armed with the nuclear codes
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press). This article first appeared in U.S.
in the late 1970s, I was researching a new book on American
nuclear strategy and corollary risks of worldwide nuclear war.
At the time, I was especially interested in the command and
control of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons, specifically seeking
meaningful answers on various core questions of presidential
decisional authority. Although I was repeatedly reassured by
the Pentagon and appropriate Congressional committees that there
were multiple safeguards built into all American nuclear command
authorities, it still seemed to me that these redundant safeguards
did not really apply at the very highest decisional level.
other words, while up and down the entire chain of command,
responsible individuals were in fact carefully screened and
re-screened for "personnel reliability" or "human
reliability" (depending upon the pertinent service), no
such indispensable screening was in any way applicable at the
pinnacle of this pyramid – that is, to the president of
the United States.
didn't really seem to make any sense, especially in a world
where leadership irrationality was anything but unknown –
including in the United States, in regard, for example, to a
prominent nuclear-era secretary of defense. Concerned about
such an apparent and potentially consequential lapse in American
nuclear planning, I then reached out to retired Gen. Maxwell
D. Taylor, a distinguished former chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff and legendary World War II commander. In response to
my query, Taylor graciously sent me a detailed handwritten letter
of reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the letter concluded: "As
to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the
best protection is not to elect one."
now, I had never been in any way worried about this somewhat
off-handed response and had simply assumed that "the system"
would, somehow, always manage to work, efficiently and reliably.
Now, however, with the deeply serious prospect of a President
Donald Trump, Taylor's 1976 warning has taken on an entirely
new meaning. In essence, one must surmise, it is now altogether
plausible that if "President Trump" were ever to become
unstable or "irrational" in office, he could then
order the use of American nuclear weapons with conspicuous decisional
be utterly fair and dispassionate, of course, this is not the
first time that a president or aspiring president should have
raised such concerns (Richard Nixon, in his closing days in
office, was hardly an exemplar of emotional stability), but
our task, going forward, must focus purposefully and exclusively
on possible future threats.
if a President Trump were not unstable or irrational, he (or
another president, perhaps) might still lack the complex analytic
requirements needed to render sober, strategic judgments, especially
in sorely compressed time periods. One must recall, in this
connection, that during one of the major Republican primary
debates, Trump made very clear that he had absolutely no understanding
or awareness of this country's strategic "triad."
Now it might be argued, more or less persuasively, that even
a nuclear military novice could still have ample expertise readily
available to him. But – as a logically antecedent concern
– every American citizen should also expect that a new
president would already be familiar with at least the historic
rudiments of America's strategic nuclear deployments.
not speaking here about arcane or otherwise little-known aspects
of nuclear strategizing.
am speaking, rather, about what every American high school student
is expected to know before he or she receives a general diploma.
is more. The United States and Russia are already involved in
what amounts to Cold War II, a steadily expanding and corrosivedevelopment
that would add multiple layers of complexity to any presidential
strategic nuclear decision. Highlighted, perhaps, by an increasingly
bellicose undersea nuclear arms race (submarines) and by substantial
nuclear weapons competition from Moscow, Cold War II could compel
even a thoroughly well-intentioned and still fully rational
President Trump to make unprecedented nuclear decisions of unparalleled
consequence, in just a few moments' time.
such circumstances, what should be done by the National Command
Authority, if it should decide to oppose any ensuing presidential
order to use American nuclear weapons?
is where the core problem lies. In principle, at least, any
presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by
a seemingly irrational president or merely an incapable one,
would have to be followed. For senior figures in the National
Command Authority to do otherwise, and to in any way intentionally
thwart such an order, would be ipso facto illegal.
If I am correct in this assessment – and there is very
good reason to believe that I am pointing here toward a potentially
genuine structural flaw in our nuclear command authoritysequence
– it is already well past time to examine the corresponding
risks more closely and systematically.
increasingly plausible prospect of a Trump presidency is just
the most evident manifestation of a much deeper problem. None
of this assessment need automatically assume that Trump is in
any way uniquely incapable of acting rationally and capably
in extremis, but it would still be reasonable and prudent to
more fully understand the core obligations and limitations of
this country's nuclear command architecture. For example, faced
with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons and without
being offered sufficiently appropriate evidence of a germane
existential threat, would the sitting secretary of defense or
the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, among several possible others,
(1) be willing to openly disobey, and also (2) be capable of
enforcing any such seemingly well-founded disobedience?
is, after all, fair to inquire: Are these important national
decision-makers ever trained or encouraged to exercise private
expressions of decisional will, and could they effectively do
so without immediately becoming complicit in what could (however
unwittingly) then amount to a well-intentioned American coup
proposed questions are merely the tip of the American nuclear
command iceberg. Looking ahead, even more specific and detailed
questions will need to be asked and then suitably answered.
Should these questions simply be avoided or ignored altogether,
we may sometime discover that remediation is already past due
and that the supposed "best protection" against an
irrational American president – "not to elect one"
– was always fatally flawed.
Maxwell D. Taylor's letter to me of 14 March 1976 expressed
a more-or-less implicit faith in American democracy. Today,
however, with the realistic prospect of a President Donald Trump
on the electoral horizon, this sort of faith could soon prove
to be grievously misplaced. It goes without saying that the
tangible consequences of any such misplacement could rapidly
imperil even the most elementary security foundations of the