Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies is Renamed for William J. Perry
By Dialogo April 15, 2013
WASHINGTON — As U.S. secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, William J. Perry often envisioned a place where scholars and officials from throughout the Western Hemisphere could study how the military functions in a democratic society.
Perry’s idea would become the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at Washington’s National Defense University. Yet once he left his post in 1997, Perry often wondered if the center would survive him.
That doubt turned out to be one of the few misjudgments in Perry’s long military career, one in which he was key in the development of the Pentagon’s Stealth aircraft and Global Positioning System technology.
On April 2, the CHDS was named in his honor during a ceremony at Fort McNair, where the project is located.
Speaking to an audience that included his family, foreign generals and embassy dignitaries and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, the 85-year-old Perry reminded his audience that a civilian-run military shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“That might be obvious and simple to all of you,” said Perry, speaking in the Abraham Lincoln Hall auditorium. “But believe me, it isn’t so simple in other countries.”
Perry helped foster regional military cooperation
Ideological resistance to the idea of wide-ranging cooperation among defense departments throughout the Americas was evident early in Perry’s tenure in the Clinton administration.
The 19th U.S. secretary of defense recalled how he wanted to visit Mexico City to engage his counterpart, Gen. Enrique Cervantes Aguirre, and was told it was not a good idea due to lingering resentments against the United States dating back to the mid-19th century.
“I wanted to push the reset button on relations with Mexico,” said Perry, who nonetheless pursued a relationship with Aguirre and in October 1995 became the first U.S. defense secretary in modern times to visit Mexico. The emerging friendship helped thaw relations between the militaries of the two neighboring countries and led to the first Defense Ministerial of the Americas in Williamsburg, Virginia, in August 1995.
From these meetings, the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies — now the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies — was born in 1997.
“This is very important for the exchange of ideas and understanding one another,” said Lt. Col. Ricardo Melendez, a military attaché to the Mexican Embassy who attended the ceremony. “It’s good to know how the United States has achieved” balance between military officials and the civilian agencies which direct them.
The glaring exception to hemispheric cooperation is Cuba. In the autumn of 1962, Perry — then director of a private defense laboratory in California — was summoned to Washington by the Kennedy administration to help assess the threat of Soviet missile bases in Cuba.
Words of praise from Paul Kern, Ashton Carter
Also present at the CHDS ceremony was a man who accompanied Perry on some of the most historic events of the 1990s, including the 1995 Dayton Accords which effectively ended Bosnia’s civil war. That man is retired Army Gen. Paul J. Kern, Perry’s senior military assistant during his tenure as defense secretary.
“Without Secretary Perry’s influence, we would never have gone into the Balkans,” said Kern, 67, former commanding general of the U.S. Army Material Command. “He re-energized NATO to act as things were getting worse [in the former Yugoslavia] instead of better.”
It was also a moment when a Russian brigade joined an American division in Bosnia, marking bilateral military cooperation for the first time since the end of World War II.
“Bill helped negotiate peace in the Balkans and welcomed Russia into the KFOR” international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, said Dr. Ashton B. Carter, 58, a protégé of Perry’s who introduced him at the re-naming ceremony.
“Vision and integrity equals Bill Perry,” said Carter, currently the nation’s deputy secretary of defense under Chuck Hagel. “His achievements were highlighted in the Ukraine in the summer of 1996 when the last nuclear weapons left that country.”
But it was progress on this side of the world that the pomp — accompanied with song by the United States Marine Brass Quintet — was all about. Inscribed on the Perry Center’s seal are the Latin words mens et fides mutual which mean “understanding and mutual trust.
Renaming ceremony helps Perry’s legacy endure
The center was inaugurated Sept. 17, 1997, about eight months after Perry left the Pentagon. Its aim is to foster partnerships with other nations while advancing defense and promoting civilian-military relationships in democratic societies. And it does this through a variety of academic projects, research and outreach programs.
Other activities include post-graduate seminars in national security planning workshops. The center began accepting its first students in early 1998.
Kenneth A. LaPlante, acting director of the Perry Center, said it took an act of Congress and just over five years to get the center renamed for Perry.
LaPlante noted that during Perry’s tenure as defense secretary, three other centers with similar goals were established around the world: the Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany; the Asia Pacific center in Hawaii and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, also on the NDU campus at Fort McNair.
All of these things, Perry said, show “just how much the world has changed, just how much our security has changed … how much the Department of Defense has changed and just how much [the job of secretary of defense] has changed.
Those changes, as well as stories about the man who helped bring them about, are being documented by Perry’s daughter Robin, who now assists her father with writing his memoirs.
“When we were growing up back in Palo Alto, we thought of him as just a father who loved his family,” she said. “But when Dad went to the Pentagon for the first time in 1977, we all knew how accomplished he’d become.”
Let's follow the example of William Perry's vision. His capacity for equilibrium, for mutual understanding between soldiers and civilians, which lead us towards development with peace, justice and safety. It is a good tribute for those of us that follow him.