Editor's Note: This essay is featured in our new report, "10 Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President" (pdf).
The 2016 US presidential campaign has, among other things, reminded the public that the president has the sole authority to launch a nuclear attack. While public discussion focused on the temperament, judgment and character of the person occupying the office of the presidency, it has also raised the larger question about the democratic legitimacy of a single person being able to launch a nuclear war. As William Broad and David Sanger of The New York Times put it, “is there any check on a president’s power to launch nuclear arms that could destroy entire cities or nations?” Their answer is no, not really.
As President Richard Nixon observed in 1974, “I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.”*
As it stands today, long after the fall of the Soviet Union and the perceived need to act quickly in response to its actions, Americans have continued to cede the right to decide when the nation will launch a nuclear war to a single person. We have no voice in the most significant decision the United States government can make — whether to destroy another society with weapons of mass destruction.
To safeguard our democracy and reduce the risk of a nuclear weapons launch, the next administration should: place our nuclear weapons on a much lower level of launch readiness, release to the public more information about the nuclear weapons in our own arsenals, include legislators and outside experts in its nuclear posture review and recognize Congress’ authority to declare war as a prerequisite to any use of nuclear weapons.
Of all the powers of the US president, that of Commander in Chief of nuclear military forces is the most grave, and carries with it the responsibility for the welfare of the world. The current posture and readiness of US nuclear forces gives the president power to wipe out entire nations within 30 minutes of a launch command.
Normally, under the Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war. Yet, our nuclear doctrine of deterrence and prompt retaliation in the face of incoming missiles requires rapid reaction with no time for consultation with Congress or even with cabinet members and national security advisors. The result is that the most consequential decision a president can make, with the potential to obliterate nations and kill millions of people, is made in secret and without deliberation.
How is it that, in the longest surviving democracy, the power to wreak the most catastrophic destruction in the history of the world is held by a single person? Such power completely contradicts the constitutional checks and balances that the Founders created in 1787. It is long past time to re-examine policies that place such massively destructive power in the hands of one person.
Current nuclear doctrine is a carryover from the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The nuclear age dawned at the end of World War II, when President Harry Truman ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that decision was made by a Commander in Chief in a time of war. Immediately following World War II, the militarization of conflict with the Soviet Union led US presidents and national security policy advisors to use the new nuclear arsenal as a means of deterring the Soviets.
In particular, two assumptions of nuclear deterrence fly in the face of democratic norms — speed and secrecy. The need for speed derives from the nuclear postures of the two superpowers. Not only did each build large arsenals of weapons to overwhelm the adversary, but they also maintained the arsenals in a high state of launch readiness. In the event of a surprise attack, each could launch missiles even before the enemy’s had exploded on their soil, using their nuclear capability rather than seeing it destroyed by enemy incoming missiles. The idea was to “use them or lose them” in the face of Soviet attack. Since it takes only 30 minutes for an intercontinental ballistic missile to reach the enemy, neither side had time for deliberation. And certainly there was no time for Congress to declare war. However, in a supreme irony of history, by placing speedy retaliation against an authoritarian regime in the hands of the president, a democratically elected president became an authoritarian leader.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained secrecy about their own capabilities to keep the other side off balance and to gain technical superiority. In the 1940s, the United States sought to keep bomb designs secret with the unrealistic hope that the Soviets would never figure out how to make an atomic bomb. That hope was dashed in 1949 when the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, and again in 1953 when they tested their first thermonuclear bomb just a few months after the United States tested theirs. Although the need for secrecy was invoked to keep information about the bomb from other countries, knowledge leaked and weapons have proliferated ever since 1945. Yet, government leaders have also invoked the need for secrecy to keep information about nuclear war fighting from their own citizens. Ironically, officials in the Soviet Union knew more about US nuclear forces and capabilities than US citizens did.
In the early 1990s, with the demise of the Soviet bloc and normalization of relations between Russia and the United States, it would have made sense to rethink nuclear deterrence and especially the need for quick launch and retaliation. Beginning in 1994, the superpowers were working together to dismantle their nuclear weapons through a cooperative program that provided transparency about nuclear forces and even partial sharing of war plans. Yet, neither military command revisited the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence — a doctrine devised during the most hostile days of the Cold War. Nor was there an opening up of the policymaking process to include legislative members or interested citizens in either country.
Today, continued secrecy and assumed requirements of high launch readiness prevent democratic consideration of how weapons should be deployed or even serious public discussion of how much money to spend on them. The result is a set of policies that, in effect, will perpetrate mass murder of innocent civilians in other countries without the explicit consent of the citizens in this democracy.
