The President and the bomb

by Alex Wellerstein, published November 18th, 2016

I’m in the process of writing up something more substantial about nuclear weapons and the 2016 Presidential election, but I keep getting asked one thing repeatedly both in person, over e-mail, and online: “Are there any checks in place to keep the US President from starting a nuclear war?”  

What’s amazing about this question, really, is how seriously it misunderstands the logic of the US command and control system. It gets it exactly backwards.

Recent (November 17, 2016) Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: "Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs." Hat tip to Alexandra Levy (Atomic Heritage Foundation) for bringing this one to my attention.

A recent Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: “Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs.” (November 17, 2016) Hat tip to Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation for bringing this one to my attention.

The entire point of the US command and control system is to guarantee that the President and only the President is capable of authorizing nuclear war whenever he needs to. It is about enabling the President’s power, not checking or restricting him. As former Vice President Dick Cheney put it in 2008:

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.

This isn’t new; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This has been discussed since the 1940s. And yet, people today seem rather shocked to hear it, even very educated people.

To be sure, the official doctrine that I have seen on the Nuclear Command Authority implies that the President should be given as much advice as possible from the military, the Department of Defense, and so on. But nothing I have seen suggests that this is any more than advisory — and the entire system is set up so that once the President’s order is verified and authenticated, there are meant to be only minutes until launch.2

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

It isn’t entirely intuitive — why the President, and not someone else, or some combination of people? Why not have some kind of “two-man rule,” whereby two top political figures were required to sign off on the use before it happened? The two-man rule is required for commanders to authorize nuclear launches, so why not the Commander in Chief?

To understand why this is, you have to go back and look at the history of how this doctrine came about. Today we tend to discuss this in terms of the speed in which a retaliation would be necessary in the event of a crisis, but the debate wasn’t originally about expediency at all, but about an understanding of Constitutional power and the inherently political nature of the bomb. I see the debate about the (un-)targeting of Kyoto, in mid-1945, as the first place where some of these questions started to get worked out. Presidents generally do not pick targets in war. That’s a general’s job. (Like all things in history, there have, of course, been exceptions.) But when it came to the atomic bomb, the civilian branch of the executive government (personified here by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson), demanded veto power over the targets. The military (here, General Leslie Groves) pushed back, asserting that this was a military matter. Stimson insisted, and eventually got the President’s personal ear on the matter, and that was that. Truman, for his part, while he did not authorize the actual bombing in any explicit way (he was shown the bombing order, but he did not issue it nor was his approval required, though he could have vetoed it), did, on August 10th, re-assert nuclear authority by prohibiting future bombing activity without his explicit permission.

General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) share a moment. Photo by Ed Westcott.

One can tell that the relationship between General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) was not exactly the smoothest. Photo by Ed Westcott.

From that point forward, the President made very explicit that his office was in charge of the atomic bomb and its uses, not the military. It was not a “military weapon,” which is to say, it was an inherently political weapon, one that needed to be handled by that most inherently political office, the Presidency. This became the framework for talking about domestic control over nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the civilian vs. military split. It was believed that only an elected civilian could make the call for this of all weapons. Truman himself put it to David Lilienthal in 1948:

I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that, that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.3

In the early days, this civilian-military split was actually enforced at a physical level, with the non-nuclear parts of the weapons kept by the military, and the nuclear parts (the pits) kept by the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, changes in doctrine, technology (sealed-pit weapons), and fears (e.g., a Soviet “sneak attack”) had led to 90% of the nuclear weapons transferred into the hands of the military, making the civilian-military distinction a somewhat theoretical one. Eisenhower also “pre-delegated” the authority to start nuclear war to several military commanders on the front lines, on the idea that they would not have time to call back to Washington should Soviet tanks start pouring into Western Europe. (So while the President is the only person who can authorize a nuclear attack, he can also extend that authority to others if he deems it necessary.)

The Kennedy administration, looking to assert more positive control over the beginning of a nuclear conflict (especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which raised the real possibility of a low-level misunderstanding “escalating” in times of uncertainty), requiring the weapons themselves to have sophisticated electronic controls (Permissive Action Links) that would prevent anyone without a coded authorization to use them. There is more to these stories,4 but I just want to illustrate a bit of what the “control” debate was really about: making sure the President, and only the President, was ultimately the one making decisions about the bomb.

