By Michel Justen & Lennart Justen
In the U.S., the authority to launch nuclear weapons is delegated to the president alone. The president has no obligation to consult with his or her advisors or follow their advice when making one the most consequential decisions possible. This power, known as presidential sole authority, is an inherently undemocratic artifact of the Cold War. (MacDonald).
Presidential sole authority and the human fallibility it allows for endanger the US and the rest of the world by increasing the likelihood of an unjustified or mistaken launch. Given the unparalleled consequences of a nuclear conflict, the policy of presidential sole authority should be replaced with a system requiring multiple officials to validate a nuclear launch.
When the U.S. dropped the first two nuclear bombs on Japan in WWII, President Harry Truman had only verbally approved orders that were drafted and executed by the military. At the time it seemed natural that the military would have jurisdiction over nuclear weapons just like they did over conventional weapons (Eschner). However, upon learning that a third bomb was being prepared, Truman ordered that no more nuclear bombs should be dropped without his explicit authority (Owens). This began the US policy of granting the president sole authority to launch nuclear weapons without the approval of the military or other high-ranking members of the government.
As nuclear policies evolved during tensions between Russia and the US, the reasoning behind presidential sole-authority was rarely questioned. (At one point President Eisenhower secretly expanded launch nuclear weapons to military commanders, but President Kennedy revoked this expansion, again entrenching presidential sole authority; Eschner; Owens). It was felt that presidential sole-authority helped the rapid retaliation that the principles of mutually assured destruction were built on. However, as the foreign security environment shifts and with new nuclear technologies that call the necessity for rapid-retaliation into question, a number of proposals have sought to modify presidential sole-authority (Gronlund et al.; Betts and Waxman; Lieu).
Analysis of the Problem
A modern-day nuclear conflict––with weapons 60 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Moore)––would be catastrophic. The blast of a nuclear strike and the ensuing radiation would kill many and raise the likelihood of retaliation and subsequent escalation into a full-scale nuclear war. Recent studies have given renewed credibility to concerns over a nuclear winter scenario in which dust and soot raised by blasts collects in the stratosphere, blocking sunlight from reaching the earth and resulting in a prolonged period of severe climate cooling (Derouin).
In the face of such enormous consequences, vulnerabilities in the policy of presidential sole authority that even slightly increase the probability of an erroneous launch are exceedingly dangerous. The present proposal analyzes these vulnerabilities stemming from the possibility of an unjustified launch and a mistaken launch before considering presidential sole authority in light of US long-term nuclear goals and counter arguments.
An unjustified launch would be an unwarranted or irrational decision by the president to launch nuclear weapons. A president may, for example, decide to launch nuclear weapons in the absence of a realistic threat or in response to a smaller conventional attack. Such an unjustified launch decision could stem from a fit president simply vulnerable to human fallibilities, but it becomes particularly salient with respect to unstable presidents. And past presidential conduct reveals that risks from an unstable president are not hypothetical. During his impeachment hearings and around the same time he was heavily abusing alcohol, Nixon once stated “I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead” (Rhodes; Heeley). Reportedly, Nixon also seriously considered nuclear retaliation after North Korea shot down a reconnaissance plane killing 31 Americans (Summers and Swan). The severity of the situation was such that the Secretary of Defense at the time, James Schlesinger, instructed aids that any nuclear command should go through him first (Heeley). However, the existing presidential sole authority policy gave this instruction no legal ground, and it remains unclear what would have happened had Nixon issued such an order (MacDonald).
Concerns about unwarranted use of nuclear weapons were renewed during the Trump administration. During his presidency, Trump took to the social media platform Twitter to offer cryptic threats about “fire and fury” towards North Korea and boast that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger” than Kim Jung un’s (Thrush and Baker). He also asked multiple times why the US could not use its nuclear weapons, according to a foreign policy expert (Belvedere). Following the 2021 Capitol Riots, Trump’s presidency ended with urgent calls to revoke his nuclear authority (Brumfiel). While no nuclear launch decision was made by either Nixon or Trump, these examples demonstrate that concerns about a president launching an unjustified nuclear strike are not without precedent.
The legality of any nuclear launch initiation by the president should in principle be assessed according to the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), but this does not provide a sufficient safe-guard. The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) dictates basic principles of military conflict, such as distinction between civilian and militant targets, proportionality of damage and loss of life to military advantage, and limiting unnecessary suffering (Law of War Manuel). Such principles should rule out an unjustifiable launch. However, in a nuclear protocol designed for speed during what may be a crisis and in a military culture that emphasizes obedience to authority (Wolfendale), it is unclear how likely an on-duty officer who cannot assess a president’s fitness would be to refute an insistent commander-in-chief. A president could also counter any hesitancy by claiming they have access to confidential information, as Kennedy discovered when probing his military advisors (MacDonald). With the LOAC as the only safeguard, the current presidential sole authority policy relies on disobedience to prevent an unjustifiable nuclear launch. Deliberation built into the nuclear launch protocol is a desirable, democratic alternative.
A mistaken launch would be a launch authorized in response to false or incomplete information (Wright et al.). A mistaken launch could stem from an unfit president or a fit president who perceives a nuclear launch to be rational based on the available information. Without the requirement to make a reasoned upon decision, both risks are increased.
