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A mushroom cloud. (photo: Medium)
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Sole Control of the Use of Our Nuclear Weapons
By Ronnie Dugger, Reader Supported News
02 December 16
he American president decides entirely alone whether to explode our nation’s nuclear weapons on foreign targets. This has been true ever since President Truman ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but not of a third Japanese city because of, he said in a cabinet meeting, “all those kids.” Strategy and targeting are worked out in advance under the president’s control. Like every president since Truman, President-elect Donald Trump will soon be our elected dictator over our atom-splitting bombs.
The other seven more-and-less democracies and one dictatorship that are nuclear-armed vary in their arrangements for who fires off their nuclear weapons. In Russia, whose chief on-media propagandist now brags that his country can reduce the United States to ashes, President Vladimir Putin, the defense minister, and the chief of the general staff share control over the nation’s nuclear codes. In Pakistan also three persons, the prime minister, the president, and a third person who is not identified, must agree on it before launching their nuclear bombs. If the British prime minister can’t do it, two of her deputies can. The heads of state in China, India, France, and Israel control their nations’ nuclear warheads, as presumably the dictator of North Korea does too.
Last March a senior fellow in foreign policy at the respected Brookings Institution, Michael E. O’Hanlon, focused on this solitary power of the American president “to kill tens or hundreds of millions” of people and proposed that the awesome fact should be focused on and changed.
On the use of nuclear weapons in war, O’Hanlon wrote, the U.S. “needs additional checks and balances” and “a model” that we should share with other nuclear-armed nations. He proposed the president should be required to consult in advance with leaders of Congress, and he provisionally suggested requiring approval of such use by a majority of six other officials, the House Speaker, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the majority and minority leaders of both chambers.
O’Hanlon explained that the U.S. president “can, in theory, launch nuclear warfare by personal decision – without any checks or balances” and added that “a President could push the button all by himself or herself, legally- and constitutionally-speaking.” If the secretary of Defense, the chief of the Strategic Command, or lower-down military personnel, charged to carry out a president’s order to launch nuclear bombs, refused to do it, O’Hanlon wrote, that would be “open insubordination, subject to dismissal and court-martial.”
The War Powers Act of 1973 requires Congressional approval of a president’s military action within 60 days of its inception, but if that action was nuclear bombs, after two months millions, even billions, could be dead.
It is unlikely, O’Hanlon wrote, but we “could have a mentally ill President who chose to do the unthinkable,” with “the possibility of completely intentional nuclear war initiated by a psychotic, schizophrenic, or otherwise unbalanced leader. Again, for all his barbs and insults and affected anger, Trump is likely not such a person. But his candidacy is enough to at least raise the salience of the question.”
President-elect Trump, soon to have sole total authority over the use of the nation’s 4,500 nuclear weapons – many more than a thousand of them on hair-trigger launch-on-warning alert – has been thinking intensely about nuclear weapons for at least four decades and has five clearly-declared convictions concerning them.
One, Trump believes nuclear weapons and their proliferation are the most important issue in the world. “[I]t’s unthinkable, the power,” he says. “The biggest risk for this world or this country is nuclear weapons, the power of nuclear weapons.”
Two, for him the strong taboo against more nations getting nuclear weapons no longer holds: South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia should probably – it would be OK with him – get national nuclear arsenals of their own. Speaking about South Korea and Japan he said, “If they do, they do. Good luck. Enjoy yourselves, folks.” Japan will do it whether we like it or not, in his opinion, and, he said this year, “I would rather have Japan have some form of defense or even offense against that maniac who runs North Korea,” the president, Kim Jong-un.
Three, campaigning for president, he said he does not want to be the one to detonate nuclear weapons first and that only as “an absolute last step” would he order the military to fire them off. But he added, “I’m never going to rule anything out,” and, as for other nations, “at a minimum I want them to think maybe we would use them.”
Four, Trump believes that deterrence theory, the mutual-assured-destruction foundation of the 20th century nuclear arms race, does not prevent nuclear war among rival lesser nuclear-armed nations as it has between the U.S. and Russia. When he was 38, in 1987, he told reporter Ron Rosenbaum, “The deterrence of mutual assured destruction that prevents the United States and the USSR from nuking each other won’t work on the level of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange. Or a madman dictator with a briefcase-bomb team. The only answer,” he advocated passionately, “is for the Big Two [the U.S. and the Soviet Union then] to make a deal now to step in and prevent the next generation of nations about to go nuclear from doing so. By whatever means necessary.”
