Not long after the end of World War II, William J. Perry, age 18 and already on his second enlistment, was shipped off to Japan as part of America’s occupation army. Arriving in Tokyo, he saw that the “once great city was decimated—virtually every building made of wood was destroyed by firebomb attacks. Survivors were living in vast wastes of fused rubble, existing on meager rations.” For the young Mr. Perry, witnessing such horror was a “transformational experience”; and he understood that the destruction wreaked by dropping thousands of conventional bombs on Tokyo, as awful as it was, had been exceeded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His encounter with the effects of modern war was to lead to a lifetime devoted to protecting America from the fearsome weapons of the nuclear age, recounted now in “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” an engrossing memoir and, along the way, a concise guide to some of the most intractable national-security perils confronting our country.
In 1954, while finishing a Ph.D. in mathematics at Penn State, Mr. Perry assumed the title of senior scientist at Sylvania’s Electronic Defense Laboratories in California, a firm established by the Army to devise defenses against Soviet nuclear-armed missiles. The expertise he acquired there was to make him a participant in some of the Cold War’s most terrifying moments. Thus when Nikita Khrushchev installed nuclear weapons in Cuba in October 1962, Mr. Perry was summoned to Washington, where for eight harrowing days he prepared reports for the president on the technical aspects of the weapons themselves.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was defused, but in its aftermath the Kremlin embarked on a nuclear buildup so intense that, by the mid-1970s, America’s deterrent power had come into question. Mr. Perry had spent the 1960s and 1970s running a startup, exploring how then-novel digital technology could be applied to military problems. In 1977, Harold Brown, Jimmy Carter’s secretary of defense, asked him to take a top slot in the Pentagon, with the assignment of introducing silicon chips and other engineering wonders into our fighting machines. Soviet superiority in quantity was to be offset by American superiority in quality.
Mr. Carter’s presidency was in many ways a fiasco in international affairs, but it can be counted as a success in Mr. Perry’s domain. Stealth technology, which could make ships and aircraft nearly invisible to enemy radar, was one of the innovations that Mr. Perry pushed into the field, in this case from Lockheed’s laboratory. Another development on the drawing board was a satellite network that would give precise location coordinates in real time. The Global Positioning System, as it was christened, was deemed “interesting but not essential” by the Carter White House. They cut it from the budget. Mr. Perry fought hard to restore funding, rescuing what would become our now ubiquitous GPS.
These breakthroughs, followed by Ronald Reagan’s massive investment in defense over the following decade, improved America’s military position dramatically. When, in 1991, a rain of smart, stealthy weapons fell on Baghdad in the first Gulf war, it was plain that a revolution in military affairs, long promised, had indeed come about.
Not that the revolution eased all of America’s problems abroad. On being appointed secretary of defense by Bill Clinton in 1994, Mr. Perry inherited a range of crises, not one of them amenable to a technological fix: a coup d’état in Haiti, bloodshed in Bosnia, potential loose nukes in the former Soviet Union, and—most challenging of all—nuclear ambitions in North Korea. Within weeks of Mr. Perry’s swearing in, Pyongyang announced that it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ejected inspectors from its reactor at Yongbyon. The rogue state was now poised to reprocess Yongbyon’s spent fuel and forge it into plutonium cores for up to a dozen nuclear bombs.
Mr. Perry recounts how he “ordered preparation of a plan for a ‘surgical’ strike by cruise missiles” on the Yongbyon facility, telling President Clinton grimly that he might have to choose “between a disaster and a catastrophe.” Just as the crisis was reaching its apogee, former President Jimmy Carter, on his own initiative, flew to Pyongyang and brokered an accord, and the need to choose between disaster and catastrophe was averted. Mr. Carter’s diplomacy, which led to the 1994 Agreed Framework, was a triumph. North Korea would not go nuclear—or so it was claimed at the time.
Unfortunately, as Mr. Perry is forced to concede, this “good deal” for the United States took “a bad turn” when North Korea broke out and sprinted to a nuclear weapon, testing its first device in 2006. Perhaps because he was snookered (along with Mr. Carter and the rest of the Clinton team), Mr. Perry goes to surprising lengths to pin the blame for this dangerous outcome on the policies of George W. Bush. He suggests that North Korea wanted to end “decades of insecurity” through “normalization,” a desire that the Bush administration heedlessly ignored, he says.
Such an interpretation rests on a startlingly naïve reading of North Korean motives. It also involves explaining away, among other things, the fact that Pyongyang began cheating on the nuclear accord sometime in the mid- to late 1990s, while Mr. Clinton was still in the White House. To comply with its pledge not to go nuclear, North Korea had duly shuttered its plutonium-generating facilities, but soon after it was secretly enriching uranium instead.
Mr. Perry’s skewed version of the North Korean fiasco serves as a template for his defense of another flawed agreement: Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with the rogue state that is Iran. Although “naïve” is not a word that one puts easily next to Mr. Perry’s name, his devotion to the cause of arms control, a major theme of his memoir, seems on these two occasions to have gotten the better of his judgment.