Who Controls U.S. Nuclear Weapons? The Answer May Shock You

“What I do is authorize my military…we have the greatest military in the world…We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing” [decision to drop the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan 4/13/17]
—President Trump (4/13/2017)

Authorizing the military to set policy on troop numbers, on targets and relaxing the rules governing the power of field commanders to make independent decisions —What could possibly go wrong? Here’s what, according to Alice Friend, Senior Fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)— “Political leaders can lose control of military campaigns [when] military operations are divorced from overall foreign policy.

With no provision for the public’s right to weigh in or Congress’ right to advise (historically Congress generally approves of a president with a muscular foreign policy, this Congress is no exception), on the wisdom or feasibility of deploying additional troops to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, the military is planning a go-it-alone strategy, usurping civilian authority, to make troop assignments to various war zones. Sensing a vacuum in civilian authority, the Joint Chiefs have moved quickly to fill it —quietly doubling the number of forces in Syria, moving “military advisors” [the same description of the first troops in Vietnam) closer to the front lines in Iraq, and in testimony before Congress making the case for more troops in Afghanistan (General Thomas Waldhauser, head of US Military Command in Africa on the need for more “flexibility” and “timeliness” in decision-making, i.e. the military mantra: don’t bother us, we’ll take care of everything.)

The risks of disconnecting the military from civilian leadership are already evident: an overall increase in the number of both civilian and US causalities —in January a badly planned and executed raid against an Al-Qaeda compound in Yemen killed one Navy Seal and several civilians, in late April two US Rangers were killed in a botched raid in Afghanistan and a few days ago another Ranger was killed and two others seriously wounded in Somalia — and a spate of remarkably bad bombing decisions including several in Mosul in mid-March that killed over one hundred civilians, (The military has launched an investigation that will no doubt find as it has on countless of other occasions that in the words of our newest ex-President “all armed conflict invites tragedy.”

The tug-of-war between civilian authorities (in the White House) and military commanders (at the Pentagon) over control of conventional weapons in a conventional war is the tip of a very big and scary iceberg. Much more intimidating is the question of control over nuclear weapons and the dreaded specter of a nuclear war. As U.S. foreign policy has moved from negotiation to increasingly bellicose rhetoric followed by offensive action accompanied by the “all options are on the table” meme, concern over who controls weapons of mass incineration is growing. True, the mainstream media’s disinterest in dissecting the issue has provided excellent cover civilian and military leaders.  No embarrassing questions to answer. Apart from historians who make a living delving into every archive as it is declassified, the general public is largely unaware and thus unconcerned that almost every president since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has tried in one way or another to shift responsibility for control and custody of these deadly instruments to the military.

A quick fix for that lack of knowledge can be found here. From the beginning of the Republic, war-making powers were considered far too important to be left to the prerogatives of the president. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution disposes of that problem in one phrase: “[The Congress shall have the power] to declare war.” Despite that unambiguous declaration, a succession of timid Congresses (particularly in the post- World War II era) has not had the cojones to live up to that awesome responsibility.  The result: Congress has not issued a declaration of war since 1941 although the US has become embroiled in at lease fifteen wars (small skirmishes not included). Rather than go to the bother of declaring war, Congress has gone down the resolution path, like the1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave LBJ and Nixon wide-ranging authority to conduct the Vietnam War and the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force in Iraq Resolution, which has been used by three presidents, Bush, Obama, and Trump to start multiple wars in multiple countries. Refusing to make war, turning a blind eye to the enormous U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile, Congress has buried its head in the sand and supinely acquiesced when the Executive branch proclaimed “The President and only the President has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.” (Franklin C. Miller, Nuclear Specialist in the WH and Department of Defense for 31 years)

That, has become the comforting lie taught in sixth grade civics classes, disseminated by the media to an unsuspecting public, and the subject of official podium pronouncements of every administration since the dawn of the nuclear age. Here’s Vice-President Cheney waxing eloquent about the President’s control of the nuclear “football”: “The President of the United States…is followed at all times…by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would…be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the US.”

 Don’t believe a word of it. Even that canny old fox Eisenhower realized how imperative it was for the public to believe that nuclear weapons were in civilian control — “It is in the U.S. interest to maintain the atmosphere that all authority [to use nuclear weapons] stays with the US President without delegation.”  A pack of lies —from the beginning of the nuclear age in 1945, the military fingerprint (and footprint) has been all over the development and control of nuclear weapons. FDR created the ultra-secret Manhattan Project (even vice president Truman didn’t know about until after FDR’s death), and chose — who else —an army general, Lesley Groves, to be in charge. Whether FDR meant to cede complete and perpetual control of these weapons to the military will forever remain a mystery as he died months before the first ones were dropped. One thing we do know —his selection of General Lesley Groves, a staunch advocate of military control, guaranteed that the struggle over control of nuclear weapons between civilian leadership and the military high command would be an ongoing battle. In 1946, President Truman signed the McMahon/Atomic Energy Act transferring control of atomic energy from the military to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission.

