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Scheer Intelligence

Former Defense Secretary Warns Civilization Is at Risk

William Perry in 2015. (DoD / Glenn Fawcett)

William Perry has had a long career in government, serving  in the Pentagon under Presidents Carter and Reagan before becoming President Clinton’s secretary of defense in 1994.

“We stand today, I believe, in greater danger of nuclear catastrophe than we faced during the Cold War,” Perry tells host and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer in this week’s episode of KCRW’s “Scheer Intelligence.” This interview was conducted Aug. 9, the 72nd anniversary of the U.S. nuclear attack on Nagasaki.

Since his time in the Pentagon, Perry has founded the William J. Perry Project, which aims to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons. He has also written a book, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.”

Perry and Scheer discuss how the expansion of NATO in the 1990s factors into the rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Perry calls this expansion “the first step” in escalating tensions. The “second step,” he says, was “installing ballistic missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.”

“Our response to Russia on the objections to these various actions we were taking basically was, ‘What can you do about it? You’re an insignificant power today,’ ” Perry says. “The reason Putin is so popular today is that he has taken actions that, in [Russians’] view, allow Russia to stand as a great power and overcome this humiliating position they were in … so we stand today in a position of hostility between the United States and Russia, comparable to where we stood in the Cold War. In the meantime, we still have many thousands of nuclear weapons.”

The conversation concludes with a discussion on the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea.

“This regime is ruthless, and reckless, but they are focused entirely on their own survival,” Perry says of North Korea. “They’re not going to be conducting a pre-emptive attack on the United States or Tokyo or Seoul. They’re going to use [nuclear weapons] to threaten and bluster.”

Listen to the full interview in the player above, and read the full transcript below. Find past editions of “Scheer Intelligence” here.

—Posted by Emma Niles.

Full transcript

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And I could not have a more impressive guest than William J. Perry, who has been what one might call a defense intellectual. He started as a brilliant mathematician here at Stanford in Silicon Valley, where we’re recording this. And he worked on original anti-ballistic programs, and had a long history; he worked in the Carter administration, he ended up being Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. And we are conducting this interview on, you know, a very significant day. It happens to be the 72nd anniversary of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this is to the day that the bombs were dropped on Nagasaki. But it’s also a day on which the President of the United States, Donald Trump, has made some very startling statements about the ring of fire, and so forth, that he will bring down to bear on North Korea should they make another belligerent statement. And that was pushed back a little bit by Secretary of State Tillerson, who said no, you can sleep at night, diplomacy is working, and this is a way of putting pressure, and so forth. So it was sort of a good cop, bad cop routine, one hopes. And I said there couldn’t be–I know he’s under great demand for interviews on this very day because of what’s going on with North Korea. But, Secretary Perry, you very early on concluded that even dropping one bomb, or the explosion of one nuclear bomb, could end or portend the end of civilization. You also have been a longtime critic of any notion that we can use these weapons, defend against them, and so forth. So you know, on this day of all days, how do you see the nuclear arms race? You did a very good–well, actually, you wrote a very important book that came out a year ago or so, [My] Journey at the Nuclear Brink, Stanford Security Studies. And Jerry Brown–the reason we’re doing this interview is because I happened to have a long conversation with Jerry Brown, and he was very much influenced by that book, and he wrote a terrific review for the New York Review of Books. It’s a book I would recommend people really read–if you just read one book, now, to understand what’s going on, you’re getting it from the guy who knows more about nuclear weapons and nuclear war fighting than anyone alive in this world. And I guess I would like to begin by asking you, you know, how did we get to this point? That we seem to be at the, maybe even a higher point of danger than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

William Perry: We stand today, I believe, in greater danger of a nuclear catastrophe than we faced during the Cold War. And I can explain why I believe that, but the first point I want to make, though, is that hardly anybody understands that. And because we don’t understand it, our policies are not responsive to those dangers. During the Cold War, at least we had, we understood the danger and were taking action to try to deal with it; we had very serious arms control discussions, for example. Today, it’s so far in the background that people don’t understand it at all, particularly the new generation of people who didn’t live through the Cold War. But it’s a very dangerous situation today. And the headlines, which are about North Korea, just emphasize the danger; but the greater danger, really, is–the ultimate danger–is some sort of an exchange between the United States and Russia today. That would lead not just to a great catastrophe, it would basically lead to the end of civilization. So that’s what’s at stake here: ending our civilization, and the nuclear weapons have the power to do that.

RS: So let me examine this relation to Russia and how we got to this point. Because you were in the Clinton administration, and that followed the first Bush administration. And the first President Bush came in with the end of the Cold War, and Gorbachev was in power, and what remained of the Soviet Union, and then that changed. And there was a great deal of optimism in which–in fact, Vladimir Putin has actually referred to that; he thought that Gorbachev was naive, is the word he uses. But there was a certain idea that now–I remember with the first President Bush he thought we could cut the military budget by 30 or 40 percent, that this was going to be a new era of peace, and certainly on the Russian side there was that sort of optimism. How did we get to this point now? And one thing that Vladimir Putin points out is NATO expansion. And you actually were a critic of the expansion of NATO up to the border of Russia, and yet you were part of an administration, you were Secretary of Defense in an administration, that seemed to push that policy.

