“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” (Albert Einstein, May 1946)
Albert Einstein, a founder of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, understood from the very beginning the incomparable urgency of nuclear arms control. Recently, on January 24, 2019, more than seventy years later, the Bulletin’s “Doomsday Clock” was carefully set at two minutes to midnight. Calling the human survival situation “a new abnormal,” Bulletin editors placed principal responsibility for such portentous chronology on a nuclear arms race sustained by the United States; shortsighted US withdrawal from the INF nuclear treaty with Russia; and President Trump's unilateral departure from the July 2015 JCPOA Vienna pact concerning Iran.
Significant blame was also cast at “US abandonment of its responsibilities” regarding climate change; Mr. Trump’s all-too-evident incapacity to deal with the unstable nuclear situation in North Korea; and growing global uncertainty concerning China’s role in “Cold War II.”
Extrapolating from these thoughtful Bulletin assessments, there are persuasive reasons to fear that US President Donald Trump could sometime issue “inappropriate” nuclear command decisions. Whether by intent, inadvertence, a visceral bravado, miscalculation or perhaps even outright irrationality, any such decision could spawn more-or-less immediate and intolerable consequences. In essence, as Albert Einstein had already recognized “in the beginning” of the Atomic Age, the doomsday trajectory we have cheerlessly followed remains poised for further downturns and ominously unprecedented declensions.
Back in the late 1960s, after four years of doctoral study on nuclear strategy at Princeton (the intellectual “home” of both Albert Einstein and Manhattan Project Director J. Robert Oppenheimer), I began to write a timely and relevant book of my own. Accordingly, by the mid-1970s, then a newly-minted professor of international law at Purdue, I was busy preparing an original manuscript dealing with US nuclear strategy and various corollary risks of nuclear war. I was most specifically interested in US presidential authority to order the use of nuclear weapons, a core issue imbued with sometimes contradictory statutory and Constitutional law components.
What I learned back then was generally galvanizing and darkly sobering. Immediately, I was capably informed that reliable safeguards had been built into all American nuclear command/control decisions, but that these reassuringly essential safeguards could not really apply at the presidential level. This ironic disjunction did not appear to make any intellectual sense, especially in a world where national leadership irrationality was certainly a long-time matter of historical record. Or recalling the prophetic observation by Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles in all times in the history of mankind... Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”
Now, for the present moment, one overarching question should come readily to mind: What might Freud’s observation suggest about our current apocalyptic temper? In March 1976, reaching out to General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I expressly asked about the dire disjunction in US “human reliability” screening. Almost immediately, General Taylor sent back a detailed handwritten reply. Dated March 14, 1976, the retired General's letter concluded: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”
As the Bulletin’s 2019 Doomsday Clock Statement unambiguously suggests, this 1976 warning should quickly take on a renewed sense of awareness. Until recently, I had never given any seriously apprehensive thought to General Taylor’s cautionary response. After all, I had faithfully assumed, “the system” must always operate smoothly.
Today things are understandably different. One should now reasonably acknowledge that if President Trump were to exhibit emotional instability and/or irrationality at some vulnerable decisional moment, he could authoritatively (1) order the use of American nuclear weapons; and (2) order such use without any tangibly calculable expectations of “disobedience.”
It gets even more bewildering and complex. Notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s curiously deferential treatment of Vladimir Putin, the United States and Russia are plainly involved in what amounts to a second Cold War. This very conspicuously adversarial involvement could greatly complicate future US presidential strategic decision-making processes, including nuclear military decisions. Already, back on October 3, 2016, Russian President Putin had ordered a halt to any then-planned agreements with the United States concerning weapons-grade plutonium disposal.
A second set of overarching questions now arises: What specific remedies are required to safeguard the United States (and certain allies, such as Israel) from any “erroneous” nuclear command judgments? What exactly should be done by the National Command Authority if its key members should sometime decide to oppose an obviously mistaken or contrived presidential order to use American nuclear weapons? Should the NCA respond in an impromptu or expressly ad hoc fashion? Or should there already be in place effective measures to ascertain the sitting US president's reason and judgment, assessments of the identical sort that are so strictly applied at all known lower national levels of nuclear command authority?
In principle, at least, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would have to be followed. This conclusion is unassailable and remains utterly pointless to challenge. Disregarding the more primary Constitutional provisions of US war-making authority (because these protocols are generally considered irrelevant to crisis decision-making in the nuclear age), ignoring any American president's order to use nuclear weapons would be illegal prima facie, or “on its face.”
As the presumptively lawful custodian of all US nuclear codes (“presumptive” because there are still several complicating legal issues and valid jurisprudential antecedents), Donald Trump could degrade this country’s security with intolerably problematic stewardship. For example, if faced with a presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered any discernible corroborative evidence of impending existential threat, would the sitting Secretary of Defense and/or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, among several relevant others, still: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing any such apparently well-founded expressions of authoritative disobedience?
Remembering Albert Einstein, such primary questions need to be asked unhesitatingly and also immediately. Soon, too, even more detailed questions will have to be raised. If, for whatever reason, these critical questions are somehow avoided or ignored, Americans could discover that all necessary remediation is far past due and that the “only protection” against an irrational American president – “not to elect one,” as General Maxwell Taylor advised me many years ago – had gone unheeded.
At that sorely critical point, the widely-watched hands on the Doomsday Clock would strike “midnight.”
Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to IsraelDefense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.