The nuclear dichotomy of a quick enough response to a threat balanced against a system of checks that prevent precipitous and irreversible action has been with us since the arrival of nuclear weapons. It is good to remind ourselves that such a dichotomy exists, and revisiting it on a regular basis may take us further away from a catastrophe.
Ronald Reagan once said “Nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought”.
However, the weapons exist, and that makes the practice and theory of deterrents strategically necessary. In dealing with human beings, and their politics, the idea of trust is naïve and potentially lethal. Deterrents are therefore the best of a bad set of alternatives.
We have all known this for most of our lives but that, in itself, inevitably leads to complacency. A new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa has revitalized the danger and the fear, which has to be good.
The book relates that the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, issued some very unusual, but not unprecedented, instructions to senior military officials towards the end of the Trump presidency. He asked all the officers to verbally signal their assent to his order that they should consult with him first before taking any action, if they were to receive orders to launch any attack, including a nuclear attack.
According to the authors, General Milley had become so alarmed at Trump’s addled behavior that he felt added safeguards were necessary to avoid a calamity. Horrendous as that may sound, not to mention the fact that it raises the spectre of who is actually in control, General Milley was not setting a precedent, he was following one. In 1974, the then Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, did the same thing to an increasingly erratic Richard Nixon.
What all of this highlights is that the U.S. has a system where the Commander-in-chief possesses the sole authority to order a nuclear strike, at any time. He/she is expected to consult cabinet members and military leaders, but there is no requirement to do so. One can understand that there may not be too much time to make a decision, and bureaucratic consulting procedures would mean no decisions would be made before it was too late. That’s the nuclear dichotomy. However, the current system of a one-man control system is clearly unacceptable, and extremely dangerous when history shows us that that man either is, or can become, unhinged. Again, we should learn from the history of James Schlesinger and Mark Milley, and probably others that have not been heralded for such actions. In the future, there could well be presidents who are more addled, erratic, unstable or simply nuts. We don’t want to reach that situation only to find there is no way of stopping them.
Thank you to Woodward and Costa for reminding us that this problem needs to be addressed. Two potentially unhinged presidents in forty years is more than a clear indication that this is a disaster waiting to happen. The term used to be “mutual annihilation” but whatever the results of a nuclear war may be, it is certainly not in anyone’s interest to avoid this problem.
Ronald Reagan was absolutely right. Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The nuclear dichotomy must be addressed and resolved.
Comments and reactions please. This far too important to let slip out of our consciousness.