Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. U.S. Air Force / Brittany A. Chase

Generals Should Not Have to Break the Rules to Prevent Nuclear War

Rather than criticizing Milley, we need to change the policy that put him in an impossible spot.

Just after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Gen. Mark Milley faced an impossible choice: should he allow President Trump to retain sole authority to start nuclear war, or should he intervene to block such an order? 

Convinced that Trump had suffered “serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election,” Gen. Milley decided to intervene, ordering his staff to come to him if they received a strike order from the president.

"No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I'm part of that procedure," Milley told the officers, according to Peril, a new book by journalist Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. “You never know what a president's trigger point is.”

But Gen. Milley—though chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president’s chief military advisor—is not formally part of that procedure. As former Defense Secretary Bill Perry and I explore in our book The Button, policy established during the Cold War puts decisions about the use of nuclear weapons are solely in the hands of the civilian president, not Congress and above all not the military. All the president needs to do is call the Pentagon’s War Room—using the nuclear “football” or some other means—then identify himself and give the order to launch. The president may choose to consult with senior advisors such as Gen. Milley but is not required to.

If the Woodward-Costa report is accurate, therefore, Gen. Milley was breaking the rules and his actions were likely illegal and unconstitutional. (His spokesperson has said that the general “continues to act and advise within his authority in the lawful tradition of civilian control of the military and his oath to the Constitution.”) And his efforts might not have worked anyway, since his staff could still have chosen to honor the president’s orders over the general’s. 

Even so, it was the right thing to do. Should Gen. Milley have let a clearly unstable president start nuclear war just to follow protocol? Of course not. 

Not surprisingly, Milley has come under fire for this, and for his calls to reassure China about Trump’s intentions. The former president, for one, called his former military advisor’s actions “treason.” But rather than criticizing the general, we need to change the policy that put him in an impossible spot. 

Unfortunately, under existing policy the only way to safeguard the nuclear arsenal from an unstable president is not to elect one. Once in office, the president gains the absolute authority to start a nuclear war. Within minutes, the president can unleash hundreds of atomic bombs, or just one. He does not need a second opinion. The defense secretary has no say, and Congress has no role.

In retrospect, voters should never have entrusted Trump with the power to end the world. But do we really think any president should have this power? By now, it should be clear that no one person should have the unilateral power to end our civilization. Such unchecked authority is undemocratic, unnecessary and extremely dangerous.

For the past five decades, every president has traveled with a briefcase known as the nuclear football containing the codes that allow the president—on his sole authority—to order the launch of the nuclear arsenal even if we have not been attacked. Yet that awesome ability comes with grave dangers. Would any president be able to make a wise decision under such crushing time pressures? What if it were a false alarm? How would the president know? And what if the president was mentally unstable?

We came close to blundering into nuclear war several times during the Cold War. False alarms, in particular, are a real and growing concern because our weapons and warning systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks. If the president launches nuclear weapons in response to a false alarm, he would start World War III—by mistake.

Sadly, we cannot assume that we will never have another president as unqualified as Trump. There are numerous politicians competing to be Trump’s political heir. Trump himself could run again, and his children have political ambitions. Nor can we assume that future generals will stand up to them.

Trump is not the first president to trigger these concerns. There is always some chance that the president might be delusional (like Trump), drink to excess (like Richard Nixon), or engage in some other activity that could cloud his or her judgment. In fact, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger was worried that Nixon might order an impulsive nuclear attack and, like Milley, directed that all orders should go through him.

How many times do we need to see this play out before we realize that next time we might not be so lucky? President Joe Biden needs to fix the system for himself and all future presidents.

First, Biden should announce he will share authority to use nuclear weapons first with a select group in Congress. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to declare war, not the president. The first use of nuclear weapons is clearly an act of war.

Second, Biden should also declare that the United States will never start a nuclear war and would use the bomb only in retaliation. Biden has said that he supports a declaration that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. This is a sensible position, and such a policy could also be designed to prohibit first use, including preemptive nuclear attacks and launches on warning of attack. These scenarios dangerously increase the risk of starting nuclear war by mistake.

Such policies would provide clear directives for the military to follow: A launch could be ordered only if the nation had already been attacked with nuclear weapons or if Congress had approved the decision, providing a constitutional check to executive power. Both would be infinitely less risky than our current doctrine.

Biden must limit presidential authority to start nuclear war before the next dangerous president gets elected. We must never again entrust the fate of the world to just one fallible human. This is not about “good” vs “bad” presidents. This is about making good policy that can keep us alive regardless of who voters happen to put in the White House.