Fix “the button” so that a president can’t wreck the world

Summary: The President of America is the most powerful man in the world, with no restraint on his (or her) ability to nuke cities or even start a nuclear war. We have come close to doing so in the past, and might not be so lucky in the future. Limiting this discretionary power is an obvious and necessary step. Do we have the wisdom to do so? This is a test of our fitness for world leadership.

Donald Trump's nuclear threat

For the past 72 years, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, use of nukes has been a red line that no nation has crossed. It is both a formal and informal prohibition, part of the “law of nations” mentioned in the Constitution (rooted in natural law). Such barriers seem impenetrable until they are broken. The next break is easier. A few more cases and the behavior is normalized. Two centuries ago Clausewitz warned us about this.

“But the reader will agree with us when we say that once barriers — which in a sense consist only in man’s ignorance of what is possible — are torn down, they are not so easily set up again.”
— From Clausewitz’s On War, book VIII, chapter 3B (1832).

In yesterday’s post about nuclear weapons, Martin van Creveld gave us comforting words about the odds of nuclear war.

“If the prospect of a nuclear war can deter a Trump, then presumably it can deter anyone. …Meaning that proliferation, rather than nonproliferation, is the right route. If not to peace on earth and the brotherhood of men, at any rate to preventing major war between major powers.”

I am less confident than van Creveld that “the prospect of a nuclear war can deter a Trump”. I worry that if Trump crosses that line, other nations will do so. Once using nukes becomes normalized, the world is on the fast track to Hell.

Nuclear Kraken
Art by lchappell.

What nation is most like to next use nuclear weapons?

America is the nation that I can most easily imagine using nukes. I worried about that even before Trump’s election. Now the odds are higher.

A Matter for Men. Book One of The War Against the Chtorr series.
Available at Amazon.

Thirty years ago the first stories of Iran’s nukes appeared the great science fiction writer David Gerrold published A Matter for Men (book one in his War Against the Chtorr series). In its backstory, the US nuked another nation. The global revulsion against this led to our classification as dangerous rogue hegemon, creating a global alliance to shackle America.

Something similar almost happens in Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears. This disaster is prevented only by the action of the hero, Jack Ryan (see the end of this post to see how it was avoided).

This could too easily happen. It would be another first for America, following our first use of nukes in war, our first strike at Iran in an undeclared cyberwar, plus our many invasions of other nations. There are many possible results, most ranging from bad to horrific.

There are many stories about US considering first use of nuclear weapons in our wars since WWII — in addition to the familiar close encounters with nuclear war during the Cold War (e.g., the Berlin Airlift, Cuban Missile Crisis).

Also scary are the casual recommendations that we use atomic weapons that are commonplace on the right (very much so after 9/11). Right-wing radio host Michael Savage on 17 April 2006: “They say, ‘Oh, there’s a billion of them.’ I said, ‘So, kill 100 million of them, then there’d be 900 million of them.'”

For a dispassionate analysis of this see “Would the United States ever actually use nuclear weapons?” by Kingston Reif at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It includes a summary of US policy about first use of nuclear weapons.

What about the “two man rule”?

“He could launch a kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody. He doesn’t have to call the Congress. He doesn’t have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in.”
Vice President Cheney on Fox News, December 2008.

Contrary to myth, there is no “two man rule” limiting the President’s authority to use nukes — even launching them all to destroy the world. The SecDef only confirms that the order was given by the President, but does not confirm the President’s sanity let alone give a second authorization for their use. If the SecDef refuses to confirm the order, the President can fire the SecDef and try again.

Trump’s election made us realize this problem in our system. But not enough to actually do anything.

There is no excuse for America giving so much power to a single person. It is mad and carelessness behavior by us, America’s citizens — who have responsibility for the deeds of our government. Will we act now that we are aware of the issue?

Might Trump have only minutes to fire nukes?

“If the United States appeared to be under nuclear assault, the president would have minutes to decide whether the threat was real, and to fire as many as 925 nuclear warheads with a destructive force greater than 17,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to estimates by Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington.”
New York Times, 4 August 2016.

This is not just wrong, it is ludicrously wrong (and a nice illustration that much in the news is wrong). Kristensen is describing a “launch on warning” system (LOW). The US has a spent vast sums to provide a second strike capability, most importantly by a triad of launch systems: land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and bombers. This makes LOW unnecessary because the US can respond even after taking a foe’s first strike.