As I reported on Reader Supported News last July 15th, approaching his 40th year Trump seriously wanted to be the chief United States negotiator with the Soviet Union to make that deal. His plan was to sell the USSR his idea and proposal that, via trade maneuvers by the U.S. and Soviet “retaliation,” the “Big Two” should gang up on lesser nuclear nations to coerce and force them to give up their nuclear weapons. “You do whatever is necessary,” he said, “so these people will have riots in the street, so they can’t get water, so they can’t get Band-Aids, so they can’t get food. Because that’s the only thing that’s going to do it – the people, the riots.” He said his plan applied against France, too, if France would not give up its nuclear bombs.
Five, Trump, running for president, said that nuclear weapons are going to be used now in the present world. “We’re dealing with people in the world that would use [nuclear weapons], OK?” he told the board of The New York Times. “You have many people that would use it right now in this world.” Characterizing North Korea’s Kim as “like a maniac” and “a madman,” Trump said this year Kim “is sick enough” to use his nuclear weapons.
Yet Trump also has said he is willing to meet with Kim, and he declared during a policy conference he had with his now-chief strategist Steve Bannon last December that if he was elected, he would have U.S. citizens who were imprisoned in North Korea back on American shores before his swearing-in.
It would seem as a logical matter that because of Trump’s fifth conviction that nuclear weapons will be used, if as president he comes into a war-potential situation with another nuclear-armed nation other than Russia or perhaps China, he is likelier than he would be without that conviction to launch U.S. nuclear weapons first against that adversary, thinking that if he did not, the adversary nation well might launch them against us first.
Beyond that, during his campaign Trump displayed and enacted his lifelong rule to always seek revenge; his impulsiveness and quickness to anger; his apparent indifference to the pain he causes others; and his huge ego, his statement that just about meant that on foreign policy he confers most respectfully with himself. These and related considerations led some prominent citizens to exclaim that he should not get his hands on the nuclear codes.
But, Six, Trump also said in passing this year on his way to becoming the most powerful person on earth next January that bad things will happen for us with nuclear weapons “if we don’t eliminate them.” That, too, is in his mind. Let’s go bold and call this his sixth line of thought about all the nuclear warheads.
One Man With All Humanity at His Mercy
Who controls our nuclear arsenal is so important for the continuing life and existence of humanity, I suggest, for my part, that President Obama and the Congress now meeting in its final session, and if and as necessary then President Trump and the new Congress next year, take up this subject to have the launching of our nuclear arsenal not for only the president to decide, but rather for the control to belong to the collective deciding power of a small group of our national leaders.
Concerning those who defend limiting to the one person the power to kill millions of us and possibly escalate us into the end of humanity, in self-defense we citizens, as if channeling the Captain of the Good Ship Enterprise, should tell Congress and the president of this new plan, “Make it so.”
Barack Obama, the most powerful person on earth for seven more weeks, as surprised as most are who is the new president, could and I dare to say should himself simply by presidential executive order distribute his present control over nuclear weapons among a group of five or seven including himself and in a day or a few have created a communications system for them, setting a high example and precedent for his successors. He and Trump have an evidently civil relationship; Obama could handle this with him politely (as if politeness has any business here).
For an example alternative to Brookings fellow O’Hanlon’s postulation of a five-person nuclear control group, the permanent committee on the nuclear arsenal might, after reflection and debate, be composed of five, the president, the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and one majority or minority leader of each chamber chosen to accomplish a balance in those two between the two main parties.
Or, a Republican Congress might want a permanent committee of the president, the vice-president, the speaker, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If, say to achieve bipartisanship adding one of the majority or minority leaders of both chambers balanced as to parties, there would be a permanent committee of seven, or if all four of those, nine. The leaders and Congress could in good faith just work this out together and make it law.
Since our detonation of our nuclear weapons on cities, nations, or “military targets” (but not ones like Truman said Hiroshima was!) for a tactical or otherwise limited purpose can readily escalate into the end of life on the earth, it seems to me the decision to launch nuclear weapons should require the unanimous agreement of the members of a permanent committee who can be consulted in time. The president and Congress might compromise, if necessary, on requiring 4 out of 5, or 5 or 6 out of 7 … on which, humanity in the cosmos might depend.
In my opinion all members of the permanent committee (what the communists used to call the presidium) governing our nuclear arsenal should justly be legally required, in fidelity to their primary human duty to humanity, to submit their personal autonomy and tranquility to being continuously connected all to each other by fail-safe-as-possible secure communication.
Something like this would also provide a practical, although ethically monstrous assistance for the president’s unbelievable ethical problem if suddenly his national security adviser told him (or, soon, her) that a nuclear attack from X direction, according to our possibly hacked messages from NORAD, is about to explode upon us: the problem of his or her 10 or 15 or so minutes to decide whether to retaliate by mass murder, slaughtering and maiming many millions of totally innocent people as ostensibly ruling deterrence-theory requires and we have cross-our-hearts promised.
