In January, mere days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Democratic representatives Ted Lieu of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced a bill limiting the authority of the president to launch a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by congress. Here was a situation that not even Jon Von Neumann and the brains at the RAND Corporation could concoct back in the nuclear brinksmanship heyday of the 1950s and ‘60s: what if a cognitively unfit game show host was elected president?
If anything, during the initial months of his presidency, Trump’s erratic, juvenile, and frightening behavior alongside his disturbing tweets, mood swings, and general ignorance has only heightened this concern. Trump is the latest—and most flagrant—reminder that the global community has no choice but to work toward the ultimate elimination of nuclear arsenals.
After the U.S. kicked off the nuclear age with a couple of bangs that reduced Hiroshima and Nagasaki to glowing cinders and poisoned soil, a rigorous debate ensued as to who bears responsibility for the safeguard of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. As nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein points out, most of the concern during the Cold War centered on rogue generals taking matters into their own hands Dr. Stranglove-style. Many policymakers saw what happened during World War II—namely, when lower-level commanders indiscriminately firebombed civilian-heavy cities like Dresden or Tokyo—and feared that the military would see nuclear weapons as just another tactic. It did not take long for nuclear power to be centralized in the president’s hands.
Today, one man and one man alone has the authority to launch a nuclear strike: Donald J. Trump. Though the specifics and contingencies for the implementation of firing a nuclear warhead remain shrouded in secrecy, the only real protocol the public knows of is that the president tells the Secretary of Defense to launch, and the SecDef gives the order to commanders in charge of the nuclear triad. That’s it.
Washington’s consensus is that James Mattis is an Adult In The Room and would never—c’mon, no way, not Mad Dog!—allow President Trump to use a nuclear weapon, but obviously this particular safeguard has never been tested. None of our civilian-military leadership has ever seen a situation quite like this, and as the Trump presidency is continuously normalized by our inability to maintain outrage at each and every new shattered norm, the conversation about the nuclear arsenal has receded into the territory of late night talk show punchline.
We should not let it.
During the campaign and into his presidency, Trump has displayed a bizarre, disturbing, and consistent fetishization of the nuclear arsenal. He said to Chris Matthews he would use nuclear weapons in the event of an ISIS attack, questioning “why are we making them” if we aren’t going to use them. On several occasions, he’s told reporters, including John Dickerson of Face the Nation, that he wants to “be unpredictable” when it comes to the use of nukes. He said he didn’t mind a nuclear arms race in Asia, nor did he care if the theocratic regime of Saudi Arabia developed them because “it’s going to happen anyway.” At his first press conference as president he went into a bizarre explanation of uranium, which led to the comment “nuclear holocaust would be like no other.” After dropping the “mother of all bombs”—the military’s largest non-nuclear weapon—Trump said he was “very proud” and warned only hours later, “North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.” And of course, he has the famous red button on his desk in the Oval Office that summons a butler to bring him a Coke.
When it comes to nuclear weapons, ignorance is as bad or worse than malevolence. It’s taken the ravings of a reality show star to bring into repose not only why some nuclear authority should be delegated to congress but also why there must be a renewed effort to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely. Because almost all of us were born during the nuclear age, very few people can even remember a world that didn’t exist under this Sword of Damocles. We’re used to it, and therefore the danger remains distant, unexamined, and largely outside the standard political conversations.
We’re also captive to the idea that a nuclear nightmare will only result from a conflagration between nation states. Iraq was the nuclear boogeyman until 2003 when we discovered its weapons were a load of propaganda and misinformation that redounded only to the benefit of the military-oil-industrial complex. Iran filled those scary shoes thereafter, but following the Obama administration’s negotiation of an historic nuclear accord, the anxiety has transferred to North Korea. But “nuclear war,” as such, is not what we should fear. Think of the United States and the eight other nuclear powers as suburban dad gun enthusiasts stockpiling their McMansions with Glocks, Barettas, and finally AR-15s. It feels like security. It feels like the walls of their homes are those of an impenetrable fortress. Yet the most likely place a bullet from one of those weapons will end up is in their own skull or the bodies of their children via suicide, accident, or tragic misunderstanding.
