear weapons, but it also recounts, inter alia, the life of its author, a man who in many ways lived the American dream. Fortune and timing favored him, but energy, intelligence, sound judgment, and a penchant for risk taking favored him even more. A newly minted mathematics Ph.D. in 1954, he began his professional career in what would become Silicon Valley just as the digital revolution was about to begin. His specialty was electronic surveillance and analysis of the Soviet nuclear missile threat. By his early thirties, he had risen to the directorship of Sylvania’s Electronic Defense Laboratories and become an acknowledged leader in his field.He tells of two formative experiences from these early years, both of which involved nuclear weapons. One of his first assignments was to assess whether electronic jamming would reduce casualties from a Soviet nuclear attack. He concluded that casualties would be reduced by two-thirds. Still, 25 million Americans would die immediately and many millions more in subsequent years. Then, in 1962, he was part of a small team that concluded from intercepted telemetry data that the newly discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba had the range to reach most East Coast cities, including Washington, D.C. This was the crucial bit of evidence in the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. His team did not know that the warheads for the Soviet missiles were already in Cuba, or that a Soviet submarine off the Cuban coast was equipped with nuclear-armed torpedoes. The situation was therefore far more perilous than government leaders realized, and it would have led to a disastrous nuclear war had not a prudent President Kennedy resisted pressure from his civilian and military aides who were urging an attack on Cuba.From these experiences, Perry seems to have drawn three lessons. First, there was no adequate defense against a determined nuclear attack; damage might be reduced, but what remained would threaten civilization. Second, even in the super-secret world of the Cold War, a degree of transparency was crucial to stabilizing the nuclear balance; without it, both sides would have taken the counsel of their fears, and the nuclear arms race would have been even more perilous than it was. And finally, the idea of using nuclear weapons was deeply morally repugnant. These would be the convictions that informed his later career, both in and out of government.By the mid-1960s, Perry and some colleagues had raided their savings to found Electromagnetic Systems Laboratory (ELS). Their idea was to apply emerging digital techniques to Cold War intelligence analysis. In hindsight, we know that they barged in at the ground floor of the digital revolution, but it was a considerable risk at the time for a young group of self-financed entrepreneurs. In the event, ESL prospered and Perry’s reputation along with it.Soon President Carter’s Defense Department came calling, and Perry (at considerable financial sacrifice) became Under Secretary of Defense for research and engineering. The man had met his moment. The U.S. military was transitioning from the vacuum tube to the digital era, and no one was better qualified to lead that transformation than Perry. His incumbency was marked by his push for advanced, technologically sophisticated conventional weapons to offset the Soviet advantage in numbers, and by his skepticism about the need for burgeoning nuclear arsenals. One concern played into the other. If conventional weapons could become an effective deterrent to a general war in their own right, the nuclear threshold would recede. The conventional edge, Perry thought, would come from stealth technology, precision guidance, GPS, and vastly improved satellite surveillance. These were all fruits of the computer age, which, grouped together, in due course became known as the Revolution in Military Affairs. All were either initiated or crucially advanced on Perry’s watch.There was opposition from those, including all-purpose pundit James Fallows and F-16 designer Pierre Sprey, who thought these and other new weapons would be too expensive, too complex, and unreliable in the “fog of war.” Perry had to compromise at the margins (fewer GPS satellites, for example) but argues now that the performance of the U.S. military in subsequent wars, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War Operation “Desert Storm,” validated his judgment. Still, his victory was not without cost. He sacrificed Pentagon acquisition reform, he writes, in return for the high-tech weapons he championed; he could take on the vested interests in one case, but not in both simultaneously. He was to return to acquisition reform as Secretary of Defense, but again with limited success. It turned out, though he doesn’t say so, that combining cutting-edge technology with a broken acquisition system could produce a toxic mix. That is what some claim best describes the F-35 program, which has stood accused of limited capabilities, ruinous cost overruns, and seven-million lines of computer code. Perhaps the proponents of simpler, cheaper, and more numerous weapon systems had more of a point than Perry is willing to grant them.Out of government in the Reagan years, Perry became a vocal critic of Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program (the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI). He had not changed his view that defense against nuclear weapons was a dangerous illusion, and he thought Reagan’s proposals went far beyond our technological capability. Perry regrets that Reagan’s hopes for an illusory nuclear “shield” prevented a broader agreement to limit nuclear warheads when Reagan met with Gorbachev at Reykjavik. Reagan, he thinks, sacrificed real reductions in nuclear missiles for imaginary defenses against them. But we know now that Gorbachev insisted that the U.S. limit its missile defense research even though his scientists had told him (as Perry was also arguing) that if the U.S. defenses worked at all, which was unlikely, they could be cheaply and easily overcome. The Soviet leader therefore might have made concessions on SDI without real cost to Soviet security. Still, Perry places the primary onus for missed opportunities on Reagan. Indeed, he tends in general to give Reagan less credit than he deserves for his effort to reduce and not just limit numbers of nuclear weapons, a policy that upset the hardliners in his Administration as much as the Reykjavik failure disturbs Perry. It is one of the great ironies of this era that the cause of those, like Perry, who hoped to contain the nuclear threat was advanced most effectively by a President who came to office as the supposed leader of the nuclear