Former U.S. Defense Secretary Explains Why Nuclear Holocaust Is Now Likely
The Stanford mathematician William J. Perry was a strategic nuclear advisor to U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and then he became U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton. He stated in a speech on November 28th at the National Cathedral in Washington DC that “inexplicably to me, we’re recreating the geopolitical hostility of the Cold War, and we’re rebuilding the nuclear dangers,” and he went so far as to make clear why “I believe that the likelihood of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe today is actually greater than it was during the Cold War.”
He explained why the increase in tensions between the U.S. and Russia isn’t merely restoring those dangers but is now exceeding them, despite the elimination of what were supposed to have been the threats that gave rise to the Cold War: the ideological threat of communism, and the threat of the monolithic Soviet bloc which ended in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the threat of the Soviets’ military alliance, the Soviet Union’s equivalent of America’s NATO military alliance, the Warsaw Pact — all of whose alliance members are now, or are on the way to becoming, members of America’s NATO alliance, targeting the now lone nation of Russia.
Since no transcript of Perry’s very important speech is yet available to the public, I’ve created my own transcript, though summarizing, or sometimes editing out, extraneous courtesies and verbal slip-ups and corrections of himself (which appear to have been due to difficulties he had reading from his typed text). This edited version of the speech he delivered on November 28th thus includes everything that’s of general public interest in what he said. Occasionally, I’ve added time marks so that one can locate specific passages in the video of his address:
5:10 Secretary Perry: Till 8:00 he analogized himself to a carpenter who worked on building Noah’s Ark and who tried to warn the townspeople of the coming disaster, the flood, but who was ignored until it was too late. “I am like that carpenter who helped Noah build the ark. I am seeking to avert that disaster.” He said, however, he noted that, unlike the flood, this is a “preventable disaster.” He also noted that he had himself helped “contribute to the building of nuclear weapons for the Cold War.” So: he had participated in having created the danger, but is now at the time of his life when he is trying to undo perhaps some of the danger that he had helped to produce.
Here is his speech:
8:33 When the Cold War ended, I believed that we no longer had to take that risk [nuclear annihilation] so I put all my energy into efforts to dismantle the deadly nuclear legacy of the Cold War. During my period as the Secretary of Defense in the 90s, I oversaw the dismantlement of 8,000 nuclear weapons evenly divided between the United States and the former Soviet Union. And I thought then that we were well on our way to putting behind us this deadly existential threat. But that was not to be.
Today, inexplicably to me, we’re recreating the geopolitical hostility of the Cold War, and we’re rebuilding the nuclear dangers. … We are doing this without any serious public discussion or any real understanding of the consequences of these actions. We are sleepwalking into a new Cold War, and there’s very real danger that we will blunder into a nuclear war.
If we are to prevent this catastrophe, the public must understand what is happening. …
I’m going to justify these assertions by first looking back at the Cold War and explaining how we averted disaster then, and then I will compare it with our present situation.
10:25 When I lecture about the Cold War in my class at Stanford, a student will often ask me, ‘What led us to build 70,000 nuclear weapons? Why were that many weapons needed for deterrence? Wouldn’t a thousand have been more than enough?’ And I patiently explain that our nuclear policy was built on the assumption that the Soviet Union was planning to strike us with a surprise attack, a bolt out of the blue, which we affectionately called a BOOB, a bolt out of the blue. We assumed that the Soviet Union believed that if they could destroy 90% of our weapons in a surprise attack, we would then surrender, and they would then have conquered the world. Based on that premise, we believed that we had to build a significant excess of weapons so that enough of them would survive a first strike to still conduct our retaliatory strikes of deterrence, and then, just to be sure, we built 50% more. The Soviet Union, seeing what we were building, would assume that we must be planning a surprise attack. So they built enough weapons to survive that attack, and then, just to be sure, 50% more. And those assumptions led to an ever-escalating arms race.
Before that insanity stopped, the United States and the Soviet Union combined had reached the obscene and absurd level of 70,000 nuclear weapons.