The president being commander-in-chief, if all the president’s nuclear presidium members contacted have approved a launch of H-bombs to retaliate and the president is alive and able, then at that final point only the president could give that order, or, the president alone retaining the ultimate power not to commit the mass murder of millions in indefensible before-our-deaths revenge, the president could decide to not retaliate.
This is one form of the rising danger we are all in.
No attention has been given in media I have seen to O’Hanlon’s Brookings posting calling for limitations on the president’s sole control of nuclear weapons, but two years ago the subject was considered publicly to a limited extent in some reviews of W.W. Norton’s remarkable book, Thermonuclear Monarchy, Choosing Between Democracy and Doom, by Elaine Scarry, a professor of ethics and value at Harvard University.
Scarry’s basic theme is that nuclear weapons, in matters concerning them, have in reality abolished Congress and therefore American democracy. She contends that the specific and unqualified requirement in the Constitution that only Congress declare war and its Second Amendment postulating citizens’ right to take up arms in militias to defend the country mean that given the nature of nuclear weapons the only constitutional remedy against them is to abolish them.
H-bombs, “designed to be fired by a small number of persons,” are, Scarry wrote, “the literal technology for killing entire populations at will,” and “the essential feature” of the technology is that “it locates in the hands of a solitary person the power to kill millions of people,” “the capacity to annihilate all the peoples on earth.” The president has “genocidal injuring power at his personal disposal through nuclear weapons…. [T]he people of earth … can be dispatched all at a blow.”
Comprehending, somehow, the total destructive power in the U.S. nuclear arsenal directly bears on whether control over it should be held by only one person. By Scarry’s “conservative” estimates, Obama now personally controls and next January 20th President-elect Trump will personally control the more than one billion tons of equivalent TNT-blastpower that is in our nuclear warheads.
The Harvard professor writes that each one of our U.S. Trident nuclear-armed submarines carries eight times the total blastpower exploded by all the sides in World War II. Each sub has the power of 4,000 Hiroshima-power blasts in 24 missiles containing between 8 and 17 warheads. Any one of the subs can “destroy the people of an entire continent,” there are seven continents, and we have 14 Tridents.
Under the one person’s control, as Scarry writes “we own,” in the pointed-outward tubes in our Trident fleet, 3,100 nuclear warheads with a total blastpower of 273 million tons of TNT, in our land-based ICBM warheads we own another 503 million tons of TNT blast, and then in our nuclear warheads for our bombers we own another 410 million tons of TNT power; in all, we together own about 1,186 million tons of TNT blastpower.
How whimsical and how weird this God-like power is, handed over to one person just because he’s or she’s won our presidency! Since early 1963 the nuclear briefcase, the “football” containing the nuclear codes for the use of only the president, has been carried continuously by an officer in the room the president is in or an adjacent one, as Scarry reports. It is always near the president, including when he is traveling, except for some freak incidents. When President Carter, who once sent his codes to the cleaners in a suit jacket, went rafting in Idaho, another raft followed his down the river with an officer on it carrying the briefcase. When Ronald Reagan was shot, a car containing an officer carrying the codes followed him to the hospital. President Clinton, who sometimes, anyway, kept the codes attached to his credit cards with a rubber band, lost them for several months and didn’t tell the Pentagon.
Does it matter, this one-person power of launch-and-gone? If citizens realized how often since Hiroshima we have been close to again attacking other nations with our nuclear weapons they would know that it really does. Scarry reports that since 1945 our presidents have frequently considered using them, although the official admissions of this don’t reach the public for several decades.
Eisenhower left instructions to officers that if he was out of communication they were to launch nuclear weapons if we came under attack whether nuclear or conventional. Twice he considered launching them himself, over the Taiwan Straits, 1954, and the Berlin crisis, 1959. President Kennedy considered their use three times (40 years after Kennedy’s murder, Robert McNamara said the U.S. came “three times within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war with the Soviet Union”). President Johnson considered a nuclear attack on China to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. President Nixon advocated to Henry Kissinger that the U.S. should use nuclear bombs in the Vietnam War, and, he said 13 years after his presidency, he contemplated using them three other times and not about Vietnam.
As Scarry also points out, only John Kennedy brought the people in on these nuclear-weapons-and-considering-their-use close calls. From since about Reagan, but also earlier, much top-secret truth about our slick missiles of mass death is yet to be made available to the people by their government. If the people knew what they should, they might at least think about the case for pluralizing control of our nuclear arsenal.