A retired "nuclear football" suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

A retired “nuclear football” suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been asked: would the officer carrying the “football” actually go forward with a nuclear attack, especially if it seems heedless or uncalled for? (The “nuclear football” is the special computer that, once the nuclear “codes” are inputted into it, somehow electronically starts the sequence of events that leads to the weapons being used.) Which I find lovably optimistic. The entire job of the person carrying the football is to enable the President to launch a nuclear attack. They would not presume to know the “big picture” of why the President was doing it — they are not a high-level military or policymaker. They are going to do their job; it is what they were chosen to do.

Would the military second-guess the President, and override the order? I mean, anything is possible — this has just never happened before, so who knows. But I am dubious. In 1973, Major Harold Hering was fired for asking, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” Not because it is a fireable offensive to imply that the President might not, at all times, be entirely capable of making such an order, but because to start to question that order would mean to put the entire credibility of the nuclear deterrent at risk. The entire logic of the system is that the President’s will on this point must be authoritative. If people start second-guessing orders, the entire strategic artifice breaks down.5

So is there any check on the President’s power to use nuclear weapons? Well, technically the US election process is meant to be that check — don’t elect people you don’t trust with the unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons. And this, indeed, has been a theme in numerous US elections, including the most recent one. It is one issue among many, of course.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

There is, of course, no big red button. There are lots of other, smaller buttons, though. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

Do I personally worry about an unhinged, unthoughtful President using nuclear weapons heedlessly? Sure, to some degree. But not as much as I worry about other damage that such a President will do to the country and the world (the environment, economy, social fabric, international order, and human rights are higher on my list of concerns at the moment). Which is to say, it’s on the list of things one might worry about (for any President, but certainly the next one), but it’s not my top worry. Ultimately I do have some faith, perhaps unearned, that even someone who is woefully under-educated about world affairs, strategic logic, and so on, will come to understand rather rapidly that it is in the United States’ best interests not to break the nuclear taboo.

The United States benefits from the taboo disproportionately: should the threshold for nuclear use be lowered, we would be the ones who would suffer the most for it, because we tend to put our cities and military forces and everything else in centralized, easy-to-take-out-with-a-nuke sorts of arrangements, and because we enjoy a powerful conventional military power as well. We have the luxury of a nuclear taboo, in other words: we don’t have to use nukes to get what we want, and indeed in many situations nukes are just not as useful as they might at first appear.

So only a true idiot would think that using nukes foolishly would actually be a useful thing, aside from the collateral damage, moral issues, and so on. Take from that what you will.

I am not interested in having political arguments (one way or the other) in the comments of this blog post — I am burned out on online political debates for the moment. If you want to have a political debate, have it elsewhere. I will only approve constructive, interesting, non-obvious comments. Trolls will be banned and blocked. We will be coming back to this topic again, don’t worry. (Or do.)

  1. “Transcript: Vice President Cheney on ‘FOX News Sunday’,” (22 December 2008). []
  2. Actual doctrine is understandably hard to get one’s hands on. The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, created by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, is an extremely useful resource in this respect. Chapter 6 is about the Nuclear Command and Control System, and describes the many procedures, organizations, and technologies used to provide “the President with the means to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis and to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.” []
  3. The context of this snippet, recorded in Lilienthal’s journals, is a meeting between the President, Lilienthal (Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission), and several military men and his cabinet. Lilienthal noted parenthetically that in the gap between the two “thats” in the second sentence, Truman looked “down at his desk, rather reflectively,” and that he (Lilienthal) “shall never forget this particular expression” when Truman said was not a “military weapon.” The military men, in Lilienthal’s account, then immediately began to talk about how important it was to get used to handling the bombs. General Kenneth Royall asked, “We have been spending 98% of all money for atomic energy for weapons. Now if we aren’t going to use them, that doesn’t make any sense.” Lilienthal’s commentary: “If what worried the President, in part, was whether he could trust these terrible forces in the hands of the military establishment, the performance these men gave certainly could not have been reassuring on that score.” Account of a conversation with Harry Truman and others on July 21, 1948, in David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. 2: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 391. []
  4. I gave a talk at the History of Science Society’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta a few weeks ago, on the topic of Command and Control systems and the ways they encode different visions of Constitutional authority and responsibility, and I am working to turn that into some kind of publishable paper. []
  5. There is an anecdote that is often repeated that states that Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger supposedly altered, on some level, the nuclear command authority during Watergate — telling his staff that he had veto power over any nuclear commands by Nixon. It is not something that has been historically substantiated, and, even if true, would technically have been un-Constitutional. It doesn’t mean it isn’t possible — but I find the whole thing, again, fairly dubious, and it certainly was not in line with the official regulations. There are instances (Stanislav Petrov, for example) of officers in nuclear situations not following regulations in an effort to avoid escalation. But they are by definition ad hoc, not to be relied upon. []

