Can the president of the United States blow up the world? It feels a dumb question to ask, but exploring the answer reveals a larger truth about the power of the American presidency. The answer should be “obviously not.” Of course no single person has such immense power and certainly that person could never be found leading a country founded in opposition to one-man-rule.
But the headlines of a flury of explainers written earlier this year in response to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s statements about nuclear weapons gravely confirm the apocalyptic capabilities of the Chief Executive. However, the content of these articles, indeed even the expert (and nuclear-zero activist) who is quoted in each of the articles, present a more complex view.
Of course no group of sane individuals would create a system that would allow a single individual to send weapons of mass destruction raining over the globe. So how does the system work?
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton invokes the image of a “finger on the nuclear button” when arguing that Trump’s temperament makes him unsuitable for the the presidency. Even if your understanding of the procedure for launching nuclear weapons is derived entirely from popular culture, this characterization seems oversimplified.
I mean, the president has to use a special red phone to call someone in a bunker or a submarine who also has a special red phone, who then must retrieve a set of keys which must be turned simultaneously in two different locks placed far enough apart such that one person can’t turn both of them, and then they can press the button, right? And there’s probably like fingerprint and/or eyeball scanners and/or some sort of voice identity confirmation somewhere along the way too.
As near as I can tell, the president’s order to launch a nuclear strike must be confirmed by the Secretary of Defense (or their appointed alternates or successors). The SecDef cannot veto the president’s order. This order1 is then transmitted to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who confirms their identities, then directs a pair of Pentagon officers to relay the orders, which are confirmed again by another military officer, to U.S. nuclear forces around the globe, along with codes to arm their nukes.
So it seems that the president alone can set all of this into motion—assuming that everyone in the chain-of-command from the Secretary of Defense on down unquestionably obey. If presented with clear evidence of an incoming nuclear strike, I assume they would. But what would happen if an insane president ordered an unprovoked nuclear attack because he felt like it?
The Secretary of Defense, assuming he too hasn’t gone mad, will refuse to second the president’s attack order. So the president relieves him, and then the secretary’s designated successor takes over, and he refuses too. And then he is relieved. This continues until the vice president and the majority of Executive department heads invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and declare the president incapacitated.
But say the mad president has filled his cabinet with madmen who will do his bidding? The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and any other officer in the chain-of-command can refuse to carry out an unprovoked or disproportionate offensive nuclear strike, not just by invoking the laws of armed conflict, but Article II of the U.S. Constitution.2
I suppose the mad president with his mad cabinet could attempt to control the military chain-of-command involved in launching a nuclear strike by purging the U.S. Armed Forces, replacing commanders of U.S. nuclear forces with dependable minions. But at that point, Congress would certainly impeach him, assuming the rest of the military doesn’t oust him first.
The obvious response is that the U.S. and Soviet Union were, at various times minutes away from nuclear war with ostensibly “rational actors” leading both countries, so putting a crazy person in charge only increases the likelihood of catastrophe.
I suggest, however, that it’s the “rational actors” who you gotta look out for. They practice their smart power assuming they are too clever to bumble into disaster. Indeed, we see from the 1979 NORAD incident, that rational actor Jimmy Carter was never even woken up so he could rationally decide how to respond to the (perceived) threat.
Conversely, everyone knows the mad king is dangerous.3 Everyone around the him will work feverishly to avoid situations where the he could do harm. Everyone will be on the lookout for manifestations of his madness so they can remove him from power. Our heightened collective vigilance as we watch the mad king with dread would make us safer.
But this is a silly point to make. What’s truly frightening about these nuclear close calls is that the machinery of nuclear war quickly leaves the hands of both the madman and the rational actor. The launch moves forward on autopilot. We’re here in 2016 watching high-definition streams of the U.S. presidential debates on tiny pocket-computers because years ago, individual commanders in a bunker or a sub decided they weren’t given enough cause to kill millions of people.
There are many compelling reasons not to vote for Donald Trump, but the fear of nuclear war should not be one of them. If you fear nuclear war, get rid of nukes.4
The order specifies the types of targets the U.S. will strike, such as the opponent’s nuclear weapons and the accompanying delivery vehicles, military sites away from cities, military sites near cities, command-and-control centers, or a full-scale attack which presumably includes direct strikes on cities. ↩
An unprovoked offensive strike by the United States would legally necessitate a declaration of war or at least an authorization for the use of military force by Congress. ↩
I question the armchair psychologial analysis of Trump. It’s clear he uses belligerence as a tactic, which invites questions about his temperament and judgment, but I’m not convinced that he’s nuke-the-world-on-a-whim crazy as those who criticize him imply. ↩
Nuclear war likely would not be the extinction event it’s often assumed to be. Cresson Kearny, a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, wrote a book on the subject in response to hyperbolic and inaccurate anti-nuke propaganda such as the influential 1983 film The Day After. ↩