Unfortunately, President Truman’s epiphany on the need to establish a civilian agency to safeguard U.S. nuclear capacity, came too late to save 200,000 Japanese citizens who died in the fiery destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Declassified documents released in the late nineties suggest that Truman never gave explicit authorization for either of the bombings. Military planners controlled all aspects of the bombings, including the timeline. Much later an attempt was made to “clean up” history and insert Truman back into the driver’s seat. This attempted rewrite of history was ultimately unsuccessful and Truman was unmasked as the dupe of an enormous military power grab.  A diary entry he made in late July several weeks before the bombing is a sad commentary on his abdication— “military objectives and targets [were the proper targets of atomic weapons] not women and children. The military had no such scruples and women and children became the main targets. The historical record also suggests Truman was so far out of the loop that he was unaware of the quick release (three days after Hiroshima) of the second bomb. According to General Groves, it was none of his business anyway. He described what he considered Truman’s proper role in the decision-making “As far as I was concerned, his decision was one of non-interference —basically a decision not to upset existing plans.”

On August 10th, one day after the horror in Nagasaki, Truman reasserted civilian control over nuclear weapons by prohibiting future bombings without his explicit permission. Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace wrote in his diary “Harry Truman said he had given orders to stop the bombing. The thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible…[he] didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’” Truman wrote to David Lilienthal, first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, to explain his decision: “It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that…destructive…this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people…So we have to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons.” It should be noted that his sorrow over “wiping out women and children and unarmed people” did not stop him from declaring for the rest of his life: “I was there. I did it. I would do it again.”

The era of civilian control of nuclear weapons had a short shelf life — less than a decade. In 1950, General Eisenhower became president. His devotion to the military and faith in the infallibility of its judgments led to the phenomenal blunder known as pre-delegation, a policy which allows the president to extend his authority to order a nuclear attack to another person, civilian or military. Eisenhower believed that high-ranking military commanders needed to be able to authorize nuclear strikes when there was not enough time or it was not possible to communicate with the President. According to several declassified documents, Eisenhower was well aware that such advance authority could allow a military officer (think General MacArthur or Curtis LeMay) to do “something foolish down the chain of command” (as in start a nuclear war). Knowing the ice was pretty slippery in pre-delegation land, Eisenhower was “very fearful of having written papers on this matter.”  Much later he agreed to put the agreement in writing in a top-secret document. Well aware of how his surrender to the military would play in the public arena, Eisenhower kept his pre-delegation policy secret not only from the American people, but from Congress and his NATO allies as well.

President Kennedy came to office in 1960 promising to bring peace not make war. Almost immediately he was informed: “A subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action could state a thermonuclear holocaust… if he could not reach you.”  Faced with such an appalling prospect, JFK decided to sit on it, choosing to let Eisenhower’s pre-delegation instructions stand during the 1961-1962 Berlin and the 1962 Cuban missile crises. In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, a major blunder occurred during tense negotiations that underscored the danger of sole military control of nuclear weapons. On October 26,1962, while the US was monitoring the status of Soviet missiles in Cuba, an ICBM was actually launched, not by the Russians but by the US Air Force from a base in California. No evidence has ever surfaced to indicate who authorized the launch.

To his credit JFK did attempt to regain control of nuclear weapons by ordering the installation of “permissive action links” (PALs) on all nuclear weapons which would require the use of a code (known only to the president) to activate. The response of the Joint Chiefs: “All is well in the atomic stockpile program, there is no need for any change.”

JFK was apparently unable to withstand the pressure from the Pentagon and “compromised” by applying the new rules only to NATO nukes (10% of the stockpile). Throughout Kennedy’s short term, the threat of a nuclear war hung on the decision of any American bomber crew or missile launch crew. Safeguards were in short supply.

Who LBJ entrusted with supreme control over nuclear weapons is still classified. We do know that both the Joint Chiefs and former President Eisenhower recommended using nuclear weapons in North and South Vietnam and at the China border during the Vietnam War. LBJ, to his credit, resisted this advice.

His successor, Richard Nixon, was determined to use the threat of nuclear war, even going so far as to authorize the “Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test,” a bizarre, top secret global military exercise designed to look like a nuclear alert. Nixon hoped to scare Ho Chi Minh into making concessions at the bargaining table. Ho was unimpressed.

