Should the President Be Allowed to Launch Nuclear Weapons?

A turn of the key. A press of the big red button. Millions, if not billions, dead. Melodramatic? Yes. Inaccurate? Not really.

Right now in the United States, if the president wanted to launch nuclear missiles, there’s not much that can stop it from happening.

As “commander in chief,” the U.S. Constitution gives the President full control over the military, including its nuclear arsenal. There are safeguards to make sure the person giving the order is the President, but nothing to guarantee that the order itself is necessary or the best decision.

Although some have worried about the sanity of the president – Harold Hering was tossed from the U.S. Air Force for asking about it – I do not.

Few, if any, of America’s worst decisions have been due to insanity or irrationality. Instead, they happen because decision-makers fail to put themselves in other people’s shoes, allow biases to cloud their judgment or don’t have all the information needed to make a sound assessment.

In the spirit of Rewire’s political thought experiment web series “America from Scratch,” which I help make for PBS Digital Studios, I wanted to explore the idea of whether the United States – and the world – would be better off if there were checks and balances on the President’s ability to use nuclear weapons.

The decision that changed everything

Korea: The Never-Ending War,” a new PBS documentary premiering April 29, is the perfect jumping-off point to talk about the dangers of our current nuclear procedure.

In 1950, communist North Korea invaded U.S.-allied South Korea. President Harry Truman labeled the U.S.-led intervention a “police action,” allowing him avoid relying on Congress for a Declaration of War, and recruited the Soviet-boycotted United Nations to halt the North Koreans.

Still, the North Koreans pushed U.N. forces south until the U.N. made a final stand along the Pusan Perimeter. Soon after, General Douglas MacArthur designed a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon that sparked a counterattack all the way up the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, the U.S. ignored China’s warnings that any U.N. troops approaching China’s border would be considered an invasion force. As U.N. forces approached the Yalu River separating China and North Korea, China entered the war and sent the U.N. on a demoralizing retreat. During this time, MacArthur called for the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese.

Truman refused.

‘Victory’ in the nuclear age

I cannot overstate how revolutionary this was. Truman’s decision went against centuries of wartime decisions throughout world history.

The Assyrians didn’t wonder if their iron swords were too deadly. The Greeks didn’t question the trireme’s annihilation of the Persian fleet at Salamis. The Ottomans didn’t ask if they should use gunpowder to blow apart Constantinople’s famed walls. Chemical weapons were deployed without hesitation in World War I, and in World War II, it was a question of when and where, not if, atomic bombs would be used.

Credit: National Archives
President Harry S. Truman at home in Independence, Missouri, on Christmas Eve, 1951.

Yet, Truman decided against using a weapon that might win the war. He eventually fired MacArthur.

MacArthur knew that there was “no substitute for victory,” but only Truman understood victory in the nuclear age. Although China did not have the atomic bomb in 1951, the Soviet Union did. Any use of nuclear weapons against China risked a nuclear reply from their communist allies. Even if the odds were low, the stakes were too high to risk it.

As Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis noted, “if the object of war was to secure the state – how could it not be? – then wars had to be limited.”

Truman knew that a nuclear war would actually destroy the nations it was being fought to preserve. So, he set aside millennia of military and political tradition that said “when weapons are developed, they will be used.” We might not be here today if he didn’t.

Whose finger is on the button?

Although Truman, and later President John F. Kennedy, made the right decision, future presidents might not.

Many would argue that no nation should ever deploy nuclear weapons, but we have them, and we need procedures to govern their use. Shockingly, of all the nuclear powers, the United States has the fewest checks and balances on the use of nuclear force.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, only the U.S., France and North Korea give nuclear authority to just one person. All other nuclear powers have councils or commissions, advisors or ministers, or principles or traditions that limit any one person’s ability to authorize a nuclear attack.

Improvements, but no perfect solution

So what kind of checks and balances should the United States set up? There is no shortage of options, although each has major drawbacks.

We could require Congress to sign off on deploying nuclear weapons. This, however, would take far too long to be practical, although perhaps a panel of select Congressional leaders would make for a good middle ground.

We could require that the President and the highest-ranking member of the opposition party agree on any nuclear attack. But that would introduce partisanship into a decision that should have none of it.

We could also require the Joint Chiefs of Staff to concur with any launch orders. Of course, military leaders have historically been the loudest voices for nuclear action, minimizing their ability to act as a check on a president.

There’s no perfect solution. However, the smartest person in the room, as they say, is the room. Anything that removes biases, adds perspectives and minimizes individual shortcomings will help create a safer world when it comes to nuclear warfare.

Watch “Korea: The Never-Ending War,” online at PBS.org or check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times.

Jacob Hillesheim

Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator who has taught courses in American history, world history, military history, government and criminal justice and law. He holds master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history. He has never—never—said “no” to ice cream.