Former Defense Secretary William Perry: Why we must describe doomsday to keep it from happening
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | #PRESS
The William J. Perry Project is a nonprofit organization that the former US Defense Secretary founded in 2013 to engage and educate the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons in the 21st century. Among its various offerings, the project’s websiteincludes video presentations of two scenarios in which nuclear weapons are used, one involving a terrorist attack on Washington, DC and the other a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.
In this interview, Perry – chair of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors and an emeritus director of the Nuclear Threat Initiative – explains why he believes that public dissemination of realistic (and therefore horrifying) scenarios of nuclear war can help reduce the likelihood it will occur. “What we’re really trying to do is find ways of averting doom,” Perry says. “But we think the first step in that is recognizing that these are very real possibilities.” Here, Perry also discusses specific changes in US policy – including a pledge that the country would not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict – that he believes will preserve US national security while reducing nuclear risk. The interview includes comments from Robin Perry, executive director of the William J. Perry Project.
I noticed that your William Perry Project includes a number of nuclear scenarios; a terrorist bombing of Washington D.C., a war between India and Pakistan. I was wondering if you can explain for our readers, why do you do that? Why put out scenarios that describe how a nuclear conflict or war could happen and what the effects might be?
Because there are some actions we could take to reduce the likelihood of those events happening. We won’t take those actions, unless we believe that there’s a real possibility that they will happen. So in a sense, our videos or work on this could characterize us as prophets of doom. What we’re really trying to do is find ways of averting doom. But we think the first step in that is recognizing that these are very real possibilities.
The probabilities are really hard to estimate on what particular kind of nuclear scenario might happen or might not, but is there one that you consider more likely than the others? Or does that just change over time, depending on the world situation?
It’s very much a function of what’s going on in the world, but one of the very serious, significant scenarios is where we might blunder into a nuclear war with Russia, or with North Korea, simply by a political miscalculation. The probability of that happening is very much dependent on what’s going on in the world. For example, with North Korea, that seemed like a very real possibility in 2016. But since the meetings between Kim Jong Un and Trump – while they haven’t come to any resolution of the problems – at least they have stopped the threatening rhetoric. And the threats posed between United States and North Korea created an environment in which a political miscalculation was possible. So a blunder that results from a political miscalculation like that example, it’s very dependent on what’s going on in the world, what the relations are between United States and Russia, between the United States and North Korea. As they get more relaxed, that probability goes down. As they get more tense, the probabilities go up.
The clear example I think, historically, is the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis created this situation where the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe resulting from a political miscalculation was actually quite high. But it didn’t become high until that set of events had actually occurred, until the Russians, the Soviets, actually installed the missiles and the US was taking actions to try to stop them.
So that geopolitical situation created an environment in which political miscalculation was quite possible. President Kennedy, in retrospect, rated that probability one chance to three – really a very high probability when you consider the event that he was giving a probability for was tantamount to being the end of civilization. At the time he said one in three, he was not aware that the Russians had already deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and that the nuclear warheads were already there and that the military personnel had the authority to use them.
So the lack of intelligence created a situation where if Kennedy had simply followed the recommendations of (Defense Secretary Robert) McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and invaded Cuba, we would have been in a nuclear war. So that would have been a political miscalculation that would be completely dependent on that geopolitical scenario, and in this case, further dependent on the failure of intelligence.
So John, I’m going to just back up to your previous question for a minute, about why to do the nuclear scenarios. Our goal with those scenarios, was to help people visualize the real possibilities out there that could take shape with various accidents, various situations, geopolitical situations. The awareness that these things could happen is not very wide out there in the public, and so the scenarios help put together a story in a fairly simple, short, visually-appealing way a possibility that most people don’t think about, and they’re based in real world information. And so, it’s just a tool to raise awareness. It’s rather frightening for people to watch them, but the idea of raising awareness is also to make people realize they could potentially change that outcome by being aware and taking steps to make the world safer.
Yes, and just in case anybody’s wondering, I completely agree. If you think about the movie The Day After, it reached 100 million people and actually made a difference. So I do think presenting the reality of what might happen is important. I also think it’s important to think about ways to reduce the possibility of those realities, so I’d like to ask the secretary – there’s been a coordinated movement among nonproliferation folks to push for a US no-first-use policy. I’d just like to hear you talk about what you think of our policy. If you support no first use, how do you think it would reduce nuclear risk?
