Disclaimer/Trigger Warning: If you’re already nervous about what Donald Trump is capable of as President of the United States, you probably don’t want to read the following.
Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
-from “Eve of Destruction,” written by P.F. Sloan in 1964
recorded by Barry McGuire July 1965
On twitter, I came across a comment made by award-winning, San Francisco based journalist Chip Franklin:
Trump can launch nukes whenever he wants. I’m not shitting you. NO ONE can legally stop him from a first strike. Mattis couldn’t stop him, and now he’s gone. Imagine Trump’s state of mind when his removal is imminent. So, once again, F*ck you GOP.
You can find that twitter commentary HERE.
Mr. Franklin included a link to the December 23rd Washington Post story Trump can launch nuclear weapons whenever he wants, with or without Mattis written by Bruce Blair, who decades ago was an Air Force nuclear missile crewman and now an Anti-Nuke activist, and Jon Wolfsthal.
I decided to fact check Franklin, and lo and behold, recent stories at Vox, Politico, and The New York Times (paywalled) verify this. True, all of my sources lean heavily left, and while I would like to have more neutral news agencies confirm this information, I’m satisfied that the basics they present of the President’s authority to launch a nuclear strike are factual.
Actually, it’s a two-person process. Once the President gives the order to launch a nuclear strike at a target (or targets), the Secretary of Defense must verify that the order actually came from the President. However, the Secretary has no veto authority whatsoever. All the SOD is verifying is that it really was the President who gave the order. Legally, any other consideration is moot.
So the question then becomes, what if the President is insane?
I know a lot of people have “concerns” about President Trump’s mental stability, but this issue has come up before.
In 2011, author Ron Rosenbaum wrote a book called How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, and in describing his book in the Slate article An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age published in the same year, he heavily criticizes a system where a single individual has the power to end tens of millions of lives with a virtual press of a button.
He raised this concern in 2011 when Barack Obama was the President, which is interesting since I can’t imagine Rosenbaum was worried about former President Obama’s mental stability. But he did enlighten me that the question of whether or not a nuclear strike order could be issued by a less than sane President was brought up previously when Richard Nixon was POTUS. Quoting from Rosenbaum’s Slate article:
It was a question that changed his life, and changed mine, and may have changed—even saved—all of ours by calling attention to flaws in our nuclear command and control system at the height of the Cold War. It was a question that makes Maj. Hering an unsung hero of the nuclear age. A question that came from inside the system, a question that has no good answer: How can any missile crewman know that an order to twist his launch key in its slot and send a thermonuclear missile rocketing out of its silo—a nuke capable of killing millions of civilians—is lawful, legitimate, and comes from a sane president?
You can click on the link I provided to review this lengthy story, but as a result of then Major Harold L. Hering’s question, raised while he was attending missile training class, he eventually lost his commission as an Air Force officer, and as of 2011, he was a long-haul truck driver.
Oh, it seems Hering’s concerns were justifiable, especially if he knew the following, also quoted from Rosenbaum’s article:
But you’ve probably read about Richard Nixon acting erratically, drinking heavily as Watergate closed in on him. You may not have read about the time he told a dinner party at the White House, “I could leave this room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.”
You’ve probably heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis which occurred during October 16-28, 1962. I was eight years old at the time and during part of that moment of history, I was in the hospital having my tonsils removed. What I didn’t know until many decades later was while I was sipping apple juice and eating ice cream to sooth my recently surgically assaulted throat, my Dad, with one other airman, was sitting at the controls of a nuclear missile launch site waiting for orders from President John F. Kennedy to turn his key at the same time as his fellow crewman and send tons of nuclear death to a target in the Soviet Union.
How many guys can say that about their Dad?
Fortunately, the crisis was resolved diplomatically, but it could easily have gone the other way (or maybe not, but I don’t have the behind the scenes info).
Going back to the Rosenbaum article:
In the book I wrote, I focus on the astonishingly unexamined morality of retaliation that Maj. Hering-type questions open up. One of the most surprising discoveries I made was in my conversation with Moshe Halbertal, the Israeli military ethicist who said no—no nuclear retaliation is morally acceptable. I found myself in agreement. And you, dear reader, would you question such an order, like Hering or Halbertal, or just carry it out? Would you kill 20 million people to carry out a threat that failed?
That’s an interesting question. Actually, it’s two questions.
