Stanford News


CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Former defense secretary Perry to teach, write on defense issues

His doctoral thesis was great preparation for becoming secretary of defense, William Perry insists, newly installed in a bare-walled office at Galvez House. "I wrote my thesis at home. I would go into our bedroom, close the door and work all evening while we had the bedlam and turmoil associated with our five kids."

Not so different from Washington, D.C. The experience, he said, taught him how to be "calm while the waters are whirling all around" in the Pentagon.

Perry, still dressing in Washington pin-stripes, arrived back on campus last week and quickly slipped into his new life. He spoke about the history of computers at a conference in San Jose; prepared for a meeting on Asian security this week at the Asia/Pacific Research Center, then another on information systems security issues at the Center for International Security and Arms Control; and rehearsed for his stage debut narrating "A Lincoln Portrait" with the Stanford Symphonic Band. All before he had a chance to unpack and hang a single picture or take one of his beloved backpacking trips to the Sierra.

Gone are the trappings of power. His office suite at Galvez House is about one-tenth the size of his Pentagon digs. "That's fine, just right for what I do," he says with his characteristic smile.

Perry's last four-year stint at the Pentagon included three years as secretary of defense, a position he reluctantly accepted when the late Les Aspin stepped down. No secretary of defense has ever served two terms. Perry decided he didn't want to be the first.

"It's not that it is a hard job," he said. "There are lots of hard jobs around. I may put in as many hours and, in some ways, work as hard at Stanford as I did at the Pentagon. There is a unique kind of pressure in that job though, and it comes from every week making the decisions about forces being deployed to dangerous areas in the world.

"Sometimes it's sending 50 soldiers to Rwanda to provide water purification equipment to stop a cholera epidemic, but it's dangerous because it is happening in the middle of a civil war. Sometimes it's sending 20,000 troops into Haiti when you are not sure if the Haitians are going to receive or resist them. It turned out they received them with open arms, but at the time we sent them we were not sure of that.

"Sometimes it is sending the first armored division into Bosnia when there was plenty of evidence and many people arguing that there would be resistance, maybe even full armies resisting. In that job, one does everything he can to minimize the risk but there is no way of reducing that risk to zero."

The hardest part, he said, was not allowing his subjective feelings about the danger to troops to enter his decisions, and then coping with those feelings when someone was hurt or killed. "You have to understand it was your responsibility to send them, and it can be quite personal, because very often, when they were killed, I would meet with the families, talk with them and feel firsthand their grief."

But Perry also found fulfillment in the job. He is proud to have developed close relationships with enlisted personnel and with his counterparts in other countries. He met quarterly with enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers on military bases and traveled to 67 countries to meet with defense ministers and others.

His encounters with American military personnel prompted him to request and get a multi-year appropriation for improving military housing.

His trips abroad, he said, took a lot of "energy and wear and tear in travel," but the time was right to do it. "During the Cold War, we only had working relationships with maybe a dozen defense ministers, but with the ending of the Cold War there was an opportunity to build relationships," he said. "When you are trying to deal with an important security problem, it's very, very helpful to be able to pick up the phone and call a person you know."

Perry took over a department he knew well. During the Carter administration he was undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Then as a member of the Packard Commission, headed by David Packard in the mid-'80s, Perry basically wrote the formula for reforming Pentagon procurement practices. The recommendations to promote dual-use technology were largely ignored, however.

As secretary, Perry found the president, vice president and key members of Congress willing to adopt legislation that would allow him to authorize Pentagon program managers to buy commercial components using commercial buying practices. "It allowed us to go out into the national industry to get what we wanted instead of simply going to companies that had been designed around supplying the defense department," said Perry, former president of a defense electronics firm. Such companies, he said, have large overhead to meet military specifications, and that leads to higher costs.

At Stanford, Perry will teach three courses and write a book on current national security issues, all of which will draw on his experiences as secretary. As the new Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor in the School of Engineering and at the Institute for International Studies, he will teach his former engineering course on the role of technology in national security policy. He will also teach a new political science course on security and a seminar on the subject of his book. His book will elaborate on "preventive defense," a term meant to suggest the well-known medical advise: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

A post-Cold War preventive strategy, he says, requires a "very well trained, equipped and ready" conventional military force to minimize the chances of having to use it and to make sure that when prevention fails, the force can move quickly, effectively and with minimal casualties.

During the Cold War, he said, "we thought of deterrence in terms of nuclear weapons and deployments. Today we think of it in terms of having high readiness of our conventional forces and a broad understanding around the world of how good those forces are."

Some might think the force he sent to Bosnia was too big, but he purposely sent "the biggest and toughest and meanest dog in town," because "it would get respect, and indeed that's what happened. In the year they were there, they were never challenged."


By Kathleen O'Toole