Louis Rene Beres, professor emeritus of international law at Purdue, discusses the legal and operational controls surrounding American Nuclear Policy as we remember the 75th Anniversary of the American Nuclear Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki...
“The Button recounts the terrifying history of nuclear launch authority, from the faulty 46-cent microchip that nearly caused World War III to President Trump’s tweet about his “much bigger & more powerful” button. Perry and Collina share their firsthand experience on the front lines of the nation’s nuclear history and provide illuminating interviews with former president Bill Clinton, former secretary of defense Jim Mattis, congressman Adam Smith, Nobel Peace Prize winner Beatrice Fihn , senior Obama administration officials, and many others. Written in an accessible and authoritative voice, The Button delivers a powerful condemnation against leaving explosive power this devastating under any one person’s thumb…” – From advertising description of new book by William Perry and Tom Z. Collina, The Button
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“…all is power and presence for me, here where the theme of nothingness rises still in smoke.” – Saint-John Perse, Exile
The important new book by William Perry and Tom Z. Collina reaffirms an already well-established conclusion: Nuclear war is like any other incurable disease. The only realistic hopes lie in prevention. Still, on this 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing – an August 1945 event followed just three days later by the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki – a further distinction must be clarified and underscored. This distinction concerns the probabilistic difference between a deliberate or intentional nuclear war and one that would be unintentional or inadvertent.
It is a vital and not-to-be ignored distinction. Though rarely discussed among the general public, without carefully considering this utterly core difference in atomic war causation, little of any utilitarian or jurisprudential use can be said about the calculable likelihood of a particular nuclear conflict. To say the least, and conscientiously avoid hyperbole, any such lack of consideration would be substantially imprudent.
Among other things, because there has never been an authentic nuclear war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t “count”), determining relevant probabilities must become a problematic task. Inevitably. In operational reality, this signifies an overwhelmingly problematic task. In logic and mathematics, after all, true probabilities must derive from the determinable frequency of pertinent past events.
When there are no such past events, nothing can be determined with any meaningfully predictive reliability.
Nonetheless, what is, is. Though with markedly greater informality, capable analysts will still have to devise optimal strategies for calculating and averting a nuclear war any nuclear war. This indispensable calculation will vary, among other things, according to (1) presumed enemy intention; (2) presumed plausibility of an accident or hacking intrusion; and/or (3) presumed plausibility of a decisional miscalculation. Conceptually, when taken together as cumulative categories of a potential nuclear war threat, the three component risks of an unintentional nuclear war would best be described as inadvertent.
Any particular case of an accidental nuclear war would necessarily be inadvertent. Not every case of an inadvertent nuclear war, however, would necessarily be the result of accident.
The Button brings us authoritatively up to date on these stunningly complex issues. All of these listed examples represent potentially intersecting elements of a single overriding national security problem – nuclear war avoidance. This many-sided problem should never be approached by American security policy-makers or by the president as a narrowly political or tactical issue. Rather, informed by suitably in-depth historical understanding and by carefully refined analytic capacities, US military planners should now prepare themselves to deal with a large variety of overlapping explanatory factors/norms, including jurisprudential or legal ones.
There is more. At times, the intersections under study could be determinably synergistic.
By definition, at such times, the “whole” of any injurious effect would be greater than the sum of its “parts. Going forward, focused attention on all pertinent synergies should remain a distinctly primary analytic objective.
In dealing with certain still-growing nuclear war risks involving North Korea, no single concept could be more urgently important than synergy. Unless such interactions are reliably and correctly evaluated, the American president could sometime underestimate the total impact of any considered nuclear engagement. Incontestably, the tangible flesh and blood consequences of any such underestimations would likely be very high.
To wit, they could defy analytic imaginations and any post-war justifications.
Looking ahead, in any complex strategic risk assessments regarding North Korean military nuclear intentions and Kim Jung Un’s nuclear forces, the concept of synergy should be assigned an analytic pride of place. The only conceivable argument for an American president deliberately choosing to ignore the ascertainable effects of any pertinent synergy would be that associated US defense policy considerations appear “too complex” for capable analysis (i.e., intellectually intimidating). Prima facie, of course, when genuinely fundamental US national security issues are at stake, any such viscerally dismissive argument would be grievously unacceptable.
