Speech by William Perry at the joint conference of the Luxembourg Forum, Russian Academy of Sciences and IMEMO on the 100th Birthday of Academician Sakharov, February 25, 2021

I send my greetings to all my friends in Russia and the other countries represented in this conference.

I’m going to ask a very basic question. Why is human history an unending sequence of wars, ever more dangerous wars, and why have humans applied science and technology to develop ever more deadly weapons throughout all of history? My answer to that, it’s because it is in our genes. It is in our genes to develop and use weapons.

What do I mean by that. If we look back at prehistoric times, before humans evolved, the chimps, chimpanzees, lived in the woods, lived in the forest. They had to do that to avoid the predators. They escaped the predators who were bigger and stronger than they were, faster than they were, in the trees.

Sometime in ancient history, something happened which drove some of the chimpanzees out to the plains. On the plains they were no match for the predators, and nearly all of them were killed, but a few survived. The ones who survived somehow had more intelligence, they had something in their mind that allowed them to invent crude weapons. They made weapons out of sticks, they made weapons out of stones, and they managed to stay alive. And the evolutionary factor that allowed to do that was the thing in their brains which taught them, allowed them to develop weapons.

And then that evolutionary factor continued, they developed ever more effective weapons. From stones to axes, to spears and swords, to bow and arrows, to guns, small guns, then larger guns, to tanks, to airplanes, to gas, to biological weapons, to nuclear weapons and cyber warfare. It’s been an unending history of the evolution of nuclear weapons by the ingenuity of man’s mind. And that ingenuity, which allowed men to evolve from the chimps, allowed them to survive and prosper and eventually dominate this planet in which we all live. So that’s why I argue that building weapons is in our genes. It is the evolutionary factor which allowed us to prosper.

The weapons evolution has been pretty straightforward. Army with guns defeats army with spears. Navy with ironclad ships defeats navy with wooden ships. Army with modern tanks and aircraft defeats armies that do not have them. Navies with aircraft carriers defeat navies with battleships. And a nation with nuclear weapons defeats a nation with conventional weapons. That is a pretty clear lesson from history: The country that is the leader in developing new weapons becomes the world’s leading country. And this is the genesis of the arms race.

But with the development of nuclear weapons there was a paradigm shift. With the development of nuclear bombs we had developed a weapon so powerful that it could not be used. Its only value was in the threat to use it. That is, deterrence.

This whole story of technical development in arms has led a famous historian to say that technology is the queer thing. With one hand it brings you great gifts, and with the other hand it stabs you in the back. One hand – great gifts, the other hand – it stabs you in the back. The nuclear weapon brought us great gifts. It brought us accelerated the end of World War II. We were all thankful for that. But of course, on the other hand, it was stabbing us in the back. It brought us the nuclear arms race with the immediate consequence.

We dealt with the nuclear arms race through something called diplomacy. We invented deterrence. But deterrence had its own set of problems. Even with the deterrence, we continued the arms race, reaching the ridiculous number of 70 thousand nuclear weapons in the world. When I teach a class, I’m often asked, how in the world did the concept of deterrence lead us to building 70 thousand nuclear weapons? Couldn’t deterrence be achieved with 10 thousand, or one thousand, or even a hundred nuclear weapons? Of course the answer is yes, it could. But the impulse to build weapons, the impulse to dominate in weapons is so powerful. It’s in our genes.

I’m going to sum up my comments here by noting that the drive to develop ever more effective weapons is so fundamental that we have never succeeded in being able to stop it, even though very serious and significant people have tried to do it.

After the development of nuclear weapons, and after it became clear how deadly and how serious and what a threat to humanity they were, the senior developers in the United States and the senior developers in the Soviet Union took the lead in trying to get these weapons stopped. So we saw Sakharov and Oppenheimer working to try to eliminate, abolish nuclear weapons, at the very minimum to minimize the risk of their being used. They were unsuccessful. They were spectacularly unsuccessful, I might say.

Several decades later, I joined a great statesman George Schultz, who just recently died, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn in another effort to abolish nuclear weapons. We worked for years, very hard and very energetically, and starting off with some modest successes. But ultimately we were as unsuccessful as were Sakharov and Oppenheimer.

I am now working on a less ambitious effort, having given up, at least for the time being, the effort to abolish nuclear weapons. I’m working to see if the United States and Russia can adopt policies that would lower their dangers. Specifically I’m working to try to encourage the Biden administration to take on a new set of nuclear policies.

One aspect of this would be to disestablish sole authority, that is, disestablish the idea that in the United States, and hopefully in Russia as well, a single person can launch a nuclear war. That’s what sole authority means. A very dangerous concept, and a very undemocratic process, I might say. So, number one, disestablish sole authority.

Number two, establish sole purpose. That is, have the United States make a simple dramatic statement that says: in the United States the sole purpose of our nuclear weapons will be to provide deterrence for ourselves or for our allies. That means we will never use them first.

And the third thing I’m working for is to try to get the new administration to stop the production of a new generation of ICBMs. We are already embarked on such a program, as is Russia. I see little prospect of getting a treaty to stop that, so I’m urging that the United States unilaterally pull back from this program, in the hopes the Russia will do the same, but even… but I argue for this, even if Russia does not do the same, I argue it would be in our national security interests.

Let me end my comments by saying those of us and most of us in this conference are in this category who have worked to lower nuclear dangers, who have even worked to abolish nuclear weapons, have had a huge frustration in how little success we have had. And so I’ve often wondered why is that. My brief talk today was attempt to suggest to you why that is, that there is a very fundamental cause that drives humans to develop nuclear weapons, deeply rooted in history, and as I said, perhaps, I believe, without an exaggeration, developing weapons, making warfare is in fact in our genes. It’s what caused us to evolve. Our ability to do this is what allowed us to evolve from the chimpanzee to the certain species of chimpanzees known as Homo sapiens. So it’s pretty fundamental. We should not be discouraged at how hard it is to offset it, even though we spend our time and energies doing so.

Thank you for listening to me today. I hope these comments cause you to think about how fundamental the move to develop nuclear weapons is, and how difficult it has been and will continue to be to try to deal with that problem through reason and logic.

Thank you.