Legislation would limit Trump's nuclear option

Since President Trump took office, military posturing and bellicosity between the United States and North Korea has escalated. In recent weeks, it has grown to include reciprocal threats of the use of nuclear weapons.

North Korean officials warned in mid-April that "a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment." Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work described two U.S. ballistic missile tests as "a signal … that we are prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of our country if necessary." The election of the liberal Moon Jae-in as president of South Korea may cool the rhetoric on both sides, but the recent missile tests of North Korea have complicated that possibility, and there is no certainty that Mr. Trump will seize the opportunity in any case.


Loose talk about the use of nuclear weapons is justification for alarm, especially in a time of heightened tensions. Reports have surfaced that the Trump administration is considering a pre-emptive strike against North Korea's nuclear weapons facilities or a "decapitation" strategy aimed at the leadership of the regime, possibly using nuclear weapons. Such an attack would not likely succeed and could well prompt a response from North Korea, which is believed to have the capacity of striking South Korea, Japan and U.S. forces on the Korean demilitarized zone with 10-kiloton atomic weapons sufficient to destroy a city. A miscalculation or accident could result in a catastrophe, as well. In 1995, the United States and Norway launched a research rocket off the latter country's northwest coast. Russia's early warning system read it initially as a nuclear attack. Russia's emergency nuclear decision process was aborted only after radar indicated that the rocket was headed out to sea. Could we expect North Korea's mercurial leaders to behave in a calm fashion in similar circumstances?

Given the increasingly volatile geopolitical landscape, one might ask why the United States continues to keep many of its roughly 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, a status that allows for their launch within a matter of minutes. One might question why the United States insists on maintaining the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, a policy that effectively encourages other nations to pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a U.S. attack. Perhaps most of all, one might ask why we continue to give the president sole authority to order a nuclear first strike.

Taking into account Mr. Trump's statements about nuclear weapons, his impulsive behavior, and his self-professed unpredictability, a disaster is conceivable. Mr. Trump reportedly once questioned an aide about nuclear weapons, asking, "If we have them, why can't we use them?" Following his election, Mr. Trump tweeted "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses on nukes." When asked in an interview about that position and its implications, he said, "Let it be an arms race."

Steps must be taken now to reduce the danger of the use of nuclear weapons. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, have introduced legislation in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would tie the president's power to launch a nuclear first strike to a prior congressional authorization.

Among the co-sponsors of the bill is Maryland's Sen. Chris Van Hollen. At a recent press conference announcing the delivery of nearly a half million petition signatures to Congress in support of this legislation, Senator Van Hollen said: "Once one nuclear weapon is fired off, there's a real risk that you go down the road to a total nuclear Armageddon. … The need for this [legislation] has been highlighted by a lot of the reckless remarks made by the current president, and if ever there was a moment when the United States Congress should act on this, it's now."

Senator Van Hollen is right. This legislation would ensure that this president, and future presidents, cannot make the decision to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes. It may be unlikely that Mr. Trump or any president would actually take such a step. But why should the country take the chance? Why not remove all doubt when the consequences are so considerable and the outcome potentially so dire?

Michael Keller is co-chair of the board of directors of Peace Action Education Fund, a national peace and disarmament organization with offices in Silver Spring, Md., and Oakland, Calif. His email is