Dartmouth Lecture From Former Secretary of Defense Highlights Nuclear Threat (Video)

  • Former Defense Secretary William Perry, co-chair of the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Valley News Correspondent
Friday, July 28, 2017

Hanover — In 1979, William J. Perry — then serving as undersecretary for research and engineering at the Pentagon — was woken by a 3 a.m. phone call.

The general in charge of the North American Air Defense Command was on the line, and he got right to the point: his computers were showing 200 missiles on their way from the Soviet Union to the United States. Perry was horrified at the thought of nuclear annihilation, but the general quickly assured him it was a false alarm, and he only wanted help finding the malfunction.

It turned out a training tape had accidentally been left in the computers.

Since then, Perry, who 15 years later became secretary of defense, has worried a lot about human or mechanical “blunders” accidentally starting a nuclear war.

“In our system, with all its safety features, we’re still vulnerable to a single person’s error potentially bringing about the end of civilization,” Perry said on Thursday.

Perry came to the Upper Valley to speak to about 630 people gathered in Dartmouth College’s Spaulding Auditorium, arguing that the danger posed by nuclear weapons remains high while public awareness is low.

“I believe today that the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War,” Perry said during the lecture sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth. “And yet we in this room are blissfully unaware of that. Therefore, our policies do not reflect that danger.”

Perry has a long history with nuclear issues, having helped analyze aerial photographs taken during the Cuban missile crisis.

When he became secretary of defense in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, Perry worked to dismantle nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.

But in recent years, the proliferation of nuclear hot spots around the globe such as North Korea, Russia, and Pakistan has kept the 89-year-old from retiring.

Perry works to educate the public about nuclear weapons through his website (www.wjperryproject.org), a recent book, and public lectures.

In April, for instance, he published a piece in Politico arguing that a diplomatic deal with North Korea might be possible, and the best way to de-escalate tensions.

The audience was somber, reflecting the subject matter.

“I was blown away by the whole presentation,” said John Sanders, the president of Osher, who introduced Perry and moderated a Q&A. “I have never seen this audience so full and so still.”

Dan Shepard, of Norwich, plans to purchase a DVD copy of the lecture from CATV so he can share Perry’s message with his friends. “It’s easy to live in denial,” Shepard said. “It’s a scary subject.”

Marjorie Storrs, of Hanover, expressed concerns about how the nuclear issue will affect future generations, adding that what she learned from Perry’s talk will definitely inform her voting.

“It’s only our leaders who can do anything,” she said.

Perry hopes those leaders will spend more time on nuclear disarmament talks, which have retreated from U.S. politics during recent administrations.

“Since the Cold War ended, it’s become a backwater issue because people tend to believe the problem has gone away,” Perry said. “And I hope if my talk did anything today, it convinced you the problem is not going away.”

Matt Golec can be reached at mattgolec@gmail.com.