My early exposure to the concept of nuclear war was oddly calm: duck under your school desk, cover your head, and all will be right with you and the world. It was only later, when visuals on TV showed more horrific images, that the terror of it became clear; along with the inanity of “duck and cover,” that tender ode to nuclear annihilation.
I was a child during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a child, I didn’t truly understand the horrors the world was facing. As an adult, it’s becoming all too clear, especially with the current saber-rattling of nations around the globe. Including ours.
Which got me to wondering: what are the “rules” around launching a nuclear bomb? Who gets to authorize it (the President) and can anyone stop him from doing so (no). This RadioLab episode provides a unique look at the process, considering it from the perspective of a military officer who would receive a call to launch. Could he refuse to act?
Who Checks the President?
Harold Herring, a former Air Force Major profiled in this episode, had his career derailed by asking what seemed like a reasonable question: what are the checks and balances that exist at the Presidential level regarding the decision to launch a nuclear missile? Herring had learned about all of the checks and balances affecting him as a Missile Launch Officer, one of the guys who turns the key to launch nuclear missiles. He was satisfied about those checks and balances.
But when it came to being told about checks and balances at the level where the order is initiated, especially for a U.S. pre-emptive strike, he said there was “a complete void or blackout” of information. How could he know if the order he received was valid and lawful? How would he know if he was participating in a “justifiable act?”
This is an absorbing story about Herring, and the personal consequences he suffered as a result of asking his question. It’s also a story about our nuclear history. “Nukes” uses Herring’s story and his questioning mind to explore the history of our U.S. nuclear policies, including exploring whether the authorization to use nuclear bombs is largely a Presidential decision or a military one. It’s been both over the years.
Securing Nukes with Bike Locks
The episode includes excerpts of old radio/TV news reports, the revelation (to me) that there had been plans to drop a third bomb on Japan in WWII, stories of an atomic bomb being accidentally dropped on someone’s house in South Carolina, bombers crashing around the world with hydrogen bombs on board, and a realization that atomic bombs were stored on bases around the world secured by combination bike locks. All of which are part of the historical fabric of where we are today.
After following Herring’s story and the historical framework, the episode loops back to the present. Herring’s question is posed to experts in the nuclear chain of command. Are there checks and balances on the President’s ability to authorize the launching of nuclear bombs? Why was that question such a threat?
The answers were interesting and gave added foundation to the nuclear topic. Several experts responded to the question, and talked about the issue of “checks and balances.” Two launch perspectives were discussed: 1) launching in retaliation to an attack on the U.S., versus 2) launching as a pre-emptive attack, i.e. we shoot first.
According to Dr. Sonya McMullen, a former Air Force Missilier, “the whole premise is deterrence. That’s been our founding philosophy since we developed these things. If the other side doesn’t believe you’ll respond in kind, then it doesn’t work.”
As host Latif Nasser summarizes, “we keep other countries from nuking us by making it clear we’ll nuke them right back.” There can’t be any doubt that the Missilier will do what they’re ordered to do; Herring’s very question introduced doubt that he would follow orders.
What if Nixon had used Nukes?
It’s key to recognize that a retaliatory strike is different than a pre-emptive strike. One is reactive, where a decision must be made in a few minutes; the other is pro-active, where time is not pressing.
Consider the Vietnam War, and the fact that Nixon contemplated using a nuclear bomb in a pre-emptive strike.
“I’d rather use the nuclear bomb,” Nixon told Kissinger, his national security adviser, a few weeks before he ordered a major escalation of the Vietnam War.
“That, I think, would just be too much,” Kissinger replied softly.
“The only place where you and I disagree … is with regard to the bombing,” Nixon said. “You’re so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.”
Given that the authority to issue the launch command resides unilaterally in the President, who the President is matters. His state of mind matters. The President’s authority to launch cannot be countermanded by anyone, not even the Secretary of Defense; not even in a pre-emptive situation. Herring’s question was a wise one.
This was a fascinating episode. It’s weird to call a program about nuclear bombs entertaining, but it was. Entertaining, engaging, and educational. And really well produced. But then, it’s RadioLab; they’re great audio story tellers.
- Podcast: RadioLab
- Episode: Nukes
- Host: Latif Nasser
- Date: 4/7/17
- Duration: 41 show minutes (58 minute recording; starts at 5 minutes in and the last 10 minutes are music)
- “The Bomb,” PBS Video, 7/28/15
- “What Exactly Would it Mean to Have Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button?,” Bruce Blair, PoliticoMagazine, 6/11/16
- “No one can stop President Trump from using nuclear weapons. That’s by design,” Alex Wellerstein, The Washington Post, 12/1/16
- “The President and the Bomb, Part III,” Alex Wellerstein, Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, 4/10/17
- The William J Perry Project: Help to End the Nuclear Threat. “Created by the former Secretary of Defense to work towards a world in which nuclear weapons are never used again.”
- Girl with Daisy and Atomic Bomb Explosion (1964) – Lyndon B. Johnson Campaign Ad
- Videos: YouTube Search results “atomic bomb explosions”