“Terrified”

Author: Gary Hart

Service on the Senate Armed Services Committee offered penetrating insights into America’s national security structures, both military and intelligence.  It also offered introduction to senior military and civilian commanders of both those structures.  With very rare exceptions, those commanders were, and presumably still are, figures of substance, thoughtfulness, experience, sobriety, and patriotism.

Of the eleven former Secretaries of Defense I have known, four while serving in the Senate, none was more wise, thoughtful, and intelligent than William (Bill) Perry.  Until the fall of the Soviet Union and for a time thereafter, the principal concern of Secretary Perry and several Secretaries who preceded him was the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the threat of nuclear war, and the possibility always that one side or the other might mistakenly start World War III.

It all depended on technology and, of course, computers were at the heart of that and became even more so as they increased in sophistication.  As he consistently demonstrated in hundreds of Congressional briefings, some classified, Bill Perry understood this implicitly.

In 1979, our Committee commissioned Senator Barry Goldwater and I to quietly discover how many false launch warnings had occurred in the past number of years.  We found that there were several dozen—the precise number is still classified—and they were ranked by order of seriousness, seriousness being measured by the length of time the warning persisted and the total number of missiles the radars and other sensors revealed.  The longer the warning lasted and the larger the incoming launch, the more serious the threat.

Of these there were several.

One of the most serious involved at least 200 Soviet incoming missiles—the exact number is still classified—and it lasted a dismaying number of minutes.  In a recent NPR interview, Secretary Perry mentioned this incident as one of the most frightening on his or any other Secretary’s watch.  It turned out to be produced by a malfunctioning computer chip that costed a few dollars.

Knowing that the Soviet arsenal was for a time smaller in number, its missiles and warheads larger because they had yet to conquer accuracy guidance systems and therefore had to blow up a larger patch, and their computerized command and communications systems behind ours in sophistication, we could only surmise how many faults warnings they were receiving about missile attacks by the U.S.  Informal discussions have suggested they were more frequent and more serious.

Though the Cold War as such is more or less over, there are still tensions in Syria, Ukraine, and the Black Sea.  Plus, in the meantime, we now face a belligerent North Korea that has surprised our intelligence services with the speed with which it has developed its warhead and missile capabilities.

All this to say there remains serious nuclear danger in the world, perhaps in some ways even more dangerous than during the Cold War.

Early in the Cold War the U.S. political and military leadership developed what came to be called the Triad.  That structure placed nuclear warheads on land based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), on missile launching submarines, and on bomb racks of long range bombers (originally B-52s, some of which are still operating well over a half century later).  Thus, the strategists said, even if an enemy were to attack and destroy most if not all of our ICBMs, we could still destroy it with air and sea launched weapons.

Bill Perry, among several advocates, has steadfastly argued that we do not need the vulnerable ICBMs and can more than adequately maintain deterrence against attack with these other legs of the Triad, and further that we should systematically dismantle the ICBM arsenal.

No serious debate occurs on this subject because, especially in our current Congress, a howl would emerge from certain circles on the right that “liberals are weakening our defenses at this critical time”, etc., etc.

There remains the threat of accidental war, possibly even greater than during the Cold War era.  Computers fail, communications are undependable, and the ranks of hackers grow.

Our systems have always assumed a sophisticated level of maturity and intelligence among senior political leaders, including the commander in chief, but have administered strenuous psychological tests to uniformed military officials involved in the maintenance and, if required, launch of nuclear missiles.  It is being plausibly argued that Administration officials in inner national security circles, including the commander in chief, should undergo at least some version of those tests.

Yet no serious discussion of this catastrophic possibility occurs in our Congress or Administration.  This amounts to gross neglect of duty, possibly the most gross.

Asked by the NPR interviewer how he felt about accidental nuclear war, Secretary William Perry, now 90 years old, said: “I’m terrified.”

 

5 Responses to ““Terrified””

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Well, terrified or no, if I had been fortunate enough to be in Hawai’i again on that day of the recent false inbound missile alert – and, IF I had a smart phone! – I’d like to think that I would have headed straight for the nearest beach, post haste, and prepared to soak up the sheer beauty all around me in the few minutes I had left on this earth.

    Seriously.