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27 Responses to “The President and the bomb”

  1. Ann Finkbeiner says:

    Just a high-weeds question: you know about Richard Garwin’s role in setting up PALs, right? If not, I can find the docs.

    • I am interested in any and all PAL-history-related documentation at the moment! (PALs are of special interest to me and the question of how “authority” gets inscribed on an electromechanical level.)

  2. Jonah Speaks says:

    I think most people who who would ask the question, “Are there any checks in place to keep the US President from starting a nuclear war?” probably believe that there should be such checks. That is, it is ultimately a normative question. It cannot be answered simply by reference to set of historical facts, however correct or voluminous.

    If the factual answer is no, there are no checks on a President’s authority to order nuclear war, a few may be satisfied by the answer, but many will be shocked. To be sure, as your historical account suggests, most people would be even more shocked if a multitude of military officers had unilateral authority to start a nuclear war.

    If we want some kind of check on a President’s unilateral authority to start a nuclear war, Congress will need to pass a law on the subject. Such a law could place all nuclear weapons under formal civilian authority, and allow their release for military use only under circumstances and procedures prescribed by law. This would give the military a legal basis for not complying with a Presidential order, if it failed to comply with the legal procedures, including approval by a second or third person.

    • It is actually not clear that Congress could limit the President’s authority in this way easily. The Presidential control over nuclear weapons is located in his role as Commander and Chief, and while Congress has tried to put some checks on those powers (e.g. the War Powers Act), the Constitutionality of such things has always been kind of dubious. If I were trying to propose a concrete way to add checks it would involve actually building them into the technology in some way, e.g. requiring multiple systems by which authority is designated. There would be trade-offs between efficiency/reliability in such cases (if you really required two people to launch, then you are setting up a situation where those two people may not be able to do it, or to agree, and that could impact the “credibility” of a deterrence). My recent talk on command and control systems is about how the technology of them is used to encode different models of sovereignty; this would be a version of that — making technical choices based on a civic value.

      • Jonah Speaks says:

        I certainly agree that the technology for implementing Congressional limitations on Presidential power over nuclear weapons would be an important element to consider.

        On the constitutional aspects, the President is “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” It does not follow that nuclear weapons are part of the armed forces, if they are legally assigned by Congress to a civilian agency. The military would simply be guarding the nuclear weapons, unless they were legally released for use by the military. Also, even if nuclear weapons are not assigned to a civilian agency, Congress still has the constitutional power to “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.”

        • The Atomic Energy Act gives the President the ability to assign nukes from the civilian forces to the military forces. (“The President from time to time may direct the Commission to deliver such quantities of special nuclear material or atomic weapons to the Department of Defense for such use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense.”) So they specifically gave that power away.

  3. John Simpson says:

    Any thoughts on the whole James Schlesinger Watergate alleged order to “theater commanders” to either (depending on version) report or ignore White House orders?

    It was even reported as confirmed in the NYT obituary for the former SecDef.

    “In the days leading up to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, Mr. Schlesinger, as he confirmed years later, became so worried that Nixon was unstable that he instructed the military not to react to White House orders, particularly on nuclear arms, unless cleared by him or Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. He also drew up plans to deploy troops in Washington in the event of any problems with a peaceful presidential succession.”

