Remarks at Washington Book Launch of William J. Perry’s My Journey at the Nuclear Brink

Thank you, Professor Macfarlane, for your generous introduction.  NTI is honored to co-host this event with the Elliott School here at George Washington University. GW has an impressive commitment to nuclear security policy, and you have done great work grounding students in both the policy and technical aspects of the most important, yet least-discussed, challenges facing future generations.

Your program and your graduates give me great hope that the United States and the world will develop insightful and knowledgeable future leaders ready to tackle nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation, arms control and cyber threats – all part of the complex global security challenges that this generation and future generations face.   

That mastering of both technology and policy and their intersection has been the key to our honoree’s accomplishments and to his very large contribution to U.S. and global security. 

I am very honored to make a few remarks about a friend and partner – a man I consider to be a national hero – Bill Perry.

It is terrific to see so many members of the extended Perry family here today, particularly from his home state of Pennsylvania.  If there is any man more dedicated to his wonderful wife, Lee, and more proud of his children and grandchildren, I don’t know him.  Bill’s love and devotion to his family serves as an example for us all.  As some of you may know, Bill’s son David Perry taught at the GW School of Medicine for several decades.  I want to especially thank Bill’s daughter, Robin Perry, who helped make this day possible due to her dedicated and outstanding work with her father on the book we are here to celebrate. 

Those who know Bill recognize that he has a severe case of incurable modesty. You also know that Bill’s towering intellect and his unparalleled ability to help the rest of us understand complexity is a national asset and has been for many decades. I have long said that of all the people I have worked with in Washington, indeed, in the world, Bill Perry has the highest what I call “A-to-E ratio.” A-to-E stands for “accomplishments-to-ego”.  Let me share a few examples that I have personally observed.

During Bill’s early work in government, back during the Carter administration when he served in the Defense Department, I was his fan and a close observer as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Bill was a man who understood and acted on what General Omar Bradley said many years ago, “The only way to win a nuclear war is to prevent it from ever happening.”

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bill knew that we had to take steps to strengthen our defenses and protect our national security while also preventing a nuclear war from occurring.  Bill led the way in increasing our conventional and technological capabilities as a way to deter aggression while reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons.

As Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Carter administration, Bill did more to achieve that goal than any single individual in the last 50 years.  What I call “Bill Perry technology” continues to give the U.S. military our strengths and advantages in meeting today’s challenges.  In his book that we will celebrate this evening, Bill calls this – modestly – the “offset strategy.”

Fast-forward to the early 1990s.  Bill was back out in California, engaged in successful private-sector leadership.

In early 1992, just after Congressional passage of the Nunn-Lugar legislation, which was designed to help the former Soviet states secure and eliminate their vast nuclear arsenals left scattered across what had been the Soviet empire, Bill joined then-Senator Dick Lugar, now-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, David Hamburg (who is with us this afternoon) and me on a trip to Russia and Ukraine.  Our purpose was to assess the nature of the risks posed by the tens of thousands of tons of vulnerable nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials and to explore how best to implement the Nunn-Lugar legislation.  Bill immediately connected the dots: desperate financial conditions, demoralized military forces, weapons and materials of mass destruction, and the threat of catastrophic terrorism and nuclear proliferation – a perfect storm.

Fast forward one year to the early days of the Clinton administration. As Deputy and then Secretary of Defense, Bill put implementation of the Nunn-Lugar program on the “Bill Perry front burner.”  As anyone in Washington knows, passing legislation is one thing—successfully implementing it is another.  Without Bill’s perseverance and leadership, the deactivation of thousands of warheads, the securing of tons of dangerous materials, and the destruction of thousands of missiles would not have been possible.

Bill Perry’s record book of achievements continues to pile up.  Bill is a wonderful teacher with a passion for preparing the next generation to address the dangers ahead, and he and his dedicated family and his team out at Stanford are working on a number of projects to reach students and young leaders online.  Those include web-based education and community building projects, educational videos, seminars for high school and college students and more.  Bill considers teaching a privilege and a responsibility.  If they don’t already know it, Bill Perry’s students will someday discover that they are the luckiest students in the world to be able to drink from the “Bill Perry fountain of experience and wisdom”.

My bottom line: in every job Bill has ever tackled, he has brought that rare combination of brilliant thinker and patient teacher – of great patriot and humble servant – of innovator and strategist – all with unquestioned intellectual integrity.

We are very proud that Bill was a founding Board member of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and Bill has also been a key member of the Shultz-Perry-Kissinger-Nunn “Gang of Four” in our efforts to reverse reliance on nuclear weapons globally, to prevent their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world.

Readers of My Journey at the Nuclear Brink will learn more about all of these efforts.  They will enjoy dramatic living history about Bill’s critical roles in a range of issues – from his work developing the Global Positioning System to his breakthrough development of stealth technology – from his leadership in the private sector defense industry to a dreaded call and nuclear scare in the middle of the night as Undersecretary of Defense – from playing key diplomatic roles for our government with China, Egypt and Israel to his negotiations with North Korea. 

Finally, there has to occasionally be a lighter side even at the “nuclear brink” or those of us in the nuclear arena would all go mad.  In 1977, Bill was tasked by President Carter to respond to a letter written by a sincere patriot proposing that the U.S. build a “moon bomb”.  The writer expressed concern that the Soviets would destroy the United States with a surprise missile attack.  But the writer had a solution – and I quote from page 33 of Bill’s book: “I have designed a moon bomb that could save us. I propose that we build a very large rocket, whose payload would be a very long strand of steel cable, one end of which would be firmly attached to the earth. We would then launch the rocket at the moon, playing out the cable behind it as the rocket rises. When the rocket lands on the moon, a robot would attach the other end of the cable to the moon. The timing would be determined so that as the earth rotated, it would pull the moon towards it, causing it to smash into the Soviet Union.”

Ever patient, Bill respectfully explained why the “moon bomb” would not work, and closed by saying, “Even if the moon bomb were feasible, it would not be the policy of this administration to destroy an entire hemisphere.”

So, Bill, even if you couldn’t figure out how to develop a “moon bomb”, you are an American hero.  All of us are grateful for your contributions to America and to the world. With your memoir, a new chapter is being written, as you influence new audiences and new generations. We – and the world – must learn from your wisdom and experience.

December 3, 2015

NTI Co-Chairman Sam Nunn celebrates founding NTI Board member Bill Perry at the Washington, D.C. launch of his new book.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI