Missile

At the Brink: Loose Nukes

July 20, 2020
Lisa Perry with Ash Carter, William Perry, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall and Sam Nunn
This podcast was originally published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Newsclip: The Red Flag came down over the Kremlin tonight as President Gorbachev resigned and brought to an end seven decades of communist rule in the Soviet Union. He's leaving behind 15 independent states which share only a disastrous economy and an uncertain future. Later in an interview with CNN, Mr. Gorbachev showed documents which formerly handed control of the nuclear arsenal to Boris Yeltsin.

Lisa Perry: On the day after Christmas in 1991, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. The empire that emerged from the Russian revolution was now a collection of 15 independent new countries, of which Russia was the biggest. It was a remarkable and peaceful end to the Cold War. People all over the world breathed a sigh of relief that the Cold War nuclear nightmare was over. But while they celebrated, a select few realized we were facing a new problem. What happens when a nuclear state fails?

I'm Lisa Perry, and this is At the Brink, a podcast about the dangers we face from nuclear weapons and the stories of those who are fighting to protect us. When the Soviet Union collapsed, more than 27,000 nuclear weapons were spread across the empire, as well as enough weapons grade nuclear material to triple that number. The fall of the USSR completely changed the international nuclear equation. In this episode, we will hear from the people who realized that we were facing a new and uncertain nuclear threat with the collapse of the Soviet nuclear infrastructure, and who plunged ahead to create the biggest denuclearization campaign ever attempted. One of those people was my grandfather, former Secretary of Defense William Perry. Growing up, I had seen the photos of him shaking hands with Russian generals, staring down into the craters of demolished nuclear silos. But I didn’t appreciate that what those photos depicted, which was the culmination of a remarkable effort to prevent worldwide catastrophe. Ash Carter, who worked under my grandfather on this effort as Assistant Secretary of Defense, and who would later rise to Secretary of Defense himself under President Obama, remembers exactly how precarious the situation was at the time.

Ash Carter: Yes, there was a lot of celebration because we had, quote, won the Cold War, but we were a long way from winning the peace that needed to follow. So many people don't understand it. It's so different from anything we've done before. So much could go wrong and you would be right now living in a world of fear, if this hadn't happened the way it did

Lisa Perry: Five months before the formal end of the Soviet Union, the situation in Moscow had grown chaotic. Hardliners had staged a coup against President Gorbachev and confined him under house arrest in Crimea, but they were quickly thwarted by a popular uprising. Soon after Gorbachev returned to the capital and began emergency meetings about the future of the Soviet Union. By a combination of luck and determination, U.S. Senator Sam Nunn managed to get to Moscow and was present for these critical discussions. What he heard was alarming and he was increasingly concerned about the fate of the thousands of nuclear weapons scattered across this collapsing empire.

Sam Nunn: In all of those conversations I kept asking, what about the nuclear weapons? Are they under control? I asked Gorbachev that. I met with Gorbachev about my second day there, which was a bit of a surprise because he had just come back from the coup within a week or so. And I said, Mr. President, did you have control of the nuclear weapons the whole time you were in captivity? And he didn't answer. He said, let's go on to another subject.

Lisa Perry: Senator Nunn immediately recognized the danger: if the Soviet empire was going to be broken apart into new countries, that would lead overnight to the creation of three new nuclear weapons states.

Sam Nunn: So I concluded that we had something that was unprecedented in history, an empire coming apart, literally coming apart, in possession of the largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction ever known to mankind.

Ash Carter:  It was an entirely unprecedented problem. Everybody was used to the Cold War. They were used to Mutual Assured Destruction. Here's a new situation where it wasn't going to get fired at us in anger, but it could leak out and terrorists could get it or entirely new states could get it and you couldn't target that problem to deter it with our own nuclear weapons. You couldn't negotiate with it and it wasn't just a military problem. It was a broad social, political, economic. It was nuclear weapons in the middle of a revolution. That had never happened before and so you needed to have a name for that that people could stick with and remember and “loose nukes” had a certain musicality, even though the topic is grotesque.

Lisa Perry: In 1991, Ash Carter was one of a small group of people, including my grandfather and Senator Nunn, who had been paying close attention to the deteriorating conditions of the Soviet Union and thinking about how it might impact the security of their massive nuclear arsenal. Carter coined the term “loose nukes” to signify this frightening new dilemma.

