WASHINGTON - Late in a life lived unnervingly near the nuclear abyss, William J. Perry is on a mission to warn of a "real and growing danger" of nuclear doom.
The 88-year-old former defense secretary is troubled by the risks of catastrophe from the very weapons he helped develop. Atop his list: a nuclear terror attack in a major U.S. city or a shooting war with Russia that, through miscalculation, turns nuclear. A terrorist attack using a nuclear bomb or improvised nuclear device could happen "any time now - next year or the year after," he said in an interview earlier this month.
Perry chooses his words with the precision of a mathematician, which he was before entering the defense world in the mid-1950s. He played a central role in developing and modernizing nuclear forces throughout the Cold War - first as a technology whiz-kid and later a three-time senior Pentagon executive. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis Perry was secretly summoned to Washington to analyze intelligence.
"Every day that I went to the analysis center I thought would be my last day on earth," he writes in a newly published memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. He says he believed then and still believes that the world avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management.
In the interview, he recounted a harrowing incident in November 1979 when, as a senior Pentagon official, he was awakened by a 3 a.m. phone call from the underground command center responsible for warning of a missile attack. The watch officer told Perry his computers were showing 200 nuclear-armed missiles on their way from the Soviet Union.
"It was, of course, a false alarm," Perry said, but it was one of many experiences throughout the Cold War and beyond that he says have given him a "unique and chilling vantage point from which to conclude that nuclear weapons no longer provide for our security - they now endanger it."
His views are remarkable, not least because they strike at the heart of the conventional wisdom about nuclear weapons that has been embraced by both political parties for decades. For example, Perry thinks the U.S. nuclear force no longer needs land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and can rely on the other two "legs" of the force - bomber aircraft and submarine-based missiles. ICBMs should be scrapped, he says.
He also opposes the Obama administration's plan to build a new nuclear-capable cruise missile.
Perry looks at Russia's nuclear modernization and U.S. plans to spend hundreds of billions to update its nuclear arsenal and sees irrational nuclear competition.
"I see an imperative to stop this damn nuclear race before it gets underway again, not just for the cost but for the danger it puts all of us in," he said.
A soft-spoken man not given to hyperbole, Perry is on a public crusade to convince people that nothing less than the future of civilization is at stake. What worries him most is that few seem to notice.