Trump, Nukes, and No First Use
Two bills aim to enact a long-overdue policy that will make the world less dangerous.
Do you trust President Trump with nukes? If not, you are in good company. Mr. Trump has an impulse control problem. From reactionary tweets to rambling falsehoods, there’s a reason why most Americans oppose Trump’s foreign policy and disapprove of his job performance.
That is good news for congressional Democrats, who rightly see an opportunity to raise the underappreciated issue of presidential “sole authority.” Few Americans realize that within minutes, with just one phone call, President Trump could unleash up to 1,000 nuclear weapons, each one many times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It would be the end of civilization. Millions would die. Short of mutiny, no one can stop him. Once launched, the missiles cannot be recalled. For President Trump, starting nuclear war is about as easy as sending a tweet.
It should not be so easy to end the world. This week, two bills were introduced in Congress to make it much harder. On Tuesday, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., reintroduced a bill to prevent any president from launching a nuclear first strike without congressional approval. “No American President, and certainly not Donald Trump, should have the power to launch a first-use nuclear first strike absent such an attack without explicit Congressional approval,” Sen. Markey said.
The next day, presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, dropped a separate bill that would establish in law that the United States would not use nuclear weapons first. “Our current nuclear strategy is not just outdated—it is dangerous,” they said in a joint statement. ”By making clear that deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal, this bill would reduce the chances of a nuclear miscalculation and help us maintain our moral and diplomatic leadership in the world.” The lawmakers said their bill would codify what most Americans already believe: that the United States should never initiate a nuclear war.
Indeed, no sane U.S. leader would ever—ever—make first use of nuclear weapons. Every president in the atomic age, Republican and Democrat, has known this, even if they have not had the political fortitude to enact it as policy. After dropping the first atomic bombs on Japan, President Truman thought the idea of killing “another 100,000 people was too horrible.” President Kennedy’s defense secretary Robert McNamara recalled that “in long private conversations with successive Presidents—Kennedy and Johnson—I recommended, without qualification, that they never initiate under any circumstances, the use of nuclear weapons. I believe they accepted my recommendations.”
In 1985, President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev issued a joint statement declaring that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, who served under President Clinton, said, “I never confronted a situation, or could even imagine a situation, in which I would recommend that the President make a first strike with nuclear weapons—understanding that such an action, whatever the provocation, would likely bring about the end of civilization.”
In 2016, President Obama tried to enact a no-first-use policy but ran out of time. Just before President Trump took office, Vice President Biden said that, “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter—and defend ourselves and our allies against—non-nuclear threats through other means.”
If no president would ever use nuclear weapons first, why has none been able to make it U.S. policy? Maybe it just never rose high enough on the list of priorities. One should never underestimate how entrenched the bureaucracy is on nuclear issues, and how hard it is to make changes. In Obama’s case, the president was opposed by his secretaries of defense, state and energy. He should have gone ahead regardless, but did not. At the time, he did not know who the next President would be.
Now we know. President Trump’s erratic and unstable nature has elevated sole authority to a prominent political issue and put no-first-use on the map. This is no longer an issue that can be swept under the rug. Jim Mattis is no longer here to stop the worst from happening, if he ever could.
The risks of having nuclear weapons ready to launch within minutes, on the president’s sole authority, outweigh any perceived benefits. Any decision to use nuclear weapons is too important to be left to any single person. This system is unsafe, undemocratic and unnecessary. It must be fixed, and no-first-use is the right first step.