Ash Carter: This was in a way, a very wonderful time because they were coming out and blinking in the bright light of new-found freedom. All the spirit was, we used to be enemies, now we're friends, let's be friends. But the dark side was that their industry was collapsing, people weren't getting paid, or to a defense industrial company, that very quickly becomes an ugly site where people are stealing weapons, selling weapons, doing anything to survive. Where businesses that don't have the central state to sell their weapons to anymore might be looking around the world, to North Korea or Iran or somewhere else to sell their weapons to. You need to get a sense of scale here. There was enough stuff, that is uranium and plutonium, in the Soviet Union at the time it was breaking up to make hundreds of thousands of bombs

Ash Carter: We only wanted one country, not 15, and not four, to have nuclear weapons. And when the music stopped and everybody sat down in the game of musical chairs of the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons are on the territory of four brand new countries.

Lisa Perry: When the dust settled, Ukraine alone now possessed the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, with Belarus and Kazakhstan not far behind. Senator Sam Nunn recognized the U.S. needed to act quickly to deal with this dangerous new situation. He enlisted an important ally on the Republican side, Senator Dick Lugar. Together, with the help of Ash Carter, they wrote the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act. In essence, this legislation proposed to use taxpayer money to completely denuclearize these three new nuclear weapons states. This complex goal involved securing and disposing any remaining nuclear material, dismantling the warheads, missiles, and delivery systems, destroying silos, and providing housing for the thousands who had worked to build and maintain this arsenal. It was a revolutionary approach to international security. In November 1991, they were finally able to pass their legislation, which would go on to be known as the Nunn-Lugar program. It was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, just four days after Gorbachev declared an end to the Soviet Union. But despite broad bipartisan support, there was still resistance to this approach. The idea of giving aid to the people we’d spent 40 years fighting during the Cold war was a tough pill to swallow, and the program languished as the Bush defense department refused to appropriate the necessary funding to implement it.

Ash Carter: I'll never forget a meeting that Bill and I had. We went into the Pentagon and talked to the, then Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense and we talked to his deputy Don Atwood, and in an office that Bill and I subsequently occupied ourselves years later, looked at us and he said, guys, we just spent 50 years trying to bankrupt these people and now you want to give them something. [Yeah.] That was a classic example of how difficult it was to grasp the fact that you had to help them at the same time you helped yourself or else it wasn't going to happen. But in those days, there were only a few of us who looked at it that way.

Lisa Perry: Ash Carter and my grandfather had been looking at things differently for some time. They were beginning to develop a new way of thinking about defense. They believed that the role of the defense department should not just be responding to threats, but should be expanded to include actively working to prevent them by supporting and cooperating with other nations towards a united future.

Ash Carter: Our mission had a technological aspect but a political aspect as well. You couldn't get our security taken care of unless you paid adequate attention to the other guy’s needs also, which were mostly political and economic - they're always mixed together. Bill gave a name to this kind of cooperation which was intended to stop conflict from developing in the first place and using the Defense Department to do that and not only protect us, fight wars, defeat enemies, but to prevent enemies from becoming enemies in the first place. He called it Preventive Defense.

Lisa Perry: In early 1994, my grandfather would get the chance to put their new approach into practice when he was nominated to become Secretary of Defense under the recently elected President Bill Clinton. Having stepped into this new role, his number one priority was to get Nunn-Lugar off the ground. And that meant finding the right people to carry out this complex, multilateral denuclearization program.

William Perry: And it took getting an implementation team together which Ash Carter was the head of that team and he pulled a team together, which remarkably and improbably consisted of four women.

Ash Carter: We had people who negotiated, and we had people who targeted, but we had nobody who did this, and so nobody had ever done this before. And we had to start all over again. I was picking the best people I knew to do this thing. They were creative, they were knowledgeable; they were fully briefed in the matters at hand. They happened to all be female.

Lisa Perry: One of the members of that team was Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, who had worked under Ash Carter in the 90s as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. Elizabeth worked closely alongside my grandfather to implement this program and three decades later they continue to remain in touch. She came over to his condo one afternoon to reminisce with him about her early days working on Nunn-Lugar.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: I said yes to you as soon as you offered me the job. But it took so long that I seized the opportunity to take intensive Russian lessons. I did six hours a day of intensive Russian with a Russian language tutor.