7 Weeks, 4 Years … Perry: “Time Is Not on Our Side”
In the later sixties, having dinner for about six in a tiny White House dining room that faces onto Lafayette Square, I sitting by President Johnson, I said to him that, since he had said publicly that in the first half-hour of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange 40 million people would die, what were we reporters supposed to tell the people out there (gesturing leftward to the square) about it?
After a silence, the president said he knew exactly what I was asking (which, in my guarded intent, was, would he himself actually fire off our nuclear weapons?). After telling a long story about how a little Brown & Root airplane he was on made it bouncingly through a lightning storm back down to earth, and he woke up as they landed, he grew angry that I had asked him about this – you and you liberals who don’t have all the secret facts! – and then suddenly in his rising rage he shouted at me, “I’m the one who has to mash the button!” as he mashed his stiffened thumb down in the air bending rightward almost to the floor.
Reportedly President Nixon was preoccupied with his power over the nuclear weapons. A historian has recorded that Nixon told Senator Alan Cranston, “Why, I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.”
Reliable journalistic sources recorded that Nixon ordered a tactical nuclear strike against North Vietnam which Kissinger had the Joint Chiefs of Staff stop until Nixon sobered up overnight. During Arab nations’ war on Israel in October 1972 the Soviet Union appeared to be planning to come in on the side of the Arabs. One night the one man didn’t do. USSR premier Leonid Brezhnev sent Nixon a threatening message. Nixon was deemed by those near him too drunk asleep to awaken, and in the morning his inner circle sent Brezhnev a threatening reply signed as if by Nixon, who was in fact dead-drunk asleep. Brezhnev backed off.
In another case with Nixon at least three high officials intervened, perhaps at risk of their prosecution if Nixon had so chosen, to check him. A few weeks before Nixon resigned his secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, ordered the chairman of the Joint Chiefs that any emergency order coming from Nixon had to be shown to Schlesinger before it was acted on.
President Reagan, after having called the USSR an evil empire, pivoted sharply by his 1984 State of the Union address in which he said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought…. [W]ould it not be better to do away with [nuclear weapons] entirely?” He and Mikhail Gorbachev almost did that, but failed.
Since then Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, in their 2002 and 2010 official nuclear policy documents, explicitly declared that the U.S. may make first use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances, which of course the U.S. would define. The U.S. arsenal now contains or is to contain new nuclear weapons that are smaller to make them “more usable,” including one, the B61-12, that is called “dial-a-yield” because the sender of it can adjust it to explode at any of four different levels of destruction.
Russia and the U.S. together have about 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. Putin has declared Russia will use its stock of them if necessary to preserve the existence of the state. Showing increased interest in them for battlefield combat, Russian officials indicated they are prepared to use them, and first, whether or not it is a nuclear threat that they are under.
William J. Perry, the secretary of Defense under President Clinton, has now dedicated the rest of his life to educating and arousing the people to the rapidly rising danger of nuclear war. Perry warns in his revelatory new book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, published by Stanford University Press, that “time is not on our side.”
Thus do we Americans, all of us but one, find ourselves concerning the 4,500 nuclear weapons we own still totally inert in the hands of our presidents, one after the other, in this new world of mass murder by codes, because one man commanding in battle and war came down to us through centuries, tribal chiefs, kings, emperors, presidents. This became the way of war because the side whose fighters were commanded by the one brave and shrewder man often won or his forces survived to fight again. Our evolved genetic instinct to follow one man in battle and war is very deep. It is now also obsolete because our nuclear weapons are not for battles or wars but for mass murders and for the first time in our history can and may kill us all.
No one person in any nation on earth should have the sole power to decide alone to launch nuclear weapons in the name and authority of the country he or she is of. Perhaps in this next seven weeks and the ensuing administration we can face down in our own nation those who, perhaps seeing this subject as a political ploy against Trump, will want to continue giving just one person among us the power to end life on earth. Changing this horror in the United States, by Obama or Trump or Congress or all of them, could become a first step to changing it in the world.
Ronnie Dugger received the George Polk career award for journalism in 2012. Founding editor of The Texas Observer, he has published biographical books about Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, other books about Hiroshima and universities, articles for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other periodicals, and is now in Austin writing a book about nuclear war. firstname.lastname@example.org
Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.
Comment: This is the most urgently solved issue by mankind – actually and eventually by everyone (deluded by ego fiction destroying eco). Where is the equality of all men, while a man can annihilate not only men, but all life forms? We must awaken to the fiction of “sovereign state, self, etc.” in the truth/ethic of the interdependent and intertwined world!!!
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