Does it make sense to give any one man the power to blow up the world? Seventy-five years ago, science created the most terrible weapon in human history -- the atom bomb. As most of us know, World War II ended when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August, 1945, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki. The devastation was enormous, and the Emperor overruled his military advisors and insisted on surrender to save his nation from utter destruction.
Since then, we’ve gotten used to living with the bomb, first the atomic, then the hydrogen. Tens of thousands of bombs, that is. For most or all of our lives one man -- the President of the United States -- has had the unchecked power to begin a nuclear war without consulting with anyone, should he so choose.
That’s not something we think much about – but we should. Last summer, a new book sought to open a new debate on this: William Perry, who was secretary of defense in the Clinton Administration, and arms control advocate Tom Collina collaborated on: The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump (BenBella Books, $27.95.) The book’s argument is simple: The idea that any one person should have the power to essentially destroy the world was never a good idea – and is useless and dangerous now.
Why was the system set up that way? Like so many other things, it started with a good idea: Civilian control of the military. After Nagasaki was bombed on August 9, the United States had one more A-bomb almost ready to go – and the generals wanted to use it. But President Harry Truman wisely said ‘no.’ He had been misled about the Hiroshima bomb, which he had been told was being dropped on a military base, not a city.
President Truman knew civilian control of the military was essential. And he worked with the then Congress to limit the authority for the use of nuclear weapons to just one person -- the President.
That seemed to make sense, especially after the Soviet Union got the bomb and both sides built thousands of missiles that could reach their targets within 20 minutes or less. If one side launched a first strike, there would not have been any time for debate. But as this book reveals, neither side ever really considered doing that.
The Soviet leaders, as well as the American, knew that no one could ever “win” a nuclear war. In any event, the Cold War has been over for 30 years --yet the President still has the authority to launch nuclear weapons not just in retaliation but under warning of an attack.
In fact, he doesn’t even need any hard evidence of an attack. Our nuclear weapons can be launched solely on an order from the President of the United States. Those weapons are kept on high alert and land- based missiles can be launched in a few minutes. Once launched, the missiles cannot be recalled.
Think about that. In the last few weeks, some people have been worrying about that, thanks to the blustering and increasingly erratic behavior of President Donald Trump in the weeks since he lost the election.
They know that with just one phone call, President Trump could launch thousands of nuclear weapons, each far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. That could be the end of civilization.
Mr. Trump has frequently alluded to his ability to start a nuclear war, and once reportedly said “if we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?”
He claimed while in Puerto Rico in October 2017, that the famous “nuclear football” that goes with the President anywhere “‘was what he had for Kim.”, meaning Kim Jong-un, the young president of North Korea.
The nuclear football, by the way, is a briefcase that goes with any President everywhere. A senior aide always close to the President carries the ‘football,’ which is actually a briefcase containing a secure phone, identification codes, nuclear attack options, and anything else the President might need to launch a nuclear attack.
The system has been built to launch a nuclear attack quickly. That has always been somewhat worrisome, but now, with the outgoing administration in turmoil and only an acting Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, there may be even more reason to worry. Add to that the fact that major government security systems have recently been hacked by the Russians, and we still may be unaware of the total extent of the damage.
Indeed, even before that, recent Pentagon studies have found that, as a result of cyberattacks and hackers, the President could be faced with false warnings of attack, or even lose the ability to control nuclear weapons.
Besides that, more than once, computer and systems malfunctions have indicated to both the United States and the Soviet Union that they were under nuclear attack – and the world has come closer than most people ever knew to mutual assured destruction.
It makes no sense to give one individual the power to launch a planet-destroying war. We’ve been lucky so far, but the events of recent weeks make it clear that it’s time to stop pressing our luck.
As former Secretary of Defense William Perry says in "The Button", it’s time for shared authority and a better, safer way.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. Follow his website, Science in 3D, at 3dscienceblog.com