For this writer/scholar, all of this has long been familiar intellectual terrain. Indeed, I have been publishing about such difficult and related strategic issues for exactly fifty years. After four years of doctoral study at Princeton in the late 1960s, historically a prominent center of American nuclear strategic thought (recall especially Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer), I began to consider adding a modest personal contribution to already evolving nuclear literatures. By the late 1970s, I was cautiously preparing a new manuscript on US nuclear strategy, and, by variously disciplined processes of correct inference, on the corresponding risks of a nuclear war.
At that early stage of the then-emerging discipline, I was especially interested in US presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.
From day one, I learned that allegedly reliable safeguards had been incorporated into all operational nuclear command/control decisions, but also that these same safeguards could not be applied at the presidential level. To a young scholar searching optimistically for meaningful nuclear war avoidance opportunities, this ironic disjunction didn’t make any obvious sense. So, what next?
It was time for gathering suitable clarifications. Accordingly, I reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. In reassuringly rapid response to my query, General Taylor sent a comprehensive handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the distinguished General’s detailed letter concluded ominously: “As to dangers arising from an irrational American President, the best protection is not to elect one.“
Until recently, I had never given any extended thought to this authoritative response. Today, during the increasingly problematic presidency of Donald J. Trump, General Taylor’s 1976 warning plainly takes on substantially greater and more specifically urgent meanings. Based on both ascertainable facts and logical derivations (technically called “entailments” in formal philosophy of science terminology) rather than wishful thinking, we must now reasonably assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit accessible signs of emotional instability, irrationality or presumptively delusional behavior, he could still order the use of American nuclear weapons.
Moreover, he could do this officially, legally and without any compelling expectations of nuclear chain-of-command “disobedience.”
Still more worrisome, President Trump could become emotionally unstable, irrational or delusional, but not exhibit such serious liabilities conspicuously.
A corollary question should now also come to mind: What precise stance should be assumed by the National Command Authority (Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several others) if it should ever decide to oppose an “inappropriate” presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons?
Could the National Command Authority (NCA) “save the day,” informally, by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should indispensable preparatory steps already have been taken, in advance, preemptively? That is, should there already be in place certain credible and effective statutory measures to (1) assess the ordering president’s reason and judgment; and (2) countermand any inappropriate or wrongful order?
Presumptively, in US law, Article 1 (Congressional) war-declaring expectations of the Constitution aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would have to be obeyed. To do otherwise, in such incomparably dire circumstances, would presumptively be illegal. Here, therefore, any chain-of-command disobedience would be impermissible on its face.
There is more. In principle, at least, US President Donald Trump could order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if this country were not under any specifically nuclear attack. In this connection, some further strategic and legal distinctions would need to be made between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.” These would not be minor distinctions.
While there exists an elementary yet markedly substantive difference between these two options, it is an operational distinction that candidate Donald Trump plainly failed to understand during the 2016 presidential campaign debates. Significantly, as this president proudly reads nothing about such matters – literally nothing at all – there now remains good reason for certain additional US nuclear policy refinements.
What next? Where exactly should the American polity and government go from here on such overriding national security decision-making issues? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared for the following basic question: If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority be: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such needed expressions of disobedience?
In any such unprecedented crisis-decision circumstances, all authoritative judgments could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could exist no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of possible outcomes. This is because all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must inevitably be based upon recognizably pertinent past events.
In matters of nuclear war, there are no pertinent past events. This is a markedly fortunate absence, of course, but still one that would stand in the way of rendering reliable decision-making predictions. The abundant irony here is both obvious and problematic.
Whatever the determinable scientific obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for any such incomparably vital US national security difficulties is now. Once we were already in extremis atomicum, it would be too late.
Regarding the specific matter of North Korea (Iran is not yet nuclear), President Trump will need to take special care to avoid any seat-of-the-pants analogies (whether openly expressed or “merely” internalized) between commercial bargaining and military brinksmanship. Faced with dramatic uncertainties about counterpart Kim Jung Un’s own expected willingness to push the escalatory envelope, the American president could sometime (suddenly and unexpectedly) find himself faced with a fearfully stark choice between outright capitulation and nuclear war. What then?
Even for a genuinely gifted US president (not a current consideration), any such choice could prove dissembling or even “paralyzing.”
To avoid being placed in such a limited choice strategic environment, Mr. Trump should understand from the start that simply having a larger national nuclear force (a “bigger button”) in these sorts of negotiations might not bestow any critical bargaining or outcome advantages. On the contrary, this seeming advantage could generate unwarranted US presidential overconfidence and various resultant forms of decisional miscalculation. In any such wholly unfamiliar, many-sided and unprecedented matters, size could matter, but perhaps counter-intuitively, perhaps inversely, or perhaps in various ways not yet fully understood.