WP: When the Cold War ended, everybody who had lived through it, certainly myself, breathed a huge sigh of relief. We thought the danger of a nuclear catastrophe was finally behind us. And for about 10 years, that seemed to be the case. During the time I was Secretary, for example, we worked very closely and very cooperatively with Russia. Together, Russia and the United States, working cooperatively, dismantled 8,000 nuclear weapons. And we saw that as a first installment in a much greater dismantlement of weapons. We had the Russian defense minister attending NATO meetings. We had Russian troops participating in peacekeeping operations. In Bosnia, for example, where NATO sent in 50,000 troops to enforce the peace in Bosnia, one of those, a big compound of those troops, an American division of about 22, 23,000 troops, that American division had a brigade, a Russian brigade as a part of it. We had a Russian brigade as a part of an American division, reporting to an American general, working as part of the NATO operation. That’s how close we were then to having something almost close to an alliance with Russia. So I thought we really had it in our hands then, of ending this long-term enmity, and ending the danger of the two great nuclear powers being enemies of each other. But at the end of the Clinton administration, they started the process of NATO enlargement. And that was the first step towards alienating Russia from the United States. There were many other steps after that, but that was the first one. I opposed that; I argued against it to President Clinton. And when it was clear that he was going to go ahead, I asked him to call a meeting of his national security staff so I could make my case. That whatever advantage there would be in doing this, of enlarging NATO, it should be postponed for a few years until we had Russia more clearly on our side. In fact, we were even considering then the possibility of having Russia become a member of NATO. That’s how close we were to it at that time. But Clinton granted me that meeting; I made my case; I lost it, and Clinton went ahead with the enlargement anyway. That was the first step down. The second step was installing ballistic missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which again the Russians were vehemently opposed to. Our response to Russia on their objections to these various actions we were taking, basically, was: What can you do about it? You’re an insignificant power today. So besides doing things we didn’t want, there was a humiliation aspect to it. In fact, many Russians refer to the decade of the nineties as their decade of humiliation. And the reason Putin is so popular in Russia today is that he has taken actions which allow Russia to stand, in their view, at a great power and have overcome this humiliating position they were in. He has, in effect, answered the question, what can Russia do about it; he has taken action. We don’t like the actions he took, but he has taken them in response to our question of what can you do about it. So I think we started off this series of actions which alienated the United States and Russia. In the last 10 years or so, Putin’s taken the actions. And some of them very dangerous actions indeed; his actions in Crimea, his actions in the Ukraine, his threats to the Baltics–all of those are very dangerous actions for him to be taking. So we stand today in a position of hostility between the United States and Russia, in some ways comparable to what it was during the Cold War. In the meantime, we both have, still, many thousands of nuclear weapons, and Russia has been making threats about their use of nuclear weapons, even in cases where they’re not threatened by another nuclear power. So I say that the situation really is more dangerous than it was during the Cold War, because in addition to those threats we also have the danger of a regional nuclear war in Pakistan or in North Korea, and we have the possibility of a nuclear terror attack; neither of those occurred during the Cold War. So the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe today is certainly greater than it was during the Cold War.

RS: So let me just go back to the, the two, really; the decision to expand NATO to the very border of Russia, which they claim, Putin claims, has something to do with their own belligerence–

WP: Yes.

RS: –towards an involvement with the Ukraine and the Baltic nations. What motivated Bill Clinton, who after all was not known as a big hawk, to do this? I mean, what was the reality of this argument?

WP: Well, the case for enlarging NATO to include Poland and the Czech Republic and the Baltics and so on, I think is a pretty good case; those countries wanted security, and they wanted to be tied to the Western circle. I wasn’t opposed to doing that, I always just said the timing was wrong–we need to go more slowly on that until we bring Russia fully on board– because I could see very clearly the reaction in Russia was going to be very negative, and was going to be, in the long term, costly to us. It would simply defeat the attempts we were making to bring Russia into the Western security circle, instead of standing outside of it throwing rocks at it. But my belief was that we could have done this in a time, but not then; it was, we were just moving too soon. We had to get Russia on board first. That was the most important consideration. But we didn’t do it that way, so we’ll never know what would have happened; we can’t live history twice. We set ourselves on a course which led, in a pretty predictable way, to the hostility we have today between the United States and Russia. And I think that’s a very dangerous hostility.

RS: Right, but just so–and because we have so much of a, now with Donald Trump, a partisan politics where the Republicans are, at least at the presidential level, are considered to be irresponsible and, you know, extremist, and the Democrats are offered as a rational force. What’s confusing to me about that earlier period is that here was President, the first President Bush, a man of considerable experience; he’d been, you know, ambassador to China, he’d been head of the CIA, and had been a veteran in a real war; he was there when the bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And he came in, and to give him his full credit, this guy–President [George] H. Walker Bush–really believed this was time for a new era.

WP: Yes.

