William J. Perry, Metanoia

What do we do with the words of an old man who warns us not to do what he spent his whole life doing? Pity the fool? Take his hard-earned advice? Take his last confession? Today, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, who turns 89 next month, uses what could be his last hurrah on the New York Times op-ed page to regret that the United States “spent trillions of dollars and took incredible risks in a misguided quest for security” with nuclear weapons, especially ICBMs. “There is only one way to win an arms race: Refuse to run,” he writes. Thirty-seven years ago, when he was Under-Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, I interviewed him for Harpers Magazine about his support for building the MX missile, the ultimate war-fighting nuke. He spent his entire career at the highest levels of the military-industrial complex. Now, near heaven’s gate, he sounds like an activist from SANE. This is not quite as pitiable as elderly Robert McNamara admitting in his 1995 book In Retrospect that he had been “wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam, but it is the same metanoiac conversion–so little, so late, so useless as to ring utterly hollow.

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