More than likely, prosaic analogies would be misconceived. Nuclear war avoidance is not a matter resembling commercial real estate negotiation. The field of international foreign policymaking is not reasonably comparable to assorted bargaining arenas of hotel construction or casino gaming. While the search for some sort of “escalation dominance” may indeed be common to both sorts of deal-making, the cumulative costs of any related nuclear security policy losses could be incomparable or entirely one-of-a-kind.
In brief, money or status losses in the commercial sector should never be reasonably compared to mass death or civilian dismemberment. Though seemingly obvious, at this late date in the deranging Trump presidency, little should be taken for granted.
In certain fragile matters of world politics, even an inadvertent decisional outcome could sometime be a nuclear war. Here, whether occasioned by accident, hacking, or “mere” miscalculation, there could be no meaningful “winner,” not even for the side with a once-vaunted “bigger button.” At a conceptual minimum, any US president ought to understand this as elementary.
In the paroxysmal aftermath of any unintended nuclear conflict, those authoritative American decision-makers who had once accepted President Donald J. Trump’s stated preference for “attitude” over “preparation” in strategic negotiations would likely question their antecedent loyalties. By then, however, it would already be too late. As survivors of a once-preventable nuclear conflagration, these now-stunned officials could only envy the dead.
This is the case, moreover, whether the pertinent nuclear conflict had been intentional or unintentional, whether it was occasioned by base motives, miscalculation, computer error, hacking intrusion, or “simply” by some weapon-system/infrastructure accident.
Today, 75 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear war remains an incurable disease. As authors Perry and Collina clarify in The Button, the US president no longer needs to respond to a perceived nuclear attack immediately. Accordingly, because the triad of strategic forces includes cumulatively invulnerable submarine forces, this country no longer needs to rely upon a destabilizing “launch on warning” nuclear posture. This means, among other things, that the president of the United States no longer requires sole decisional authority to fire America’s nuclear weapons.
At some point, any continuing failure of United States law and practice to acknowledge this sobering transformation could lead to another historical use of nuclear weapons – by this country, by its then-evident adversary, or both. In any such intolerable scenario, the atomic conflagration would dwarf the 1945 effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It follows, above all else, that a nuclear war is like any other incurable disease. The only realistic hopes lie in prevention. I offer General D. Maxwell Taylor’s letter on prevention here for reflection.
Letter from General Maxwell D. Taylor to Professor Louis Rene Beres,
(c) Louis Rene Beres
The Letter reads:
General Maxwell D. Taylor (RTD.)
2500 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washinton D.C. 20008
14 March 1976
Dear Professor Beres:
I am sorry to say that I am completely out of date with regard to the matters raised in your letter of 8 March. During the time that I was conversant I can only say that every precaution one could think of was taken to prevent accidental or unauthorized firings. However, human efforts be they ever so thorough can not provide an absolute guarantee.
As to dangers arising from an irrational American President, the best protection is not to elect one.
Regretting my inability to be helpful,
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books, monographs, and scholarly articles dealing with various aspects of military nuclear strategy. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Over recent years, he has published extensively on nuclear warfare issues in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Atlantic; Jurist; Israel Defense; The New York Times; The Jerusalem Post; International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); The War Room (US Army War College); Modern Diplomacy; Small Wars Journal); Modern War Institute (West Point); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (Pentagon) and Oxford University Press. His twelfth book, published in 2016 (2nd ed., 2018) by Rowman & Littlefield, is titled: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy. A monograph on this subject was published with U.S. General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey at Tel Aviv University in December 2016 titled: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security Some of Professor Beres’ earlier writings on US nuclear decision-making were co-authored with US General John T. Chain (USAF/ret.) and US Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney (USN/ret). General Chain was CINCSAC, Commander-in-Chief, US Strategic Air Command. Admiral Edney served as SACLANT, Supreme NATO Allied Commander, Atlantic.
Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, just weeks after the US atomic bombings of Japan. At Princeton, he studied German literature and German philosophy along with philosophy of science, nuclear strategy and international law.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Hiroshima Plus 75: America’s Nuclear Policy Imperative, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 9, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/08/louis-beres-hiroshima-plus-75/.
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