RS: And he was going to do what General Eisenhower, as president, had called for, which was reining in the military-industrial complex and develop a new understanding of the world and its dangers and so forth. And then under Bill Clinton you had what I still cannot understand, and I interviewed the man at different points, but I still don’t understand, what was the reason for this heightened sense of sort of a cold–I mean, yes, you had terrorism; you had other problems in the world; you had poverty; you had instability; you had the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and so forth. There were a lot of real issues. But why expand a Cold War alliance–

WP: Yeah. Let me, first of all, give Bill Clinton his due on this. The policies that George H. W. Bush pursued, beginning with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, were, I think, very appropriate policies, which included reaching out to Russia a hand of friendship. And that actually began in the Reagan era, but it continued on with President Bush. And Clinton did extend that; he reached out the same hand of friendship to Russia. It also, I think importantly, included the significant decrease of our military capability. Of our military size, I should say, not capability. And then President Bush began a program, which was followed by Clinton, of reducing the size of our military. And the plan was to reduce it by one-third, which is a pretty big cut. That was, in fact, implemented during the four years of the Bush administration and the first four years of the Clinton administration. I was Secretary at the time, and I picked up, basically, what President Bush had started and continued it on for another four years. And so over those four-year periods, we reduced the size of the expenditures of the military about four percent a year, which over eight years amounted to about one-third. That stopped after I left office, and then the military held level for a while, and then it started to come up again in recent years. But that was, in fact, done, and it was done by President Clinton as well as by President Bush. And it was done, I think, orderly and effectively; that is, I think it was done without reducing the readiness of our forces. By the time I left office as Secretary, I believed we had a highly capable and ready military force, but a force that was one-third smaller than it was during the Cold War, appropriately so. For example, we had pulled nearly all of our troops back out of Western Europe; we had had several hundred thousand there during the Cold War. So there was a big reduction in forces and big savings in the defense budget; that has since been turned around, but that was effected over both the Bush administration and the first [part] of the Clinton administration.

RS: But ironically, it got turned around because of the terrorist threat. And the irony here is that the terrorist threat really was fueled in part by–well, the fighting over Afghanistan and the whole question of the Soviet involvement there. But the whole notion of NATO and ABM, and all this sort of thing, was really inappropriate to dealing with Al-Qaeda. There, you’re dealing with rogue threat of nuclear weapons, you’re much more concerned about–correct me if I’m wrong, but nuclear proliferation. So for example, Pakistan, where the scientist [Abdul Qadeer] Khan and so forth developed what was called the [Islamic] Bomb–

WP: Right.

RS: –and that actually has connection with North Korea and the threat now, because some of that technology is supposed to have made its way to North Korea and Iran, right?

WP: That’s correct.

RS: And so why would one focus on confrontation with Russia, which has its own problems with terrorists, when in fact the problem was, really, one of proliferation, of a religious fanaticism, and so forth? I still don’t understand how–unless, and you know, let me be crude about it–is this what Eisenhower was warning about? Did the military-industrial complex need a sophisticated enemy of the sort that Russia presented, and you cannot justify these complex weapons, and certainly nuclear weapons, to go get people who are in caves or in the desert, which is what Al Qaeda represented?

WP: No, I think the defense changes that took place when the Cold War ended were made on the belief that Russia no longer was a threat to the United States, and that nuclear attack was no longer a threat we had to be concerned with. And so, as I said, we reduced the size of our forces and expunged our forces by about one-third, which is a pretty significant reduction. We stopped all development of nuclear weapons, both in the laboratories at Los Alamos, Livermore, and in the carriers for those weapons, ICBMs, submarine launch missiles. So we haven’t really made new nuclear weapons, or new carriers for nuclear weapons, since the end of the Cold War. That was really done. That’s just now starting to turn around. And ironically, it was started during the Obama administration. And even more ironically, the trigger for getting that started was the concessions Obama made to the republicans in Congress, in particular to Senator John Kyl, in order to get the New START Treaty ratified. That’s really ironic. But he agreed then to a modernization of the nuclear forces in order to get the New START Treaty approved. New START Treaty didn’t have anything to do with the quality of the forces, it only had to do with the number, of reducing the number of the weapons. In my judgment, that was a bad trade-off, bad decision on his part. While I favored the New START Treaty, I thought it was a modest step forward, whereas restarting the Cold War nuclear arms buildup was a major setback. So it was a bad trade-off, I think.