William Perry: That sounds like total immersion.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: It was, it was brutal. And actually I was 33 at the time and I felt like I was an overcooked piece of spaghetti. I was exhausted from it, but it was very beneficial and what I did with that, which was quite strange, I had a wonderful tutor. I said to him, I need to learn the military language. I need to learn how to speak to generals about denuclearization, and so the language I learned, I didn't even know how to ask to go to the bathroom, but I could speak about, about missile bases and missile silos, nuclear warheads, all sorts of language that normal people did not learn because that was what I needed to know how to talk about when I took my job.  

Lisa Perry: For Liz Sherwood-Randall, it was a new and unique experience to be on a largely female team working in national security in the early 1990s.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: When I began my work in this field in international relations, there were no women who were role models at all. I graduated from college in 1981 and went on to get a Ph.D. I never had a female professor or mentor, nobody I looked ahead to, who I saw I wanted to be like, everybody was male.

Lisa Perry: Despite assembling the best people for the job, they did face some challenges in having a predominantly female team, particularly in dealing with their former Soviet military counterparts, who were not used to dealing with women in professional roles, as my grandfather and Elizabeth would come to find out. 

William Perry: Our first meeting as a team with the Russian team headed by their defense minister Grachev. So we were sitting on one side of the table and they were sitting on the other side of the table. This was in Moscow, and they're all men and they're all generals wearing their uniforms. Sitting on our side of the table beside Ash and myself were three women who didn't look anything like the people on the other side of the table. And you could tell the incredulity on the other side of the table as to what these three women were doing there.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: So what I recall was how totally unfamiliar it was for these men who had all, on the other side of the table, who had all been members of the Soviet military, to even imagine a role for a woman, which was different from the only roles that existed in the Soviet military.

William Perry: They assumed that somehow you were our escorts.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: They thought that we were either spies or we were servicing the delegation, right? That those were the only two models that we could possibly have been. So we were meant to seduce them or we were supporting you, but not in, in the policy sense. And I think initially what happened was that you set the stage for them to treat me with respect. When we went to our initial meeting with Pavel Grachev and our Russian counterparts asked for an explanation of something complicated, you turn to me and you said, “Dr. Sherwood has responsibility for that. I'm going to let her explain it.” And they were shocked to see that you relied on someone who looked like me, who was clearly junior and female and civilian, to support you. And through that example, you showed them that they needed to work with me and that they shouldn't mess with me. And that also happened in Ukraine and it happened in Kazakhstan and it happened in Uzbekistan, and so I think that your counterparts came to understand that although it was strange for them, it was the way to get things done with us and we were extending a hand to them and they wanted to grab that hand. It was a lifeline for them.

Lisa Perry: Accepting this lifeline from the United States, once their greatest enemy, required putting aside nearly 50 years of mutual hostility, but these fledgling countries recognized the value of this offer. With the collapse of the USSR, these newly independent nations emerged with severely crippled economies and they knew they could not afford to maintain the infrastructure needed for their inherited nuclear arsenals, nor the security measures necessary to keep them safe and out of enemy hands. Just as in the United States, they were also concerned about aspiring nuclear nations or terror groups obtaining nuclear technology. Yet despite their need, to suddenly be working hand in hand alongside Americans to dismantle the weapons they once pointed at the United States was a dramatic shift for many former Cold Warriors and required careful and delicate diplomacy.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: You know, it's hard for people to imagine what a gigantic cultural chasm we were stepping across. For many people, it was anathema to think in a cooperative mode about the former Soviets, the Russians, that cooperative denuclearization as a concept was, was actually revolutionary. That cooperative security was scary to people. We had been mortal adversaries. We held each other in check through mutually assured destruction and the notion that you would step across that divide and build partnership was, was to some people really insane

Lisa Perry: The team had to think creatively in order to overcome any resistance to denuclearization and to demonstrate that denuclearized was in fact in their best interest, but that required building trust, where before there had only been animosity.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: If you go into a country and you say, I want something from you, just straight up, I want your nuclear weapons, you are likely to create a sense on the part of that country that they have something valuable that they shouldn't give up for free. And we hadn't yet built the relationships of sufficient confidence and trust that would enable their political leadership to make that hard decision, by showing their people that they were going to be benefits to doing that. And what I needed to do was build a whole program of cooperation bilaterally with each country, that would demonstrate to the leadership of those countries and then to the people of those countries that there was a reason for them to give up their nuclear weapons, that they would be more secure without nuclear weapons than with nuclear weapons.