LOW was always an option for the US, but never adopted as policy. For example, see the directive about nuclear war from President Clinton in 1997 (see this 1997 WaPo article and follow-up by the Arms Control Assn).

For More Information

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The Sum of All Fears
Available at Amazon.

Tom Clancy describes a solution.

A realistic and chilling look at our future is this excerpt from Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears (1991), especially since his stories have foreshadowed so many events. Some key details are wrong, but the bottom line is right.

After a terrorist attack on Denver, the President decides to nuke an Iranian city in reprisal. The, Jack Ryan, hero gives the story a happy ending. In the real world we cannot count on heroes.


{President Fowler} “Yes, General, and I intend to get the man who did this, and get him in a way that will send a message that nobody will ever forget. The leader of Iran has committed an act of war against the United States of America. I intend to reply exactly in proportion to his act, I want a {nuclear] missile targeted on Qum. …The American people will demand that I act! I must reply to this — to make sure it never happens again!”

… “Mr. President, this is General Fremont {Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command).” Sir, we have re-targeted a Minuteman-III missile in North Dakota for the target specified. … The launch sequence will take about a minute from the time you give the order. …Next, Mr. President, the order must be confirmed. … The two-man rule applies. In the event of an overt attack, I can be the second man, but since that is not the case, someone on my list must confirm the order. …to be on the list you must be an elected official or one approved by Congress.”

“I’m on the list,” {Jack Ryan, Deputy Director of the CIA}.

“Deputy Director Ryan, this is C IN C-SAC,” Fremont said in a voice that oddly mimicked the robotic one used to issue SAC orders. “Sir, I have received a nuclear-launch order. I need you to confirm that order…

“C IN C-SAC, this is John Patrick Ryan. I am DDCI. Sir, I do not confirm this order. I repeat, General, this is not a valid launch order. Acknowledge at once!”

“Sir, I copy negative approval of the order.”

“That is correct,“ Jack said, his voice growing stronger. ”General, it is my duty to inform you that in my opinion the President is not, I repeat not in command of his faculties. I urge you to consider that if another launch order is attempted.”

14 thoughts on “Fix “the button” so that a president can’t wreck the world”

  1. Two comments:

    1. I believe “summary of US police” should be “summary of US policy.” The first version briefly left me wondering if nuclear weapons had ever been considered for crowd control in the US.

    2. FM has highlighted two continuing fallacies of many thinkers in the US about nuclear weapons:
    a) All people in the target nation will automatically fall into line and do what we want if we use nuclear weapons in a non-assured destruction mode (such as hitting a single city with one bomb). My observation is that humans tend to try every option and the odds are that in the long run we will create a much greater enemy than we originally faced.

    b) That nuclear weapons are just a bigger version of the so-called “Mother of all Bombs” and can be used as such. The problem with nuclear weapons is that they are very expensive to acquire and maintain but they cannot be usefully used for anything short of an Armageddon scenario.

    I agree with FM that van Crevald makes a rare mistake when he says that nuclear proliferation is safer than non-proliferation. Inevitably we are going to have an incident where a country with a few bombs and a leader of doubtful sanity will use a bomb to “make a point” and the world will predictably become a less happy place to live. Delaying that moment as long as possible to buy the human race enough time to mature as much as possible is the one sane way to a better future.

    As a side note, the two books I find most useful from Tom Clancy’s writing are “Sum of all Fears” and “Clear and Present Danger” even though the latter book indulges in so much magical thinking to arrive at a happy ending I can barely stand it.

    1. Pluto,

      I enjoy Clancy’s books as fantasy. They are a modern version of Lord of the Rings. In them the CIA and FBI are law-abiding, competent agencies. Prince Charles is a well-balanced family man. Gorbachev leads Russia with wisdom and machiavellian skill. Our high-tech weapons work. Our wise and skillful leaders save the day.

      Sum of All Fears and Executive Orders are my favorites. Almost as good as Fellowship of the Ring. Not as good (or inspiring) as EE Smith’s Triplanetary and First Lensmen – or Heinlein’s Space Patrol.