Start it off, first of all, by observing how we developed a policy that would’ve prepared the nuclear weapons first. That was during the Cold War, and the iconic scenario which led to that was the Eastern European scenario, where we had our troops, NATO troops, lined up in West Germany facing the Red Army in East Germany. They outnumbered us about three to one, and our military, first of all, expected that the Soviet Union was planning a conventional attack. What do we call it? Reverse Operation Barbarossa. Barbarossa was where the Germans swept into Russia and all the way to Moscow [during World War II].
And what we were looking at, is the Soviet Union with its substantial numerical superiority sweeping all the way to the English Channel, and so we thought that was a realistic scenario, even a likely scenario. We recognized that we were outmanned and out-gunned, and so we developed explicit policy of using what we called tactical nuclear weapons to stop that advance, taking the risk that if we use the tactical nuclear weapons, that would trigger a strategic exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, pretty much ending civilization. But we were prepared, in the early years of the Cold War, to use tactical nuclear weapons to stop what we thought was going to be a Red Army invasion. The really optimistic view we had then was that we had those weapons there and were prepared to use them, [and that] was the deterrent to that attack happening. So that’s how it developed, the idea of using nuclear weapons first. A lot’s happened since then, including the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But to sum it up, I would say that the United States conventional forces today are probably the most powerful in the world, and that we do not have to use nuclear weapons to repel or to deter a conventional attack. So the policy, which was left over from the Cold War, is inappropriate today, I believe. If you follow that line of argument a little farther, the idea that our threat of first use is going to stop conventional attacks is not borne out by history. It didn’t help us in the Vietnam War; it didn’t help us in the Korean War. It didn’t help us in Syria. It didn’t help us in Iraq.
So my first point, John, is that we got into that policy from the Cold War, when whether or not it was a good policy, it at least was a policy that made some sense. Today, it’s not a good policy. It doesn’t benefit us from a deterrence point of view – and history is pretty clear on that – and we don’t need it because of the improved capability of our conventional forces. Adding to that is a very significant downside of a first-use policy.
Consider the downside, and you have to get back again to the possibility of blundering into nuclear war. And the clearest example of that, is if we get a false alarm of a missile attack, and we decide we want to launch our weapons before the attack lands. We want to fire our missiles before they’re destroyed in their silos. The temptation to do that in that scenario is very high, and we have set up – both from a posturing and a policy point of view – to do that. If we had a no-first-use policy and were serious about it, that particular scenario for blundering into an accidental nuclear war would go away.
Of course, that part of a no-first-use policy – implying that you don’t have a launch-on-warning policy, either – has been heavily criticized from particularly Republican quarters, but even other quarters as: How many US cities are you going to sacrifice before you fire back? I just wonder, how do you respond to that?
After they have fired at the US city, it’s going to be destroyed, whether or not we fire back. I don’t quite understand that line of argument. The purpose of waiting for impact – in this case, it would be an impact on a missile site – the purpose of waiting is simply to ensure we’re right, so that we don’t accidentally start a catastrophic nuclear war.
If we wait and the city is destroyed, and indeed it’s coming at our city, I think we’re going to be destroyed anyway. Our firing back doesn’t change that outcome. So that’s why I don’t understand the argument. We don’t save the city by firing first.
In addition to no first use …
Oh excuse me John, I just need to add to that. I don’t really believe that people who make that argument are serious. Or if they are serious, they’re not thoughtful. I think it’s a talking point, designed to confuse people.
It appears that way to me. The other night, I had a couple of hours free, re-watching the movie Fail Safe.
Oh yeah! I haven’t watched that for long time. I’m probably going to do that again. What do you think?
I mean even now, even with some anachronisms in it, it scared the bejesus out of me. Obviously, it focuses entirely on the kinds of decisions that a president would have to make in a nuclear situation. And there’s been a lot of talk about the US president’s sole authority, his ability to launch nuclear attacks all on his own. I’ll be honest: That seems crazy to me, that one person has that authority. I’d like your opinion, and if you think sole authority should be changed, what should it be changed to?
John, [Ploughshares Fund policy director] Tom Collina and I are writing a book for which Robin has been very valuable. The three of us are involved in this, the book has already been sent to the publisher, and it will be published hopefully next spring. That book makes certain points. First, is the danger of sole authority, and it argues against it. The second thing is first use, and argues strongly against it.
