Resident recalls career as former Secretary of Defense

Although he was born in Pennsylvania, served in the Army of Occupation of Japan, and traveled to 66 countries as the United States Secretary of Defense, Dr. William Perry has always called Palo Alto home. He recalls, "I remember graduating from Stanford, degree in hand, thinking 'Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?'"

After a remarkable career in which he oversaw the development of stealth technology, GPS and smart weapons that led to a Coalition Victory in the first Gulf War, and the dismantling of thousands of nuclear weapons in the effort to achieve greater peace and security throughout the world, Dr. Perry considers raising a family that he is proud of to be his greatest accomplishment. 

Happily married for 68 years “and in love for 70,” Dr. Perry resides with his wife Leonilla at Vi at Palo Alto where he can be close to that which he loves most: his five children, eight grandchildren, one great grandchild, and Stanford University. 

“Coming to Vi at Palo Alto was really a gift to our children. We wanted to relieve them of the burden of taking care of us, so we came here for the care center. Everything else – the landscaping, the service, the lifestyle – have all been pleasant surprises.”

Living less than a mile from the Stanford campus is a real convenience for Dr. Perry, who keeps an incredibly busy schedule. In addition to being the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor Emeritus and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and the Hoover Institution, he meets at least three to four times a week with the William J. Perry Project, a research collaboration he began with the mission of educating the public to the dangers of nuclear weapons. It’s a cause he’s extremely passionate about, a direct result of his firsthand experience trying to contain nuclear threats. 

Two incidents in particular shaped his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. 

The first was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dr. Perry was one of a small intelligence team that worked around the clock analyzing the photographs that came back from American reconnaissance aircraft. “I truly believed that every day that I went into the analysis center, was going to be my last day on earth. We were closer to catastrophe than most people realize.”

The second event occurred when he was Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering during the Carter Administration. He received a 3 a.m. phone call that the Soviet Union had launched 200 missiles on the United States. It turned out to be a false alarm, but it left a deep impression upon him of the very real possibility of nuclear war. “We were very lucky to have survived the cold war.” 

With that knowledge, Dr. Perry feels a responsibility to educate the public about the threat of nuclear weapons, particularly to the younger generations who have not grown up with duck and cover drills. “Millenials don’t have any understanding of how dangerous nuclear weapons are. I decided to dedicate myself to reaching them.” 

Although he wrote a book, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” to be published in 2015, Dr. Perry realized that he would need to utilize technology to reach a younger audience. That is why the William J. Perry project is developing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). It’s an educational course made up of five-minute videos that can be watched on a desktop or cell phone. His hopes are that with shorter content he can engage millennials, and with an archive, create a lasting message of peace.

It’s an uncomfortable topic to talk about, he says, but one he does willingly. “I’m doing it for my children and my grandchildren.”
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