Murray Polner is the author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, Branch Rickey: A Biography, and co-editor of We Who Dared Say No To War.
It's 4 am in Washington and our President, whoever he or she may be, is awakened by a call from the Pentagon's watch officer. "Sir," he shrieks hysterically," our computers show nukes heading for us. What'll we do?"
Still sleepy, possibly disbelieving the caller but with less than ten minutes to determine if it's yet another nuclear false alarm – in the past, Moscow has had three and we've made the same number of mistakes – the president can pray and kiss his wife goodbye or do nothing and hope that some of his countrymen and women will survive a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
Or with unchecked power to do as he wishes, he has the legal authority to order his commanders and nuclear subs to fire away. And if our current president – unrestrained, reckless, emotional, inexperienced – who has had it with, say, North Korea and decides to give his military leaders a green light, thereby sealing the fate of millions in Seoul, Tokyo, Guam, and, after Pyongyang retaliates, even some of our west coast cities. So the real question for amnesiac, distracted Americans, is whether any American President, now or in the future, can be stopped or delayed even though he or she has the sole right to decide when and if to start a nuclear war.
I hold no brief for Dick Cheney but in December 2008 he said – correctly, I believe, though some think otherwise – that a president "could launch a kind of devastating attack the world's 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." Moreover, Bruce Blair, who once worked at the Brookings Institution, served as a nuclear launch officer and is the co-founder of Global Zero, which favors nuclear abolition, says, "there is no way to reverse the president's order. And there would be no recalling missiles once launched." Blair's chilling article appeared in Politico in the summer of 2016 and asked, "What Exactly Would It Mean to Have Trump's Finger on the Nuclear Button?"
As Trump-hating Democrats and a small but growing number of Republicans have hinted at, his unpredictable mind and finger is on the nuclear button. In one editorial, the NY Times reminded readers, as if they needed reminding, that Trump has only himself to blame with his casual "fire and fury" rhetoric and self-indulgent and juvenile insults aimed at the equally feral Kim Jong-un. In another editorial, the aroused and obviously agitated Times editorial board cited his menacing, seemingly off the cuff if not deranged non-sequitur threat about "the calm before the storm," leaving world capitals and anxious civilians disturbed about what, if anything, he meant, especially since the US has never disavowed the first-strike option when, without any precedent, it struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1998, newly declassified U.S. documents revealed the Cold War secret that in late 1959 President Eisenhower had allowed certain senior commanders to use nukes in specific demanding situations. These "Predelegations" as they were called, would then allow a rapid response by someone other than the president while the nation faces a much-feared Soviet Cold War nuclear attack. Whether it is still in place remains a deep a secret but more than likely the Soviets also have reciprocal Predelegations, especially since the dawn of Cold War 2 in Eastern Europe.
"There is no way to reverse the president's order" to bomb away, says Bruce Blair. And once the order is given, there is "no way of recalling missiles once launched." Nor are there any "restraints than can prevent a willful president from unleashing this hell."
Because 15-30 minutes are the difference between life and death for millions, Blair was worried less about a president's rash actions but whether he was able to "really take command of the situation, exercise independent judgment and brake a runaway train" Meanwhile, Gareth Porter, one of our shrewder analysts, wondered in Truthout if Trump is "planning a first strike on North Korea," a move which some believe may well have to involve US ground troops, which would trigger "yet another unnecessary and terrible war."
Still, some aspects of presidential nuclear war-making powers remain top secret, hidden from the public, an arrangement designed for rapid decisions, not debate and deliberation. Until some alternative remedy is developed there is "no perfect solution" as a letter writer to the Times wrote, other than nuclear disarmament, which no one expects.
So, here are a few words of warning to all of us from an old general named Omar Bradley:
"Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living."