I believe that the Cold War arms race was built on a faulty premise, that in fact neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were planning to conduct a surprise attack on the other. The real danger, and this was a very real danger during the Cold War, was that we would blunder into a nuclear war. Indeed, we came very close to a civilization-ending war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. … I was there during that crisis, and I will never forget it. I was part of a small team that worked all day analyzing the intelligence data collected that day, and by midnight, we prepared two reports for President Kennedy’s brief the next morning. So, I knew exactly what was going on. Indeed, every morning when I went into the analysis center I believed would be my last day on Earth.
After the crisis, President Kennedy said he thought there’s about one chance in three of the Cuban Missile Crisis ending in a nuclear catastrophe — not very good odds when the end of civilization was at the other end of it. But, I have to say that I believe that Kennedy’s statement was optimistic. He did not know, as we now know, that the Soviet Union had already placed tactical nuclear weapons on the island, and that they were fully operational. And if Kennedy had accepted the unanimous recommendation of his Joint Chiefs of Staff to invade Cuba with a conventional military force, our troops would have been decimated on the beachhead by tactical nuclear weapons and a general nuclear war would surely have followed.
14:10 The miscalculations of Soviet and American leaders almost led to a nuclear holocaust. And I believe that we avoided that catastrophe as much by good luck as by good management.
Also, during the Cold War we faced the risk of an accidental nuclear war if our missile attack warning system experienced a false alarm. How likely was that? During the Cold War, there were three such false alarms in the United States and at least two that I know about in the Soviet Union. That averages to be about one every eight years. I personally experienced one of those false alarms, and it changed forever my way of thinking about nuclear dangers. It occurred in October of 1979, when I was the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. Awoken from a sound sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning, as I sleepily put the phone to my ears, the voice on the other end identified himself as the watch officer for the North American Air Defense Command. The general got right to the point: he told me that his computers were showing 200 ICBMs on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought we were about to experience the holocaust that we had narrowly avoided during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the general quickly explained they had already concluded there was a false alarm. He was calling me to help him determine what had gone wrong with his computer.
There were actually two separate false alarms during the period I was undersecretary. The most dangerous occurred one night when the computer operators changed shifts, and the new operators mistakenly instead of putting in the operating tape put in a training tape. The training tape, of course, was designed to look like a realistic attack scenario. It was human error. That is, our system, with all of its safety features, was still vulnerable to a single person potentially bringing about the end of our civilization. Two things saved the world from that fate.
First one was the watch officer that night was exceptionally thoughtful and responsible, for which we can all be thankful.
And second the context for the [thought] attack was benign. There were no international incidents under way that made a Soviet attack especially plausible. But what if that false alarm had occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or during one of our Mideast crises when we had our forces on high alert? In that context, the watch officer surely would have passed the alarm on to the President, who, after being awoken at 3 o’clock in the morning, would have less than ten minutes to decide whether to launch our ICBMs before they were destroyed in their silos.
17:30 Had he ordered the launch, there would be no way of recalling the missiles or destroying them in flight; the President would have accidentally started a global nuclear war.
Well, that was then. What about now? I have written that I believe that the likelihood of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe today is actually greater than it was during the Cold War. … Why do I believe that? Because the United States and Russia today are confronting each other with a hostility that is recreating the geopolitical dangers of the Cold War, and because the United States and Russia are rebuilding their Cold War nuclear arsenals, there’s recreating the military dangers of the Cold War.
So, today, we are still vulnerable to blundering into a nuclear war if we have a crisis with Russia comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And when I consider the possibility of another false alarm, I notice humans will err again. Machines will malfunction again. And so we will have another false alarm.
Even in the face of this, Russia and the United States still today have a policy of launch on warning. And both Russia and the United States are building new ICBMs to replace the ones built during the Cold War.
That means ultimately the future of civilization will depend on the judgment of an anonymous watch officer and the judgment and the temperament of the American President or the Russian President, who have the sole authority to launch a nuclear attack.
19:40 Beyond those dangers, which are comparable to the dangers we faced during the Cold War, there are two dangers that did not exist during the Cold War.
