The president can order a nuclear attack at any time. He doesn’t have to give a reason to anybody. He doesn’t have to consult with anybody. He doesn’t need anyone else’s consent. He just needs to make a phone call and read off some authorization codes. It’s very simple, really. These specific procedures were developed during the Kennedy administration, though Harry Truman was the first one to assert presidential control over nuclear weapons.
For nearly 75 years, Americans have lived with this arrangement. One person has the authority to end the world. There are no checks and balances on this particular presidential power. This has caused more angst lately because the current president sometimes uses Twitter to taunt other foreign leaders and brags about the size of his nuclear button. But the truth is, it has always been a scary situation. And, it has always been fundamentally undemocratic.
So, why do we do things this way? And, can we change it?
Well, if there were an incoming nuclear attack, there would be at most 30 minutes of warning time. A decision about retaliating has to be made within just a few minutes. And that’s a big part of why the system is set up the way it is. But what about a situation where the U.S. launches nuclear weapons first? In that case, do we need such a quick response system with one person’s finger on the proverbial button? And why would we consider launching nuclear weapons first anyway?
The answer to the question of “why first use” relies heavily on Cold War-era thinking and the doctrine of deterrence theory, which assumes you can scare adversaries about the consequences of attacking so much that they won’t ever actually do it. During the Cold War, nuclear war planners firmly believed that a U.S. threat of first use deterred even a non-nuclear invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union. Even today, governments of European allies like the security of a first-use policy. Similarly, Asian allies like Japan and South Korea rely on the threat of U.S. first use to deter any form of aggression from their neighbors. The U.S. also uses this threat to deter significant, non-nuclear, strategic attacks. Exactly what that means is purposely ambiguous, but it would have to be an extreme circumstance and could include attacks on civilian populations or nuclear forces.
None of that explains why we need one person solely in charge of making a first-use decision. The U.S. Constitution grants the Congress the authority to declare war, and a first use of nuclear weapons seems an awful lot like a declaration of war. How do you drop nukes on someone and not be at war with them? So why can’t we come up with a better system, one that is true to our Constitution and upholds our democratic principles?
There are a couple of options. For one, the U.S. could declare that it will never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. The U.S. has already said that it will not use nuclear weapons against countries that don’t have them and that are complying with the Nonproliferation Treaty. U.S. conventional military might is superior to that of any other fighting force in the world. It is hard to imagine a conflict, beyond a nuclear one, that the U.S. couldn’t handle using only conventional weapons.
In January Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced legislation to address this. The bill consists of one simple sentence. "It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first."
Critics will argue that no first-use policies are just words. A country could still choose to use nuclear weapons first even if it says it won’t. And, policies change with new administrations. A more substantial reassurance for other countries would be to codify into law that Congress must give approval for any first-use of nuclear weapons.
We can and should change the system. Presidents have asserted authority over nuclear weapons from the beginning, and the infrastructure is set up to support their control. But it’s dangerous and undemocratic. And in a first-use scenario, it's unconstitutional. The American people deserve a full display of their representative form of government, complete with checks and balances, even — and especially — when it comes to nuclear weapons.