by Nicholas Mele

The awarding of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the continued progress of the Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons on its way to come into force as international law are hopeful developments. Even so, the refusal of the nuclear weapons states, led by the U.S., is discouraging. Furthermore, for some time now, President Trump and North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un have been trading threats. Because both nations have atomic weapons, many people are expressing concern about nuclear war for the first time since the end of the Cold War nearly thirty years ago. One aspect that keeps being discussed, the U.S. procedure for ordering a nuclear strike, may also become a movement forward.

The current nuclear protocol puts the decision and the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons on the shoulders of the U.S. president. The president is required to talk with two high-ranking military leaders, the Pentagon’s deputy director of operations and the commander of the Strategic Command. The former runs the Pentagon operations center, also known as its war room, and the latter is at the top of the chain of command which controls the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal and the planes, missile silos and submarines from which nuclear strikes would be launched. However, the current protocol simply requires the president to speak with these two generals. They have no authority to overrule him; if they resist an order to attack, they can be dismissed on the spot and replaced with more amenable successors. The entire process enables the president to launch the U.S. nuclear arsenal in ten minutes or less.

This concentration of power in the president is an anomaly in a political system based on an inherent distrust of concentrated power of any kind, hence the checks and balances built in to the U.S. Constitution. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy felt the then-current launch protocols needed to be revised; the result was the procedure outlines in the previous paragraph. Since 1962, much has changed, including the nature of the threat posed by nuclear weapons, but the attack authorization process has remained the same. For these reasons, two elected officials, Representative Ted Lieu (D) of Los Angeles and Senator Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act to their respective chambers of Congress earlier this year. Although both the House and Senate versions of the bill have attracted co-sponsors, only one of the 53 House co-sponsors is a Republican. Eight Senators co-sponsoring the bill are Democrats, and the ninth Senate co-sponsor is independent Senator Bernie Sanders.

Essentially, the bill would prohibit the president from ordering a nuclear attack, except in the case of another nation already attacking the United States, without a declaration of war by Congress. The bill requires U.S. nuclear launch procedures to conform to the U.S. Constitution which specifies that Congress, not the president, has the sole power to declare war. It is a shame, then, that so few Senators and Representatives have signed on to the identical Senate and House bills. Clearly, U.S. citizens concerned about the president’s ability to launch a nuclear attack on any other nation can make a difference by asking their Representative and Senators to co-sponsor and support the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act.