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'We still face grave nuclear dangers,' says ex-defense secretary at Stanford lecture

William J. Perry, a senior fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, spoke about his efforts to reduce the arsenal of nuclear weapons around the globe. He talked with fellows at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Joe Khirallah William Perry with Tomas Jimenez

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry spoke about the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons in a recent talk to fellows at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, including Tomas Jimenez (right), an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford.

Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry says it is possible to dramatically reduce nuclear weapons and the dangers they pose, but the effort has stalled and even reversed, leaving the world at greater risk.

Perry, speaking recently to a group of fellows at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (CASBS), said that after years of progress toward nonproliferation, there are new indications that some nations, including the United States, are working toward building up their stockpiles.

"North Korea and Iran are both moving today to building nuclear arsenals. Russia and China have each started new nuclear programs, and the United States is considering following suit," said Perry, a senior fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution. "It is imperative that we reverse this trend."

Perry has worked extensively on nonproliferation with Stanford colleagues Sidney Drell, a physicist, and former statesman George Shultz.

During the recent lunchtime discussion with CASBS fellows, Perry warned that a regional nuclear war or nuclear terrorism poses serious threats that can best be neutralized by ridding the world of the weapons and the materials to build them.

He expressed doubt, however, that Americans realize the risk.

"They believe nuclear dangers ended with the ending of the Cold War," he said. "Their children, thankfully, are no longer doing duck-and-cover drills at school, thus the danger must have passed."

But, he said, "While we no longer face an all-out nuclear attack from the Soviet Union or China, which most Americans understand, we still face grave nuclear dangers which most Americans do not understand."

He warned that without that understanding, Congress has no willingness to lead.

"In order for the world to make real progress, the United States must lead and the United States will not lead unless Americans understand the importance of doing so," he said.

Perry, who was the defense secretary under Bill Clinton, said that after years of diplomacy on the brink of nuclear war, his task now is to "try to influence other people's thinking to change."

"Fundamentally, what I'd say they need to understand is that nuclear weapons no longer provide for a national security as they did in the Cold War, but that today nuclear weapons are in fact endangering our security."

Perry plans to launch the "William J. Perry Project," which includes a memoir documenting his work both to procure nuclear weapons and to get rid of them.

Those experiences will help inform another component of the project, which is a series of educational programs about the topic, mostly directed at young people.

"I have sort of given up on my generation," he quipped.

Perry said he realizes his efforts may be "Mission Impossible," but "I do this because I believe that time is not on our side and because having helped to build our nuclear arsenal I know better than most how to dismantle it. And I believe I have a special responsibility to do so."