In the United States, the final and decisive authority to launch a nuclear strike falls to one person: the sitting President. As commander-in-chief, he or she can order an attack that can end the lives of millions of people in a span estimated to be a short as seven minutes. While the U.S. Congress has the legal authority to declare war on another nation, it could little to stop a president from making such a hard and fateful decision. This aspect of the American military system has been critically dubbed “thermonuclear monarchy.”
It may surprise some to learn that the political tribe most concerned with nuclear monarchy are those of a traditional conservative persuasion. For a primer on the theories about nuclear monarchy and a few proposed solution, check out Stephen Beale’s recent essay at The American Conservative. An excerpt detailing recent attempts to safeguard against unintended consequences of the tense nuclear moment:
So how can we put an end to our nuclear monarchy?
One solution, proposed a year ago by Congressman Ted Lieu, would be to ban the “first use” of nuclear weapons without a congressional declaration of war. (Senator Edward Markey has sponsored a Senate version of this legislation.)
Healy says such a bill is constitutionally sound but he questions whether it would work. “The real question is, ‘Is it going to work if you have a president who is bent carrying out that order?’ ‘Is the military or is anyone in the nuclear command-and-control chain going to disregard his order?’ And there, that’s pretty doubtful,” Healy said.
However, Healy said the Lieu bill could also “embolden” someone at the top of the chain of command, like the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, giving them “legal cover” to intervene and block a blatantly unconstitutional order. There is already a precedent for this: Healy cites the famous story about Defense Secretary James Schlesinger informing the military to disregard any orders to fire nuclear weapons that came from an increasingly paranoid President Nixon unless he or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had confirmed them.
So far, despite the uproar over Trump’s whimsical attitude towards nuclear weapons, both bills have never made it out of their respective committees. But there are other ways to reform the system. Blair says there is merit to the idea of having more than one person confirm the order, regardless of the circumstances. That could be the vice president, the secretary of defense, or even a congressional leader, like the speaker of the House.
“This is to prevent a single individual from playing the role of nuclear monarch and railroading the system, as I described it to you, into ordering a civilization-ending nuclear attack on some country,” Blair said. Until that happens, though, Armageddon will remain in the hands of one man.