hawks.With Clinton’s election, Perry was back at the Pentagon as Deputy to Secretary of Defense Les Aspin. Perry is characteristically discrete about the circumstances of Aspin’s downfall, but the result was Perry’s elevation, half way through Clinton’s first term, to leadership of the Pentagon as Secretary of Defense.Perry was perhaps less suited to the top job than he had been to his first Pentagon tour. Leadership, especially on controversial issues, can sometimes be exercised more effectively from the anterooms of power, and Perry had not been Clinton’s first choice for the job. Perry had his successes. “Project Sapphire,” launched to reprocess the large stocks of nuclear material left over from the Soviet nuclear weapons program into nuclear fuel for U.S. reactors, was a notable one. But in other areas Perry played primarily an advisory, and sometimes a dissenting, role. He was involved in the events that led to the end of hostilities in Bosnia and the Dayton Accords, cautioning that Russian interests should also be taken into account. But his cautions were generally ignored, and he was beaten badly on an issue of even greater concern to the Russians: NATO enlargement.In a tense cabinet meeting that Perry requested, Dick Holbrooke made short work of Perry’s argument that acceptance of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary into NATO should be delayed until advances made in relations with a democratizing Russia could be consolidated. Perry considered resigning over the issue. In My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, he argues that Russian revanchism under Putin was not inevitable, but can be traced in large measure to the U.S. refusal to take core Russian interests into account on NATO, in the Balkans, on Test Ban Treaty ratification, and on anti-ballistic missile deployments to Poland and the Czech Republic. Perry understood far better than the Administration he served that failing to give a defeated power a stake in the post-conflict order was poor statecraft on a massive scale.The proudest achievement of his time as Secretary of Defense, Perry writes, is to have improved the living conditions and educational opportunities for non-commissioned officers—our “unfair competitive advantage,” as Perry’s military aide, Major General Paul Kern called them. Once alerted to the problem by General Kern, Perry proceeded with characteristic energy and dedication, eventually winning a $15 billion dollar grant for improved enlisted housing, as well as strengthening the G.I. Bill.In his long political afterlife, Perry has become a teacher, and an avid participant in “track two” discussions with the Russians and Chinese, among others. These discussions are meetings between ex- and would-be policy makers based on a peculiarly American idea that good personal relationships can ease policy differences. It’s an optimist’s response to a cynical world. Foreign participants generally play along.Perry’s judgment, experience, and common sense have also made him the obvious Democratic choice to serve on several bipartisan panels. He was part of the Baker/Hamilton-chaired Iraq Study Group that boiled the many absurdities of U.S. Iraq War policy down to three of conception and four of implementation. All this is recounted from Perry’s point of view, but without much that is new.Compared to the autobiographies of his successors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, this “selective memoir” is a slight volume. That may be because, late in life, Perry has come, like Archilochus’ hedgehog, to put aside many small things and focus on one big thing: what he calls the “long backward slide” into nuclear confrontation. He predicts that the Russians will soon withdraw from the Test Ban Treaty and begin testing warheads for a new generation of intercontinental missiles. They have already reversed their longstanding policy of “no first use.” The result, Perry thinks, will be irresistible pressure on the United State to resume its own nuclear testing. All this is taking place in the context of new flash points between the nuclear powers in the Middle East and on the southern rim of the old Soviet Empire, with Putin channeling Soviet-era paranoia and his generals, with his backing, once again brandishing their nuclear weapons. The only morally acceptable response to these ominous trends, Perry thinks, is first to defuse the tension, and then to initiate a gradual reduction toward nuclear zero. He admits that many, even on the left, consider this impractical. But for Perry, practicality is not the first consideration; moral necessity is. It’s a conviction shared by his contemporaries, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and San Nunn, who together form the so-called “Gang of Four.” Their proposals aim to better secure nuclear materials, increase decision time for leaders, accelerate nuclear reductions, and increase transparency.The “Gang of Four” is aging. Nunn is the junior member at 78. Shultz is 94, Kissinger 92, and Perry himself is now 89. Theirs are no longer names to conjure with. The generation that might have taken their place was swallowed up in the Iraq fiasco and the loudest voices now seem to come from a perspective far different from Perry’s. Serious books are appearing about the role of nuclear weapons, even nuclear war, in national strategy. In this new atmosphere, Perry’s brand of moral indignation can seem old-fashioned—not at all the sort of thing to persuade a rising generation of steely-eyed academics.Perry hopes to change that. But he has the fatal weakness in a would-be best-selling author of being judicious and fair-minded. He speaks ill of no one, engages in no retrospective backstabbing, and presents the arguments of even his bitterest opponents with uncommon objectivity. His generosity of spirit is evident on nearly every page as he gives credit to colleagues and subordinates for each success, and blames only himself for failures. (A name that appears often as Perry’s collaborator and friend is current Defense Secretary, Ash Carter). The one time he departs from that practice—he thinks the opponents to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were cynical, dishonest, and politically self-serving—he instantly regrets his inability to excuse their actions. Even then he names no names.The unfortunate result of this lack of sensationalism is a memoir unlikely to reach a wide enough audience to serve as the effective warning and exhortation Perry hopes it will be. A more polemical and less humble book might have served his purposes better. But that would have been out character for William Perry, and character—as much as nuclear weapons—is what this memoir is really about.