There is no check on a president’s power to launch nuclear arms that could destroy entire cities or nations, though history suggests there may be ways to slow or even derail the decision-making process, says The New York Times.
If the United States appeared to be under nuclear assault, the president would have minutes to decide whether the threat were real, and to fire as many as 925 nuclear warheads with a destructive force greater than 17,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to estimates by Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington.
The commander in chief also can order the first use of nuclear weapons even if the United States isn’t under nuclear attack, says the Times.
The president’s authority over nuclear decision-making challenges the Constitution’s declaration that only Congress holds the power to declare war. But the arrival of the nuclear age dismantled the traditional rules by rewriting the timelines of war. For example, it would take 12 minutes or less for weapons fired from submarines to reach Washington, and 30 minutes for warheads from most intercontinental missiles.
As a result, Congress began delegating the powers of nuclear war-fighting to the president, starting with Harry Truman — the only president who ever has ordered a nuclear strike against another nation.
There have been at least two instances in which top officials tried to slow, or undermine, the president’s nuclear authority, both of them involving Richard Nixon.
In 1974, in the last days of the Watergate scandal, Nixon was drinking heavily and his aides saw what they feared was a growing emotional instability. His new secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, himself a hawkish Cold Warrior, instructed the military to divert any emergency orders — especially one involving nuclear weapons — to him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
It was a completely extralegal order and perhaps mutinous, says the Times. But nobody questioned it.
Experts agree that the real nightmare centers not on launching attacks, but responding to them. In a recent memoir, William Perry, secretary of defense to Bill Clinton, called it “the immense peril we face when in mere minutes our leaders must make decisions affecting the whole planet.”
In the case of Trump, some members of the Clinton campaign have raised the fear that the man who regards himself as America’s best negotiator may try to use the threat of employing nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip.
As long ago as 1984, when he was a 38-year-old developer, Trump told the Washington Post reporter Lois Romano that he would like to be the negotiator on nuclear weapons with the Soviets.
“Some people have an ability to negotiate,” he said. “It’s an art you’re basically born with. You either have it or you don’t.” He told her he could learn about missiles quickly. “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles. … I think I know most of it anyway.”