    Given that in his book Shadow author Bob Woodward said that President Ford fired Schlesinger for repeated insubordination (ignoring operational orders during the Mayaguez incident and others) it does sound plausible.

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    What are PALs? The term isn’t used in this post and I didn’t see what it’s an acronym for.

    • Permissive Action Links. Basically electro-mechanical locks, embedded in the weapons themselves at a very “deep” level, to prevent their use without authorization. A very interesting technical means of preserving a form of political sovereignty, in my mind.

  5. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Stanislav Petrov was pretty far down the chain of command. Not a lot to hang one’s hat on, but the guys who will have to turn the keys might want to live.

    I think every previous president has commented on his shock on his briefing about his nuclear responsibilities. Another slim hope that Trump will be able to process the gravity of this.

  6. James Will says:

    Just two questions.

    1) Does not the Secretary of Defense have to repeat the order? I was under the understanding that both consisted of the National Command Authority.

    2) Wouldn’t the commander of STRATCOM be aware of any nuclear threat on the nation before the President, and thus recognize an unprovoked launch as an unlawful order given by a deranged man?

    Seems to me that while the President has sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons, he would still require the cooperation of the military to execute those orders. The president could order the navy to sink every cruise ship in the Caribbean, but the navy would likely refuse such an order. Launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on a nation would be in the same vein, would it not?

    If the President is the only person authorized to order the use of nuclear weapons, the command and control system is designed to allow lower echelons on the chain of command to have confidence that the order is given by the President, and only the President.

    In contrast to the example of the order to sink cruise ships, the men and women flying the strike aircraft and manning the fire control stations have no idea who ultimately gave the order. While the assumption is that the NCA is the source of all orders, there is no requirement that the presidents authorization be transmitted along with them.

    This is in contrast to nuclear weapons, where there is a requirement. In these two cases, (sinking cruise ships and nuking some country unprovoked), the only substantive difference is the legal requirement that the President alone has the authority to order the latter.
    Both of these orders would be unlawful orders. The fact that one case requires the Presidents authorization to accompany the orders does not change this.

    • The Secretary of Defense is the one who translates the Presidential order into a military order, as I understand it. But that is not to my knowledge meant to be a “check,” just a form of practicality, and the Secretary of Defense serves at the President’s pleasure. The President, in his capacity as Commander in Chief, is the one who issues the order, and can do so unilaterally. But here I suspect there are many devils in the details of how such orders get communicated.

      Re: STRATCOM, one can imagine many rational reasons to launch a nuclear weapon despite no obvious incoming attacks. (For example, a preventative strike, or as a response to something not publicly indicated — e.g., a knowledge that something might cause response to be impossible in the very near term.) I think the idea that STRATCOM would disobey a clear and direct order is, well, wishful thinking. STRATCOM is not meant to be a check, it is not meant to second-guess. It is mean to enable.

      Again, one can (as I indicated), speculate on whether people down the line of command would individually question the orders from above. It’s not impossible, of course. But I am deeply, deeply suspicious of taking much solace or hope from the idea. The drills that are run are not about questioning an order, they are about how to implement it swiftly, immediately, and without question. Because the entire system is set up with the notion that there may only be minutes before an incoming attack may make itself known. It is not set up for long-term deliberation, or concerns about lawfulness. (Indeed, the various discussions of legality, including regarding international law and the NPT, suggest that they are explicitly understood to be immediately thrown out the window in the event of a nuclear crisis.)

      • Minivet says:

        My military knowledge is mostly from novels, but isn’t something people very occasionally do, and maybe are entitled to do at least theoretically, to request an order in writing, with the implication being that they believe the order is illegal and want to be able to preserve the record?

        If the SecDef or military officers going down the chain of command made such a request, could they gum up the works without in theory doing anything punishable? Or would they be treated just as if they had disobeyed the order?

        • This gets into very tricky legal/Constitutional territory, about at what degree of autonomy military officers have regarding second-guessing the orders of superiors about presumed legality. As far as I know this is terra incognita with regards to nukes. There was, in the mid-1970s, a flurry of interest from Congress on the “nuclear veto” question (Nixon seems to have gotten them thinking about this both with his resignation and also because he was quoted saying things like “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead” to Congressmen), but then it died down considerably and as far as I know was never resolved (at least not in anything unclassified).