It’s trying to call public attention to those policies, embedded strongly in the US nuclear process today, and point out how dangerous they are and why they should change. And our hope will be that this book will be probably then be a citizen’s debate during the presidential campaign next year.
And also, it’s potential publication date, next June 1, to coincide also with the 75th anniversary of the development of the bomb.
The title of the book, by the way, is either The Button, or we might go to The Nuclear Button. We’re still debating that.
Well, the title is kind of a long one: The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power From Truman to Trump. It really does look very closely at the president’s role in this, and how these policies evolved and what can be done to go back in a different direction.
And do you settle on any one, new, policy that you prefer over others, what you would substitute for the president’s sole authority?
Oh, we talked about a number of alternatives to that.
It’s related also to the no first use issue and the launch on warning issue. These are all tied together and in very significant ways. But I view that as we not only have to change the policy, but we’re going to change our postures to comport with the new policies. We have organized our nuclear posture today so that we can conduct first use, and so that we can have a president launch them out of the blue, so to speak.
If we had a different policy that we are advocating here, then you would … let’s take no first use, for example. During the Cold War, the Russians declared that they had it. Soviet Union declared they had a no first use. We never took it seriously, because we could see their posture allowed them to enact the first use. If we were really serious about no first use, you would re-posture your ICBMs, and in best case, you’d tend to do away with your ICBMs. You don’t need the ICBM’s except as a first use weapon.
So while we’re advocating having a change in policies, we also would advocate having new policies, and making a change in your posture to reflect those policies, which really do make you quite a lot safer, almost completely eliminate the likelihood of a war by a miscalculation or an accident.
Another area that I wanted to ask you about: It appears that both the United States and Russia are in the process of getting rid of arms control treaties and creating new platforms for firing smaller nuclear weapons. In other words, planning for actual battlefield use of nuclear weapons. What do you think about the administration’s proposals to build different kinds of new weapons, smaller nuclear warheads, intermediate range nuclear missiles that we’re going to base in Asia somewhere. I don’t know where, but that’s what they’ve been talking.
I think small nuclear warheads pose a great danger because they foster the dangerous idea that you might be able to use a small nuclear weapon in scenarios where you would not use the bigger weapons. In other words, you can regard it just as a big bomb and whenever you are in a conventional conflict of some kind, you can use it to gain some advantage. In fact, I think the danger of any use of nuclear weapons escalating to a major use of nuclear weapons is so great that the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be exceedingly dangerous, and therefore I question the value of even building or maintaining these tactical nuclear weapons. The danger, it seems to me, outweighs their purported utility.
I said I’d take up a half hour of your time, and we’re kind of approaching that. But I did want to ask: The scenarios that we’re going to publish and that you have put up on your website all deal with doom, but really both the Bulletin and the Perry Project are aimed at making doom not happen. In the current environment, what is the best way to get Russia in the United States seriously to a negotiating table? Arms control will probably be different in this age, because the array of weapons is different, the world situation is different than it was say in the 1980s. But, how do we at least get both countries seriously to some sort of actual negotiations on new arms control?
Well, the differences we have with Russia are very great today – differences, which I think are real, they’re not imaginary. Therefore it seems to me the only way we can have serious dialogue on nuclear arms control is for the leaders in our two countries to be able to separate out these issues on which you clearly disagree, and the nuclear issues where, indeed, in fact, we have a pretty good sense of common purpose. Neither of us wants a nuclear war. Neither of us wants nuclear proliferation. Neither wants nuclear terrorism. So in this field there is common purpose, and we ought to be able to work together to lower the dangers by developing programs based on that common purpose. But for that to happen, the leaders in the two countries have to be willing to separate those issues out from the issues of which we have profound disagreements, like messing with our elections.
John, I don’t know whether you knew it, but my background is in mathematics. Mathematicians, when they’re confronted with a very difficult problem, one of the first things they do is see if they can find a way of separating out variables, and that analogy applies to this field today. Somehow, our leaders have to be able to do a separation of variables.You have to separate out the problems on which we have an intractable disagreements, like meddling with elections, from the problems where we have common purpose and could reach agreements, like in the nuclear field. I don’t know how to make that happen, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I also point out that during the dark days of the Cold War, we had some degree of success in doing that. Our disagreements with the Soviet Union in the 1970s were certainly as profound as the disagreements we have with Russia today. Yet, we were able to come together and discuss and debate and come to agreements on ways of lowering the nuclear dangers.
Source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists