Review of William J. Perry's "My Journey at the Nuclear Brink”

tags: book review, William J Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink

Bill Griffin is Associate Editor of the Catholic Worker, where this originally appeared.

US Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1998, William Perry recounts in this combination memoir and manifesto his evolution from prominent advocate for nuclear weapons to the complete opposite: an outspoken critic who now calls for their worldwide abolition. Some in the US peace movement might think skeptically and rightly, “What took him so long?” Others will neither discount nor dismiss Perry’s stark warning about “the transcendent danger of the world’s nuclear arsenals.” It is a tenet of the philosophy of nonviolence to refuse to see the oppressor as a non-person. One thinks of the example of Sister Megan Rice who recently spent two years in prison for an act of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting the possession and, now, the refurbishing of nuclear weapons by our government. Sr. Megan remained dignified and respectful toward her prosecutors.

Perry presents himself as an enthusiastic patriot and a former unreflecting Cold Warrior, the conformist product of his times although he does not say this in so many words. Fourteen years old when the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan in 1941 plunged the US into the Second World War, Perry was swept up into the war fever and enlisted four years later. He was sent to post-war Japan where he witnessed the utter devastation, especially that of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, each leveled by a single atomic bomb.

After military service, “awed by the purity and beauty of mathematics,” he obtained a doctorate from Sanford University. He became an officer in the military reserves. Afterwards he was swept into the booming Cold War military industrial complex. He founded his own high-tech engineering company which developed computers for the surveillance of the Soviet Union’s own growing nuclear weapons industry. One of the first start-up entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, he admits to being enthralled by the magical, Merlin-like aspects of digital technology. Never a pacifist, he believed in nuclear weapons only as a deterrent to war and did not think at the time that they could ever be used again. 

Perry eventually entered the highest realms of the US governmental establishment, first under President Carter in the 1970s and, then, under President Clinton in the 1990s. Happily married to his high school sweetheart and the father of five, Perry describes his younger self as living a “wonderful adventure” as the beneficiary of the American dream. The last chapters of his book turn much darker and are more compelling as the picture of this Cold Warrior’s “conversion” emerges.

Perry had, by his own account, his greatest accomplishment in the 1990s during the extraordinarily hopeful period inaugurated by Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev who ended the cold war with the US. Gorbachev even proposed the idea of complete nuclear disarmament with President Reagan at the Reykjavik conference in 1986. This proposal failed because Reagan would not abandon his fanciful Strategic Defense Initiative known as Star Wars. Still, the extraordinary spirit of cooperation continued for a time between Russia and the US and Perry negotiated with his Russian military counterparts the dismantling and destruction of a total of eight thousand nuclear weapons from both sides. Afterwards, Perry experienced increasingly serious disappointments because of the reassertion of “old thinking” on the part of the US government.

First, the Clinton administration in which he served began the expansion of the membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This originally defensive military alliance was, contrary to US promises made to Gorbachev, offensively pushed to the borders of Russia. Perry writes that he opposed NATO expansion within the administration but was overruled. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent US invasion of Iraq, based on falsehoods about Iraq’s possession of nuclear weapons, Perry was further disillusioned. He characterizes the invasion of Iraq as a “ fiasco.” Later, when President George W. Bush also withdrew the US from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and planned to deploy anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe, Perry was very critical, considering it to be a dangerously antagonistic gesture toward Russia.

By 2007 Perry felt compelled to speak out publicly against any use whatsoever of nuclear weapons. Senator Sam Nunn and former Secretaries of State, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger joined him in publishing the op-ed “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” (Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007). A year later the four published “Toward A Nuclear Free World” (Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008). Perry insists in his book that we must advocate for a worldwide goal of zero nuclear weapons because “it is paramount to have that vision as the propelling force.” He writes that even a single thermonuclear detonation “could destroy our way of life.”

He and his three colleagues have continued to publish op-ed pieces, the latest was “Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Risks: The Pace of Non-proliferation Doesn’t Match the Urgency of the Threat” (Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2013). There they lay out detailed steps which need to be taken to reduce the possibility of nuclear accidents. They cite Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Control, which has also been made into a film.

Perry’s last chapter, “A Way Forward: Hope for a World Without Nuclear Weapons,” contains his vow to continue to work to overcome the passivity of American public opinion regarding the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. He has formed an organization called The Nuclear Security Project which has produced a film titled "Nuclear Tipping Point." Perry’s website ( is producing online content open to all which he hopes will reach young people around the world. He gives the following reason for this continuing effort: “I do this because I believe that time is not on our side. And I do this because, having helped to create our Cold War nuclear forces, I understand what it will take to dismantle them, and I believe I have a special responsibility to do so.”

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