William James Perry

William James Perry (born 1927) became President Clinton's second secretary of defense after the resignation of Les Aspin. A Washington insider, Perry was the second technocrat to hold this significant government position.

William James Perry was born October 11, 1927, in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, the son of a grocer, Edward Martin Perry, and Mabelle Estelle (Dunlop) Perry. He excelled in mathematics and music, playing piano in a swing band.

Perry entered the U.S. Army in 1946 and served as a surveyor in the Corps of Engineers in Japan and Okinawa for a year. On December 29, 1947, he married Leonilla Mary Green, with whom he had five children: David Carter, William Wick, Rebecca Lynn, Robin Lee, and Mark Lloyd. Despite family responsibilities, Leonilla Perry eventually became a certified public accountant, formerly associated with the firm of Hemming and Morse in San Mateo, while Perry became a mathematician. He graduated with a B.A. (1949) and M.A. (1950), both in mathematics, from Stanford University.

Perry taught at the University of Idaho for the 1950-51 academic year and worked as a research engineer at Boeing in 1951. The fall of that year he entered Penn State University to study for a doctorate. He taught as an instructor there from 1951 to 1954. At the same time, he served as a mathematician at HRB-Singer in State College, Pennsylvania. In 1954 he became director of GTE Sylvania's defense laboratory in Mountain View, California—a post he held for ten years. In 1957 Penn State awarded him a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Perry had become a reserve officer in the army and continued to go on training tours, one of which resulted in a hearing loss because of artillery fire. His expertise in electromagnetic systems and partial differential equations, combined with his knowledge of military systems, led to further advancement. In 1964 Perry became president of ESL, Inc., a firm specializing in military electronics in Sunnyvale, California. From 1966 on, he also served as a technical consultant at the Department of Defense and as a mathematics instructor at the University of Santa Clara.

Perry moved to Washington, D.C., to work full time in 1977 when he became undersecretary for research and development in the Carter administration, under the direction of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. Perry's record in that position has been a topic of considerable debate. A believer in using high-tech weapons to counter the Soviet Union's numerical advantage in both manpower and conventional weapons, Perry pushed the Pentagon and Congress to develop advanced weapons systems such as laserguided bombs, cruise missiles, the F-117 Stealth fighter, and the Apache helicopter. He was also identified with such questionable programs as the MX missile, the Maverick missile, the F-18, the Divad gun, and the B-2 Stealth bomber, the most expensive aircraft in aviation history. Scheduled to cost $200 million each in the late 1970s, the first B-2 entered the Air Force inventory at a cost of $2.2 billion in 1994. He caused critics to believe he was not concerned with costs when he blocked Secretary Brown's attempt to monitor procurement by creating an Office of Testing and Evaluation.

Although not a public figure, Perry became a Washington insider. He was a trusted adviser to former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia and an admirer of Al Gore of Tennessee. He also worked with such Republican defense experts as Brent Skowcroft, with whom he chaired the Aspen Strategy Group. When Perry left Washington in 1981 he had gained a solid reputation in the Capitol as well as a Distinguished Public Service Medal from the Department of Defense (1980) and a Distinguished Service Medal from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), (1981).

Relocating in San Francisco, Perry became president of the investment banking firm Hambrecht and Quist, a post he held until 1985. He then became head of Technical Strategies and Alliances, a defense-related industry in Menlo Park, California. He left that firm in 1989 to become a professor of mathematics and co-director of the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University.

In 1993 he returned to Washington to serve as deputy secretary for defense in Bill Clinton's administration—a post he made clear he did not intend to serve in President Clinton's second term. His announced goal was to reduce procurement costs by relying more heavily on off-the-shelf commercial products while still contracting for such specialty weapons as nuclear submarines, fighter planes, and tanks. When Les Aspin resigned from the Defense Department in December 1993 and Bobby Ray Inman withdrew his name from consideration the following month, Perry agreed to serve, although he told friends of his reluctance to fight the kind of battles he had seen Aspin and Brown experience. Easily approved on February 3, 1994, Perry was the first technocrat to become secretary of defense since Harold Brown. He faced many problems, not the least of which was how to reduce the defense budget while still maintaining adequate armed forces. Following the chaotic tenure of Aspin, a New York Times report asserted in 1996, that Perry quickly restored order, discipline, and morale—three qualities crucial to military effectiveness. Despite his soft-spoken nature, Perry emerged as an articulate and candid spokesman for the Administration's policies. His record was tarnished however, by the June 1996 terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia killing 19 American servicemen. Perry and his top aides were criticized for failing to put a premium on security at American installations in the Middle East.

Despite criticisms, Perry has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1997); the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal (1980 and 1981); and Outstanding Civilian Service Medals from the Army (1962 and 1997); the Air Force (1997); the Navy (1997); the Defense Intelligence Agency (1977 and 1997); NASA (1981); and the Coast Guard (1997). He received the American Electronic Association's Medal of Achievement (1980); the Eisenhower Medal (1996); the Forrestal Medal (1994); and the Henry Stimson Medal (1994). The National Academy of Engineering selected him for the Arthur Bueche Medal (1996). He has been honored with awards from enlisted personnel of the Army, Navy, and the Air Force. Perry has received decorations from the governments of Germany, France, Korea, Albania, Poland and Hungary.

Perry is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor at Stanford University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Engineering and the Institute for International Studies.


Further Reading on William James Perry

Additional information on Perry can be found in American Men and Women of Science; P. Glastris, "The Powers That Shouldn't Be: Five Washington Insiders the Next Democratic President Shouldn't Hire, " Washington Monthly (October 1987); R.W. Apple, Jr., "Leading Contender Is Said To Decline Top Defense Post, " the New York Times (January 24, 1994); Eric Schmitt, "A Wide-Ranging Insider: William James Perry, " the New York Times (January 25, 1994); and Douglas Jehl, "Pentagon Deputy Is Clinton's Choice for Defense Chief, " the New York Times (January 25, 1994). For Perry's ideas on defense and how to pay the price, see his "Defense Investment Strategy, " Foreign Affairs (Spring 1989), and "Desert Storm and Deterrence, " Foreign Affairs (Fall 1991).