Leading up to President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan during World War Two, the United States and allied forces were preparing an invasion of the Japanese mainland in a campaign known as Operation Downfall. Months earlier on May 8th, 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies offered their surrender, and the Japanese were the final holdout. Their navy was crippled, and the majority of its battle-hardened army was fractured and routing. Still, the government was planning a bloody defense of the mainland – drafting millions of its citizenry to stage an armed defense. They were intending to fight to the bitter end.
Rather than invading the mainland, Truman decided to drop to first atomic bombs, while senior cabinet officials, military leaders of the Army and Navy, and scientists had reservations. a. On August 6th, 1945, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay, piloted by Paul Tibbets, dropped “Little Boy,” the world’s first deployed atomic bomb, over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The explosion immediately killed an estimated 80,000 people, and tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure. Three days later, Truman deployed a second bomb known as “Fat Man” on Nagasaki – killing another 40,000 people. Shortly thereafter, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, citing the power of “a new and most cruel bomb.”
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in a new age of nuclear powers and have become the subject of innumerable studies by scientists of all stripes. Some considered these atomic bombings as necessary measures to curb far greater bloodshed; others see them as evil incarnate.
This is how the National Park Service website addresses the decision by President Harry S. Truman to drop atomic weapons in the Second World War:
“Looking back, President Truman never shirked personal responsibility for his decision, but neither did he apologize… Speaking of himself as president, Truman said, ‘And he alone, in all the world, must say Yes or No to that awesome, ultimate question, ‘Shall we drop the bomb on a living target?’”
Furthermore, they add: “Every president since Harry Truman has had that power. None has exercised it.” But following the presidency of Donald J. Trump, politicians, scientists, pundits, and citizens like myself are reexamining the unilateral power of the president to drop an atomic bomb. Now that Joe Biden is in the White House, dozens of House Democrats are calling for the Executive Branch to relinquish this apocalyptic power.
Historically, the enormity of the decision to go nuclear has effectively constrained countless presidents and other leaders across the world. Even the most narcissistic of leaders have restrained themselves from deploying such a devastating weapon because they know full-well that they and they alone will be shouldered with the fallout. As such, the more focused we make this struggle for only one person, the less likely the use of the weapons will be.
The proof is in 76 years of successfully staying below the nuclear threshold since President Truman’s first use in conflict. Even though many see Truman’s use of the atomic bomb as justified, it still became an action that defined his legacy. The next president who came close to using the bomb once again was President Kennedy, but he didn’t, and he is praised in history for stepping back from the brink.
While the narcissism of a sitting President has been the reason why people want to remove this power, in my opinion, this selfish psychological trait of self-absorbed people has, in fact, buoyed my trust in the system.
I served under six Presidents of the United States in the military, tasked with the specific mission of using nuclear weapons should the order come. These Presidents came from both parties. They had a whole variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Some went to church; some went to golf. Some had past military experience, others had none. Their qualifications and personality were irrelevant to me. What was relevant was that they were Americans who grew up in a society with the same values as a businessman who owned a haberdashery in Kansas City, Missouri, and an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts. They understood justice, fairness, honor, independence, and everything else inculcated into the American mindset.
I knew to my core that no President of the United States would ever order the first use of nuclear weapons. Any such use would be retaliatory or an order resulting from a validated threat impacting our country within minutes. Implicitly, such an order would be an admission that the person giving it was the greatest failure in history. To again quote President Truman, “he alone” will have failed where their predecessor, John F. Kennedy had succeeded in stopping the march to nuclear Armageddon. As a result of this situation, I would not have been surprised by the paralysis of a president’s decision-making process because of the looming and complete destruction of their self-worth wrought by saying “yes, launch.”
My oath as a commissioned officer was to “well and faithfully discharge my duties” as enshrined in the Constitution. One of my principal obligations was to follow the orders of the Commander in Chief, a role solely vested in the President. If the President ordered the use of nuclear weapons I would do so without hesitation. I trusted that valid reasons would be known to the President and the National Command Authority leaders and staff. Those superior officers and civilians would have helped the President make a well-informed, legal decision based on information and knowledge. I hoped the President would add a large measure of wisdom and faith. I would also know that many, many of my fellow Americans were already dead or soon to be and that my mission was now “an eye for an eye.” Such is the perspective of someone “sitting nuclear alert” whether they be in the cockpit of a nuclear weapon loaded bomber, or sequestered in an ICBM silo, or sailing beneath the waves in an SSBN.
