The worst fear of the American Founding Fathers was that democracy would empower demagogues, as it has with President Donald Trump. What they never could have imagined is that the executive power they enshrined in the Constitution, with its checks and balances already being eroded, would one day have the sole authority to commit mass destruction by unleashing an atomic force unknown in the 18th century. What fright it would have given those wise framers to think that the same paranoid hothead who battles his way through every 24-hour news cycle by unreflectively firing off barbed tweets at sundry foes would also have his itchy finger on the nuclear trigger.
That is the issue raised in The WorldPost this week by Joe Cirincione, who recalls that during the Watergate investigation leading to Richard Nixon’s impeachment some 45 years ago, the increasingly erratic president told visiting lawmakers: “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead.” And, indeed, Nixon did to go Defcon 3, the highest alert status since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As Cirincione points out, whatever you might think of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, their steady heads provided much-needed restraint as Nixon descended into a bout of drink and depression that only fortified his instinct to strike out. Today, the ranks of the responsible have been decimated by successive purges. Little stands between the Donald and the bomb.
“U.S. policy, then and now,” Cirincione writes, “gives the president absolute authority to launch nuclear weapons whenever they want, for whatever reason. No consensus is required. No one else need approve.”
“Indeed,” he continues, “no other official even need know. The president, on their own, can simply summon the ‘nuclear football,’ open binders of attack options and relay orders to the National Military Command Center. The orders would be sent down to missile control officers — where intercontinental ballistic missiles are primed on ‘hair-trigger’ alert — and 30 minutes later you’d have nuclear explosions over the targets, just as Nixon claimed.”
As he concludes, “Nixon alerted us to the danger: Our nuclear command and control system is insane. Now, the age of Trump — perhaps our most volatile president yet — reminds us that we have yet to address the problem.”
What Cirincione recommends: “It should be the first order of business in a new administration to declare new nuclear guidance and adjust nuclear alert postures accordingly. Legislators, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), have already introduced bills to prevent presidents from acting solely on their own to launch nuclear weapons and to make it official policy that America will never initiate a nuclear war. These provide a sound basis for a new president to revamp nuclear doctrine and to prevent, as President John F. Kennedy said, that slender thread holding the nuclear sword of Damocles from being cut by ‘accident or miscalculation or madness.’ We must prepare to do all we can to ensure that no one individual — sane or insane — can ever start a nuclear war on their own.”