  2. I served as a security police officer in the air force in the late 70’s…part of our mission was to provide security for nuclear devices…missile silo’s…B52 Bombers…etc. the 2 man rule applied as to correctly applying launch codes verifying an order to launch…2 officers deep inside a silo for instance…and when any work was to be done on a warhead that at least 2 persons with equal expertice were required to be present…the idea being that if one were to make a mistake or attempt to sabotage the device then the other would catch it and prevent it….it had nothing to do with the decision to order a launch….of course alot has probably changed by now but that is how the 2 man rule was applied then.

  3. Fabius, you promised to raise the hard questions and they don’t get harder than this one.

    Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. We’ve moved a long way from that provision by redefining war in ways that enable the the U.S. to have roughly 800 military bases in more than 30 countries to to actively conduct special operations missions in one hundred or more countries worldwide i would hazard a guess that the President has not personally authorized each of these “warlike” operations, nor has Congress considered the pros and cons of declaring these actions as a state of war.

    Single handed Presidential control over first strike nuclear action derives from a unique time in history during which the U.S. faced off against the Soviet Union with warfleets capable of mutual global destruction on continual hairtrigger war footing. We face a far different world today, with multipolar actors, a number of which are nuclear armed, but none of which is likely to initiate a unilateral strike against the U. S. homeland. However, any one of these countries could react to unilateral action by any one of the others (including the U.S.) in ways detrimental to both our country and our world. This does indeed appear to be a good moment in history to reconsider the appropriate decision process controlling first strike nuclear action, but the optimal answer to the question is not obvious. There are bad actors in the world and our nuclear fleet provides a significant deterrent force that has helped keep the peace in our lifetimes. It’s not clear to me that our current political system is structured to assure a better mechanism of control.

    1. John,

      “redefining war in ways that enable the the U.S. to have roughly 800 military bases in more than 30 countries”

      Congress authorizes the bases by the funds that pay for them.

      “i would hazard a guess that the President has not personally authorized each of these “warlike” operations”

      Those operations are conducted using the president’s delegated powers, just like almost everything else the Executive branch does.

      “Single handed Presidential control over first strike nuclear action derives from a unique time in history during which…”

      True, but that period ended in the late 1960’s, when deployment of the Polaris-2 gave the US a robust second strike capability — eliminating any need for the President to use the “Declaration of War: the short form.”

      “It’s not clear to me that our current political system is structured to assure a better mechanism of control.”

      You must be kidding. A group of Cub Scouts could devise a better system for using nukes than complete discretion in the hands of the President. No other nation does that (except perhaps North Korea – not a great model).

      1. We have deployed a global legionary force engaged in scores of actions that have the potential to escalate into significant shooting wars. I’m not saying that’s wrong. It’s almost certainly necessary. However, we have not had a cogent national conversation concerning the role of the U.S. as global hegemon or the implications of deployment of imperial armies for the future of the Republic and both Congress and multiple presidents seem comfortable deferring to what Mr. Bannon referred to as the Deep State on these issues.

        Most likely the failure of our political class to openly confront these issues played a major role in the outcome of the 2016 election and will likely become an increasingly more important disruptive force in our national conversation until a consensus can be reached as to our appropriate global role.

      2. John,

        Nicely said. You are more optimistic than I. I fear that we’ll stumble along until we make an awful mistake (e.g., using nukes) or piss off somebody who gives a really devastating strike against the US.

        “Most likely the failure of our political class to openly confront these issues played a major role in the outcome of the 2016 election”

        Any evidence for that? I don’t recall it even being an issue. Both Trump and Hillary are full supporters of the MIC and an aggressive (even belligerent) military.

  4. prof. van crevald’s suggestion that proliferation is to be preferred to non-proliferation strikes me as an extraordinarily misguided idea. the more sources of nukes there are, the greater the risk of a non-state i.e. terrorist organization, getting control of one or more weapons. deterrence is problematic with respect to such entities. against whom would we retaliate?

    1. jay,

      That’s a legitimate risk! But van Creveld considers the risk of deliberate use by states as the far larger risk. To mention just one point, terrorists might explode one bomb. That would be tragedy. But state-state atomic warfare could destroy entire nations.

    2. Is there any independently attested-to attempt of a terrorist group trying to get a nuke? It seems like a nuke would let them kill a bunch of people, but at that point, everyone would hate them. 9/11 got Iranians in the streets with candles on our behalf.

      I think sometimes that ‘nuclear terrorism’ is just used as an excuse for more military spending and fewer nuclear power plants.

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