On July 27, according to this article in the Associated Press, Admiral Scott Swift, the current commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, was asked at a press conference in Australia whether or not he would obey an order from the President to launch a nuclear attack upon China the following week. Without any hesitation, Admiral Swift said yes.
There is one word for this: terrifying.
Nuclear weapons are in the news lately, given the tensions our nation presently has with the regime of North Korea (I see on the BBC as I wake up this morning that the rogue nation has tested another nuke, even more powerful than before). For the first time in a long while, they were an issue in last year's presidential election, mostly in regards to Donald Trump's temperament. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons do not seem to constitute a problem in the eyes of the American people along the lines of healthcare, climate change, the debt crisis, and other issues. They should, for the threat posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons remains the single greatest danger to the future of human civilization.
I've written on this blog in the past on the need for America to reduce its bloated nuclear arsenal. But the comments made by Admiral Swift lay bare another crucial problem with nuclear arms, that of control. Speaking bluntly, it is unacceptably dangerous for the President of the United States, a single individual, to have the authority to order an unprovoked nuclear strike.
It should be said right away that this problem is not specific to the current occupant of the White House. Yes, Donald Trump's personality is characterized by a lack of foresight, recklessness, and a fragile ego extremely sensitive to slights. He is probably the last person in the world whose finger I want on the nuclear trigger. But this issue is about far more than just Trump. Every single person is a flawed human being and the issue of presidential power when it comes to nuclear weapons has existed since Harry Truman. It will continue to exist until we do something to fix it. If we don't, the consequences will be catastrophic sooner or later. It's not a matter of if, but when.
I believe that Admiral Swift's position is, strictly speaking, unconstitutional. The Constitution clearly states that only Congress, and not the President, has the authority to decide whether or not the nation is to go to war. To say that launching a nuclear strike against a nation with which the United States is at peace is an act of war is to state to blindingly obvious. If Congress has not declared war on a country, the President has no constitutional authority to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike against that country. Any such order would be illegal on the face of it, and if presented with such an order, the duty of a military officer would be to refuse to follow it. After all, they take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, and not to the President as an individual.
Keep in mind that we are talking about a nuclear first strike, not the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear strike against the United States. In such a case as that, when our early warning systems have detected incoming enemy missiles targeted on our cities, the time in which to determine a response can be measured in mere minutes. Our ability to deter a enemy nuclear attack depends on their knowledge that we would strike back instantly against any attack launched against us. Indeed, I would support extending this policy to cover a response to the use of chemical and biological weapons as well. Nor am I talking about a preemptive strike designed to take out an enemy's nuclear weapons if it became clear that they were about to be launched against us. What concerns me here is the current ability to the President of the United States to order a nuclear strike against another country for any reason whatsoever, simply because they feel like it.
The framers of the Constitution were brilliant men - more brilliant by far than any of our modern political actors - and they knew exactly what they were doing when they placed the power to declare war in the hands of Congress rather than the President. Men who were steeped in the classics of Greece and Rome, and with recent history in Britain and Europe to look to as an example, they understood clearly the ambitious and vain aspects of human nature and the tendency of leaders to get carried away with their emotions. Best to leave the ultimate decision of war to a deliberative body like Congress than place it in the hands of one flawed individual. In an age of nuclear weapons, when the power exists to quite literally obliterate human civilization from the face of the earth, the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution is all the more apparent.
If the president is empowered to launch a nuclear strike against anyone he or she wants, with no check whatsoever on this power, it opens up the biggest can of worms in world history. Setting aside all questions of constitutionality, what if the president is drunk? What if the president has had some sort of psychological breakdown? What if someone is holding a gun to the president's head, or the head of the president's spouse or child, and the general or admiral doesn't know it?
In 1973, a major in the United States Air Force named Harold Hering, a distinguished Vietnam veteran doing duty in Minuteman missile silos, raised a very obvious question during a training session. "How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?" he asked. Simply for saying these forbidden words, Major Hering was kicked out of the Air Force. He later became a truck driver.
During the late days of Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was often drunk, utterly exhausted, or both. He was often heard trying to talk to paintings of past presidents on the White House walls. At the same time, a massive war broke out in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab enemies. The crisis quickly escalated as the Soviet Union threatened to intervene on behalf of the Arab states against Israel. With the world on the brink of a Third World War, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger had to advise the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ignore any orders from Nixon regarding nuclear weapons, as the president was not in his right mind.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump casually suggested using nuclear weapons as if they were no more unusual than ordinary conventional weapons. He even suggested that more countries acquire nuclear weapons, displaying a frightening lack of understanding on this crucial issue. What very nearly happened to Nixon seems quite likely to happen with Trump as well. And even level-headed presidents aren't immune from these problems, because each president is a flawed, individual human being.
Note that Admiral Swift's response to the question was not qualified by anything. If the president ordered him to nuke somebody, he would do it. Simple as that. If we take this logic to its obvious conclusion, the implications are truly daunting. Is the president empowered to launch a nuclear strike against France if he didn't like the souffle he ate at a Parisian restaurant? If so, why? If not, why not?
Clearly, having the authority to launch nuclear weapons in the hands of a single person is a disaster waiting to happen. It is long past time that Congress reclaim its war-decision power from the executive branch. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one above all is the prevention of an unnecessary and unprovoked launch of American nuclear weapons.
House Resolution 669 has been introduced in the current session of Congress by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Congressman Ted Lieu of California. It would remove the president's ability to order a nuclear attack except in response to a nuclear attack on America or one of its allies by another nuclear state, or in the case in which Congress has issued a formal declaration of war. The bill has flaws, such as not specifying exact what "ally" means and perhaps not granting Congress the right to authorize nuclear weapons use with something short of a war declaration (something last issued in 1942). It should also be noted that its two sponsors are liberal Democrats pushing the legislation in the face of Donald Trump's assumption of the presidency. Nevertheless, it is a good start.
Unfortunately, the bill has next to no chance of becoming law in the present political climate. Since the issue is all but ignored by the media, the American people are largely unaware of the problem. And without the mobilization and organization of large numbers of voters, Congress will never lift a finger.
And in the meantime, we wait and worry.