A nuclear test explosion from April 1954 is shown in this undatelined photo from the US Defense Department.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What if, in the future, an American president should become emotionally incapacitated, or even plainly irrational, and then move erroneously toward a military nuclear option? This is a key question that scholars and pertinent policy makers should be addressing continuously, but, in view of the current Donald Trump candidacy, now more assiduously than ever before.
It is, after all, an unambiguously basic nuclear command and control issue.
At the purely personal level, it is also one about which I have been lecturing and publishing for almost half a century.
Let me be more precise. After four years at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear strategic thought, I began to think about offering a suitably authoritative addition to the vital literatures of first-generation nuclear thinkers. Accordingly, by the late 1970s I was busily preparing an original manuscript on this country’s nuclear strategy, and on certain corresponding risks of nuclear war. At that time, I was most specifically interested in US presidential authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
I promptly learned, of course, that seemingly reliable safeguards were meticulously built into all American nuclear command/control decisions, but also that these same essential safeguards might not meaningfully apply at the presidential level. Immediately, this ironic disjunction didn’t appear to make any intellectual sense, especially in a world where national leadership irrationality was hardly unknown.
Accordingly, I then reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a very distinguished former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In response to my query, General Taylor quickly sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated March 14, 1976, the general’s informed letter concluded ominously: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”
Until now, I have never really given any serious thought to this cautionary response; rather, I had simply assumed that “the system” would always operate smoothly.
Today, however, with the plausible prospect of a president Trump, General Taylor’s 1976 warning must take on substantially greater meaning.
Indeed, one must now reasonably assume that if a president Trump were ever to exhibit emotional instability and/or irrationality while in office, he could still 1) order the use of American nuclear weapons, and 2) do so without any calculable expectation of “disobedience.”
Presently, the United States and Russia are involved in “Cold War II,” a steadily expanding and destabilizing development that could complicate any future presidential strategic nuclear decision-making. To wit, on October 3, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a halt to any planned agreement with the US concerning weapons-grade plutonium disposal. Significantly, this suspension took place at the same time that the two superpowers continue a shadowy but unmistakably accelerating new nuclear arms race.
Looking ahead, what should be done by the National Command Authority if its members should sometime decide to oppose an obviously mistaken or contrived presidential order to use American nuclear weapons? Could the NCA respond in an impromptu or expressly ad hoc fashion? Shouldn’t there already be in place certain capable measures to judge the sitting president’s reason and judgment, measures of the same sort that are applied routinely at absolutely all lower levels of national nuclear command authority? In principle, at least, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would simply have to be followed. To do otherwise, in such circumstances, would be illegal on its face.
Any doubts we might have about a president Trump armed with the nuclear codes should also be framed as part of a more generic matter of American presidential authority.
For example, when faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and when not being offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the sitting secretary of defense and/ or chairman of the Joint Chiefs, among several relevant others, 1) be willing to disobey, and 2) be capable of enforcing such presumptively well-founded expressions of disobedience? Such urgent questions are at the tip of the American nuclear command “iceberg.” Soon, even more specific and detailed questions will need to be asked. However, for whatever reason, should these questions be avoided or ignored, we could then sometime discover that necessary remediation is already past due, and that the supposed “only protection” against an irrational American president – “not to elect one,” as General Maxwell Taylor had advised me many years back – had gone unheeded.
That could represent a moment of utterly irremediable national horror.The author was educated at Princeton (PhD, 1971), and is the author of many books, monographs and scholarly articles dealing with various aspects of military nuclear strategy. In Israel, he was chairman of Project Daniel (prime minister Ariel Sharon, 2003).
Over the past years, he has published extensively on nuclear warfare issues.
His twelfth book, published this year by Rowman & Littlefield, is titled: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy.