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Vol. 15, No. 3, 2016
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armed with the nuclear codes



Louis 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. News.

Back 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.

In 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.

This 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."

Until 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 impunity.

To 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.

Even 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.

I am not speaking here about arcane or otherwise little-known aspects of nuclear strategizing.

I am speaking, rather, about what every American high school student is expected to know before he or she receives a general diploma.

There 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.

In 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?

This 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.

The 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?

It 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 d'état?Such 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.

Gen. 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 United States.


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