The first of them is a regional nuclear war. Pakistan, India, North Korea today have large numbers of nuclear weapons. Pakistan and India have more than a hundred each, and North Korea has 20 and building.
Beyond that there is danger of a nuclear terror attack, which is the nuclear danger we face today I consider the most likely. …
So [if people ask me what we can do to avert the disaster], I start by telling them that we will never take the actions needed to avert a nuclear disaster until our public understands just how great the danger is. We do not now have the political will to act in reducing nuclear dangers because we do not understand fully how real and how great those dangers are.
A decade ago, the same situation existed with another existential threat, a global climate disaster. But in that field, a serious and creative education program has [become] under way. Today, there are still climate deniers, but a large majority of our people understand the dangers of a global climate disaster, and are willing to take actions, sometimes expensive actions, to reduce those dangers. Even with this Administration pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, other countries, and most states, are acting to reduce emissions. In particular, Governor Brown, the Governor of my home state of California, is leading an international effort to reduce CO2 emissions, and his efforts have been remarkably successful. So I remain hopeful that the world will be able to avert that existential disaster.
21:55 To deal with the nuclear dangers we face, we need first of all to have a creative energetic education program that is as effective and as robust as the education in climate change, and I am doing what I can to promote such education.
But this is a daunting problem, such a daunting problem it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands. Indeed, many have asked me, how can one person make a significant impact on a problem so great. My response is, I am one person. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. Indeed, I am devoting the remainder of my career to doing what I can to educate the public on nuclear dangers. And I think we are beginning to get some traction on this problem.
I do this with a hope, if we succeed in our education task, others will pick up the task of political action. …
I am galled by Perry’s credulous acceptance of GW Bush’s blatant lie — also repeated by Obama — that advanced US ABM/radar sites currently placed on the Russian border are there to defend Europe against an alleged Iranian missile threat.
How can a brilliant individual such as Perry swallow this obvious hogwash?
In truth, there is no Iranian missile threat — not to Europe nor to the US. The US ABMs/radars are not in Romania for the defense of Europe but for offense — part of a US nuclear first strike option. They are aimed at Russia. I know it’s insane but facts are facts.
Back in the day, Perry’s negative assessment of Star Wars (SDI) was absolutely correct. It’s unfortunate he failed to follow through and alert the American people to the grave danger we are now facing. Why did Perry wait until 2015 to publish his invaluable memoirs?
If Perry is the best the US has to offer, then we are screwed because it seems our best has not been good enough. Not by a long shot. No wonder so many young Americans are deep into drugs, despondency, suicide and despair. They know something Perry does not — that the future has been stolen.
However, that review assumes Perry’s pumping such lies to have been done out of ignorance, not out of psychopathy and a sheer desire to sell as many books as he can, and otherwise to continue being the enormously successful person that he is. His entire life has been serving as a crucial member of America’s military-industrial complex (the owners of Lockheed Martin etc.), and he has brought enormous profits to them, such as the great investigative historian Nafeez Ahmed detailed about Perry in his 25,000-word article, “How the CIA Made Google”, which I subsequently condensed down to 7,400 words and there placed into a somewhat broader context.
I think that Perry knows quite well that we are heading into a world-destroying nuclear war if the U.S. Government continues ignoring the fact that the ‘aggressions’ that it charges against Russia — such as Russia’s having accepted the overwhelming public clamor in Crimea to refuse being ruled by the racist-fascist anti-Russian regme that the U.S. Government under Obama had just installed to lead Ukraine after Obama’s Ukrainian coup in February 2014 — aren’t actually aggressions at all (such as the U.S. regime and its allies charge) but are instead essential defensive measures that the sovereign nation of Russia, now increasingly surrounded by NATO and U.S. missiles on its very borders, needs to take against the U.S. regime’s plan ultimately to conquer Russia.