RS: Well, let me ask you about two questions related to it. The defense of modernization of the nuclear force generally is terms of not that you can do nuclear war fighting, but that you’re making it safer, more secure and so forth, right? But then there’s also this other issue of anti-missile defense. That you can actually prevent. And the argument is stronger if we think about North Korea as, you know, some nation that has only a few of these weapons, or what have you. And in your book, and in other writings, you seem to be very clear that you actually cannot do nuclear war fighting, and that defense doesn’t work. And I want to, since we’re at Stanford, I want to bring up an incident that I happened to be in the arms control seminar that Sid Drell had, and Condoleezza Rice was there before she became Secretary of State. And at one point, I encountered Edward Teller when I came up here, at the airport. And I knew him, and I had interviewed him. And he said, “Oh, you’re going up to see Sid Drell,” he said, “at the arms control center.” He said, “Make sure Sid tells you about the great results we had on the Cottage test.” And you know, on the Cottage–I wasn’t even supposed to know the Cottage test was about nuclear weapons testing. And I said, what do you mean? I said, did you get lasing? Because I knew they were trying to get an X-ray laser. And he said, “Yes. But make sure Sid tells you about it.” Well, for one thing, in terms of classified information, I thought this was like, probably the biggest–if it was true–that they had developed an X-ray laser that they could shoot down all kinds of things–it would change the whole nature of nuclear war fighting. And then when I got up there I said to Sid Drell, I said Edward Teller told me you’re going to tell me all about–he said, no! I–what are you talking about! You know, you can’t talk about any of that. And it turned out they didn’t get the lasing; it turned out the explosion had hurt the instruments or something, so they really didn’t get this breakthrough. But Teller believed, and he convinced Ronald Reagan, that you could actually develop a shield. You don’t believe that, and you don’t believe we’ve ever been able to do that.

WP: I didn’t believe that then, and I stated very clearly that I didn’t believe it then; I don’t believe it now. In general, I think it’s not possible today, or anytime in the foreseeable future, to build a defense which provides reasonable confidence you can defeat a large-scale nuclear attack. You might be able to defeat a few missiles being fired at you, with some confidence, but not a large-scale attack. Even with a few missiles, there’s a possibility that the decoys which the other side will put on those few missiles will make it look like a large-scale attack, and therefore you still can’t defeat it. But in general, I think that the belief that we can defend our country against a large-scale attack is a fantasy, and it has led us to not only spend billions and billions of dollars needlessly, but has led us to policies based on the belief that we could make, achieve that defense. The best we can say about the ballistic missile defense system we have today is that with good luck, it could defeat a few missiles being fired at us; a North Korean attack, say. And perhaps more importantly, whether or not it did that, it would have to sow a certain amount of uncertainty in the mind of the attacker, and therefore maybe deter him from making the attack. That, I think, can be said about the ballistic missile–the money we’re putting in it is giving us that return, that benefit. But not much more than that. The downside of it is, besides the money we spend, is that it instills a belief in people’s minds that we could really defend ourselves against a large-scale attack; and that, I say, is a fantasy.

RS: And so why–just to tie up the previous discussion, why in the world would we want to develop ABM systems on the border of Russia if in fact, given the size of their arsenal, this is a meaningless gesture?

WP: I’d make that point both to the U.S government and to the Russian government, because the Russians believe we can. Not that–they don’t believe the system we have deployed now can do that, but they have a very high regard for America’s technological prowess, and they fear that we will be able to do it at some time in the future. And therefore, they’ve been very much opposed to putting this ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The reason our government gave for putting it in was not against Russia at all; in fact, they repeatedly assured the Russian government that not only did we have not the intent to do that, but we clearly did not have the capability to do that. But they claimed it was to be done to defend Europe and the United States against an Iranian nuclear missile. Why we still continue that program after we now have an agreement with Iran on the nuclear agreements is not the question. But that was the rationale we have given with this system, is the defense against an Iranian nuclear missile.

RS: So you bring to this discussion as much knowledge as any human being possesses about these weapons, what they can do, how to deal with them. I mean–

WP: That doesn’t mean I’m always right, but–

RS: No, no, I understand that. But I think you’re also quite modest in your writing; you don’t claim to always be right. But it seems to me that the real danger is, as you point out in your writing and in your book, that we’ve been lulled into an indifference to these weapons.

WP: Yes.

RS: Right? That’s your basic–

WP: Yes.

RS: –thesis, and the William J. Perry Project here at Stanford is–and the reason you wrote your book and you’re out there writing columns, is that you’re concerned–even before Trump. Because the book came out–

WP: Yeah. Right.

RS: –a year before Trump. Ah, that we are at the most dangerous moment, I gather, because we’re, A, less concerned about it; but also, there are these other nations. We mentioned Pakistan rather casually; Pakistan, as I gather, has 80 or 100 such weapons; I don’t know, but–

WP: More than 100.

RS: More than 100. And they actually fueled the program in Iran and Korea, and yet we dropped our embargo on Pakistan in the first Bush, in the George W. Bush administration, and we really sort of don’t care very much about it anymore. And we yet–and even now–are talking about launching a weapon. And a question I want to put to you–and you’ve lived with this issue forever–we had this policy that, to me, never–I never thought it made sense. But smart people told me it did. And that was the mutual assured destruction. And Nixon sort of refined it by saying, I guess it was the madman theory – your enemy has to think you can actually be crazy and mad. Well, we actually have a president now that I suspect many world leaders think could actually use these weapons. And it’s keeping us up at night, and when we’re doing this interview, as I say, it’s the anniversary of the 72nd year of the dropping of the bomb in Nagasaki and, a week before, Hiroshima. And we have a president who many informed people in this country feel is actually capable. So first of all, I wonder if you could walk me through it. What happens when–because you’ve been there as Secretary of Defense, and you know a lot about the Cuban Missile Crisis; you were an advisor, all of these things. So I have several questions. One, why are we still on hair-trigger alert? Why hasn’t–I mean, here Donald Trump is in the same position Ronald Reagan was in, or you know, Clinton or anybody earlier, and certainly John Kennedy during the Missile Crisis, where as you have written, we came very close to destroying civilization. Why do we still live in a world where one human being, the President of the United States, and presumably his counterpart in what remains of the Soviet Union and Russia–what happens? He gets, it’s three o’clock in the morning, and–you’ve been there. What would be, what would Donald Trump–they’d wake him up? He’d go into–could you take us through that scenario?