Although pre-delegation since the sixties has been shrouded in mystery, many experts, among them Bruce Blair, a respected nuclear security expert, believe that pre-delegation remained alive and well into the late eighties.  Other experts noting that most of the documents on pre-delegation from the sixties to the present remain classified are concerned that pre-delegation has never been formally eliminated.

Where does that leave the American people in 2017? Whether or not pre-delegation exists, our current president has in effect handed over the conduct of seven or more wars to the less than benign instincts of the Pentagon. Last week, the military requested more troops in Afghanistan. Their rationale: to kill the evildoers and win the war. 57 years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and President Johnson were hashing over the same request by a different General, Westmoreland (Commander of American forces in Vietnam) for a different war with the same rationale. Senator Mansfield replied to LBJ’s dilemma about Westmoreland’s escalating troop requests. “…it’s 75,000 [now], then it’s 150,000, then it’s 300,000. Where do you stop? You bomb them you get nothing. You get these people tied more closely together.” To which an increasingly haunted president added what was to become the epilogue for a decade of war: “Not a damned human thinks that 50,000 or 100,000 or 150,000 is going to end this war.”  Brave words aside, bowing to military pressure and political calculation, less than two months later, in a televised speech, here’s what the President announced: I have asked General Westmoreland what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me and we will meet his needs…Additional forces …will be sent as needed…”

Where does it end? By the end of 1965, 184,000 American troops were fighting and many were dying in Vietnam even as 90% of South Vietnam troops were deserting. By 1975, when the North Vietnamese marched into Saigon and two years after the Americans had ignominiously put the “Closed” sign on their military adventure, 2.5 million troops had served in Vietnam. 58,000 never came home.

Lessons learned? Not for this president. He will no doubt give the army the forces it says it needs in Afghanistan and the authority to set troop limits. He is equally amenable to let military commanders have the final say on troop limits. Taking Trump for the dupe he is, the military is about to score a coup —sole command of the longest war in American history (in its 17th year) that has already cost the lives of 2,500 American and hundreds more fatalities among returning veterans from injury or suicide.

The question that remains unanswered and hangs over us like the sword of Damocles: Does the military’s new-found freedom to fight U.S. wars on their own terms include nuclear weapons? We don’t know and aren’t likely to find out. However, the president’s fawning regard for all things military, his pathetic eagerness to pass muster with the generals doesn’t bode well for the safety and security of the US nuclear force.

The sad fact is that President Trump comes by his warlike pedigree on the back of his predecessor. Before leaving office, Obama gave in to Pentagon demands to modernize and upgrade the U.S. nuclear systems at a cost the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) projects to run as high as $1 trillion over the next 30 years —a topic never mentioned when candidate Obama was promising world peace. Perhaps that’s because as a not-yet president, he didn’t feel the full weight of the generals’ dire warnings and the pressure of one of his major funders, the armaments industry, to keep their enormously profitable weapons systems rolling off the assembly lines. Obama in turn was following the lead of his immediate predecessors. George W. Bush started the two disastrous wars that revived the military’s bedraggled splendor and enriched the armaments industry. Bill Clinton’s contribution to the glorification of war flowered in the Balkans and in Haiti. The list of incredibly stupid and self-serving presidential decisions over the last seventy years to satisfy a military that never has enough war and conflict would produce a book longer than War and Peace.

Is perpetual war the present and future? Will the US military decide the fate of the world? The headlines appearing in last week’s media reports should send shivers down our backs.With Trump Approval, Pentagon Expands Authority Over Battle Decisions” (Associated Press); “Pentagon Quietly Seizing Control Over Warfighting Decisions – With Little Public Debate” (Denver Post); “Trump: I’m Giving the Military ‘total authorization’” (Military Times)

 It is a rare leader that has not succumbed to the military’s demand for control over nuclear weapons. We have come within a hair of a nuclear holocaust at least three times—in Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. We have experienced a succession of near catastrophic mistakes that might have resulted in an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation.

“…Now then, Dmitri [US “president” telephoning “Dmitri,” Russian president] “you know we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb…Well now what happened …one of our commanders…went a little funny in the head and he went and did a silly thing…He ordered his planes…to attack your country. (From the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

 The sad and ugly truth is that most of today’s military leaders, despite a succession of astonishing failures throughout the last half-century, cling to the fantasy that “…war is too important to be left to the politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.” (General Jack D, Ripper in Dr. Strangelove)

 Grab a DVD of Dr. Strangelove from your local library and Be Afraid, Be very Afraid.

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