Rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, combined with a president who prizes unpredictability, have focused new attention on the little-understood process that a president would follow to order the use of nuclear weapons.
That fresh look has left many people—particularly those who oppose President Trump—both surprised and a little rattled to discover there are almost no official checks on a president’s authority in this area. The president boasts that he likes to keep adversaries guessing about his intentions, and Tuesday, when asked if he was considering military action against North Korea, he responded, “We’ll see what happens.”
“I get this question all the time now,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a global-security foundation that focuses on nuclear-weapons policy. “From the average voter at a town hall meeting to senior members of the Senate and House armed services committees, this is a concern I’m hearing.” He added, “And people don’t believe me when I tell them that the president and the president alone can launch nuclear weapons, and once he gives the order, nobody can stop him.”
Reassurance for many is the presence of so many generals in Trump’s inner circle, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford. While Trump has refused to rule out the use of any weapon in the American arsenal, it’s commonly assumed that the generals would restrain an impulsive chief executive and countermand any rash use of nukes. That was one of the reasons retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey gave for supporting the selection of Mattis to head the Pentagon. Calling him “a moderating voice,” McCaffrey said at the time, “We’ll have a steady, knowledgeable hand at Defense to counter the president-elect’s lack of experience and impulsiveness.”
The irony is that the system was designed between 1946 and 1962, a time of great concern over “trigger-happy” generals, to give primacy to the civilian elected as president and to reduce the influence of military officers.
Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had seen the horrors of world war, and both knew generals like Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power, once the head of Strategic Air Command, who believed in preemptive nuclear war. To restrain them, Kennedy devised the system still followed today in which a military officer accompanies the president with a briefcase—dubbed “the football”—containing nuclear codes and assuring that only a president could authorize the launching of nuclear missiles.
Despite popular belief, there is no “button” in the briefcase to be pushed to launch missiles. Its main purpose is to provide a means for the commander in chief to properly identify himself when communicating his order to the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. It is the NMCC that stays in contact with all aspects of the nuclear triad—at sea, in the air, and on land. The football began with Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis.
The theory behind making sure only a president could launch nuclear weapons was that a president would be the calm one in the room when decisions had to be made. Eisenhower famously fretted that he didn’t want “a damn colonel” starting the next war.
With the exception of Richard Nixon’s final days in office when aides feared he was drinking too much, at no point in the succeeding decades was the stability of the president questioned, said Cirincione. “Maybe you violently disagreed with George W. Bush’s policies, but you never thought that he would impulsively launch a nuclear weapon. Now, this is exactly what some are worrying about.” He said the concern rises because there is no requirement that a president consult with anybody before making such a decision.
Peter Feaver, currently at Duke University, is a veteran of Bush’s National Security Council and an expert on the subject. He is the author of Guarding the Guardians: Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons in the United States. Though Feaver opposed Trump’s election, he is not overly concerned that Trump theoretically has the ability to launch a nuclear attack.
“What is missing from the public fretting about this issue is an appreciation for how these things would play out in practice,” he said. Even though no one else has to sign off on an order, many people have to go along to execute an order to use nukes.
“The president can be blocked by people beneath him when they don’t want to do what he wants them to do,” he said. In the worst-case scenario of “a president on his own just waking up and saying, ‘I want to nuke somebody,’ a president would alert his chain of command when he issued the order. And they would be asking, ‘What the heck is going on?’
“It beggars belief that in that setting, they would blindly, reflexively carry out the order without raising questions. And in raising questions, they would make it harder for a president to do what he wanted to do in that crazy scenario,” said Feaver.
In other circumstances, when there had been full consultation or the country was facing imminent attack, the order would be implemented once Trump issued it. “You could say I wish it weren’t him,” Feaver said. “But then your argument would be with the electorate.”
There is a bill in Congress sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu to require a president to get congressional approval before launching a first strike with nuclear weapons. It was introduced before the election but has gained support since Trump’s win.
Even so, its prospects are bleak, for reasons of politics and policy. GOP majorities are unlikely to pass a bill introduced by liberal Democrats that would restrain a Republican president. And from a military standpoint, prior congressional approval would eat up precious time if the nation faced imminent nuclear attack.