WP: Well, there are a lot of questions wrapped together in what you just said there; let me try to address it. A first point about Pakistan. I said they have over 100 nuclear weapons; they’ve had three wars with India since the separation of the two countries. The issue which divides them is still there, which is the Kashmir; and therefore, they may have another war. If they have another war, it’s almost sure, I think, to go nuclear. I’ve just released a YouTube video, just a few weeks ago, which depicts how an India backstand nuclear war might start, and what the consequences of it would be. I just want to dwell just a moment on the consequences: not only would a nuclear war between India and Pakistan kill tens of millions of people in India and Pakistan, but the soot and the dust and the pollution that goes up, first in the atmosphere and then in the stratosphere, which would stay for years, would block the rays of the sun to a degree–to a degree that we would expect a few degrees’ drop in temperature all over the planet, which would have a profound negative effect on agriculture. So in a nuclear war like that, there’s no place to hide; everybody on the planet would be affected by a war between India and Pakistan. So that’s a point I want to make, and I invite you and others to take a look at that YouTube video that I have on the India-Pakistan war, which in five minutes sort of summarizes that situation. It’s a hypothetical scenario, but it’s based on factual information. On the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy’s view after the crisis was he believed there was one chance in three of that ending in a nuclear holocaust. Which, even with the nuclear weapons we had in those days, would have probably brought our civilization to an end. One chance in three–that’s pretty bad odds for a result that catastrophic. And I think Kennedy was optimistic, because he didn’t know when he made that statement that the Soviets already had nuclear weapons on tactical missiles in Cuba, with orders to use them against any attack. And he was being recommended to conduct a conventional attack against Cuba by a unanimous recommendation of his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Had he done that, our troops would have been decimated on the beach, and then the general nuclear war surely would have followed. We were that close to the end of civilization.

RS: As another footnote, you were an advisor then, and I–

WP: I was an advisor, right.

RS: –I read in your writing that actually, had it not been for the fact that the head of the Soviet retaliatory force was on the submarine that was forced to rise, the commander of that sub had already decided–

WP: Yeah. That was another near miss that Kennedy didn’t know about at the time. We only learned about that later. But the nuclear, the Soviets had a nuclear submarine shadowing the ships they were sending down there. And we had destroyers that were dropping depth charge on their submarine. And the commander of the submarine had decided he was going to sink that destroyer by firing a nuclear torpedo at him. Had he done that, he would have sunk our ship; and that, undoubtedly, again, would have led to a general nuclear war. He had other officers on the ship who persuaded him not to do that. The Soviet policy in those days for the use of that nuclear torpedo did not require the commander to go back to Moscow to get authorization, because the communication was so uncertain; but it did require that all three of the senior commanders agree to do that, and the other two did not agree. That’s what saved us. It was two out of three on one side instead of two out of three on the other side.The other point I want to make is that at this time–and this is a term that Jerry Brown has used, I think it’s very apt–that we’re sleepwalking, we’re sleepwalking into a nuclear war. And he used that analogy from World War I, where historians described how we were sleepwalking into World War I; nobody knew, understood what the consequences were going to be. And that seems to be what we face now. The analogy here to World War I is much more apt than the analogy to World War II; World War II, we had somebody consciously starting the war. I mean, Hitler had a plan and a set of actions, and that led to World War II; World War I, we just were sleepwalking into it. That’s what the danger is today: we will sleepwalk, we will blunder, into a nuclear war, not because either leader, any of the leaders who have nuclear weapons are consciously planning a nuclear war. An India to Pakistan nuclear war would be a result of a blunder also, not because the two presidents want to start a war, but because something happens and it gets out of control. A minor military conflict could quickly escalate into a major war, the decisions being made by commanders in the field, not by the two presidents.

RS: Could that happen with Korea as well?

WP: Yes, it could. The danger of Korea–I’m going to be very clear about this. Whether or not North Korea presently has the capability to attack the United States with nuclear weapons–I think the answer to that is no, but I think they will have in a year or two; but that’s not the issue. Sooner or later, they will. They have–they are not going to do that. This regime is ruthless, it’s reckless, it’s abhorrent in many ways, but it’s not irrational; it’s not crazy.

RS: Now, let me just stop you for one second. Because somebody listening to this will say–oh, easy for William J. Perry to say, but the fact is, you are in a better position to assess the North Koreans than any human being in this country. Because you actually have been there dealing with them.

WP: I’ve negotiated with them, indeed. I’ve negotiated with them getting rid of their nuclear weapons.

