By Tom Z. Collina, Director of Policy
President John Kennedy took powerful pain medications. President Richard Nixon was a heavy drinker. President Ronald Reagan had dementia. And now President Donald Trump has the coronavirus. These conditions can significantly impair one’s ability to think clearly. And yet, as president, each had—or, in Trump’s case, still has–the unilateral authority to launch US nuclear weapons within minutes.
President Trump is followed 24/7 by a military aide that carries the “football,” the briefcase that holds all he would need to order the immediate launch of up to 1,000 nuclear weapons, more than enough megatonnage to blow the world back into the stone age. He does not need the approval of Congress or the secretary of defense. Shockingly, there are no checks and balances on this ultimate executive power.
President Trump took the nuclear football with him to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he received treatment for COVID-19. According to Trump’s doctor, the president’s blood oxygen levels had dipped. And this, according to independent health experts, can impair decision-making ability. He is taking dexamethasone, which can cause mood swings and “frank psychotic manifestations.” Yet as far as we know, at no point did the president transfer his powers to the vice president, as allowed under the 25th Amendment.
To state the obvious, we should not entrust nuclear launch authority to someone who is not fully lucid. (Reagan transferred authority temporarily before planned surgery, as did President George W. Bush before a medical procedure that required his sedation.) A nuclear crisis can happen at any time, including at the worst possible time. If such a crisis takes place when a president’s thinking is compromised for any reason, the results could be catastrophic.
For example, imagine that the president is alerted to an incoming nuclear missile attack. He would have just minutes to decide what to do before the attack, if real, would land. Even in the best of circumstances there would be tremendous pressure to launch land-based ballistic missiles (which are highly vulnerable) immediately. He would need all of his wits about him to understand that he should not launch these weapons. Why? Because any alert of a nuclear attack is likely to be a false alarm, and once launched our missiles cannot be recalled. If the president orders an attack in response to a false alarm, he would have started nuclear war by mistake.
If the president or his advisors have reason to believe that Trump’s thinking may be compromised, nuclear launch authority should be transferred to the vice president, Mike Pence. If Pence also gets COVID, the football could then be passed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Pro Tempore of the Senate Chuck Grassley, and the secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, in that order.
But kicking the football down the line does not solve the problem—and in fact shows why the system is broken. Does anyone really believe that the president pro tem of the Senate or the Treasury Secretary has spent much time preparing for nuclear war? And even if they had prepared, the central dilemma remains: All humans are imperfect, and we should not trust the fate of the world to any one person.
The whole concept of giving the president unilateral nuclear authority is built on the false assumption that Russia might launch a surprise first strike. In fact, Russia has never seriously considered a first strike against the United States for a simple reason: It would be national suicide. Both sides have to assume that an attack would provoke an unacceptable nuclear retaliation. Both nations, and much of the rest of the globe, would be obliterated. Starting such a war would be insanity.
Yet by facilitating a quick launch, we are making it more likely that the president will blunder into Armageddon. In a crisis, we should be seeking to give the president more decision time, not less. Maintaining an effective deterrent does not require us to rush into a nuclear war. We have hundreds of nuclear weapons deployed on submarines at sea that would survive any attack.
So rather than argue about who should have the football, let’s make the process safer and more democratic. The Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress, not the president. Thus, a presidential decision to initiate the use of nuclear weapons—the ultimate war declaration—would be unconstitutional. The next president can rectify this situation by declaring that he would share the authority to start nuclear war with Congress. He could also state that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. Vice President Joe Biden has declared his support for such a “sole purpose” policy, which is essentially the same as a commitment to not use nuclear weapons first.
It is time to retire the nuclear football. The only thing standing between us and nuclear holocaust is one man with COVID on heavy meds. That is the plan? Ending sole authority is better than entrusting it to any individual. In a vibrant democracy, no one person should have the unchecked power to destroy the world.
Ploughshares Fund is proud to provide financial support to the Bulletin.
Originally published Oct. 6, 2020 in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Photo: President Trump with aide carrying the "nuclear football." Getty Images