Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry recalls three searing personal experiences that helped him conclude the world must dismantle all nuclear weapons.

Perry told a Harvard Kennedy School audience that he spent the early part of his engineering career building the most frightening nuclear weapons systems on earth, from the MX missile to the Trident and the Air Launched Cruise Missile.

In October 1962, he got a call from a friend in the CIA, telling him to fly immediately from California to Washington. For the next 13 nights, he worked in a team of specialists analyzing photos from U2 spy planes of Soviet missile sites being constructed in Cuba, providing President Kennedy updated information each morning to make decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Every day that I went to our analysis center I truly believed would be my last day on earth,” Perry said.

Delivering the second annual Robert McNamara Lecture on War and Peace on Feb. 24 in the Kennedy School’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Perry described his personal journey from Cold War weapons hawk to nuclear disarmament campaigner. Forum moderator Graham Allison, director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, called Perry one of the Four Horsemen of disarmament. In 2007, Perry banded together with former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former Sen. Sam Nunn to lobby for total dismantling of the world’s nuclear arms.

Read an account of Perry’s speech here. Here’s a link to the full transcript of Perry’s address. And the webcast of the Forum event can also be viewed anytime on the Institute of Politics website.

Perry also recounted other hair-raising moments, including an urgent US military report that 200 Soviet nuclear missiles were inbound toward the United States — a false alarm — and a practice nuclear countdown by a Russian crew at a ballistic missile launch center — well after the end of the Cold War.

Perry, 83, is a professor at Stanford University as well as co-director of the Preventive Defense Project, based at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

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