Lisa Perry: An important aspect of Preventive Defense is the notion that we can strengthen international relations through interpersonal relations. My grandfather believed that diplomacy should be a tool that was not limited to the State Department and that fostering direct relationships with defense counterparts in other countries would be critical for their success in persuading these countries to give up their nuclear weapons.

Ash Carter: People think of diplomacy as about moving pieces around on a chessboard and having good strategy and good at it. And that's important but in the end, your relationship with your foreign counterpart matters. You're in this together. And Bill had a way with other defense ministers, which I tried to emulate when I was Secretary of Defense, of connecting with them as people and they're not going to do anything as a consequence of being your friend that isn't good for their own country, but your communications will be so much better.

William Perry: Building of trust is the issue. So they believe you when you tell them something.

Lisa Perry: Part of building these personal relationships involved developing a better understanding of the cultures and perspectives of each nation.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: That personal quality of the relationships you established and the time that you took to get to know people and to learn about their culture and what mattered to them made all the difference in the most difficult times that we faced. And everywhere you went, you asked to do something that was not inside the ministries of government. You wanted to actually do something that showed your interest in understanding the people of the country that you were visiting. And that showed them that you were not self-interested, you were actually interested in their future, in their people's opportunities. It had a huge impact.

Lisa Perry: The team had a lot on their plate building these cross-cultural relationships and sometimes found themselves in situations that called for a sort of culinary diplomacy.

William Perry: What sticks in my mind about Kazakhstan was that they hosted that dinner for us that evening and I was the guest of honor.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: Indeed.

William Perry: And you were cheering me on all the while as they put this pig’s head in front of me. Was it a pig’s head or a lamb’s head?

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: I think it was a lamb.

William Perry: A lamb’s head. And they explained to me that since I was the guest of honor, I got the prize part of the lamb, which are the ears, and my job was to cut off the years and put them on my plate. And I stood there looking at that head and looking at those ears, and I, so I cut off the left ear and then, a Kazakhstan general sitting in my left, I handed him the ear and said, this is, I would like to give this to you in honor of my visit here. And then I cut off the right ear and went on to play to the man on my right. They were both delighted to get those ears and I was delighted to be rid of them. And happily, that lamb had only two ears. So I was, I was off the hook. I can remember that well, I can remember you sitting there grinning while I was doing all this.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: You know, I learned that we needed to eat all sorts of things for our country. I felt that we should be given a special medal for it ultimately because we did have to ingest some things that under normal circumstances we would not have eaten. I had to eat some, some brain at one point, which was served to me, an animal was slaughtered in front of me and I was given the brain and the person traveling with me was given the scalp and I remember just saying to her, this was my special assistant, Catherine Mooney, Carol, who went on to work for Ash subsequently, just eat it, eat it for your country.

Lisa Perry: And beyond the perils of foreign cuisine, there was also the excitement of foreign air travel. During his term, my grandfather traveled more than any other Secretary of Defense before him, in part due to his work supporting the Nunn-Lugar efforts, and more than once, he risked his life in the process.

William Perry: I want to give you one example of something that almost went wrong in a big way. We were sitting in the Kiev airport waiting to take off to Pervomaysk; the Ukrainian defense minister had a plane for us to go out there, but it was snowing, pretty heavy snow, and so they delayed the departure of the airplane. We waited and we waited and then after two hours of waiting, the defense minister comes over and says, okay, we're cleared to go. So we got in the airplane and took off and flew to Pervomaysk. And I was looking out the window when we came down to land and I couldn't see the runway. I just couldn't see it, the snow was so heavy. Turned out the pilot couldn't see it either. And he crash-landed. His plane missed the runway when he landed and one of the wheels at least was off on the turf and the plane tipped over. And the thing that saved us was that there was so much snow there that the wings, instead of hitting the ground, went into the snowbank. Nobody was killed. Nobody's even seriously injured, but that could've had a very different ending. We later found out that the defense minister had just overruled the safety. He didn't want to not take us on the trip and he knew that if we didn't take off very soon, that Grachev and I might have to leave. So he just overruled the safety officer and we all got into the plane and flew and we almost all died on that airplane. That would have ended the program in a big hurry.