RS: So why don’t you give us that background? Because the statement you just made, and the assessment of what is going on now, is probably the most intelligently informed statement–I don’t even know what you’re going to say, but it’s one that we should pay very serious attention to. So give us that–

WP: I’ve been to North Korea three or four times. One time in particular, I was sent by President Clinton. This was, I was out of office at that time; I was now back at Stanford. But he asked me to come back in temporarily because he had a crisis with North Korea; we seemed to always be having a crisis with North Korea.

RS: This was President Clinton.

WP: President Clinton, it was nineteen–the second term of President Clinton. I was, as I said, I was out of office at that time, and he asked me to come in for a couple of months to deal with that problem for him. I went over, I teamed up with representatives from Japan and South Korea, and we put forward a recommendation which all three of the leaders of our three countries agreed to, and then I was sent over to Pyongyang to negotiate with the North Koreans. I was there about a week with a team of American negotiators, and we came back with a tentative agreement from North Korea to give up all of their nuclear weapon programs and their long-range missile program, in return for which we did a number of things. This agreement, had it been carried out, I think would have–we cannot relive history, we cannot predict for certain what would have happened–but we certainly would be in a better position than we are today, without a doubt. But in any event, before Clinton could finally get that treaty signed and negotiated, the election came and we changed presidents. And President Bush cut off all discussion with North Korea; for two years we didn’t talk with them at all. So that whole negotiation just went down the drain, which I think was a terrible loss. But what I learned in the time I was there and talking with them, was this regime is ruthless and reckless, but they are focused entirely on their own survival, the regime’s survival, the leadership’s survival. The survival of the Kim dynasty–that’s what they’re focused on. Everything we offered them was either plus or minus, but it was always measured in terms of our ability to sustain the Kim dynasty. So they would not be suicidal; this is not Al Qaeda we’re dealing with, these are not people seeking martyrdom; they’re seeking the sustain of the regime. So that’s my clear conviction on this. So we look at what they’re doing today, they’re–they have failed in the negotiation to get assurances that the regime would survive, so they’re trying to get them through their nuclear weapons. So they’re not going to be conducting a preemptive attack on the United States or Tokyo or Seoul; they’re going to use them as a threat and bluster. And that’s the good news; they’re not going to use them preemptively. The bad news is, it’s still very dangerous. Because in this exchange of words, and in this posturing, and in this saber-rattling, it’s very easy to imagine a small military conflict starting. And then it’s easy to imagine the small military conflict escalating into a larger military conflict. Any large military conflict, any second Korean War with conventional weapons, North Korea would lose. And as they lose it, as they see the regime about to be overthrown, then in desperation they might use them; it might be sort of a Korean armageddon. That’s the danger; that, again, we would blunder into nuclear war. In a sense, it’s the same danger we have with Russia today. Not that either leader would deliberately start a war, but that we would blunder into a nuclear war; that we would sleepwalk into a nuclear war, as the World War I model.

RS: Yeah, in a way it’s the scariest of times, but also there are some reassuring signs. The scary thing is here our President Trump has said that if they even make another statement–at least as of the day we’re recording this–he has said if they just make another statement threatening the United States, we’ll have this incredible ring of fire and so forth, and the whole idea is we’ll destroy them. On the other hand, Secretary of State Tillerson said no, you can sleep at night, diplomacy is working, and so forth. And one reason for that optimism, it seems to me, is that this rare victory happened–and it’s hardly mentioned in the media as significant–in that both China and Russia supported–

WP: Yes.

RS: –the Security Council resolution, and the Chinese have, they’ve said something very interesting. They said, negotiations should start again, but you have to take regime change off the table. That is something the Chinese have said. Is that–is this a fair assessment?

WP: Yes. I think, first of all, a military solution in North Korea is foolhardy and extremely dangerous, and will result in millions of people being killed, millions of people, including Americans. So we ought to do everything we can to avoid the military solution, which means we need to work harder on the diplomatic solution. The diplomatic solution is available, I believe, but it does require close cooperation with China. We cannot get it by ourselves, as we’ve demonstrated year after year. But by that, I do not mean as we’re doing, pointing to China and saying, “You solve the problem,” and China pointing to us and saying “You solve the problem.” We need to be working together with China to solve this problem. In any diplomatic agreement, you need both carrots and sticks; we’ve got the carrots, we and our allies have the carrots–economic carrots, many things we can do that North Korea really wants. But we don’t have the sticks. China has the sticks. They’re not willing to use the sticks, because they fear that we’re seeking–they fear correctly, I think–that we’re seeking regime overthrow. So we have to go to China, quietly and carefully and thoughtfully, and come to an agreement that we will pull back this threat of regime overthrow if they will cooperate with us in putting together a diplomatic package that has both carrots and sticks. I think if we had that, we could go to North Korea and get a successful agreement.

RS: And so I know people give Tillerson much credit, and he was the head of Exxon, and you know, not very good on global warming and so forth. But it seems to me as Secretary of State, he is the adult watching the store; that he actually believes in diplomacy and is pursuing it.

WP: I give him credit for that; I do not give him credit for the fact he hasn’t put forward a rational description of what diplomacy would be. We need that statement. And as I said, in my judgment, any successful diplomacy has to include cooperation between China and the United States, not finger-pointing at each other, but cooperation with each other.

