At 90, William Perry is driven by a vision of a nuclear-free world

William Perry
William Perry

At 90, WILLIAM PERRY has seen a lot in this world.

Maybe, in fact, too much. When it comes to nuclear warfare and annihilation, few people alive have contemplated such tragic outcomes quite like Perry, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and one of the world’s top experts on nuclear weapons.

Perry, who becomes a nonagenarian on Oct. 11, has been called America’s “nuclear conscience.” He has sometimes referred to himself as a “prophet of doom,” and certainly not in a congratulatory sense, but more as a scientist on a mission. The former U.S. secretary of defense, a brilliant mathematician who’s worked with nearly every administration since Eisenhower, has been up-close to nuclear weapons and near-miss crises for the last several decades.

Today, Perry is devoted to education on the subject of nuclear weapons – he understands exactly how much horror they would wreak on humanity and global ecosystems.

And while no one would call Perry a crusader type (he is pragmatic, modest and private), there’s no doubt he’s on an energetic crusade for a nuclear-free world. Reaching young minds – those who will inherit the leadership of this world – is a big step in that direction.

So, Perry reaches out in ways that resonant with youth. Last year created a series of virtual lectures, Living at the Nuclear Brink, known as a MOOC, or massive open online course. His new online course, The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism, launched early this month.

“Nuclear weapons may seem like 20th-century history, but the choices we make about these weapons in the 21st century will decide your future in truly fundamental ways,” Perry wrote in the earlier course’s introduction.

An engineer and policymaker, Perry has academic affiliations that range widely across the Stanford campus. He is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor, Emeritus; a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s always in demand for a panel discussion or speaker event.

On Nov. 1, he is the featured subject of a CISAC event, “A Conversation with William J. PMy Journey at the Nuclear Brinkerry: Assessing Nuclear Risk in a New Era.” That talk will include a Perry discussion with CISAC Co-Director AMY ZEGART  and another panel discussion, led by CISAC Co-Director ROD EWING, with scholars SIEGFRIED HECKER, DAVID HOLLOWAY and SCOTT SAGAN.

Perry has been known to participate in “Ask Me Anything” chats on Reddit, a place popular with youth. But he’s also connecting with all types of audiences, conveying in direct encounters the exact nature of the nuclear dangers now facing civilization and what can be done to reduce those dangers. This mission to educate led him to write a memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, all the while giving countless media interviews and delivering major speeches before major think tanks, nongovernmental organizations and policymakers.

One core Perry message is that U.S. foreign policies do not reflect the existing danger of nuclear threats – the reason is that this risk isn’t widely recognized across society. And young people need to understand this dynamic that creates a distorted, too complacent view of a very real nuclear weapons problem throughout the world.

Perry, with the help of his daughter, Robin Perry; his son, David Perry; granddaughter, Lisa Perry; and grandson, Patrick Allen, established the William J. Perry Project, which informs the public about the role of nuclear weapons in today’s world, while urging the elimination of these weapons.

It’s a family on a mission, and the Perrys believe the only way to avoid nuclear war is by directly contemplating the scenario in a personal, direct sense through learning and education.

“We’re really just out there trying to reach a generation that isn’t engaged on this issue right now,” said Lisa Perry in an article on the Perry Project website. She is the digital media manager for the project. “It’s something we learned in history class. There was no conversation about what’s happening now.”

As her grandfather explained, “The dangers will never go away as long as we have nuclear weapons. But we should take every action to lower the dangers, and I think it can be done.”

Read more on the CISAC website.