      • James Will says:

        I agree that the acquiescence of the Secretary of Defense is not intended to be a ‘check’ as we are discussing, but an insane man giving an insane order would need to find an equally insane person to be Secretary of Defense, or his replacement. Not out of the question, but unlikely.

        As for STRATCOM, those are valid points, but in all those cases, STRATCOM would have been in on the conversation, so to speak. Any intelligence that would come in what would demand an immediate preemptive strike would certainly have the attention of the commander of STRATCOM, as he (his command, specifically) would be the one constructing the attack options for such an attack.
        The absence of this intelligence accompanied by the sudden promotion of the Deputy Vice Undersecretary for Lightbulb Acquisition to the leadership of the defense department would be an indicator that the NCA was not making rational decisions.

  7. Gene Dannen says:

    It’s notable, in your quotation, that Truman said that atomic bombs were used to ‘wipe out’ civilians. Those are the words (wiping out) that Henry Wallace attributed to him in the August 10, 1945 cabinet meeting. (See Truman Revokes Bombing Order, ) It’s confirmation that Wallace’s account was accurate. And it shows what a strong impression the Hiroshima-Nagasaki civilian casualties made on Truman, despite his later claims.

    • I agree. I am working on a rather long, serious historical study of just this question, and the fact that Truman has a very limited vocabulary in which he talked about atomic weapons is a boon to scholars. It makes it possible (I argue) to trace his thoughts over time, even when they are filtered through official statements, diarist accounts by others, etc., because these “Trumanisms” stand out. More on that in the next year, to be sure.

  8. Bradley Laing says:

    It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.

    —Truman said this, yet he knew about fire bombing Dresden. Hamburgh, and the “Meetinghouse” section of Tokyo, where unarmed people were the majority?

    —And those were conventional weapons?

    • Truman’s own views of this are part of a separate paper I have been working on for some time, but suffice to say, they are at times quite muddled and contradictory. I think it is interesting though that by 1948 he has taken to saying that atomic bombs are used to kill women and children, something he specifically said they weren’t going to do in 1945. But that is another story for another day.

  9. There’s also John Bordne’s story about an accidental near-launch in Okinawa in 1962, which he says was averted by skeptical officers:

  10. Susan Lindee says:

    What do you think about the “madman” theory at this moment?

    • There has been some interesting studies on whether “madman theory” worked or not. Francis Gavin, in his Nuclear Statecraft, essentially concludes (if my memory is correct) that it was ineffective at best (in that it didn’t change Soviet behavior at all), reckless at worst. I think US attitudes towards North Korea are perhaps a good indication of how another nation would view a “madman” situation — maybe a tiny bit more latitude is given (e.g., if the DPRK shells the South Korean military, nobody is in a huge hurry to give a military response), but ultimately it results in isolation and escalation, not compliance or acquiescence. I am sure the IR scholars have much more to say on this point than I do, though.

  11. Peter says:

    What happens if there is a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Washington? Chances are good that the President, the Vice President, and possibly the entire line of succession will be gone. Is there some provision for military commanders in the field to launch strikes in this scenario?

    • Probably, but nothing that has been declassified to my knowledge.

      • Jon Lewis says:

        Inferring from a film I was shown in the Air Force in the 1980s, if the National Command structure was wiped out, the Emergency Action Officer (at Offutt AFB) or the Airborne Emergency Action Officer (if Offutt was also destroyed) could authorize a nuclear strike. In the film, the Soviets attacked military targets. The AEAO on Looking Glass still had contact with the President, so the AEAO refused to authorize any action.

  12. Allen Thomson says:

    It occurs to me that there is a largish pool of people who have had relevant jobs who could be asked about this question in its various forms.

    – President’s Military Aides (carriers of the football)

    – Secret Service Agents assigned to the President’s personal protection

    – Airborne Emergency Action Officers

    – Secretaries of Defense

    – CINCSACs and follow-ons

    Probably others.

    And there’s the technical question of how the President’s launch order gets from the football down to the launch command centers. Is it all automatic, or does it flow through people who could check it out?