A methodical memoir of a long, top-level government career developing nuclear deterrence strategy.
The former secretary of defense during President Bill Clinton’s first term, as well as an accomplished Stanford University scholar, Perry straightforwardly tracks his life’s journey in terms of a growing awareness that the only defense against nuclear attack is “to prevent the attack from happening.” Too young to serve in World War II, the Pennsylvania-born math whiz was barely 18 when he enlisted as an Army engineer and observed firsthand the bombing devastation of postwar Japan. The rise of the Soviet missile threat defined his early years of graduate work at Stanford, which were followed by a job as a senior scientist at Sylvania’s Electronic Defense Laboratories. An original entrepreneur in Silicon Valley with his own company, Electromagnetic Systems Laboratory, and dedicated to Cold War intelligence work using new digital technology, Perry was plucked by Harold Brown to serve as his undersecretary of defense for research and engineering in 1977. He gradually began to see that the old way of thinking about keeping up with the Soviets and ensuring an “offset strategy” was outdated, “a colossal failure of imagination.” What was needed was diplomacy—e.g., dealing with China, NATO, and Israel-Egyptian peace talks at Camp David. A critic of the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars, Perry actively participated in nongovernmental international diplomacy, Track II, to develop new paths of understanding with Russian scientists and academics. When he returned to Washington, D.C., in 1993, Perry was in a unique position to deal with the dismantling of nuclear weapons left as the legacy of the Cold War, enforced by Nunn-Lugar legislation. Perry recounts tackling one containment crisis after another during his tenure, from North Korea to Bosnia to Haiti. Having worked so hard to neutralize the Soviet–U.S. relationship, Perry is especially anguished at the new tension with Putin’s Russia.
Not an exciting account but a solid record of a terrifically significant public career.