Ash Carter:  We tend to remember small things at the moments when you think they may be your last moments on earth, and what I remember is you now you have three defense secretaries of three very big countries and the security guards for three of them are sitting in the back of the plane. The whole back of the plane is filled with security guards. And when this plane crashed landed, what I remember is the air filled with loaded pistols flying around that were coming from the security detail in the back. [laughter]

Lisa Perry: That crash landing happened in Pervomaysk, Ukraine, the site of the single largest missile complex in the entire Soviet Union, and a major focus of the denuclearization efforts. The team visited Pervomaysk four times to assess the process, which involved first transferring the warheads to Russia, then destroying the missiles, blowing up the silos that housed the missiles, and finally creating housing for the displaced Soviet military who had worked there. The team's first visit was a particularly powerful experience for these former Cold Warriors and drove home the true insanity of nuclear warfare.

William Perry: But on that first visit to Pervomaysk, that was a very dramatic visit. They offered to take us down to the command center. I will never forget that trip.

Ash Carter: First of all, Bill and I had been in U.S. silos for many years, and so we were familiar with the unique experience of being deep underground in a small hardened concrete capsule where the keys are turned that launch a missile, and it would be humanity's greatest catastrophe if it ever happened, but we'd only been there in North Dakota and places in the United States. Here we were at Pervomaysk, Ukraine, at what was the Soviet Union's most sophisticated ICBM base, going down in their newly constructed command capsule. And on the wall was a map of our country, the United States, and with little lights on it, right Bill. And there were little lights, which were the targets of the missiles that were in this command center. An extremely professional group of airmen who sit down there waiting for orders that would unleash this horrible thing. And so it was macabre to see that on the other side and it really, Bill, I'm sure you felt the same way, it hardened in my mind forever that we really needed to do what we were doing because you could just see right in front of you how we’re seconds away from that danger and anything we can do to eliminate that danger we should be doing.

William Perry: There we were, standing at the place where they could launch enough missiles to destroy the United States, including our hometowns, and at the same time understanding that while we were standing there, that very spot would have targeted by American missiles. And it just more than anything, I think it dramatized to me the truly absurdity of the Cold War and the targeting of each other's nations with these hugely destructive weapons.

Lisa: It's really hard to conceptualize the fact that we have the power to essentially destroy all of humanity and that power lies in these dark holes in the power of people with two keys on various parts of the world.

William Perry: That one site itself had the power to do that. It could destroy the United States. One site.

Lisa Perry: Their final trip to Pervomaysk in 1996 signified a dramatic change from that first harrowing visit and impressed upon the team how far they had come in the several years since the ending of the Cold War. Pervomaysk had come to symbolize a blossoming new future between our nations, one where we were sowing cooperation, not conflict.

William Perry: By that time, the missile silo were blown up, the mess had been cleared up, the ground was smoothed over and they were turning the whole missile field into an agricultural field. What they chose to make was a sunflower field, this huge acreage that had been a missile field was now being converted into a sunflower field. It was so wonderful to go there. And the Minister of Defense of Russia, Minister of Defense of Ukraine and myself were given shovels to plant sunflowers while we were there. I have a picture of us doing that with Ash standing in the background with the biggest grin on his face.

Lisa Perry: I remember that photo. You've had that hanging in your house for a very long time in a very prominent place. What a beautiful, very literal example of turning swords into plowshares.

William Perry: Yes.

Lisa Perry: Did you ever see the field again?

William Perry: Yes, I did. But even before I saw it again, the American ambassador to Ukraine, who had come with us on that trip, about four or five months later sent me a letter saying he'd gone back to visit again. The sunflowers have been harvested and he took a couple of seeds from one of the sunflower plants to put them in a letter. So I have had for many years these sunflower seeds in my desk to remind me of that, of that wonderful visit.

Lisa Perry: That sunflower field became the backdrop to another important Nunn-Lugar effort aimed at supporting the workers who once maintained the complex at Pervomaysk and who were now unemployed and struggling in a weakened post-Soviet economy. Concerningly, there was evidence showing that these highly skilled nuclear experts were sought after by nations interested in developing their own nuclear programs, such as Iran and North Korea. In order to secure these worker’s future, Senator Nunn convinced an American contractor to supply plans for making prefab houses, and my grandfather authorized funds to be used to build a new community for the officers and their families.

