The nation is entering a particularly dangerous period of Donald Trump’s presidency. Still refusing to concede his election loss and angrily tweeting at all hours of the night, Trump faces the dwindling days of his administration, with all the authorities of the office intact and nothing left to lose. Among the authorities he’ll retain until his final minutes in office? The awesome and awful power to launch the United States’ nuclear arsenal on command.
Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” presidency has exposed all too clearly the intellectual fallacy at the heart of the nation’s nuclear plans: that the commander-in-chief will always be the most sober, rational, and conservative person in the room.
Many people assume, wrongly, that some other official has to agree with a presidential order to launch nuclear weapons; surely the White House chief of staff, the secretary of defense, the vice president, or maybe the general in charge of the nation’s nuclear forces has to concur with a presidential launch order, right? Nope. The president can choose to consult with those officials, or whoever else he may like, but from the dawn of the atomic age in the 1940s and 1950s, there has been no procedure to require any such second, concurring opinion in order to authorize a nuclear strike.
The nation’s hair-trigger alert system is an anachronism of the early days of the Cold War, when the limited size of the US arsenal and its comparatively primitive technology meant that if the weapons weren’t quickly used, they might be destroyed by an incoming attack—and with them, the country’s nuclear deterrent. Advancing technologies and expanding arsenals have negated that fear; today’s nuclear submarines ensure a so-called “survivable deterrent” such that even under the most extreme surprise attack scenarios, the US could still destroy dozens of foreign targets and kill tens of millions of people.
Even as the underlying technology and need changed, the US has never revisited its launch strategy. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. There’s simply no need for the nation’s weapons to be placed on routine high-alert and left in the hands of a single individual. We shouldn’t have to worry whether presidential whims endanger our world and human civilization.
This isn’t the first wake-up call for the US. In the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, as Watergate consumed his administration from within, his top aides worried what he might do. Nixon was despondent and drinking heavily. Those around him raised fears about his mental state; during one meeting with members of Congress he’d reportedly emphasized the world-ending powers at his fingertips, telling them, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” Defense secretary James Schlesinger said later that he left specific instructions with the president’s military aides to double-check with either himself or secretary of state Henry Kissinger if there were any strange or unexpected orders from Nixon—like, say, an order to launch nuclear missiles. Luckily, as far as we know, Schlesinger’s worries were for naught; Nixon never tried to trigger a launch.
There have reportedly been similar protections put into place around Trump’s unstable presidency; notably, though, rather than coming only in its final days, the concerns around Trump’s moods began in the early days of the administration. The Associated Press reported in 2017 that then defense secretary James Mattis and then Homeland Security secretary John Kelly made a pact that they shouldn’t both travel overseas at the same time, ensuring that one of them would be available “to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.” More recently, according to unconfirmed reporting in the Washington Monthly, the White House secretly distributed to the military aides responsible for accompanying the president at all times instructions about what to do if the president’s decisionmaking appeared compromised by Covid-19.
At various times in the Trump presidency, military leaders have made a point of saying they would not comply with an illegal launch order, but such statements have a much more narrow viewpoint than the public usually interprets. It’s not that the military would ignore an illogical order; it literally means that they would not comply with an order that violates international or military law, a tightly proscribed set of actions that revolve around questions like proportionality and the status of noncombatants.
All these other reported procedures or protections, from Nixon to Trump, are informal and extralegal. There are no guarantees that any of them would work in an emergency—and there is no process that would ensure such double checks.
Nowhere else does the US entrust its nuclear power to the hands of a single person. Instead, the military follows what’s known as the “two-man rule,” a requirement that two (or more) individuals are present whenever weapons are being accessed, fixed, or launched. No one is ever alone with a nuclear weapon. During maintenance or inspections, two people are always present—and if one leaves the work zone, the other must as well. When a launch order is transmitted, two officers have to separately validate that the codes are authentic. In the control capsules for the nation’s missile silos, two separate officers have to initiate launch sequences and turn their respective keys simultaneously, at stations spaced far enough apart to ensure that the same person can’t reach both at once.
It is an insane relic of the Dr. Strangelove era that we don’t have a similar procedure in place at the top of the nation’s nuclear system.
The impending end of Donald Trump’s presidency and a new Biden administration provides an important opportunity to reform the nation’s launch authorities. The country should insist upon a new command-and-control system that ensures the same checks and balances that we insist upon elsewhere in the nuclear system, as well as the same checks and balances we insist on other aspects of government power. Such a move would dramatically improve the safety of the world.
Policymakers have sketched out some ideas for what a new system might look like in recent years. Earlier in the Trump presidency, US representative Ted Lieu and Senator Edward Markey introduced legislation that would restrict a president from using nuclear weapons without a congressional declaration of war. That model, however, might prove too cumbersome and slow, even with more advanced US nuclear capabilities. Congress, after all, has all but forsaken its power to declare war, and there hasn’t been an official congressional declaration since 1942, when the US added the Axis powers of Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary to its post-Pearl Harbor war declaration.
Other models would require the approval of a second individual, a more modest logistical hurdle that would still add a tremendous amount of safety and security to the nation’s most awesome responsibility. One idea, floated by two noted legal scholars, Richard Betts and Matthew Waxman, would keep the power solely within the executive branch and require the concurrence of a second top administration official—say the defense secretary, the vice president, or the attorney general—while other proposals would require someone outside the executive branch and the president’s chain of command, like the House speaker or Senate majority leader.
There are good reasons to rely on either a congressional declaration of war or the concurrence of a legislative leader like the House speaker: The founders and the Constitution clearly and specifically placed the power to start a war with the congressional branch, understanding that it would always be easier, politically and practically, for a president to get the nation into a war alone. There’s a fundamental disconnect in our military posture if, in theory, sending troops to invade a foreign country by land requires congressional action but destroying it and all its people from the air requires just a presidential phone call.
Debates about how and when the US should deploy nuclear weapons aren’t as esoteric as they may seem. It’s easy to forget how close we’ve come to nuclear war on multiple occasions—from mistaken alerts that have awoken presidential aides in the middle of the night to misinterpreted military exercises that have spiraled accidentally toward war. Moreover, as historical archives have been opened in recent years, we’ve learned about times when presidents and military commanders have weighed using nuclear weapons in Korea and Vietnam, with no public notice, and we’ve learned that the world came closer to nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis than anyone realized.
The more one studies nuclear weapons, the more the historical fact that presidents haven’t used them seems luck rather than strategy. As he was leaving office, Dwight Eisenhower said he was most proud of keeping the world at peace. Restraint was not as easy it may look from the outside. “People asked how it happened—by God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that,” Ike said.
The Trump presidency has caused the nation to realize how much of our presidency and our politics is guided by norms and traditions rather than laws and policies. As we consider the path forward to newly codifying some of the nation’s expectations in our government, it would make sense to prioritize ensuring further protections that the nuclear peace Ike achieved continues to hold as long as it can.
Garrett M. Graff, a contributing editor at WIRED, is an executive producer on Vice TV’s new series, While The Rest of Us Die, about the nation’s secret emergency plans, which premieres Monday night at 10 pm ET.