Let me be more precise. After four years at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear strategic thought, I began to think about offering a suitably authoritative addition to the vital literatures of first-generation nuclear thinkers. Accordingly, by the late 1970s I was busily preparing an original manuscript on this country’s nuclear strategy, and on certain corresponding risks of nuclear war. At that time, I was most specifically interested in US presidential authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
I promptly learned, of course, that seemingly reliable safeguards were meticulously built into all American nuclear command/control decisions, but also that these same essential safeguards might not meaningfully apply at the presidential level. Immediately, this ironic disjunction didn’t appear to make any intellectual sense, especially in a world where national leadership irrationality was hardly unknown.
Accordingly, I then reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a very distinguished former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In response to my query, General Taylor quickly sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated March 14, 1976, the general’s informed letter concluded ominously: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”