  2. Paul G Says:

    PUBLIC SERVANTS’ GROSS NEGLECT OF THEIR PRIMARY DUTY: OUR SAFETY & LIBERTY

    “Of the eleven former Secretaries of Defense I have known, four while serving in the Senate, none was more wise, thoughtful, and intelligent than William (Bill) Perry. Until the fall of the Soviet Union and for a time thereafter, the principal concern of Secretary Perry and several Secretaries who preceded him was the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the threat of nuclear war, and the possibility always that one side or the other might mistakenly start World War III.”

    – Gary Hart, 1-17-2018

    “One of the most pronounced dangers is responding mistakenly to a false alarm. The US President will have about seven or eight minutes to make that decision. No person, no person should have to have that responsibility … it’s a holdover from the Cold War. I believe today, and in fact I believed even then, that was not the greatest danger; the greatest danger today, certainly, is not a surprise attack, it is that we will blunder into a nuclear war.” https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/former-defense-secretary-william-perry-on-the-nuclear_us_59ab04c1e4b0bef3378cd8fc

    Two score and sixteen years before Secretary Perry’s insightfully scary interview remarks, President Kennedy’s wise reflections and courageous decisions during our nation’s 13 days’ Cuban Missile Crisis were presaged in a little remembered passage of his Inaugural address: “To those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”

    In scary contrast with today’s political (and media) opponents who seek victory without conscience, our honorable host cites his teamwork with a nationally prominent opponent who put our republic’s survival and national interest ahead of special interests: “In 1979, our Committee commissioned Senator Barry Goldwater and I to quietly discover how many false (nuclear missile) launch warnings had occurred in the past number of years. We found that there were several dozen—the precise number is still classified.”

    In happy contrast to today’s political (and media) opponents who joyfully wallow in their own false beliefs about our honorable host’s respect for the dignity of all human beings – even his enemies – Goldwater declared, “You can disagree with him politically,” said Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), an unlikely admirer, “but I have never met a man who is more honest and more moral.” http://people.com/archive/gary-hart-vol-20-no-8/

    Only such wise, thoughtful and intelligent leaders, if any, should have such frightening power to decide whether to forever poison our air and evaporate our lives and children’s lives on a moment’s terrifying whim or blunder.

    ALARMING https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/opinion/trump-korea-button-nuclear.html

    FALSE ALARM https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/01/14/hawaii-missile-alert-how-one-employee-pushed-the-wrong-button-and-caused-a-wave-of-panic/?utm_term=.4d043bb37c1b

    “Our systems have always assumed a sophisticated level of maturity and intelligence among senior political leaders, including the commander in chief, but have administered strenuous psychological tests to uniformed military officials involved in the maintenance and, if required, launch of nuclear missiles. It is being plausibly argued that Administration officials in inner national security circles, including the commander in chief, should undergo at least some version of those tests. Yet no serious discussion of this catastrophic possibility occurs in our Congress or Administration. This amounts to gross neglect of duty, possibly the most gross.”

    – Gary Hart, 1-17-2018

  3. Gary Hart Says:

    Correction: “Goldwater and me…” GH

  4. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I think we all know what needs to be done with respect to reducing the nuclear threat – in all of its forms.

    Just as we know that none of it will be done with Trump at the helm.

    So, we may as well have some fun with it until the Mueller investigation brings the current administration to its truncated end.

    But, of course, that will only mean that there will be other battles to wage.

  5. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    Goldwater and me, this sums up as if we cannot see it, what is wrong with politics, that it is not like the phrase Senator Hart uses, more !!!

    Can you imagine a centre right ideologue thoughtful enough to say the things Goldwater did about our host.

    The likes of Mcain and Ted Kennedy on committees as friends, is slim now, but my view is it is that , and not Trump, that is the most terrifying thing behind the nuclear problem. No disarmament, as no gun control, because of the , my party knows best, my weapons are biggest, my country , not tis of thee, but right or wrong.

    Trump with his finger on anything is as terrifying as on the button. Yet what is necessary is a new approach.

    The centre left, even more than the left, can convince on this as few question the strength or patriotism of Hart, Biden, Obama et al.

    We need to find those of similar measured sense and realisation.

Leave a Reply

All comments are reviewed by a moderator prior to approval and are subject to the UCD blog use policy.