On 9 March 2016, already two years after America’s bloody coup had overthrown the democratically elected President of Ukraine and replaced him and the legislature by U.S.-Government selected stooges from a far-right Party and from Ukraine’s two outright racist-fascist or ideologically nazi Parties, which immediately began an ethnic-cleansing campaign to eliminate the residents in the regions that had voted heavily for the President whom the Obama regime had overthrown, Perry pretended to be still — even two years afterwards — ignorant of it all. Britain’s Guardian quoted Perry, on that date, 9 March 2016, as saying the following against Putin’s purely defensive response to the hostile, aggressive, U.S.-regime coup, that had been perpetrated on Russia’s very doorstep:
“After he came to office, Putin came to believe that the United States had an active and robust programme to overthrow his regime. … And from that point on a switch went on in Putin’s mind that said: I’m no longer going to work with the west … I don’t know the facts behind Putin’s belief that we actually had a programme to foment revolution in Russia but what counts is he believed it. … In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken,” in Ukraine, and in Syria.
Perry isn’t likely to be so stupid as to have actually believed that. The Guardian reporter said that Perry “emphasised that in the past five years it has been Vladimir Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere that have driven the downward spiral in east-west relations.” Could it be that Perry had never even heard about the coup that occurred in Ukraine in February 2014 — which the head of the “private CIA” firm Stratfor called “the most blatant coup in history”? Could it be that Perry didn’t know the truth about what U.S. propaganda, still to this day, calls by such phrases as “Ukraine’s democratic revolution”, and the “the Maidan revolution” or, as it’s called at the CIA-edited Wikipedia, the “2014 Ukrainian revolution”? Does he really not know that whereas a coup comes from above, a revolution comes from below? Does he not know that in U.S.-Russia relations, it is ‘our’ side (the U.S. aristocracy, no U.S. ‘democracy’ at all) that is the perpetrator, and Russia (the sovereign nation of Russia) that is the victim? He doesn’t know these things?
Perry doesn’t challenge the U.S. Government’s lies because he has built his entire career in service to them. The Cold War, we now know in retrospect, wasn’t really about communism at all; and, after 1991, America continued the conflict by expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders; the Cold War never ended on the U.S. side — and, now, the U.S. regime is getting ready to go in for the kill.
Thus, when Perry said,
“We are sleepwaling into a new Cold War, and there’s very real danger that we will blunder into a nuclear war,”
he knew quite well that the public in the U.S. and in its vassal-nations are sleepwalking into a nuclear invasion of Russia, and that instead of “we will blunder into a nuclear war,” the U.S. billionaires who own and control the U.S. military-industrial complex or MIC are — and have been, ever since 24 February 1990 — aiming to use that MIC in order to win a nuclear war, not (as Russia continues to do) in order merely to maintain the pre-1991 system of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. Perry knows that his friends were — and now are (even if it might be possible that Perry himself wasn’t and isn’t) — out for Russian blood. And he was only pretending when he said: “inexplicably to me, we’re recreating the geopolitical hostility of the Cold War, and we’re rebuilding the nuclear dangers.” He knows what the explanation of that “rebuilding” is because he was surrounded by it and never went public exposing it. Sure, that would have taken courage, but the point is, Perry clearly does not have it; or, else — worse still — he’s totally a hypocrite, and all of his nicey-nicey verbal gyrations are merely fake, pure PR.
At the very top in America is sheer hypocrisy and psychopathy. That’s not unusual; instead, it’s the general worldwide norm. The U.S. Government under Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an exception to this norm; but now, the U.S. Government is worse than it has ever been, and it’s becoming yet worse; it’s becoming worse and worse — especially after 9/11.
Bill Perry wants to continue being comfortable and widely respected, and not to become a threat to the people (the entire U.S. MIC) whose mega-crimes against humanity and everything have so profitably employed his services. He remains an impeccable careerist. So: what he pretends not to know isn’t even possibly unknown to him because he served as an essential cog in that machinery, building towards ultimate, sudden, nuclear global death (but–with–the–ringmasters–to–be–deep–in–their–luxurious–bunkers).
He is himself — and long has been — a servant of the American aristocracy. He’s not the shocking but benign idiot that he might seem, to even such knowledgeable readers as Mark H. Gaffney.
About the author
Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.
Photo of William Perry as US Secretary of Defense courtesy of Getty Images
Featured image of Perry courtesy of M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO