Sitting in his silo in the ‘70s, a military man in charge of launching the nuclear missiles asked a simple question. Were there checks and balances at the highest level of the United States government for starting an atomic war?
He asked the question, because, on the ground, at the very end of the chain of command, there were indeed checks and balances. One officer alone could not launch a missile; two armed personnel were needed to turn their individual keys.
Why? So that a lone officer would not go rogue.
Oddly, Harold Hering, the military man, never received an answer to his question. Instead, he was asked to write up his query, and after he did so in a most eloquent manner, he was stripped of his honors, his security clearances, credentials, and forced to retire.
Some forty years later, Harold is still waiting for the American government’s reply.
Recently, many thoughtful people have joined Harold’s quest. Now that we have a president who is too self-serving and impulsive to act judiciously in a crisis, they are seeking an answer to Harold’s question with a new urgency.
So what is the answer? Brace yourself.
The answer is that at the very highest level of the United States government, there are no checks and balances when it comes to making a nuclear strike. All the President has to do is ask the aide carrying the “football” with the communications codes to contact the military command. The President can make that decision alone, without consulting anyone. And he is empowered to do so within ten minutes, or less.
The system was designed during the Cold War, when speed was of the essence; if the Soviet Union launched a pre-emptive strike, the theory went, the United States needed to respond before its missiles and silos were destroyed.
If you are not freaking out right now, you should be.
The trouble is, the media, the Congress, and the bureaucracy hasn’t fully grasped Trump’s ability to act reflesively. Take his recent Syria strike, for example. Allegedly, he watched television images of young victims of chemical weapons attacks, and without Congressional approval, proceeded to launch missiles. His hidden agenda in making a 180-degree turnaround from his campaign rhetoric was obvious. Nevertheless, the media fell for Trump’s clever ploy; it changed the conversation from the Congressional investigation of his illicit Russian ties to Assad’s atrocities, even extolled him for acting “presidential.”
Will the press never learn anything from the past?
Imagine a scenario in which the FBI and the CIA have completed their investigations of Trump. Imagine that they have found something. This is not hard to envision. At the very least, Trump was planning to launder money for Putin and his cronies through some complicated real estate deals. If you think this is far-fetched, you only have to read Adam Davidson’s article in a recent issue of the New Yorker. In it, he postulates that through the construction of a luxury hotel in a seedy part of Baku, the Trump organization was abetting Azerbaijani oligarchs in a money-laundering scheme. At worst, Trump was involved in a quid-pro-quo whereby Putin sabotaged the election in exchange for business profits for both. What if, in a year or two, the intelligence agencies offer their testimonies on Capitol Hill? What if, to save their own skins, the morally defunct Republicans are forced to admit that their President is not only a crook but also a traitor? What if, under intense public pressure, Congress asks Trump to go?
Do you think that our head of state will simply fade away? Or will he fight back with the military arsenal at his disposal? Will he start a nuclear war just to change the conversation?
I think it is a strong possibility.
Don’t forget that Trump has publicly questioned why the United States doesn’t put its nuclear weapons to use. Don’t forget that Robert Mercer, a billionaire who was instrumental in getting Trump elected, believes that nuclear radiation actually improved the health of Japanese victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Don’t forget that Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and former head of the alt-right publication Breitbart News, got to the White House mainly through Mercer’s funding, which shamelessly published pro-Trump propaganda veiled as news. Don’t forget that Breitbart not only spread fake news about Clinton and the Democrats, but continues to deny science and climate change.
It is clear that Trump and his co-conspirators think it is no big deal to make a nuclear strike against some unsuspecting “Third World” nation like Syria or Iraq.
I suspect Republicans are well aware of this possibility, which is why they keep walking on eggshells around their leader; they know that when provoked, he will prove to be a very dangerous man.
No wonder Silicon Valley billionaires are building underground bunkers and stocking up on supplies for the coming apocalypse. They, as usual, know more than what the rest of us are privy to.
Does this mean that we too should chicken out? Be afraid of Trump?
I don’t think so. We need to spread the word. Pressure Congress to alter the protocol. We need to pass legislation so that anyone running for President in the future is not only required to reveal information about health and finances—including taxes— but also scrutinized for corrupt practices. We also need to ensure that there are checks and balances on the President when it comes to the deployment of nuclear arsenal.
And pray that the planet survives a Trump presidency.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.