The type of false or incomplete information from which a mistake launch could follow is disturbingly common. Between 1977 and 1984, there were 1,152 “moderately serious” false alarms (Sennott); Out of the 16 greatest “nuclear close calls,” more than half involving the U.S. were the result of false or incomplete information (“List of Nuclear Close Calls”). One of the most alarming examples was when a nuclear training scenario was inadvertently uploaded to one of the computers in the US’s advanced warning system and triggered a credible scenario in which the Soviets had launched 250 missiles, requiring a retaliation in 3-7 minutes. Luckily, the threat was recognized as a false alarm (“List of Nuclear Close Calls”).
While a mistaken launch is most often thought of as following from an error in whether or not an attack is incoming, such as these close-calls, a mistaken launch could also follow from an error in who is accountable for an incoming attack. An evolving security environment with new risks from terrorist organizations, rogue actors, or cybersecurity hacks makes this a very real concern (Wright et al.).
During such moments of incomplete information, it is important that any decision be made in a calculated manner. Psychological research, however, has identified a number of biases and impairments inherent in nuclear decision making (Fischhoff; Slovic and Lin). Decision making is generally less calculated under high stress (Kowalski-Trakofler et al.), and our ability to weigh human suffering at the magnitude of nuclear weapons is dangerously impaired (Slovic and Lin). Allowing one of the most consequential acts possible to be made by one person reflects a deep naivety towards human fallibility. A group of decision makers could still fall victim to poor decision making (e.g., groupthink), but training simulations and an emphasis away from conformity could significantly improve group decisions (Janis). Thus, involving multiple people in the nuclear decision making process could ensure a more deliberate decision and in turn reduce the risk of a mistaken nuclear launch.
A final consideration for presidential sole authority is the extent to which it conforms to the long-term goals of the US, allies, and international treaties. The US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly states that nuclear weapons would only be used in the most extreme circumstance and that deterrence is the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal (Nuclear Posture Review). Similarly, the US has committed to the long-term vision of a world without nuclear weapons (Nuclear Posture Review). This goal is consistent with the US-signed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other international security and humanitarian interests (NPT; ICRC). Removing presidential sole authority would send an important signal that the US is serious about reducing the possibility of nuclear catastrophe and committed to the long-term goal of a nuclear weapons-free world.
The main argument against presidential sole authority is that it reduces US deterrence (Whitlark). Deterrence is based on the principle that it would be irrational for a country to attack an adversary if the adversary–or the adversary’s ally–could still respond with a devastating nuclear strike.
Presidential sole authority may have increased deterrence in the early years of nuclear weapons, but this is not the case today. Historically, an adversary could have thought that they had a higher chance of crippling the US nuclear inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) system with an all out surprise attack, thus eliminating the US capacity to retaliate, if multiple people were required to make the decision. But the US capacity to retaliate today is essentially untouchable. New, undetectable nuclear submarines ensure that the US could still retaliate even in the unlikely chance a strike eliminates all US ICBMs. If an actor can be deterred, they will be by the US nuclear force, regardless of whether it is one person or multiple people making a launch decision.
Also, other countries that maintain credible deterrence like Russia and Israel appear to have nuclear launch protocols that require multiple decision makers, based on the available intelligence (MacDonald), further refuting the claim that removing presidential sole authority reduces deterrence.
Presidential sole authority should be replaced with a system that requires the approval of the next two officials in the chain of succession, for a total of three officials making the launch decision. In normal circumstances the top two individuals in the chain of succession would be the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who cannot be removed by the president. (Notably, the Vice-President’s power to veto a president’s nuclear launch order is consistent with the 25th amendment, which allows the Vice-President and members of the cabinet to impeach the president if they deem him or her unfit). In the event that any of these individuals are incapacitated or unreachable, the next officials would be the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Treasury, and Secretary of Defense. All individuals in the chain of succession already receive nuclear launch authority if something happens to the president and earlier successors, so they already have political legitimacy to be involved in nuclear matters.
Officials could be contacted through the existing Federal Emergency Management Agency “Internet Protocol Locator,” which continuously tracks the location and status of officials in the chain of succession (Gronlund et al.). This system is trusted to ensure a prompt transfer of launch authority if the commander-in-chief is killed or incapicitaed, so it should also be trusted to gain the approval of all three officials before a launch.
Replacing the current policy of presidential sole authority with a three-way power sharing relationship between the President, the Vice President, and the Speaker of the House would improve the existing system by:
- Putting checks in place to prevent an unjustifiable nuclear launch. The Vice-President and the Speaker of the House know the president, so they can certify the validity of an order.
- Reducing the risk of a mistaken launch by requiring more deliberation and assessment of the credibility of available information.
- Signaling to other countries that the US is intent on only launching nuclear weapons in a deliberate, calculated manner and serious about substantive action towards a future free of nuclear weapons (a stated US goal; Nuclear Posture Review).
Implementation of the proposed policy would also not affect the United States’ deterrence nor the security we offer to our allies. The policy of presidential sole authority was built for speed and decisiveness where caution and deliberation are now called for.
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