Seventy-five years ago, science created the most terrible weapon in human history — the atom bomb. As most of us know, World War II ended when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki. The devastation was enormous, and the emperor overruled his military advisers and insisted on surrender to save his nation from utter destruction.
Since then, we’ve gotten used to living with the bomb, first the atomic, then the hydrogen. Tens of thousands of bombs, that is. For most or all of our lives, one man — the president of the United States — has had the unchecked power to begin a nuclear war without consulting with anyone, should he so choose.
That’s not something we think much about — but we should. Last summer, a new book sought to open a new debate on this: William Perry, who was secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, and arms control advocate Tom Collina collaborated on: “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power From Truman to Trump.” The book’s argument is simple: The idea that any one person should have the power to essentially destroy the world was never a good idea — and is useless and dangerous now.
Truman knew civilian control of the military was essential. And he worked with Congress to limit the authority for the use of nuclear weapons to just one person — the president.
That seemed to make sense, especially after the Soviet Union got the bomb and both sides built thousands of missiles that could reach their targets within 20 minutes or less. If one side launched a first strike, there would not have been any time for debate. But as this book reveals, neither side ever really considered doing that.
They know that with just one phone call, Mr. Trump could launch thousands of nuclear weapons, each far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. That could be the end of civilization.
Mr. Trump has frequently alluded to his ability to start a nuclear war, and once reportedly said “if we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?”
He claimed while in Puerto Rico in October 2017 that the famous “nuclear football” that goes with the president anywhere “‘was what he had for Kim,” meaning Kim Jong Un, the young president of North Korea.
A senior aide always close to the president carries the “football,” which is actually a briefcase containing a secure phone, identification codes, nuclear attack options, and anything else the president might need to launch a nuclear attack.
It makes no sense to give one individual the power to launch a planet-destroying war. We’ve been lucky so far, but the events of recent weeks make it clear that it’s time to stop pressing our luck.
As former Secretary of Defense William Perry says in “The Button,” it’s time for shared authority and a better, safer way.
Douglas Neckers, an organic chemist, is the McMaster Distinguished Research Professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University.