Should any pres­i­dent con­trol the launch of nu­clear weapons?

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By James M. Kra­mon any James Kra­mon ( jkra­mon@kg-law.com) is of coun­sel, Kra­mon & Gra­ham, P. A.

Most of the char­ac­ter at­tacks in the re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion have lit­tle last­ing value. There was, how­ever, one crit­i­cism each can­di­date made of the other that raises a mat­ter of tran­scen­dent con­cern. This was the sug­ges­tion that the other can­di­date is not qual­i­fied to have a “fin­ger on the nu­clear but­ton.” While it was not of­fered for this pur­pose, this crit­i­cism in­vites con­sid­er­a­tion of whether sin­gle per­son should have un­bri­dled au­thor­ity to in­voke nu­clear weapons.

First, un­bri­dled au­thor­ity to di­rect the use of nu­clear weapons is un­re­al­is­tic. Even the most con­fi­dent pres­i­dent would be over­borne by such a de­ci­sion. Any­one who has made a sin­gle life-or-death de­ci­sion strains to imag­ine a de­ci­sion to use nu­clear weapons. Any sober per­son would wel­come cor­rob­o­ra­tion of a de­ci­sion so por­ten­tous.

Sec­ond, the re­al­ity of such a sit­u­a­tion is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine from the point of view of a per­son di­rected to uti­lize such weapons. Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, the cap­tain of a nu­clear sub­ma­rine re­ceiv­ing an or­der to launch a nu­clear mis­sile to­ward a city con­tain­ing mil­lions of peo­ple. The cap­tain would not know the facts giv­ing rise to the or­der, nor would he have any abil­ity to in­quire. He would know only that one per­son, well or un­well, prov­i­dent or im­prov­i­dent, was di­rect­ing him to take ac­tion that would bring about mil­lions of deaths and griev­ous in­juries and, con­ceiv­ably, an end to mean­ing­ful life on earth. In far less ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances, dis­ci­plined mil­i­tary pi­lots have de­clined to fol­low or­ders to bomb schools, hos­pi­tals or res­i­den­tial apart­ments.

Third, one must con­sider the dilemma of a per­son close to the pres­i­dent who be­lieves, cor­rectly or in­cor­rectly, that the pres­i­dent’s judg­ment is even slightly im­paired. Such a per­son could be the car­rier of the nu­clear “foot­ball,” a pres­i­den­tial ad­viser or con­fi­dant or even a fam­ily mem­ber. Should such per­son bring his/ her mis­giv­ings to the at­ten­tion of oth­ers? The in­volve­ment of an­other per­son in the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion to use nu­clear weapons would re­lieve the ten­sion such per­son would ex­pe­ri­ence.

There is a re­al­is­tic and prac­ti­cal means to limit the pres­i­dent’s uni­lat­eral au­thor­ity to in­voke the use of nu­clear weapons. Ob­vi­ously, the es­ti­mated six min­utes for such a de­ci­sion does not per­mit the con­ven­ing of a mean­ing­ful meet­ing. It is pos­si­ble, how­ever, for the con­sent of one other per­son to be ob­tained by pro­vid­ing an ad­di­tional nu­clear “foot­ball” with in­stan­ta­neous ca­pac­ity to con­fer and par­tic­i­pate with the pres­i­dent. The ob­vi­ous other per­son is the vice pres­i­dent, who has been vet­ted to as­sume the pres­i­dent’s func­tions if nec­es­sary. This could be ac­com­plished by pro­vid­ing sim­ply that the pres­i­dent’s au­thor­ity as com­man­der-in-chief re­main as it is with the ex­cep­tion of a de­ci­sion to uti­lize nu­clear weapons, which would re­quire the con­sent of the vice pres­i­dent.

In ad­di­tion to the in­volved par­ties in this coun­try, there would be a fur­ther ben­e­fit of re­quir­ing the con­sent of two peo­ple for the use of nu­clear weapons. Such a de­ci­sion, when learned of by other coun­tries, would be the strong­est pos­si­ble state­ment by this coun­try that nu­clear weapons are not the same as other weapons. If other coun­tries chose to fol­low our ex­am­ple, or if the judg­ments of in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions en­cour­aged them to do so, the con­se­quence of such ac­tions would be pro­foundly ben­e­fi­cial with no down­side to our mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity.

It should be ob­served that noth­ing re­sem­bling nu­clear weapons ex­isted when the uni­lat­eral mil­i­tary au­thor­ity of the pres­i­dent was con­ferred. We are deal­ing to­day with nu­clear weapons that dwarf those used in Hiroshima and Na­gasaki. Their launch would be noth­ing short of apoc­a­lyp­tic.

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