The U.S. and the Soviet Union came horrifyingly close to nuclear disaster on several occasions during the Cold War, said former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry during the April 26 University of Georgia Charter Lecture.
However, Perry and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn said the world is no safer from a nuclear threat now than it has been in the 71 years since the last nuclear weapons were used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Instead, the speakers said the threat might be getting more acute with nine nations now believed to have nuclear weapons, plus the efforts by Iran and North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons and the threat of terrorists constructing and detonating a rudimentary “dirty bomb” from radiological materials.
“I believe the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today is higher than it was during the Cold War,” said Perry, who joined the lecture from Stanford University over a video feed.
The Charter Lecture Series, established in 1988 and named to honor the high ideals expressed in the 1785 Charter, was held in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries. Nunn and moderator Loch K. Johnson, Regents Professor and Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of International Affairs, sat together for a discussion in front of a capacity audience in the Russell Building auditorium as Perry’s live video feed was projected on a big screen.
The title of the lecture was “Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in an Age of Terrorism,” a cause of deep concern for both speakers. Nunn, who represented Georgia as U.S. senator from 1972-1997, is the CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization that works with governments, partner organizations and leaders around the world to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, prevent their spread and end them as a threat to the world. Perry, the Berberian Professor at Stanford University, also has worked with NTI.
Perry and Nunn said they worried the nuclear threat would remain high as long as the U.S. and Russia continue to be at odds on the international stage.
“We’re in a new era,” Nunn said. “We’re in a race between cooperation and catastrophe. We’ve got to find ways to build bridges even with countries we don’t agree with.”
Perry asked the audience to get involved. He said one reason policymakers are not doing more to address this issue is because the general public isn’t aware of the threat level.
“Each of you in the audience, get yourself educated on these problems and spread what you learn with other people around you,” he said, “so that our policies can become much more compatible with the kind of dangers we face.”