The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

No Nukes: Arms Division

March 16, 2011

In February, Bill Clinton’s second Secretary of Defense, William Perry, spoke at Harvard’s Belfer Center and continued his ongoing campaign against nuclear weapons. With former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn, Perry has for many years been seeking a “world free of nuclear weapons.

After describing his personal experience working behind the scenes during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Perry recounted another nuclear scare:

16 years later, when he was Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. He was awakened at 3 a.m. by a phone call from the watch officer at North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“The general got right to the point, telling me that his computers were indicating 200 missiles were on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States. I immediately woke up, “ Perry said. “The computer alert of course was a false alarm. The general was calling me in the hopes that I might help him help him figure out what the hell had gone wrong with his computers so that he’d have something to tell the president the next morning.”

Perry said that was one of three false alarms he knows of in which Soviet missiles were thought to be screaming toward the United States, “and I don’t know how many more might have occurred in the Soviet Union.”

“So I had a close personal experience with the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe that could have resulted in no less than the end of civilization,” Perry said. “And to this day, I believe that we avoided nuclear catastrophe as much by good luck as by good management.”

In other words, Perry does not apparently believe that nuclear deterrence had much to do with the “long peace” of the cold war.

I’ve previously blogged about my academic work in this area. In my view, these former US officials are acting as norm entrepreneurs, contesting the norm of nuclear deterrence by calling for nuclear disarmament. Perry’s Harvard address specifically asks if “we” have “reached the nuclear tipping point.”

That’s norm life cycle-talk 101.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.