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Trigger Finger for Armageddon: Trump and the Thermonuclear Monarchy

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It is the sort of breezy, skimpy and careless reasoning that is laying the ground for the Biden Republic.  A person, kicked off a social media babbling platform and having the means to incinerate the human race multiple times over, seen as corollaries of each other. There should be an obvious difference, but Silicon Valley has managed to make public and political commentary on President Donald Trump’s access (or not) to Twitter and the codes for nuclear weapons codes somehow equivalent.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is certainly of the view that Trump and nuclear weapons are not good matches, suggesting her own form of strategic deplatforming.  “This morning,” she writes in her letter to Democratic colleagues in the House, “I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”  She persists with the theme of mental instability, worried about a man she is convinced has gone crackers.  “The situation of this unhinged president could be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.”

DePaul University’s Ken Butigan also dabbles in a bit of comparative fancy in worrying that Trump has already engaged in his own version of a “first-strike on the US Capitol on Jan. 6,” having used “what amounted to well-understood ‘launch codes.’”  What was there to stop him “initiating an infinitely more destructive first-strike on a host of nations that have been in his administration’s cross-hairs for four years?”

It would be churlish not to admit that Trump has stirred some excitement about the nuclear option even prior to coming to office.  The 2016 presidential race was already worrying Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.  “Can we really trust the future of the human race to the continued steady decision making of single individuals who have the power to kill tens or hundreds of millions, based on a single unchallenged edict?”

This has as much to do with the character of the decision maker as the problem of executive authority behind launching such baleful weapons.  Nuclear non-proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis is convinced that Pelosi has no legal recourse to removing the power to deploy the nuclear option from Trump’s meaty hands.  “The president has sole, unfettered authority to order the use of nuclear weapons with no ‘second vote’ required.  If you think that’s crazy, I agree with you.”

Elaine Scarry is also adamant that the commander-in-chief “has sole authority, and he does not have to check that with anyone.”  Such a power is distinctly anti-democratic, bypassing Congress and being, according to Scarry, a form of “thermonuclear monarchy”.

Other occupants of the White House have been tempted by the intoxicatingly murderous nature of that power.  “I could go into the next room,” crowed President Richard Nixon to a group of Congressmen even as impeachment proceedings against him hovered, “make a telephone call, and in twenty-five minutes, seventy million people will be dead.”  Nixon himself had been an advocate of the “Madman Theory”, otherwise known as “the principle of the threat of excessive force.”  It was an idea marketed to foreign leaders that a US president might well be barbarically and unpredictably inclined to order the launch of a nuclear weapon.  Fostering such doubts might encourage the yielding of concessions.

When it comes to contemplating the use of such weapons, Trump looks distinctly angelic beside many of his predecessors, though the archive may reveal a different story.  Dwight D. Eisenhower felt tempted on two occasions to use a nuclear option; John F. Kennedy three times, Lyndon B. Johnson once and Nixon four times.

Thermonuclear monarchy is not necessarily an automatic guarantee of Armageddon, though it is a clear inducement.  The command structure generally assumes that a president is likely to be rational and capable in a field that repels rationality and reason.  We are left to the small mercies of internal disruptions and obstructions; administrative officials can, for instance, meddle, if in the name of high principle.  Nixon’s Secretary of Defence James Schlesinger is said to have ordered various presidential orders, notably those touching on nuclear weapons, to be vetted by himself or National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

According to the New York Times, Schlesinger and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff George S. Brown kept “unusually close control over lines of command,” with an unnamed Pentagon official telling the paper that the defence secretary “began to worry … Nixon or one of his aides might get in touch with some military units directly”.  There was a risk of an order being issued  “to block the ‘constitutional process’.”

Kissinger himself is quoted as having told his aides on more than one occasion, “If the president had his way, there would be a nuclear war each week!”  This does not necessarily suggest that the US Republic was any safer in having its own Metternich fumbling triggers in the chain of command.  Along the way, senior Pentagon officials might also find themselves tickled by an attack of humanitarian conscience, concerned about a potential violation of the laws of war.

An unbalanced, narcissistic brute ultimately proves to be less of a problem than a process with few balances and the presence of an arsenal capable of mass ecocide and genocide.  If there is any constructive discussion dealing with executive authorisation behind launching nukes, it must first begin with making the process virtually impossible to use.  A nice way of doing so would be to get rid of the incentive altogether.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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