When it comes to nuclear weapons then, the conduct of war lies wholly outside the social contract between citizens and their government. With the capability to launch nuclear weapons without a declaration of war by Congress, the president becomes a tyrant, acting on his or her own outside the democratic institutions provided for in the Constitution.
Even though they had no way of envisioning the advent of the nuclear age, the Framers of the US Constitution understood the dangers of tyranny and lodged the power to declare war and provide resources for war-making with Congress rather than the president. They believed that ceding such power to the executive would contribute to lawlessness among nations and a state of perpetual war. The Founders viewed citizen participation in decisions about war as a necessary check on the power of the president and as a way to prevent the tyranny they had fought against as colonists under British rule.
Some see an antidote to this nuclear tyranny in today’s popular election of the president, who is said to represent us all. Yet, we are a nation of laws and institutions for a reason. Individuals can fall ill, be corrupted, or exercise poor judgment. That’s why the US Constitution places checks and balances on the actions of individual leaders by providing for three bodies of government — the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. When it comes to waging war, the Constitution makes a special provision: the largest deliberative body in our government is given the responsibility to decide. Placing our own citizens in harm’s way to kill and injure those in other societies is the most consequential decision a nation can make. The Founders understood that such a grave responsibility should be lodged in the institution that is the most broadly representative of the population and that affords the greatest opportunity for deliberation.
What is the remedy for this nuclear tyranny? Measures should be taken immediately that would place the United States on a path to more democratic decision-making when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. First, nuclear weapons should be placed on a much lower level of launch readiness, even to the point of When it comes to nuclear weapons then, the conduct of war lies wholly outside the social contract between citizens and their government. 27 removing warheads from missiles until the time when they may be needed. The United States and Russia are the only two countries that have nuclear bombs ready to go within minutes of a command; yet, we are no longer locked in a struggle for world domination, and the risks of accidental or unauthorized launch are too great to continue this unnecessary policy. Such a reduction in launch readiness would immediately reduce the risk of launch by a president without consultation.
Second, the US government can publish information about the nuclear weapons we have in our arsenals, setting an example for other countries to follow, and most importantly, provide information to its own citizens to use in their discussions about nuclear war. In fact, the Defense Department in May 2016 and the State Department in April 2015 already have begun to declare the numbers of active weapons in US arsenals, as well as those awaiting dismantlement. Information about the plans for those arsenals, including potential targets and estimates of their effects would help inform voters about what is at stake when we talk about nuclear war. Ideally, the information would inspire legislators to hold public hearings about the military use of these world-altering weapons, along with the costs of their deployment and maintenance.
Third, the next US nuclear posture review should include consultations with legislators and interested constituencies. As the administration prepares for nuclear war, the nation is entitled to participate in this most consequential planning. The nuclear posture review is, in effect, our rationale for when and why it is acceptable to use nuclear weapons. As such, it should be subjected to special scrutiny, as it is being reviewed and changed in the next administration.
Fourth, Article I, section 8 of the US Constitution, which gives Congress the power to declare war, should be reinstated as the law of the land. Despite near-constant US military action around the world since 1945, Congress has not formally declared a war since World War II. Neither has it taken the lead in deciding when and whether to use nuclear weapons. In this context, the initiative of Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) is especially welcome. Their proposed legislation, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016, would prohibit the president from launching nuclear weapons without a declaration of war from Congress, except in response to a nuclear attack. A president may choose to ignore such a new law, and even invoke the War Powers Act of 1973 to use nuclear weapons; but to do so would further deepen the public’s alienation from their government and contribute to the decline of public trust in our democratic institutions.
Without congressional deliberation and citizen participation in the gravest decisions of life and death, our democracy is greatly diminished. Citizens are treated as children who don’t deserve a voice in how our country’s nuclear weapons are deployed. Experts claim they are the only ones who have sufficient training and knowledge to make policy choices about the fate of our society. That is not how a democracy should work.
It is time for citizens to exercise their democratic rights and demand a major role in nuclear weapons policymaking. The next administration should respond with plans to reduce secrecy and increase wider participation in how our nuclear weapons are used. The likely outcome, once the public fully understands the consequences of nuclear war, is a greatly reduced role for nuclear weapons in national security policy. The certain outcome is a restoration of our democratic institutions.
Kennette Benedict is senior adviser to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and lecturer at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Previously, she was the executive director and publisher at the Bulletin from 2005 to 2015, and before that was the director of international peace and security at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation from 1991-2005.
* Elaine Scarry, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing between Democracy and Doom (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), pg. #39
Photo: A Miliary aide carries 'the football', the leather briefcase stocked with the classified nuclear war plan, in his right hand as he walks up the stairs of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, in Md. Wednesday, April 7, 2010. President Barack Obama was preparing to depart for Prague. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)