As the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel and neighboring Arab states intensified, I was in an underground missile launch center in Montana with a crewmate when we received an emergency message to prepare for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Only at the president’s behest would we ever turn keys to fire up to 50 nuclear-armed missiles that could extinguish millions of lives in less than an hour. Once we closed our eight-ton blast door to begin alert duty, we took orders from no one else.
As 20-somethings at the bottom of the nuclear chain of command, launch keys and codes in our anxious hands, we could only imagine how close we were to Armageddon. But we trusted the president to defuse the crisis and avert a nuclear war, and to call upon us to fire only if necessary for the nation’s survival. The whole point would be to never have to fire. Since only he could unleash our weapons of mass destruction — which we could fire in one minute after receiving the order — we felt a trustful, almost intimate connection to the very top of the chain.
We assume that presidents will grasp the power of the nuclear arsenal at their disposal and show the utmost restraint in using it. Dwight D. Eisenhower recoiled at the concept of nuclear overkill, where far more people are killed than necessary to defeat an enemy. After a nuclear war briefing, John F. Kennedy opined in dismay, “And we call ourselves the human race.” Richard M. Nixon (president during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war), in the words of his chief of staff, worried about the way war plans “lightly tossed about millions of deaths.” Ronald Reagan, for all his thunder about the Soviet Union being “an evil empire” and joking that “we begin bombing in five minutes,” was privately averse to nuclear weapons. He wished to eliminate them, as does President Obama.
Donald J. Trump is of a radically different ilk and temperament from past presidents. If I were back in the launch chair, I would have little faith in his judgment and would feel alienated if he were commander in chief. I am not alone in this view. A vast majority of current and former launch officers in my circle of friends and acquaintances tell me they feel the same.
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Missileers view their job as deterring our enemies from attacking the United States and its allies. They also know that deterrence could fail by intent, accident or miscalculation, and that preventing such failure depends in no small measure on qualities of presidential leadership — responsibility, composure, competence, empathy and diplomatic skill — that Mr. Trump evidently does not possess. As a launch officer, I would live in constant fear of his making a bad call. Hillary Clinton is right to warn voters not to allow him anywhere near the nuclear launch codes.
The system of nuclear command and control places extreme pressure on hundreds of operators, and excruciating demands on one person: the president. In the midst of crisis, this system might generate highly uncertain information and confusion, and even fail with catastrophic effects. All of which call for a calm and rational respect for the war-making machinery — and the utmost caution in deciding whether to employ nuclear forces.
Mr. Trump is seemingly blind to the importance of restraint in nuclear decision making. He shows no humility toward the civilization-ending destructiveness of nuclear weapons, and offhandedly entertains their use. He has suggested that South Korea and Japan should consider developing their own arsenals. Empowering such a person to single-handedly initiate a nuclear strike would put the nation and the world as we know it in real jeopardy.
All presidents have flaws that cast some doubt on their nuclear judgment. In 1973, as it turned out, President Nixon was not in charge when the order came down to prepare for nuclear conflict. Under stress from the Watergate scandal, he had retired for the evening, drunk. His unelected advisers, led by the national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, and Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, ran the show that night.
Our trust in the president was misplaced. He was not even awake when my crewmate and I saddled up for nuclear war. The president had lost personal control of the situation. But upon reflection, it would have been far scarier if a cocksure Mr. Trump, consulting no one but himself, had been there calling the shots.
Under the Constitution, no one could veto a bad call by a President Trump. The 90 launch officers who are always on duty in the Great Plains, along with their counterparts in submarines patrolling the oceans, would have no choice but to execute the most morally reprehensible order ever issued in the history of warfare.