No stopping Trump if he decides to push nuclear button

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Activists march with an inflatable globe during a demonstration against nuclear weapons on Nov. 18, 2017 in Berlin. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

It is 4 o’clock in the morning in Washington and our president, whoever he or she may be, is awakened by a call from a Pentagon’s watch officer.

“Sir,” the Pentagon officer shrieks, “our computers show nukes heading for us! What’ll we do?”

Still sleepy and possibly disbelieving the caller, but with less than ten minutes to determine if it’s yet another nuclear false alarm – in the past, Moscow has had three and we’ve made the same number of mistakes — the president could choose to kiss his wife goodbye and do nothing.


Or, with unchecked legal power to do as he wishes, the president could order his commanders and nuclear subs to fire away.

The real question is whether any American president, now or in the future, can be stopped or delayed even though he or she has the sole right to decide when and if to start a nuclear war. I hold no brief for former Vice President Dick Cheney, but in 2008 he said — correctly, I believe — that a president “could launch a kind of devastating attack the world’s never seen.”

“He doesn’t have to check with anybody,” Cheney said. “He doesn’t have to call the Congress. He doesn’t have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in.”

Bruce Blair, a former nuclear launch officer who also once worked at the Brookings Institution, put it this way: “There is no way to reverse the president’s order. And there would be no recalling missiles once launched.” In a 2016 article for Politico, Blair asked, “What Exactly Would It Mean to Have Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button?”

As Trump-hating Democrats and a small but growing number of Republicans say, it is Trump’s unpredictable mind and finger on that nuclear button.

In 1998, newly declassified U.S. documents revealed the Cold War secret that in late 1959 President Dwight Eisenhower had allowed certain senior commanders to make the decision to use nukes in specific demanding situations. These “predelegations” as they were called, would allow a rapid response by someone other than the president when the nation faced a much-feared Soviet Cold War nuclear attack.

Whether “predelegations” still are in place remains a deep a secret, but it is more than likely the Soviets also have reciprocal Predelegations, especially since the dawn of Cold War 2 in Eastern Europe.

“There is no way to reverse the president’s order” to bomb away, says Blair, a co-founder of Global Zero, which favors nuclear abolition. And once the order is given, Blair adds, there is “no way of recalling missiles once launched.” Nor are there any “restraints than can prevent a willful president from unleashing this hell.”

Because 15 to 30 minutes would be the difference between life and death for millions of people, Blair is less worried about a president’s rash actions than about whether he could “really take command of the situation, exercise independent judgment and brake a runaway train.”

Some aspects of presidential nuclear war-making powers remain top secret, hidden from the public. It is an arrangement designed for rapid decisions, not for debate and deliberation. Until some alternative remedy is developed, there is no perfect solution.

So here are a few words of warning to all of us from an old Army general named Omar Bradley:

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

Murray Polner is the author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, Branch Rickey: A Biography, and co-editor of We Who Dared Say No To War.

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