In the midst of the feverish determination to remove Donald Trump from office in the waning days of his presidency, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has found herself contemplating the unthinkable — and wondering how to prevent it.
As she explained in a letter to her Democratic colleagues in the House, “This morning, 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. The situation of this unhinged president could not 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.”
This is no academic rumination. President Trump, with his authority collapsing around him, could take catastrophic action to assert his overweening power, including using nuclear weapons.
After all, nothing prevented him from instigating a first-strike on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by using what amounted to well-understood “launch codes.” Trump prodded and fired up thousands of insurrectionists that morning when he said, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He then said “You will never take back our country with weakness,” and “We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world.” Is there anything to prevent him from initiating an infinitely more destructive first-strike on a host of nations that have been in his administration’s cross-hairs for four years?
Pelosi, of course, knows that ultimately there is no true firewall preventing such a disaster. Under current law, U.S. presidents can launch a nuclear weapon all by themselves — no questions asked, no checks and balances.
During the 2016 presidential election, the Brookings Institution published an article mulling specifically on a Trump presidency with such almighty power. “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?” Michael O’Hanlon wrote. “The Donald Trump candidacy helps illustrate the problem. Even if his rhetoric is mostly harmless bombast, we cannot be so sure. Nor can we know how a future president might behave if he or she becomes mentally ill while president.”
These 2016 musings are now starkly upon us in real-time, a fact that has ratcheted up Pelosi’s determination to sideline Trump by either the 25th Amendment or outright impeachment and conviction, even with less than a week left.
Taking these steps is likely also prompted by recollections of Trump’s harrowing brinkmanship with North Korea in 2017 — when Trump declared that the United States was “locked and loaded” and prepared to unleash “fire and fury” — but, perhaps even more, by the dangerous memory of the last time America faced an unsound president in his final days: Richard Nixon.
Kissinger told his aides “If the president had his way, there would be a nuclear war each week!”
It is widely reported that Nixon was increasingly paranoid and heavily self-medicated with alcohol as the Watergate drama moved into its end game. After Nixon resigned from the presidency, stories surfaced of senior officials who had taken steps as the end game unfolded to prevent a drunk commander-in-chief from dialing up a nuclear catastrophe.
“Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger reportedly ordered certain presidential orders — especially those related to nuclear arms — to be cleared by himself personally or National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger,” reported Time.
Their fear was well-founded. During a meeting with members of Congress, Nixon once reportedly said, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” Sen. Alan Cranston then phoned Schlesinger, warning about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.”
In his book “The Arrogance of Power,” Anthony Summers also reported on this dangerous moment in our history, quoting Kissinger as telling aides “If the president had his way, there would be a nuclear war each week!” According to Summers, this may not have been an idle jest. “The CIA’s top Vietnam specialist, George Carver, reportedly said that in 1969, when the North Koreans shot down a U.S. spy plane, ‘Nixon became incensed and ordered a tactical nuclear strike … The Joint Chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone to them. They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning.’”
More broadly, Nixon held to the Madman Theory, a conviction that Russia and China would make geo-political concessions if they thought the U.S. president was insane enough to do anything, including starting a nuclear war. The most disturbing example of this regarded the U.S. war in Vietnam. When he ran for president in 1968, Nixon campaigned on the idea that he had a “secret plan” to end the war. This plan amounted essentially to using the threat of nuclear weapons against North Vietnam.
Historian and journalist Garrett M. Graff has recounted the intricate details of how the Nixon administration signaled how it was preparing to wreak nuclear destruction on the North. It gave its adversary a deadline of Nov. 1, 1969. For the first time in almost two years, on Oct. 26 bombers armed with nuclear weapons were launched and ordered to orbit over Alaska.
“For three days, nuclear-armed B-52s tested the Soviet defenses, dancing around the edges of the country with their deadly arsenals in a display more provocative than perhaps any since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Graff writes. After meeting with Nixon, Russian Ambassador Anatoly warned in a telegram to Moscow that “The vehemence of his remarks testified to his growing emotionalism and lack of balance.”
“And then the whole thing stopped — as seemingly abruptly as it had started,” Graff writes. “The B-52s landed, the alerts ended, peacetime resumed without warning.”
What Graff does not report is why this threat was lifted. As anti-Vietnam War organizer and author Robert Levering has noted, Nixon’s Nov. 1 ultimatum fell between two major antiwar demonstrations. “When Nixon learned from CIA infiltrators that the Moratorium was ‘shaping up to be the most widely-supported public action in American history,’ he saw trouble ahead,” Levering explained. “As Nixon later wrote, he saw that ‘the only chance for my ultimatum to succeed was to convince the Communists that I could depend on solid support at home if they decided to call my bluff.’”
That support did not materialize. With more than two million taking part in the Moratorium, and over half-million flooding the nation’s capital a month later for the Mobilization, “the size and breadth of both the October and November protests surpassed the organizers’ most grandiose expectations,” Levering continued.
The evidence suggests that the president jettisoned his threat to use nuclear weapons because of this immense outpouring of nonviolent dissent.
Although today’s circumstances are quite different from those a half-century ago, the structural problem remains. We have built and reinforced — year after year, decade after decade — a system that hinges on unimaginable terror and, at the same time, its weakest link: a single human being. Whether mad or not, human beings are fallible.
While we may yet get through this crisis by the skin of our teeth, it is time to break the spell of nuclear weapons and dismantle them.
Even deeper, nuclear weapons and the national security state it buttresses are stupendously racist, violent and dangerous. They unleash overwhelmingly destructive environmental, biological, political, cultural and economic consequences, even when they are not detonated. But, of course, they always risk being detonated.
While we may yet get through this specific crisis by the skin of our teeth, it is time to break the spell of nuclear weapons and to dismantle these systems. This should be a priority of the incoming administration. Fortunately, there are several clear openings for this, which the new president could seize.
First, Rep. Adam Smith and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have introduced the No First Use Act to establish, unequivocally, that “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.” Joe Biden could throw his support behind this legislation and take an historic step toward ending the nuclear threat.
Even more dramatically, two days after Joe Biden is inaugurated, the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into force. This “Ban Treaty” is the first legally-binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. The treaty “comprehensively prohibits states from participating in any nuclear weapons-related activities, including development, testing, possession, stockpile, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”
It was adopted on July 7, 2017, and opened for signature on Sept. 20, 2017. Following the lead of Pope Francis — who has condemned the use, as well as the possession, of nuclear weapons — the Vatican was the first state to ratify the treaty. In October, Honduras became the 50th nation to sign on, bringing the agreement into force. On Jan. 22, it will be deemed an official part of international law.
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Unsurprisingly, the United States has not ratified the treaty. In fact, the United States is scheduled to continue to expand and upgrade its nuclear weapons complex and systems. In the light of the new Ban Treaty, this is now illegal in regard to international law.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Precarious moments like the one we are currently living through drive home the point that renouncing and dismantling nuclear arms is the only way to clear the space for true peace, justice and security.
Let’s call on the new government to set out on this critically important course. And if it doesn’t, we, like our predecessors who helped prevent a nuclear attack during the Vietnam War, will deepen our effort to create the powerful, nonviolent movements necessary to spark this historic shift.
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