RS: OK. So let me raise this question again. I’m speaking to William J. Perry, who has been Secretary of Defense but also started as a mathematician, understanding these weapons and what they do; has lived his 70 years in this world, as an adult. And what I want to ask you about now, because a lot of us, even though Tillerson said we could sleep at night, I didn’t sleep the last few nights. And I’ve written a bit about this subject of nuclear war, and I find it hard to sleep. And I’m thinking a lot of us are focused on the instability or mental stability of Donald Trump and his rhetoric and who he is. And so, what does it mean to be President of the United States in such a moment? You’ve been there with the president, several presidents. What does it mean that there–here’s this Korean problem, and let’s say something happens, and are we still on that hair-trigger alert? How does it work? Do you go up in an airplane, you get the code? And is it really true that after so many years–I don’t know how we got this in the first place, that one human being could make that decision, but could Donald Trump basically push a button that ends life on this planet?

WP: Yes, he could. And the question is how we got there–we got there during the Cold War, because we saw our primary capability in deterrence being through our ICBMs, our ground-based long-range missiles. And that each of them is in silos at known locations, and therefore they’re subject to a preemptive attack from the other side. And so all during the Cold War, we believed that our primary way of survival, which was through deterrence, depended on being able to stop a surprise attack, prevent a surprise attack. And the way we saw of doing that was we’d launch our missiles before the attack came. So we’d build elaborate and expensive and very effective warning systems, which would give us about 10 or 15 minutes’ warning that an attack was underway. And during that 10 or 15 minutes, then the calculation is made, the word is sent to the president that an attack is underway, and the president then has probably less than 10 minutes to make a decision to either launch an attack ourself, or take the possibility of losing all of his ICBMs, in that he has to assume that the missiles that are coming to the United States will be targeted at our ground forces, our ICBM forces. So we got to that position because we feared that the Soviet Union would make a surprise attack on us, and that the only way we could deal with that issue was to launch our missiles before the attack landed. And that involved two things: having a very sophisticated warning system, which we had then and we still have; but it also involved giving the president the unique authority to make the decision to launch, to make it in a few minutes, and to make it without necessarily any consultations with anybody else; or certainly, there’s nothing in the system that gives anybody the opportunity to countermand that decision. So we have today the situation where one person, the President of the United States, can give a command which nobody can override, which would launch all of our missiles, would basically start a nuclear war which could end our civilization. That’s where we are today, and that’s how we got there. That’s why we have a launch on warning policy.

RS: OK. But now, let me just understand. So it’s three o’clock in the morning, or something, and Donald Trump has been awakened; he’s rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, right?

WP: Right.

RS: And he’s told that you have 10 minutes–and let’s assume this involves Russia.

WP: The call would come to the national security advisor, who would then either call, or if he’s nearby, would actually go to the president. Probably he’s not in the same building, if it’s three o’clock in the morning, so he has to call him–advise him of that, and say, Mr. President, you have to decide in the next, whatever it is, seven, eight, nine, 10 minutes–you have to decide whether to launch our ICBMs now, or take the chance that they will all be destroyed in the silos. And the only downside to launching them right now is that if we’re wrong–if this is a false alarm–you have accidentally started World War III.

RS: And ended most life on–

WP: And ended most life on the planet, yes.

RS: Yes. OK. Now, I have a couple of questions about that. Because again, it goes to the question of–[omission] I’m just curious about several things here. One, we don’t only depend upon the land-based missiles; we have a triad, right? We have submarines, we have airplanes. So maybe at one point you could say this sort of mad or preemptive concern was paramount, but a lot changed after that, and certainly has changed today. You know, we have arms control negotiation, we have other ways. And assuming that the conflict is with Russia, because a plane was shot down over Syria, and misunderstanding–you know, and Russian, maybe Russian troops. Or in the Ukraine, something terrible happens, and maybe it was done by terrorists, maybe it was done by accident or so forth. Basically what you’re saying is that the decision-making–you know, frankly, I think this is the most depressing conversation I’ve had as a journalist. Because this many years after MAD, after the whole thing–and with a triad of forces, with redundancy, with all sorts of–and also knowing there can be false signals, that your intelligence system can be wrong, and you don’t know–that a President Trump, or any president, but President Trump captures one’s attention, focuses one’s attention–would have eight or 10 minutes to decide whether life is going to continue. Why wasn’t that changed? Given that we have subs, given that we have forces in the air, given that we know these technical systems can be wrong–

