Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry believes a nuclear disaster is more imminent than it has ever been during the Cold War. He wants more people to take his warning seriously and start discussing ways that society could lessen the threat of nuclear weapons.

Perry, who is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor, Emeritus, at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and at the School of Engineering, was U.S. secretary of defense from February 1994 to January 1997. He said he believes the policies of the United States do not reflect the current danger of nuclear threats because the continued risk of a catastrophe isn’t widely recognized.

portrait of William Perry in Stanford arcade

In a new online course, William Perry, professor emeritus and former U.S. Secretary of Defense, seeks to educate people on the seriousness of the nuclear threat. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

“I believe that the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than it was during the Cold War,” Perry said. “So I’ve set off on a mission to educate people on how serious the problem is. Only then can we develop the policies that are appropriate for the danger we face.”

Perry’s mission to educate the public has led him to author a book on the subject; regularly address think tanks, nongovernmental organizations and governmental bodies; and establish the William J. Perry Project to engage and inform the public on the dangers of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

His latest effort comes in a form of a new online course, Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday and Today. During the 10-week course, which began Oct. 4, Perry and some of the world’s leading experts in the history, politics and science of nuclear conflict will offer an accessible introduction to the problem and suggestions for how to alleviate the dangers the world faces.

The new massive open online course, or MOOC, developed with the support of Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, gives Perry an opportunity to present his message and thoughts in front of a large audience.

The course’s topics include new and emerging dangers, such as nuclear terrorism and the rise of new nuclear powers, and policy options for the United States in addressing them. It also provides overviews of how and why nuclear weapons were first developed and a history of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War.

Each week, Perry will present along with distinguished experts in the field. Many of the experts are Stanford faculty members, including political scientist Martha Crenshaw, Soviet experts David Holloway and Siegfried Hecker, political scientist Scott D. Sagan, and George Shultz, a former U.S. Secretary of State and a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Outside experts include Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione, nuclear negotiator James Goodby, former Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Andrei Kokoshin, Joseph Martz of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Philip Taubman, a former New York Times national security reporter and an associate vice president for university affairs at Stanford.

The course offers participants the chance to ask questions and participate in discussions via an online forum, which Perry and his fellow experts will address during weekly video chats.

“Our main goal, though, isn’t to award certificates of accomplishment so much as it is to get people engaged in this issue,” said Robin Perry, director of the Perry Project and a course co-developer. “I think a lot of people figure that somebody else is taking care of the problem. Both this course and the work of the Perry Project overall argue that, no, this is an issue that citizens need to pay attention to, and learn about – and when they do that, they can take that information and use it to the benefit of society.”

Media Contacts

Judith Romero, Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning: (650) 725-7289,

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419,