Stop counting on Secretary of Defense James Mattis or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stop a nuclear war if Donald Trump wants one, says Bill Perry. They couldn’t.
Perry, who served as secretary of defense for President Bill Clinton, is a 90-year-old arm-waving apostle of doom—“the possibility of an apocalypse thrust itself upon me,” he told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. He says nuclear war has “become more probable in the last year, partly because of President Trump,” and partly due to events beyond the president’s control. He thinks Trump doesn’t understand the North Koreans, and doesn’t understand what his rhetoric is doing.
That the president and his Cabinet secretaries are so often putting out conflicting messages makes the situation worse. And though Perry subscribes to the idea that Mattis and Tillerson a “stabilizing influence,” he said that with this president, “I’m not really comfortable with anybody.”
While bills by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to restrict first use of nuclear weapons have stalled in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is set to put some muscle behind his very public anxiety about Trump’s leadership. On Tuesday, Corker will hold a committee hearing on nuclear authorization—the first on the topic since Gerald Ford was president—prompted by concerns he’s heard from members both on and off the committee over letting one person, and this person in particular, have the unfettered ability to launch a nuclear war.
Perry knows Mattis well—while Perry was defense secretary in the 1990s, Mattis worked for him directly, and they both ended up at Stanford University in recent years. The two still talk, and Perry thinks Mattis understands the nuclear threat well—he just doesn’t think Mattis would necessarily be able to do anything if Trump decided to go ahead with a strike.
Perry’s heard the story of Richard Nixon’s final days in the White House, when Defense Secretary James Schlesinger supposedly told generals that any nuclear strike order from the clearly distressed president be run by him first.
But that’s not really the way it works, Perry said.
“The order can go directly from the president to the Strategic Air Command. The defense secretary is not necessarily in that loop. So, in a five- or six- or seven-minute kind of decision, the secretary of defense probably never hears about it until it’s too late. If there is time, and if he does consult the secretary, it’s advisory, just that,” Perry explained. “Whether [the president] goes with it or doesn’t go with it—[the secretary] doesn’t have the authority to stop it.”
Perry lived through two nuclear apocalypse scares. The first lasted for days, when as a consultant, he was brought by the CIA to help sort through intelligence during the Cuban missile crisis. The second lasted for a split second, when as a lower-ranking Pentagon official during Jimmy Carter’s term, he was woken by a phone call warning him that it looked as if 200 nuclear missiles were already in the air—but it was immediately explained to him that this was a computer error. The experiences were searing, and left him convinced that only good luck and a little bit of good management saved the world from ending under John F. Kennedy, and that the context of lower tensions during that 1979 computer error stopped the situation from spiraling out of hand.
Today, Perry sees worse management and higher tensions. He worries that America’s luck may have run out.
It’s not hard for him to imagine what would happen if a terrorist group acquired fissile material and then set it off in New York, Washington or another major city: The country wouldn’t rally together or easily recover, like in a disaster movie.
“If you look at 9/11, besides the 3,000 casualties, there were very significant economic and political and social consequences. There were new laws passed. There were new restrictions put on our freedoms because of that. All of those effects would probably be magnified tenfold or a hundredfold if a nuclear bomb goes off in Washington,” Perry said. “If you imagine that some sort of a law passed—10 times the Patriot Act, for example—that’s the sort of thing we would see. You might see attacks on citizens who were believed to be somehow related to or associated with the terror attack. It would be ugly.”
America is vulnerable, he said, and America would be wounded, perhaps mortally, if terrorists took advantage of that vulnerability. Once the consequences are considered, Perry said, “the terrorists would have succeeded in some sense in changing our country, in changing it in ways that are very negative.”
Perry’s been on the road, entering his 10th decade of life while playing the part of a reluctant Cassandra, but is channeling much of his energy into a free online Stanford course about nuclear terrorism—one meant to sound the alarms he can’t believe aren’t ringing. Already, 6,000 people have accessed it, and 3,000 have signed up, looking for his answers to the question, “Is the threat of nuclear terrorism real?”
I asked him whether anyone in the Trump White House has signed up.
“I don’t hear from the Trump White House,” he said.
Trump and many of his allies blame 20 years of bad negotiations for the current predicament with North Korea, stretching back to the Clinton years—when, in 1999, Perry went to Pyongyang and returned with a handshake agreement for a nuclear nonproliferation framework he believes his boss would have signed had Al Gore won the presidency.
“I think we can learn some lessons from negotiating with North Korea, but I think the Trump administration has learned a wrong lesson. They’re tough negotiators. They’ve demonstrated an inclination and a capacity to evade and cheat on treaties. So I think what we’ve learned from that is that when we negotiate with them, we ought to have strong verification. Even the Agreed Framework—which I believe they cheated on toward the end of the century—delayed their nuclear program by probably six, or seven or eight years,” Perry said. “So it was something.”
Perry acknowledges his own negotiations had problems, but says that President George W. Bush’s decision to pull away from them forced the current situation upon the world: The idea that North Korea won’t be a nuclear power is out the window, and the most that can be hoped for is to persuade the regime to scale back its missile tests. Where it seemed like Kim Jong Il wanted international respect, Kim Jong Un appears to instead prioritize the security and continuity of the regime.
“We missed our major chance to negotiate with them back at the turn of the century, but that doesn’t mean that diplomacy has no role today,” Perry said. “And when you consider the alternatives to diplomacy, it’s pretty clear we ought to be trying it.”