October 12th, 2009

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With a single order and acting by himself, the President of the United States has the power to dispatch dozens and possibly hundreds of missiles which will end the lives of millions of people in a series of nuclear fireballs spread across the world.

The US has approximately 2,200 nuclear warheads available for immediate use on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and aboard aircraft or stored at heavy bomber bases.  As far as I can determine through discussions with former officials and through reviewing non-classified materials, the President can order the deployment of these weapons without any limitation and without consultation with any other person.

The only check on this authority is the possibility that one or more individuals in the chain of command will disobey the order.  Because the chain of events from authorization to launch happens almost instantaneously, there is almost no time for intervention.  Under the present “launch on warning” command system a President, advised of a possible attack, has just a few minutes to make the decision to launch, delay or stand down.

There are carefully devised safeguards in place to prevent accidental or unauthorized use of these weapons but the authority of the President is unlimited.  In the 1960’s (and possibly even now) that authority was actually “pre-delegated” under specified emergency conditions to military commanders so that they could use pre-distributed authorization codes to order a rapid nuclear response to an attack.  

It is marginally, if cold-bloodedly, comforting to think that the lives lost will be somewhere else, but what if this single command could bring destruction to Chicago, Charlotte or Cheyenne or to dozens of other US cities large or small?  We might think differently about how we grant and limit this power if the dead and maimed might be ourselves or our families or neighbors.  Our own self interest assigns maximum value to our own lives and to the lives of those close to us, but is a human life here really worth more than a human life somewhere else?

In fact, it is not possible to bring destruction on this scale to others elsewhere without bringing devastation to ourselves.  Massive amounts of airborne radioactive smoke, soot and dust could sweep quickly across continents and back to us.  Retaliation by those we target is likely to bring fireballs and devastation home in an unlimited and uncontrolled escalation.

A single one megaton weapon (about 70 times as destructive as the rudimentary bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) detonated in a city center creates an instantaneous crater 300 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter.  A fireball more than one half mile in diameter is created, quickly growing to up to three miles in diameter.  The resulting blast wave creates a fire and wind storm covering a wide area with accompanying deadly radiation.  The US has dozens of bombs of this size within the arsenal of approximately 2,200 “operationally deployed strategic warheads,” the number allowed under the 2002 Moscow Treaty.   

Throughout our history, Presidents have become physically incapacitated.  President Woodrow Wilson had two disabling strokes in 1919 and his disability was shielded by his wife and close advisors.  His Vice President was not allowed to visit him until their last day in office.  Several Presidents have had fatal heart attacks and strokes. President John Kennedy was sometimes heavily medicated due to various infirmities and several of our former presidents were, on occasion, intemperate drinkers.  President Reagan was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt but remained officially in charge.  After he left office, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and there is no way of knowing whether the disease began while he was still in office.

Presidents, like the rest of us, get tired, angry, ill, and depressed.  They can be impaired by medication or alcohol.  Illnesses can be stealthy like Alzheimer’s or a brain tumor or insanity; there is sometimes no clear dividing line between normal and impaired.  Since we are flesh and blood, our brains operating through chemical and electrical synapses and our genetic structure the result of continuing evolution, we cannot claim to be wholly logical or rational.  Violence and aggression may be built into our design.  Certainly individuals differ in this respect, and we know that animals can be bred to be aggressive.

It is self evident that no single person should have the power to order massive and instantaneous worldwide loss of life.  Other nuclear nations have similarly flawed systems of nuclear authorization which need revision to provide additional safeguards.  At the same time, no one nation, including our own, wants to be the first to reduce its ability to respond quickly to an attack.

Our own system was carefully constructed at the dawn of the nuclear age to deal with the exigencies of the Cold War.  It may or may not have been appropriate then.  Half a century later, it is time for us to rethink these policies.

E. Packer Wilbur

October 12, 2009


The author is a member of the Dean’s International Council, The Harris School of Public Policy Studies, The University of Chicago and a former member of the Dean’s Council, The John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.