Present Nuclear Dangers

- Dec• 19•16

By John Liebmann ‘88 and Carolyn Jackson ‘94

The danger of a nuclear explosion—by miscalculation or accident— is greater today than during the fraught years of the Cold War, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry told a large audience at All Souls on October 24. Perry was Secretary during the Clinton administration and also served as Undersecretary in charge of research and weapons acquisition in the Carter administration.

Perry was also involved in analyzing for President Kennedy Soviet missile installations during the Cuban missile crisis. “To this day, I believe we avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management,” he said.

In Perry’s view, relations between Russia and the United States today can “only be called hostile.” Russia has dropped its “long-term policy of no first strike,” and the United States has responded by seeking to upgrade its nuclear arsenal at a cost of a trillion dollars.

Perry named two other possible scenarios for nuclear explosions: acts of terrorism or a regional conflict, such as exists between India and Pakistan. In any case, Perry said he has been convinced since seeing the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly after those attacks that nuclear explosions could end our civilization.

Perry, 89, has made education of Millennials about the threat to civilization posed by nuclear weapons his major work. He teaches a course at Stanford University centered on nuclear disarmament.  The course promotes a student exchange with counterparts in Russia. And he has launched a website:, chock full of information about nuclear danger. On the website, readers can sign up for a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about the topic.

Perry’s October talk, sponsored by the Nuclear Disarmament Task Force along with the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and Peace Action of New York State, was one of the major public events at All Souls this fall. You can watch it both on YouTube (Perry All Souls) or on the website, which has the text as well.

Since the November 8 election, amid a general outcry about the caliber of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet choices, Perry has been generally positive about the appointment of retired General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. While as a candidate, Trump vowed he would proceed with the proposed nuclear weapons modernization proposed under the Obama administration, Mattis has championed removing land-based missiles to reduce the danger of false alarm.

Perry advocates abolition of all nuclear weapons. He was a contributor to the Ploughshares Fund recommendations: “Ten Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President.”

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