WP: It hasn’t been changed because many people believed that the greatest danger to the United States was a surprise attack from the Soviet Union. I think that was wrong then, and I think it’s wrong now. The greatest danger is not a surprise attack; the greatest danger is that we will blunder into a nuclear war, into a war. And one example of how we might blunder into it is if through a false alarm. We have had, in the United States, three different false alarms that I know of, and Russia, the Soviet Union has had two different false alarms that I know of; there may be more in both cases, but that’s at least five false alarms over about a 40-year period, so that’s one every eight years. In each case, we did not take the action, of course, or we wouldn’t be here. But in two of those cases, it was very close, a very close call; the alarm looked very realistic. And so the danger is there. Humans will still err, machines will still err, and so sooner or later we’re going to have another false alarm. And when we get that, then whoever’s the president will have that decision to make, and it’s a bad system. I campaigned to try to get, as we rebuilt our nuclear arsenal, modernized it so to speak, that we not do that with the ICBMs, we let our ICBMs phase out. Because the greatest danger, the only real danger from false alarm, comes from our ICBM forces. With the submarine forces, you can ride it out, wait to see, make sure you’re exactly right, wait for the presumed missile to actually strike the United States before you actually launch. With our bomber forces, we can cause the bombers to take off in orbit; but with the ICBM forces, it’s use them or lose them. And the temptation to use them will be very great, which means we’re taking the chance of a false alarm starting a war.

RS: Yeah. And I know this is a busy day for you, because it’s not only the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki, the 72nd, but we have the situation with North Korea, and you’re in great demand to be on radio and television programs. Now, you might not be two months from now and you weren’t two months ago. So the whole real question is, how–how irresponsible can we be to have created–as Einstein said, you’ve created this weapon, but you haven’t changed your thinking. That despite a changed reality, the end of the Soviet Union, despite a triad of weapons and so forth, we find ourselves at this moment in time where a president of the United States–who many people feel is unstable, OK?–has nonetheless the absolute power–you know, unless that national security advisor doesn’t make the call, and then he’s violating every rule–has the absolute power and even obligation to order an attack that would effectively destroy the human experience on this planet? And that’s considered adult, serious behavior. And it’s–I mean, is there not, at this point in your life, having lived through this, of 70 active years of involvement–you were 24 years old as a mathematician when you got involved with the issue of missile defense. And yet you know now there is no defense, the weapons–and you knew quite a long time ago–the weapons are not real weapons, they’re suicidal. And as I pointed out earlier, the reason I wanted to have this discussion with you is, a very smart politician, Jerry Brown, our governor, read your book and told me–and he’s told other people in his review, but he told me personally–you must interview William J. Perry, because he has written the most frightening book I’ve read maybe in my life. And so we’re going to wrap this up, because you’ve got to go talk to other people, and I think that’s valid. But really, what’s your assessment of, finally, what’s the takeaway? What do we need to do now in terms of our thinking about this president, this situation, these weapons?

WP: The danger of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War. But we do not understand that, and therefore our policies do not reflect adequate actions. One of the most pronounced dangers is the danger of responding mistakenly to a false alarm. That is a decision to be made by one person, which is the President of the United States, and he’ll have about seven or eight minutes to make that decision. No person, no person should have to have that responsibility. We have that system because it’s a holdover from the Cold War, where we believed that the greatest danger to the United States was a surprise attack against the United States. I believe today, and in fact I believed even then, that was not the greatest danger; the greatest danger today, certainly, is not a surprise attack, it is that we will blunder, we will blunder into a nuclear war. A prime example of how we will blunder into it is through responding falsely to a false alarm, but there are other ways we could blunder into it, too. And we have to be concerned about, for example, in North Korea, about taking actions which could lead to a small-scale military conflict, which would escalate into a large-scale military conflict, and which would blunder us into a nuclear war. So the last message I want to leave you with is that the danger today is not that one president or another president would decide to start a nuclear war; the danger is that we will blunder into a nuclear war. And a consequence of nuclear war, particularly one between the United States and Russia, could be no less than the end of our civilization.

RS: Well, on the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, that’s a chilling message. And I would urge people who have been listening to this to get William J. Perry’s book, which is–

WP: “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.”

RS: –“My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” Stanford Security Studies. And you can get it in paperback at a fairly reasonable cost, the hardcover might break your bank, but–

WP: Buy the paperback.

RS: Paperback, twenty-four bucks. And as Jerry Brown pointed out in his review for the New York Review of Books–really the most important book you can read, and get past the headlines and understand really what we’re talking about. And so I want to thank you for doing this. I also–

WP: Thank you, Bob.

RS: Thank you. And I want to thank our producers, Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney; our technical engineers at KCRW, Kat Yore and Mario Diaz; here at Stanford Video, Dan David. And let me say we’ll have, hopefully if our president doesn’t get that call early in the morning, I’ll be back with another edition of Scheer Intelligence next week.

WP: Let’s thank Jerry Brown, also, for stimulating you to do this.

RS: Yeah, and you know, let’s–OK, I can add a few minutes. I was really impressed, because the real problem that caught my attention–I’ve written about this subject–I actually went to Chernobyl after the explosion and wrote about it for the LA Times, so that’s a peaceful catastrophe that was frightening enough. And I was, again, I want people to buy the book, but begin by reading Jerry Brown’s review in the New York Review. You can Google it and get it. And Jerry’s an astute politician, but–and I was going to quote from his review–but he just said, this is the one book that people really have to read. And the idea that we’ve grown indifferent and even bored with a subject that, you know, that in eight minutes all life on this planet can end–well, nothing can trump that as effectively. So thanks again.

Robert Scheer
Editor in Chief
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
Robert Scheer

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