Ash Carter: We visited this little town that was built where no town had been. Little town, brand new streets laid out and all these new houses and I and my staff who had been working on this for Bill and then we're taking him there. We called it Perryville. We went to Perryville and it was charming.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: And do you remember the beautiful ceremony, Bill, where they presented you and Lee with a beautiful bread and salt. Which was the traditional way in which people were welcomed into a new home and it was a wonderful celebration honoring you and what you had done for the community.

William Perry: I do remember that, but I remember even more after I was out of office back at Stanford, I got a letter from one of those officers with a picture of himself and his family standing in the garden and he said, if I remember the letter properly, he said, “I hope the seeds of peace that you planted in our town will be spread all over the world and save the world from nuclear fire.” [Beautiful]

Lisa Perry: My grandfather continues to hold what they accomplished at Pervomaysk as a reminder of their profound achievements under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, having lessened the danger of nuclear catastrophe in ways they could not have even dreamed of four years prior. Having spent his entire career working to prevent a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, being able to be at the helm of this effort remains his proudest achievement.

William Perry: Many years later I was leading a Stanford study tour that was going to Russia and then on down to the Black Sea, but we stopped off at Pervomaysk on the way between Moscow and Sochi. They’ve got a tour. It turns out that the Ukrainians have made that into a park and people come visit the park, they’ve got missiles there and they can pay a little fee and they get down to the same control center that you and I went down to and get, you get to sit at the control center and press the buttons to launch the missiles. It's a tourist attraction now, Pervomaysk.

Lisa Perry: Over the course of the program, hundreds of nuclear missiles, bombers, and submarines were dismantled. Several tons of fissile material was secured and housing was built for thousands of former military who had worked in the Soviet nuclear complexes. But the program went beyond denuclearizing the former Soviet Union. We also cut into our own nuclear arsenal to show that we were truly committed to a new post-Cold War world.

William Perry: Russians started, many Russians, started asking the question, wait a minute, is this the United States helping us or is this United States disarming us? And we felt we had to do something to counter that view, so in parallel with what we're doing in Russia, we had to dismantle a program going on in the United States too. In fact, during those four years, if I remember the numbers correctly, we had dismantled about 4,000 nukes in the former Soviet Union and about the same amount in the United States. So we invited Minister Grachev back to visit us and took him out to, I think it was Whiteman Air Force base and invite the press to watch he and I pressing a button which blew up a silo, a Titan silo, and made sure that that picture not only got in the New York Times and the Washington Post, but in the Moscow newspapers, to try to make the point, these weapons were not needed as they had been during the Cold War and we were dismantling American missiles as well as Russian missiles.

Lisa Perry: In total, over 8,000 nuclear weapons were dismantled in both the former Soviet Union and the United States. But the fissile material in the warheads could not simply be destroyed. So instead, the team came up with a rather electrifying way to safely utilize this dangerous remnant of the Cold War.

Sam Nunn: They removed the material from the bombs and it was blended down into low enriched uranium and then the United States made a, turned out to be a 16-year deal to buy that, blended down nuclear material to burn in American nuclear power plants. 20% of all electricity in America, still 19-20%, comes from nuclear power. And during that period of time, 50% of the nuclear power fuel was from those weapons. So by definition, 10% of all the electricity in the United States for that approximately 10 year period was coming from weapon material that had been in the form of bombs aimed at us.

Lisa Perry: The elimination of 8000 nuclear weapons under the Nunn-Lugar program undoubtedly created a safer world. However, my grandfather believes that the cooperative relationships he was able to build with his foreign counterparts, may have been equally as important as the number of warheads they successfully dismantled. It was those relationships that would lead to a greater alliance during the Bosnian war, when Russia joined NATO forces under American command. This was a historical moment that reinforced one of the key ideas of preventive defense: cooperative security.

William Perry: It was symbolic of an extraordinary cooperation between Russia and the United States. It's hard to imagine our two countries agreeing on that kind of a cooperation program today, but yet it demonstrated what can be done, how much can be accomplished when our two countries work together for a common purpose.

Lisa Perry: Unfortunately, after my grandfather left office, support for this expansive interpretation of the Defense Department’s role began to wane. During the years that followed, the US often treated Russia as a second-class nation, rather than as a strategic partner. American disregard of Russian interests had a corrosive effect on the relationship between the two countries.

Ash Carter: We didn't do everything perfectly. And sometimes we acted disrespectfully towards Russia and danced around the campfire and said that we had won the Cold War. And, that's not a way of making people feel good about a circumstance.

