Every second of every day, hundreds of American servicemen and women around the world wait in readiness for a presidential order to launch a nuclear weapon. For most civilians, the idea of global nuclear war seems more remote and fantastical than it has since the beginning of the nuclear age—more like a plot point in a movie than an ever-present possibility. But those who serve on America’s nuclear front lines--its submarines and missile launch facilities—know all too well that nuclear war remains only a phone call and a keyturn away.
Although the day-to-day job tasks of nuclear weapons officers may be technically demanding, their main function is not supposed to require any thought whatsoever. They have been conditioned by years of repetitious training to launch missiles if they receive an authenticated order from the president. In fact, nuclear weapons officers are specifically chosen for duty based on their willingness to deliver death to millions, if so ordered, without question or hesitation. The logic of nuclear conflict makes no accommodations for human psychology or morality. If they receive an authenticated launch order (i.e. an order certain to have come from the President or a surviving head of the nuclear chain of command), it is taken as a given that American nuclear weapons officers will follow it.
It is precisely that certainty, paradoxically, which has permitted us to co-exist with our own terrible devices for three quarters of a century without being destroyed by them. (That, and quite a bit of dumb luck, as Eric Schlosser recounts in his sobering history of American nuclear weapons, Command and Control). The concentration of nuclear authority in the hands of the president, together with the absolute certainty that the president’s launch order will be followed, form two of the major pillars of America's nuclear deterrence doctrine.
The functionality of this arrangement depends upon the careful avoidance of certain questions. But sometimes those questions get asked anyway. In 2011, writer Ron Rosenbaum recounted the story of a former Air Force officer named Harold Hering. Major Hering had proven his dedication and valor, serving five tours in Vietnam and earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. But while training as a nuclear launch officer at Vandenburg AFB in 1973, Hering did something unforgivable in the eyes of the Air Force: he questioned the command process by which it deployed nuclear weapons.
Maj. Hering’s concern was simple: what if the president was mentally unfit to order a nuclear launch? Were there any safeguards to prevent World War III from being started by a deranged president, or a foreign breach of the nuclear chain of command? These were not academic questions at the time. A beleaguered President Nixon — no paragon of mental stability even at his best — was showing visible signs of nervous collapse under the weight of the Watergate scandal. In fact, as the investigation into Watergate approached its endgame, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger quietly ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to check with him personally before passing along any “unusual” military orders coming out of the White House.
But the Air Force was not interested in answering Maj. Hering’s question. They were so keen to avoid it, in fact, that they discharged him for "failure to meet the duty performance required of an officer." According to an Air Force board of inquiry, the legality of a nuclear launch order was not something an executive officer needed to know. “I have to say,” Hering responded in his unsuccessful appeal to the discharge, “I do feel I have a need to know, because I am a human being.” There are still no systemic safeguards in place to prevent an unbalanced president from launching nuclear weapons.
Today marks the 115th day of Donald Trump’s extraordinary presidency. After he won, many hoped that the solemnity of the office would sober him to his grave responsibilities as president. So far though, it is the office itself, not Donald Trump, that has changed, and not for the better. Trump's insatiable neediness, dishonesty and delusion make it impossible for him to act as other presidents have, even though doing so would far better serve his interests. Trump's decision-making seems almost reptilian in its simplicity: that which flatters him or elevates his profile is good, and that which does not is bad. He communicates poorly and recklessly, wasting political capital and undermining his own legitimacy. Far from seeking stability like a normal president might, he radiates chaos and negativity. He is impossible to work with or to trust. He has been diagnosed as a mentally unfit by knowledgeable observers across the political spectrum.
As a candidate, Trump displayed a lack of basic knowledge about America's nuclear command structure. He panned the Iranian nuclear agreement as “disastrous” with no understanding of what it actually did, and pledged to dismantle it on his first day in office. He seemed open to using the threat of nuclear weapons as a negotiating tactic. His military adventures thus far have consisted of a botched raid in Yemen, the pointless and costly shelling of a Syrian airbase with Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the deployment of the most destructive non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal to collapse a few Taliban tunnels in Afghanistan. Trump cannot explain any of these operations in tactical terms, let alone articulate any coherent security strategy underlying them. These flashy but ineffectual actions suggest that military decision-making in the Trump White House is driven by something other than strategic national interest.
So what happens if Trump orders a nuclear strike against Iran or North Korea? Or Spain? What happens when a president who cannot be trusted to understand and contextualize an unfolding conflict situation orders an intervention of overwhelming force, leading to the possible deaths of millions? Is it legally possible to authenticate a launch order if it comes from a president who is mentally unfit? How many nuclear launch officers in the American military are asking themselves these questions right now? How many of our allies and adversaries are asking them?
The more irrational the president acts, the more he tests the assumption that he alone controls America’s nuclear arsenal. If he is shown to have been compromised by Russian intelligence, an order to launch nuclear weapons will seem even more suspicious and problematic. Obviously, if he tries to launch a nuclear weapon for no reason, somebody further down the chain of command damn well better stop him. But what happens to the principle of civilian control of the military if a presidential launch order is countermanded by a general? And if he continues to damage his credibility, will President Trump be able to successfully order a nuclear strike — even if circumstances warrant?
The point is that when it comes to nuclear deterrence, uncertainty is dangerous. And the uncertainty surrounding Trump could actually increase the likelihood of nuclear confrontation.
Maj. Hering’s inconvenient question now seems like an opportunity squandered, lingering ominously unanswered in the era of Trump. Today, as then, American nuclear weapons officers rely on the sanity of the commander in chief to shield them from complicity in a potentially world-ending mistake. I have never envied them less. Who would want to twist the launch key on the say-so of Donald Trump?