In the United States, the rules governing the use of nuclear weapons are shockingly free from the basic checks and balances that govern nearly every other aspect of our democratic society. With an unstable president and simmering world conflicts, there may never have been a more urgent time for Congress to tighten the rules over the world’s most awful weapons.
After all, President Trump can’t shrink the boundaries of a US national monument without facing years of lawsuits. But he could wake up tomorrow, decide to rain nuclear hellfire down on the 2.5 million residents of Pyongyang, and they’d be dead within minutes. No congressional veto. No court order. No do-overs.
Which is why it was so alarming when Trump warned the United Nations this fall that if North Korea didn’t give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, the United States “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” This summer, he warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” That’s a level of bellicosity with which no other American president has flirted since Truman warned the Japanese that they could “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
This type of alarmingly reckless rhetoric prompted Republican Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, to deliver an extraordinary rebuke to a sitting president of his own party. “Sometimes I feel like he’s on a reality show of some kind, you know, when he’s talking about these big foreign policy issues,” Corker told The New York Times. “He doesn’t realize that, you know, that we could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making.”
On Tuesday, Corker is poised to ask some serious and important questions when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on the president’s “authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.” It’s the first time Congress has held a hearing on this issue since 1976. “This discussion,” Corker said, “is long overdue.”
The existing rules are artifacts of the Cold War. The statutory authority of the president to launch thousands of nuclear weapons at any time, at any target, for any reason is about as clear as it gets. And when the Soviet Union was poised to launch their own preemptive attack, it made a certain degree of sense, since it reduced the time needed to launch a knock-out counterattack.
But it is a tremendously dangerous policy to rely on in a post-Cold War world, when the actions of a sitting president have already prompted the psychiatric community to rethink its long-held prohibition on commenting on the mental health of public figures.
Yet Donald Trump’s erratic impulsivity isn’t the only reason to reevaluate seriously the role that nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert play in national defense. Hopefully, Corker’s hearings — and the potentially alarming issues they highlight — will prompt such a public discussion.
A good starting point to reasserting Congress’s rightful role in authorizing war in the first place is the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act. Sponsored by Ed Markey and Ted Lieu, the law would prohibit the president from launching a first-use nuclear attack unless Congress authorizes it.
Questioning of nuclear weapons and the authorization of their use hasn’t always been as easy. In 1973, Harold Hering, who was training to be an Air Force nuclear missile launch officer, asked his instructors: How can I be certain that any launch order I receive comes from a sane president?
With scandal closing in around an increasingly despondent and erratic President Richard Nixon, the question was at least legit. But Hering was kicked out of the military for asking it. His story has been an obscure Cold War footnote for decades, until the last presidential campaign, where the issue of Trump and nuclear weapons came up often. Since then, Hering’s story has been told and retold. Late last month, Hering accepted the Peace Abbey Award in Sherborn for his courage to ask the unaskable.
The “football,” the briefcase holding nuclear launch codes that accompanies the president wherever he goes, took its modern form after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy posed four pointed questions to his advisors: Whom should I call to launch a nuclear attack? What do I say to order it? How would the order be verified as authentic? Do I have to consult anyone before starting a nuclear war?
The answers to the first three questions are purely logistical and have changed slightly over the years. But the terrifying answer to that last question is the same now as it was then: No.