Even today, years after my service was completed, I believe my dedication to this duty was the correct approach. Why? Mainly because officers in the armed forces of the enemy at the time, the USSR, have told me that they knew how thoroughly capable and dedicated we were to this task during friendly discussions after the end of the Cold War. Throughout that smoldering decades-long conflict, they too intimately appreciated that they and their families would suffer immeasurable harm should the nuclear fuse be lit by either side. They were deterred by our resolve and capability, and we were deterred by their fortitude and ability. This balance of terror worked exceedingly well.
In this, I see a trend. My conviction to be a cog in the machine of nuclear weapon employment and my peer competitor’s decision to restrict his warfare to conventional weapons were both made stronger because the situation was intimate to us. We saw the family, friends, and livelihoods at stake every day. It is this perspective that I apply to the President and why I am comfortable with unilateral presidential decisions. As I said earlier that decision will be tied to their name forever, as it was for Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. As they cast the dye, so go their entire lifestyle and fortune at the least. Most assuredly, with a “yes,” they become something akin to Attila the Hun, Ivan the Terrible, or some other historic malevolent actor in the minds of many survivors of the violence started by their decision. Once you have a committee to blame, I fear this dynamic is lost.
I have other practical concerns about a call to expand the number of people making this decision. Given my background in nuclear warfare and continuity of operations, I can envision many scenarios where connectivity between people is difficult if not impossible. The assumption that two leaders could communicate effectively and rapidly after a kinetic or electromagnetic pulse strike is a poor one.
I will grant you that command and control nodes are protected and redundant, but I have serious doubts about the ability of the rest of the infrastructure to survive or function efficiently in such a situation. Keeping multiple principal decision-makers together in the same location to facilitate communication has consequent risk. The more people involved means a less likely decision given all these constraints.
Having a responsive command authority is essential. Above I made the argument that we controlled the nuclear terror of the Cold War because both sides understood the competence and destructive capability of the other side. There was an understanding that the concept of mutually assured destruction (rightly nicknamed as “MAD”) was the likely consequence of any misstep. For it all to work, the other side needed to understand that I would get the order from the President, execute that order in a timely fashion to avoid my destruction, and then do what I was well trained to do. Anything that slowed the transmittal of that order made it a less effective deterrent system, not a more stable one. This is because inefficiencies give the enemy a glimmer of hope that a decapitating strike might succeed. In nuclear command, control, and execution, seconds accumulated in the ordering and execution of a response may make a difference in the opponent’s assessment of probable outcomes. The ability to have timely decisions throughout the execution chain gives deterrence its power. One-person deep decision-making at the point of initiation of actions facilitates this goal.
One other important discussion must occur. As I suggested, I always had faith in the decision-maker: The President. This means that I also always trusted that the political processes to remove a President who was not suited to the task would be employed in a timely and competent manner. I assumed that the 25th Amendment provisions would be applied for mental instability or incapacity. I trusted that the Vice President and cabinet secretaries understood that making this determination was their most important duty given the prospects of nuclear Armageddon and an essential part of their oath of fidelity to the Constitution.
Given this, I would far prefer modifications or elucidations to 25th Amendment practices and procedures over an outright diminishment of presidential authority as Commander in Chief in favor of an oligarchy making decisions and non-decisions.
To conclude, I believe that vesting the decision to use nuclear weapons in one person is the correct answer. President Truman’s “he alone” intonation gives you every sentiment you need to understand why. This decision is so intimate for the President that it will never be used in a reckless or spasmatic way. This approach also meets the timeliness needed to respond to an attack which, in turn, deters the use of nuclear weapons by other actors on the world’s stage by allowing perception of their assured destruction. Every senior official who deals with the President is oath-bound to fulfill his or her responsibilities which include restriction or removal of the President for incapacitation. I trust that those holding these positions of power would do their duty as they have promised to do should the need arise.