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Should the president alone get to launch nuclear weapons?

Op-ed: This year's election raised a good point: Is anyone fit to control the nuclear codes?

Most of the character attacks in the recent presidential election have little lasting value. There was, however, one criticism each candidate made of the other that raises a matter of transcendent concern. This was the suggestion that the other candidate is not qualified to have a "finger on the nuclear button." While it was not offered for this purpose, this criticism invites consideration of whether any single person should have unbridled authority to invoke nuclear weapons.

First, unbridled authority to direct the use of nuclear weapons is unrealistic. Even the most confident president would be overborne by such a decision. Anyone who has made a single life or death decision strains to imagine a decision to use nuclear weapons. Any sober person would welcome corroboration of a decision so portentous.

Second, the reality of such a situation is impossible to imagine from the point of view of a person directed to utilize such weapons. Consider, for example, the captain of a nuclear submarine receiving an order to launch a nuclear missile toward a city containing millions of people. The captain would not know the facts giving rise to the order nor would he have any ability to inquire. He would know only that one person, well or unwell, provident or improvident, was directing him to take action that would bring about millions of deaths and grievous injuries and, conceivably, an end to meaningful life on earth. In far less extraordinary circumstances, disciplined military pilots have declined to follow orders to bomb schools, hospitals or residential apartments.

Third, one must consider the dilemma of a person close to the president who believes, correctly or incorrectly, that the president's judgment is even slightly impaired. Such a person could be the carrier of the nuclear "football," a presidential adviser or confidant or even a family member. Should such person bring his/her misgivings to the attention of others? The involvement of another person in the president's decision to use nuclear weapons would relieve the tension such person would experience.

There is a realistic and practical means to limit the president's unilateral authority to invoke the use of nuclear weapons. Obviously, the estimated six minutes for such a decision does not permit the convening of a meaningful meeting. It is possible, however, for the consent of one other person to be obtained by providing an additional nuclear "football" with instantaneous capacity to confer and participate with the president. The obvious other person is the vice president, who has been vetted to assume the president's functions if necessary. This could be accomplished by providing simply that the president's authority as commander-in-chief remain as it is with the exception of a decision to utilize nuclear weapons, which would require the consent of the vice president.

In addition to the involved parties in this country, there would be a further benefit of requiring the consent of two people for the use of nuclear weapons. Such a decision, when learned of by other countries, would be the strongest possible statement by this country that nuclear weapons are not the same as other weapons. If other countries chose to follow our example, or if the judgments of international organizations encouraged them to do so, the consequence of such actions would be profoundly beneficial with no downside to our military superiority.

It should be observed that nothing resembling nuclear weapons existed when the unilateral military authority of the president was conferred. We are dealing today with nuclear weapons that dwarf those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their launch would be nothing short of apocalyptic.

James Kramon (jkramon@kg-law.com) is of counsel, Kramon & Graham, P.A.

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