So it goes with more powerful weapons. Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Control provides a harrowing historical tour of nuclear weapons mishaps, near misses, and outright horrifying fuck-ups: like the time in 1958 when a B-47 carrying a nuke crashed near Abilene, Texas, and the weapon’s conventional explosives detonated without triggering the nuclear payload. Or in 1961 when a B-52 lost control over North Carolina, dropping a bomb that failed to detonate only because a typically defective cockpit safe switch worked this time (though the uranium core from another lost bomb was never recovered). Or in 1979 when the U.S. nearly initiated a large-scale nuclear attack on the Soviet Union after NORAD picked up a barrage of incoming missiles. It turned out someone had accidentally put a training scenario into the computer simulating a Russian attack. Or June 1980 when Zbigniew Brzenzski, President Carter’s national security advisor, woke up to the news that the Soviet Union was launching a full-scale nuclear war, and he actually prepared to retaliate until someone determined it was a false alarm due to a flawed computer chip. Or just three months later in September 1980 when a maintenance worker in Arkansas dropped a socket wrench that punctured a Titan II missile. The toxic fuel exploded, killing one worker and injuring 21 others, and the warhead flew 200 yards into a roadside ditch, failing to detonate and annihilate most of Arkansas. Or 1983 when Soviet radar mistook sunlight reflecting off clouds for five U.S. nuclear missiles, and it was only because Colonel Stanislov Petrov didn’t see why the enemy would start a war “with only five missiles” that he did not order a retaliation. Or 1995 when the launch of a Norwegian scientific rocket led Russian president Boris Yeltsin to actually activate his version of the nuclear “football.” Norway had notified Russia of the rocket, but when that information was lost in the bureaucracy, it nearly led to thermonuclear war. Or as recently as 2013 when the Defense Science Board issued a report warning that the nuclear command-and-control system has never been vetted against a serious hacking attempt and could be vulnerable to cyber attack.
These represent only a smattering of examples where cataclysm has been avoided mostly by sheer dumb luck. Malfunction, miscommunication, misunderstanding, computer glitch, cyber infiltration, and mechanical error were enough to worry about. Add to all that the risk of a Mad King suddenly coming into possession of nuclear stockpiles. We now have proof that even Western Democracies are capable of bringing to power extreme, incompetent, and frightening leaders.
There are many “realists” who note the impossibility of nuclear weapons-free world, of ever putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle. They emerged in 2009 when the new president Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague calling for the drawdown and eventual elimination of those weapons and poo-pooed him again in 2016 when he made an historic visit to Hiroshima to again call for a “moral evolution” and elimination of these arsenals.
The complexity of de-nuclearizing should not be underestimated, and done poorly it could cause real geopolitical chaos. Every potential territorial flash point, every consequence of dismantling the nuclear umbrella, every opaque totalitarian state should be considered. The largest actor in this space is the Global Zero movement, which has an ambitious roadmap to reduce weapons stockpiles to zero by 2030. As they point out in their commission report, the U.S. and Russia have already retired and destroyed roughly 40,000 warheads through previous arms treaties, more than double the number of weapons left. The current tensions between the two countries—not to mention the general sense of global unraveling—makes any movement toward de-nuclearization look impossibly bleak, and yet that’s precisely the reason to pursue this agenda. Because the global order looks so unstable, this is exactly the time to renew these efforts, to make sure non-proliferation, drawdown, and eventually abolition are a cornerstone of our foreign policy goals.
In Prisoner’s Dilemma, William Poundstone’s must-read biography of Jon Von Neumann and game theory, the author recounts an episode mostly lost to the popular narrative of history. In the years after the U.S. developed the atomic bomb, and as the Soviet Union raced to develop their own weapon, there was very real push by American politicians and scientists to create a global “supranational” entity that would have monopoly power over nuclear technology. The processes for creating peaceful nuclear energy would be disbursed among a number of states with rigid enforcement mechanisms to ensure none could develop an atomic weapon. The United States would essentially give up its monopoly power over atomic weapons. The proposal came from none other than Albert Einstein, the man who’d written President Roosevelt a letter warning that the U.S. must develop a bomb before Hitler. It was strongly supported by Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, the two men who’d raced furiously at Los Alamos to beat the Nazis to the punch. They agreed on little besides the necessity to avoid the proliferation of the technology they’d helped to unleash. As Walter Isaacson recounts in Einstein: His Life and Universe, the physicist told Newsweek, “The secret of the atomic bomb is to America what the Maginot Line was to France before 1939. It gives us imaginary security, and in this respect it is a great danger.”
President Harry Truman and the Senate even began investigating such an idea, but it evaporated in the heat of the Cold War. Soon, the Soviets had the bomb, and a global nuclear arms race that has never ended began in earnest.
To call such schemes “utopian” and to call for the resurrection of ideas to sacrifice sovereignty in order to place nuclear technology on much safer footing is to miss the point of Einstein’s warning and what has been staring policymakers in the face since the first nuclear test at Los Alamos: the only utopian notion is to think that nation-states can continue to safely avail themselves of 15,000 weapons of mass destruction in perpetuity.
While countries bicker over imaginary gods and galvanize populations using fears of terrorists armed with guns, trucks, and homemade bombs, true existential threats go unconfronted. Climate change, pandemics, nuclear weapons—these are extremely dangerous transnational threats that require transnational cooperation. When (and if) Donald Trump leaves office, it is imperative to return to the presidency an individual who recognizes this—and then remove his or her unilateral power over the U.S. nuclear arsenal just the same.
Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly credited the bill that limited the president’s ability to launch a nuclear strike to Rep. Dan Lieu of Hawaii. It was Ted Lieu of California.