Lisa Perry: As Russia began to recover from its economic troubles, Vladimir Putin did his best to re-assert his nation’s role as a superpower. He began a series of provocative moves against the US and the West that have led to our current mutual hostility.

William Perry: I believe our present strained relations between the United States and Russia, are extremely dangerous for both countries. And I also believe they could have been prevented if we had taken appropriate actions in the early part of this century. It was not inevitable that we would end up in this hostile relationship with Russia and there are actions that our government could have taken, some of which would have been taken by the Defense Department, that would have, I think, prevented this from happening.

Lisa Perry: Today, it’s hard to imagine what good relations with Russia might look like. But as Nunn-Lugar taught us, the shared threat of nuclear weapons remains a powerful incentive for cooperation.

William Perry: We have to overcome the view that talking with them on nuclear issues, which are to our benefit, is somehow doing them a favor. Because the nuclear issues are so serious and could lead to such a great catastrophe, then I believe we have to put a priority on finding a way of dealing with them without minimizing or dismissing the other areas where we have profound disagreement.

Lisa Perry: Despite spending his career in defense, my grandfather actually got his PhD in mathematics. And when approaching difficult problems like these, he always likes to go back to the straightforward logic of math.

William Perry: We have to separate the variables. We have to separate out the issues with which we agree, the issues that we don't agree. And the hope is, is as not only as you make progress in dealing on a dialogue with Russia on nuclear terrorism, you might also set the stage for being able to get back and deal with some of those other intractable problems as well.

Lisa Perry: The principles of Preventive Defense may seem obvious - fostering peaceful future relationships through dialogue, cooperative exercises, and understanding. But the history of western defense strategy has overwhelmingly depended upon deterring aggression through strength and force, not diplomacy. If anything, our recent nuclear weapons policy is doubling down on this aggressive stance. Nunn-Lugar provided the world with an alternative approach. We can’t change the past, but perhaps we can start to find avenues of cooperation, in order to prevent greater catastrophe in the future.

For Liz Sherwood, having witnessed firsthand what the world was like before their efforts, their success was personal.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall: I had the good fortune to come back after we both stepped down from our positions at the Pentagon and I had a new baby shortly thereafter, and a group of former Russian strategic officers, people who'd worked in the Ministry of Defense complex, focused on, on nuclear weapons, came to visit us at Stanford. And in keeping with your tradition of making a personal connection, I invited everybody to come to our home for a barbecue. You were there and General Shalikashvili was there and these former Russian nuclear weapons people were there. They sat in my garden and I handed my new baby Richard Randall to one of them to hold in his lap. He wanted to hold my baby, and he took my baby in his lap and he said, “you know, I remember targeting this area with nuclear weapons. We studied this area very carefully, the San Francisco area, and we targeted this place. Isn't it wonderful to be sitting here today holding the next generation in my lap and having this occasion together?” [yeah] It was such a bracing moment thinking about being with someone who had looked at the overhead imagery, of course, and put Soviet nuclear weapons on this location, and to have a little baby in his lap who he was cuddling and speaking about how different the times were.

Lisa Perry: If you liked our show and want to help raise awareness about these issues, please subscribe, review, and share our show with your friends. The more people who know about the problem, the closer we can come to pushing for a solution. To learn more about our featured guests, send us questions, or read what the Cooperative Threat Reduction program is up to today, go to our website: www.atthebrink.org. At the Brink is made possible by the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. These organizations work tirelessly to combat the global threat of nuclear weapons.

This podcast is a creation of the William J. Perry Project, led by director Robin Perry, and education director David Perry. This episode was produced by Jeff Large and Maggie Fischer from Come Alive Creative, and Ryan Hobler is our composer and audio engineer. Thank you to our listeners—You're helping us to try and save the world one podcast at a time. I'm Lisa Perry. Thanks for listening.

Author

Lisa Perry

Lisa Perry is the digital communications manager at The William J. Perry Project.

Author

Ash Carter

Ash Carter is a former U.S. Secretary of Defense and the current director of the Belfer Center.

Author

William Perry

William Perry is a former U.S. Secretary of Defense and the founder of the The William J. Perry Project.

Author

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is a former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy and a current non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center.

Author

Sam Nunn

Sam Nunn is a former U.S. Senator and a current co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Photo is public domain from the U.S. federal government.