The above image shows Slim Pickens riding a U.S. nuclear missile to its target, from “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)
With this week’s unveiling of yet more indictments of former Pres. Donald Trump and the defiant (Trump-stoked) reaction of his supporters to the indictments, the U.S. governance system now looks closer to suffering a major, systemic collapse than at any point since 1787.
Given the United States’ possession of a mega-capable nuclear arsenal, any such collapse would have massive—potentially existential—consequences for all of humankind. Policymakers and publics worldwide need to start planning how to forestall the worst possible consequences of any such scenario. Starting now.
I don’t think I’m being alarmist. I lived and worked in Lebanon for the first six years of that country’s civil war (1975-81.) I have done in-depth reporting in two other countries recovering from civil wars (Mozambique and Rwanda), and conducted research in other conflict zones. Now, living here in Washington DC I can sense the extreme risk posed to this country’s political system by the battling narratives, the sharp erosion of trust in national institutions, the greed, the positioning, the exchange of harsh accusations, and the mounting fear and intolerance.
But the United States is not Lebanon. It is not Mozambique, or Rwanda, or any of the numerous other countries wracked by civil wars in recent decades. This is a polity that has sat at the apex of the world system since 1945. Its massive, extremely capable military is deployed on every continent. And did I mention the nuclear arsenal? An internal political implosion in this country would be far more momentous for humanity than any of those other civil wars.
Ever since the dawn of the nuclear era, the integrity of the command and control of the nuclear-weapons forces of any nuclear-armed state has been essential to the survival of humankind as a whole. In his thoughtful, well-informed 2017 book The Doomsday Machine the late Dr. Daniel Ellsberg shared numerous items of “nuclear planners’ insider information” gleaned from work he conducted in the late 1950s and 1960s, both inside the Pentagon and at the Pentagon-funded RAND Corporation, on nuclear command-and-control issues.
Two items from his book that seem particularly relevant today are:
- In 1959, Ellsberg discovered that, though the launching of nuclear weapons had always been thought to be a purely presidential prerogative, in fact, in the Pacific theater, the president had already pre-delegated the authority to launch them “if needed” to the commander of the U.S. forces in the theater. A “wise move”, as it was generally considered at the time, since it could help guard against the possibility of the Soviets launching a “decapitation strike” against Washington and the rupture of communications that could well result… But Ellsberg also discovered that the Pacific theater commander had further delegated the authority to launch to at least one—and possibly several—of the officers under his command… (Ellsberg later helped to institute better communications systems between the various commanders. But still… )
- In 1962, Ellsberg was called to Washington to advise high-level Pentagon officials during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He writes that he did not find out until decades later that at a stage in the crisis when the Americans thought the immediate risk of a nuclear-weapons exchange had been defused, in fact the captain of one of the nuclear-armed Soviet submarines circling Cuba became convinced that he needed to launch his nukes. But by chance the captain had a superior officer, Adm.Vasili Arkhipov, traveling with him… And Arkhipov forbade the captain to launch his nuclear torpedoes because Moscow had not expressly authorized him to do so...
More recently, during the four years of the Donald Trump presidency, there were numerous near-nuclear “crises”, especially during Trump’s many back-and-forths with North Korea; and many experts and Democratic Party leaders expressed great concern about Trump having any nuclear launch authority at all. (The concerns about the cavalier or actively terrifying way in which Trump handled the responsibilities of nuclear-weapons command were reinforced when it was recently revealed that one or more nuclear-strategy documents were found among those he had cached at Mar-a-Lago.)
Pres. Biden, for his part, has appeared much more “responsible” than Trump in his handling of nuclear-weapons issues.
But what might we face in 2024-25? There is a possibility of a return of Trump to the presidency in January 2025. But beyond that—or even, possibly, quite some time before then—we might face a situation in which the central institutions of the federal state could start to implode. And those could include the U.S. military.
What might happen to the command and control of the United States’ far-flung and multi-pronged nuclear forces at that point?
It would be great if we could be confident that some combination of factors had resulted in the United States having a professional cadre of military commanders of great integrity and wisdom. And there are, I believe, numerous high-level commanders who have those attributes.
But there are others, too. People like Gen. Mike Minihan, the belligerent four-star Air Force general who heads the Air Mobility Command. Last January he sent a memo to the officers under his command in which he predicted that the U.S. would be at war with China in two years and told them to get ready by firing “a clip” at a target, and to “aim for the head.”
Or perhaps more Strangeloveian still, Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard, the overall commander of U.S. nuclear forces. Richard recently told an audience that, “This Ukraine crisis that we’re in right now, this is just the warmup. The big one is coming…. [T]he current situation is vividly illuminating what nuclear coercion looks like and how you, or how you don’t, stand up to that.”
The report of Richard’s remarks posted on the Pentagon website said this: “Competitors like China are outcompeting the U.S., and in a dramatic fashion. And the U.S. must step up its deterrence game, he said, or it’s going to be bowled over.”
So join with me in conducting a brief thought exercise. If there is escalating political chaos in Washington and throughout the country, what happens to the command structure of the U.S. military and what happens, crucially, to the specific chain or chains of command that control our country’s nuclear weapons?
Regarding the U.S. military in general, it is worth remembering that a half-century of having an all-volunteer military has resulted in the creation of almost a specific military social caste that is distinct in many ways from large portions of the country’s non-military population. And the people who have volunteered to join this military, often from economic motives, come very disproportionately from deep-South states.
Regarding the fate of the nuclear command systems, I think there are at least three kinds of concern if the political situation within the U.S. homeland should implode:
- There would be greatly increased uncertainty, both within the U.S. military and between it and potential opponents;
- There could be open splits between potential different factions in the nuclear forces; and
- Amidst the uncertainty, the risk of one or more disaffected “rogue actors” from the nuclear forces taking matters into his own hands would be increased.
The gravely increased risk of nuclear war that would arise from any (increasingly possible) political implosion of the U.S. system is one that U.S. citizens and all the centers of power in the international system should take seriously. A crucial first goal should be to “disarm” the U.S. nuclear force structure (and those of all other nuclear-weapons states) as completely and as rapidly as possible. This would involve disconnecting all the nearly automatic “launch-on-warning” systems that are embedded in nuclear force planning here in the United States.
We who are U.S. citizens have the greatest responsibility to speedily achieve that goal here at home.
But international action is also needed, especially from the world’s other nuclear-weapons states, four of whom handily sit alongside the United States in permanent, veto-wielding seats on the U.N. Security Council. Those other states should work to engage very speedily with Washington in a process of collaborative nuclear threat reduction, including the crafting of a joint commitment to verifiably deactivate and then abolish their nuclear arsenals. Luckily an international treaty exists, the TPNW, that provides some guidelines on how to do this.
The threat to humanity posed by nuclear arsenals has always been unacceptably great. Today, the need to avert this threat is suddenly much more urgent. Pres. Biden and the leaders of the other Security Council “P-5” need to act now.