Dr. William J Perry Addresses Stanford: “Reducing Nuclear Danger”

On May 17, 2022, Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security institute awarded the Alan Cranston Peace Award to Dr. William J Perry at a gathering at Stanford University, Center for International Security and Cooperation. Below, is Dr. Perry’s keynote speech.

I am a child of the Cold War.

Just two weeks after I had received my degree in mathematics from Stanford a large North Korean Army, equipped by the Soviet Union, and encouraged by Stalin, invaded South Korea. They captured Seoul in a few days and quickly moved towards Pusan, the southern tip of South Korea.

To the surprise of everyone, including Stalin, President Truman ordered American troops to South Korea to repel the invasion and began a callup of US army reserves. Along with my degree from Stanford, I had received a commission in the Army reserves, and I fully expected to be called up and sent to Korea.

So the completion of my years as a student at Stanford coincided with the beginning of the Cold War. As a result I experienced all of the dangerous crises of the Cold War. I was deeply involved in its most dangerous crisis, the Cuban Missile crisis, in which we were terrifyingly close to ending civilization with a nuclear war.

Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security institute (left), awards the Alan Cranston Peace Award to Dr. William J Perry, with Cranston’s son, Kim Cranston (center).

And I remember vividly when we went on Defcon 2 during the Suez Canal crisis. In short, I had a ringside seat to the most dangerous moments of the Cold War, always fearing that it would finally end in an existential catastrophe.

So I will never forget the thrill I felt when I saw the videos of German youth tearing down the Berlin Wall. At that moment I knew the Cold War was over. We had somehow survived all of it perilous moments. And I was confident that we would never be so mindless as to start it again.

But I was wrong. Russia and the United States are now engaged in a second Cold War. The crisis in Ukraine is the most dangerous we have faced since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This existential danger was precipitated when Vladimir Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine. As much as I care about the fate of Ukraine, I must emphasize that his action endangers more than Ukraine; at stake is the implicit world order that somehow got us through the Cold War.

That implicit world order had two essential components:

First, no country would invade another country for the sake of expanding its own national boundaries; and

Second, no nuclear power would use, or threaten to use, its nuclear arsenal except in response to a nuclear attack; that is, the sole purpose of a country’s nuclear weapons was to deter a nuclear attack.

The first component we had come to take for granted but I must remind you of how different that is from history:
In the decade before WW2, for example:

Japan invaded and seized Manchuria;
Italy invaded and seized Ethiopia;
Russia invaded and tried (unsuccessfully) to seize Finland;
Germany invaded and seized Czechoslovakia.

All the while the world deplored those actions, but by doing nothing, accepted them. But when Germany invaded Poland, both Britain and France had had enough: they declared war on Germany, and WW2 was underway.

But after WW2, with its catastrophic consequences, and with the understanding of how much more catastrophic a war with nuclear weapons would be, there was a “never again” moment, with countries vowing there would never be a WW3.
And for 77 years they have kept that vow.

There have been smaller scale wars, but those wars were not about one country seizing land from another, with a notable exception when Iraq invading Kuwait, which led to a coalition formed that defeated Iraq and overthrew its ruler. None of these smaller scale wars escalated, and none entailed the use of nuclear weapons.

This uniquely peaceful period in history ended when Russia invaded Ukraine. And if they are successful, and then take future actions to further restore the boundaries of Imperial Russia, the world would be back to the 1930s when powerful countries used military force to enlarge their own boundaries.

But it is not clear that Russia will be successful: the Russian army has been surprisingly inept; the Ukrainian army, although outnumbered and outgunned, has been surprisingly effective.

Most countries have deplored the actions of Russia, and many countries, including our own, have supplied Ukraine with weapons, some of which have been used to great effect by the Ukrainian army.

But no country has been willing to send its own military forces to Ukraine.
In a sense, the countries that deplore the invasion see it as a threat to Ukraine, but not as a threat to world order and thus to themselves.

But I argue that it is a threat to world order in that the first component of the post-WW2 order is now gone, and, if Russia’s invasion is successful we should expect to see other invasions.

The second component of the post WW2 order has been that nuclear weapons are used only for deterrence. And that is also in danger of being lost.

Putin and his foreign minister have both hinted darkly that they would use nuclear weapons under some conditions that have nothing to do with nuclear deterrence.

And other nations have taken that quite seriously. Many countries, including our own, have not let it stop them from supplying Ukraine with financial support and with effective modern weapons.

But no country, including our own, has provided them with combat troops. We could, for example, use our air combat units to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as requested by President Zelensky.

The American Air Force could effectively enforce such a zone, and this would save the lives of many civilians who are being indiscriminately bombed by Russian aircraft. There are many reasons the president has decided not do that.
But certainly a paramount reason is that we take seriously Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons which in turn could conceivably lead to a general nuclear war. Putin is using the threat of using nuclear weapons to deter our use of conventional forces.
In effect, we are self-deterred, because we fear Putin may use his nukes in a way not conceived of during the Cold War.

I am not making an argument for any specific US military action; I fully understand the possible consequences of such an action.

But I am raising a fundamental question.If, in this new world, Putin decides he can take any military action he chooses; and if he threatens to use his nukes if we respond with our conventional forces, will we always be deterred?
Is he free to undertake any aggressive military action he chooses knowing that we will not respond with our conventional forces for fear that he would go nuclear, possibly engulfing the world in a nuclear war.

We are in a new world now, where the logic of nuclear deterrence is no longer the issue.

It is a world where Putin takes unacceptable actions with his conventional forces and we cannot respond with our conventional forces because he threatens to go nuclear if we do.

That is, we are self deterred by the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons, but Putin is not.

This is a serious asymmetry, and it seems to me to be unacceptable.

For many decades I have believed that neither of our leaders would use nuclear weapons first; that the real danger of a nuclear war was through an accident, miscalculation, or a deranged leader.

That is no longer true: Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons if we use conventional weapons to assist Ukraine.

I have described a new way in which a nuclear war could start.

This is clearly an important new security danger.

I do not know how the US should deal with this new nuclear danger.
But I am sure that it should not be in giving Putin a free hand to take any aggressive action he chooses.

I am reluctant to recommend any actions in Ukraine that could test how serious Putin is about his threat of the use of nuclear weapons, or how readily his military establishment would respond to such an order.

But I fear that if we give in to this outrageous threat, we will face it again.

I will leave you with a provocative question.

Is this the time to call Putin on his threat, in Ukraine, where the issues of right and wrong are so clear.

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