Let's Fix This Country
national security

One Finger on the Button? Are We Crazy?

The question of Donald Trump's fitness to be president again lit up the Internet and cable news when the two schoolyard bullies tweeted about who has the bigger
nuclear button. How humiliating that we the people find ourselves in such a state of impotence, with no alternative other than to wait to see what two volatile men of wobbly stability might do. We have left in place a law meant for another time and saner men that permits the current occupant of the White House to wake up cranky at 5:00 AM some morning, stewing over some juvenile insult, and decide to unleash a shower of nuclear missiles. That we have left in our generals' hands an order to dumbly obey a mere law that would result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions makes us as insane as Trump and Kim, were either of them to take that action.

Congress finally began to consider making changes to the law — the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 — that puts the sole control of nuclear launches in the president's hands. But that was in November. This is a threat that exists beginning at dawn every day. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, sounded the alarm in the Senate at the time, saying the president

“is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.”

Yes indeed, senator, but what's taking so long? Instead, the Congress was totally absorbed with tax cuts, which would become treasonous negligence were there a sudden nuclear exchange that could have been prevented by Congress having first changed a dangerously outmoded law.

In that hearing, a retired Air Force general who once headed the Strategic Command that oversees the nuclear arsenal, said the military could refuse to follow what it considers an unwarranted order. But the president could merely fire layers of generals in the stack until he arrives at "Dr. Strangelove"'s Buck Turgeson who will snap to attention and say "Yes, Sir!".

The current Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) of 2001 is restricted to persons or groups associated with the attacks of September 11, 2001. That is not North Korea. Any first strike would be an act of war for which the Constitution requires the president to seek congressional approval to initiate a use of force. But a law that calls for the military instantly to obey a president who decides to launch nuclear tipped missiles is a short circuit in the system, a contradiction that has not been dealt with.

no big deal?

What is most frightening is that we have a president who seems to view nuclear weapons as little different than other weapons. Trump doesn't seem to grasp their scope of lethality, unlike Reagan who understood that they threaten the annihilation of civilization.

During the campaign, Trump said to "Hardball"'s Chris Matthews, "Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn't fight back with a nuke?" When Matthews pushed back, Trump asked, "Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?".

Joe Scarborough, co-host of "Morning Joe", was told that at a foreign policy briefing Trump asked three times in an hour, "If we have them, why can't we use them?".

Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Trump what he thought South Korea and Japan should do about North Korea. Trump's response:

So, North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean, they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea."

Wallace asked, "With nukes?". Trump answered, "Including with nukes, yes, including with nukes". He urged South Korea to do the same. "Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?", CNN's Anderson Cooper asked. "Saudi Arabia, absolutely", Trump replied, then reversed himself, but continued:

"It’s going to happen, anyway… you have so many countries already, China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia, you have so many countries right now that have them".

What about using them in Europe, Fox News' Eric Bolling asked. "I’m not going to take cards off the table. Europe is a big place". On "Face the Nation" he said about nuclear weapon use, "You want to be unpredictable". He has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea "with fire and fury like the world has never seen".

Last summer, when shown a slide charting the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, Trump was jealous of the huge arsenal of the Kennedy years and told those present, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that he wanted a return to that size stockpile — a 10-fold increase. He did not want to be at the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve. It was after that meeting that Tillerson spoke of Trump as a "f-ing moron".

what's to be done?

Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ted Lieu of California have come up with legislation to bar the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. This would still leave the president free to instantly launch nuclear missiles to counter an attack. That was the principal reason for the law during the Cold War — the need rapidly to launch a counter-strike from missile silos about to be destroyed by incoming. There are problems with the Markey-Lieu proposal, the most obvious being that leaving the decision for a pre-emptive strike to the sclerotic and leaky deliberations of Congress would tip our adversary that it had better be the one to act pre-emptively.

The better course might be to require approval of a president's intent to use nuclear to a troika among four or five officials — the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs chairman, the head of national security, the secretary of state, say.

For now, all we've got is a pact that some of those secretaries and generals have supposedly sworn to, that one of their number will be in the United States at all times to talk the president down from whatever affront has provoked a towering rage.

But how will that work at 5:00 AM when none of them are at the White House and Trump wakes the military aide snoozing on the floor below demanding that he open the satchel he carries containing the nuclear codes? One can only hope that Trump will find the instructions what to do too complicated and go back to tweeting in bed.

What’s Your View?

Useful?   Informative?   If so, why not subscribe?
Try us out for a while. We don't inundate your inbox. Just a notice, never more than weekly, when we post new material. We ask for nothing but your e-mail address (and we never give out our subscriber list to anyone. Ever. Positively). Just click HERE to join.
Sign up and we'll send you email notices when we have new material.
We appreciate your visit, but for web legitimacy, we do need a subscriber count. We do our best to be informative. No advertising. And we don't bombard your inbox. We only send you an e-mail every 10 days or so when we have new material.
Just click HERE to join.