Perkins was born in Rochester, New York, in 1925, where his father was a professor at the University of Rochester. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II in the European theater. He received his A.B. in 1947 from Harvard University, and completed his doctoral work there in 1952 under the direction of Frederick Merk. He taught for a period of time at the University of California, Los Angeles. He joined the University of Michigan history department in 1962 and retired in [???]. He was Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. He was Commonwealth Fund Lecturer at University College London.