Would an impulsive Trump hit the nuclear button?

In the late 1980s, as the Cold War neared its end, a veteran Cold Warrior reminisced in Chicago about the nuclear button and the thinking of the men who controlled it. It was an insight that holds meaning today.

McGeorge Bundy was the national security adviser for Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The national security adviser is the president's point man on foreign policy decision-making, and Bundy was the first, under Kennedy, to have an office in the White House.

It's an exclusive club of men and women who see the making of policy and the handling of crises firsthand. Twenty years after his White House days, Bundy, in Chicago to make a speech, mentioned in conversation that the members of this club kept in touch with each other over the years. What's more, he said, they got to know their counterparts in the Kremlin, the security advisers from what was then the Soviet Union, and saw each other frequently at negotiations or conferences. Over time, he said, they became something like friends, wary but respectful, swapping shop talk and gossip about their old bosses.

Bundy said there was one point on which all these right-hand men, American or Soviet, agreed. None had ever worked for a leader who, when it came to the moment of decision, would have actually pushed the nuclear button.

From Kennedy to Reagan, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, these leaders knew they held the future of humanity in their hands. All were flawed, but all were human. The advisers who knew them best agreed that, no matter the provocation, none would have started a nuclear war.

Since then, the Cold War ended and the threat of superpower nuclear war receded. Now it has returned. The United States and Russia, still massively armed with nuclear weapons, will be led by men unschooled in the nuclear realities of the Cold War. Worse, both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are nationalistic, often impulsive, taken to acting first and thinking later.

Trump, in particular, is a pathologically self-absorbed man, seemingly unaware that other people exist other than as irritants to his whims. He clearly relishes power, and the ability to lay nuclear waste to whole civilizations is the ultimate power.

Trump's nuclear strategy, such as it is, is not reassuring. He has called nuclear weapons "a horror" and appears to understand their danger. But asked about modernizing America's nuclear arsenal, he has said, "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."

Eric Schlosser, author of "Command and Control," a 2013 book on the risk of nuclear war, has written that "a calm disposition might mean the difference between peace on Earth and a nuclear apocalypse. ... Ideally, the president would never be short-tempered, impulsive or clinically depressed."

America's nuclear force is based on the nuclear triad, a concept that baffled Trump when he was asked about it during the campaign. The "triad" means the three delivery systems — land-based, launched from silos; air-based, delivered by strategic bombers; and sea-based, launched from submarines.

Both Russia and the U.S. are modernizing their arsenals. But as Schlosser wrote, America's land-based Minuteman III missiles are aging weapons controlled by an antiquated system, 30 or 40 years old, vulnerable to attack, which means they must be launched instantly at the first threat of a Russian attack or risk destruction. (The Russian system is no newer or better.)

Once launched, these missiles cannot be recalled or diverted. The second worst danger is that they could be launched in response to a false alarm or a technological glitch. The worst danger is that they could be sent on their way by a president who, in the pre-dawn darkness, opts for the nuclear trigger over a tweet.

The "nuclear button" is shorthand for a process. In practice, the president gives the order and it happens. Most likely, he would be told that an enemy nuclear attack was underway and informed of his options. He would have 30 minutes — at the most — to decide. If he orders a nuclear counterattack, there is no one down the chain of command who can intercept or stop it.

Presumably Trump's aides, knowing their boss, could tell the military to check with them first if Trump orders a nuclear strike. This happened during the Watergate crisis, when the secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, made sure that President Richard Nixon, then drinking heavily, couldn't start a nuclear war on his own. But this so undermines the president's authority to defend the nation that it's hard to imagine it would become standard policy for an entire term.

The fact is that Trump will have almost untrammeled power to wipe out the world — the same power possessed by every postwar president. As Bundy said, Trump's predecessors, terrified by this power, would have never used it. Will he do the same?

Richard C. Longworth is a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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