The first is If I were in the position of launching a nuclear missile at a target that would be certain to kill millions, when the order came from (presumably) the President, would I follow orders immediately and without question? By the way, this is exactly what is expected of every military person charged with launching a nuclear missile. Anyone who might question the authority and rationality of the President’s order is weeded out of the missile training program.
The second is If you knew hundreds or thousands of nuclear missiles were about to strike your country, and were absolutely certain that once they hit, you, everyone you know and love, and tens of millions of people all around the United States would die, would you launch a retaliatory strike?
I mean, it’s too late to save your own butt or anyone else’s. You’re going to die anyway. The only thing launching a counter strike would accomplish is getting revenge for millions of your countrymen being killed by killing millions of people on the side that first launched.
I knew my Dad (he’ll be dead two years this coming April) probably as well as anyone, having been raised by him. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that if he had received a Presidential order to launch his missiles, he would have done so without hesitation. He’d have obeyed orders. No moral hand wringing, no crisis of conscience. He took an oath to defend the United States and uphold the Constitution when he joined the Air Force and that’s exactly what he would do.
Do I agree with what he would have done?
I don’t have a clear-cut answer. It’s probably one reason why I would never have joined the military (along with a number of others, though I do not disdain anyone who serves or who has served our country, including my Dad and my son).
It’s not just a matter of how many people die in the initial attack or later by radiation and cancer, but the consequences of even a limited nuclear war would result, as Rosenbaum mentions (but I knew anyway), in a nuclear winter, a massive cloud of dust thrown into the atmosphere by the detonations, blocking out sunlight to the degree that the global temperature would take a drastic downturn, destroying food crops. It’s estimated that up to a billion people would starve to death.
So you’re sitting in a bunker, staring nuclear death straight in the face along with 20 million or so other people, and you know everything I’ve just written. Chances are, the world is pretty much screwed anyway, at least for decades. Do you make matters worse for any survivors out of a sense of either duty or justice?
If you don’t want that responsibility, don’t put yourself in a position where someone might give it to you.
But those are just the moral reasons. They are the same whether the President is Kennedy, Obama, or Trump.
One of Chip Franklin’s questions is that as President Trump’s time in office wanes, will he end up in the same mental condition as Nixon? It’s uncertain whether or not Congress will ever have the means to impeach Trump, and if they do, whether the cause would be sufficient for his removal from office. If he were impeached and he knew his days were numbered, so to speak, would he launch a nuclear strike just out of spite?
Or let’s say he becomes increasingly unhinged, even if he faces no legal threat that could remove him from the White House. Does he just say “screw it” and give the order?
Or what about him getting into another twitter war with Kim Jong-un and the North Korean despot threatens to nuke San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington D.C. (okay, North Korean missiles probably don’t have that kind of range)? Would Trump feel justified in launching a preemptive strike to (potentially) save American lives?
I don’t know about you, but my crystal ball is kind of hazy. I think what has kept nuclear weapons from being used in war since 1945 is that all of the people capable of starting a nuclear war knows to a certainty that once you launch your nukes, nobody wins.
It would seem the sensible solution is to disarm, but that means every other nuclear nation would need to do the same, and I don’t see that happening. Certainly North Korea won’t because their weaponry is what gives them a seat at the table with the rest of the atomic countries. Obama’s deal with Iran allows their research and development to become “unlimited” by 2024 and accumulate excess heavy water by 2031, and I don’t see them practicing restraint after those milestone dates (or even before).
I don’t have an answer, but I’m pretty sure no nation currently in possession of nuclear weapons is going to totally disarm, and no nation attempting to achieve a nuclear status is going to back down if they have a choice in the matter.
Should the President’s authority to launch nuclear missiles be more limited, with checks and balances built in? The system was constructed the way it is because if another power launches a nuclear strike against us, there might be only minutes to decide about a counter strike. No time to consult with Congress. What about the Secretary of Defense? Should he/she be given more authority as far as assessing the situation and either confirming or blocking the President’s order? I suppose the SOD could try to talk the President out of it, but if it came to that, then it would mean the validity of the situation that we must go to nuclear war is seriously in question.
It’s been 73 years since nuclear weapons were used in war, not that we haven’t had plenty of wars in the meantime. Everybody knows you don’t win a nuclear war, you just survive one, but at a terrible cost in human lives and global climate.
During the Nixon administration, one man questioned the system, but instead of leading to an overhaul, an Air Force officer lost his career, and everything remained the same. Not that I have anything to say about it, but maybe it is time to reconsider just how much authority any one human being has to end the lives of millions.