How to Stop a Rogue President from Ordering a Nuclear First Strike

The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946. [Source: Wikipedia]
On November 15, US Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and US Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) introduced  one of the shortest bills in the histories of their two parliamentary bodies. Shorn of the obligatory “be it enacted, blah, blah, blah” boilerplate, the bill’s content comes to 14 words: “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”

It’s a short bill and it’s a good bill, but it could be made both shorter and better by eliminating the word “first.”

What America needs is a “no use of nukes, period” policy, followed quickly by an “elimination of the nuclear arsenal” policy.

In July, 122 United Nations member countries endorsed a treaty  banning nuclear weapons altogether and providing for their elimination. The US abstained from the vote and won’t be signing the treaty. I’m not sure why, since the treaty wouldn’t really impose any new obligations and since unstated US doctrine is that only other countries, like Iran, should be expected to live up to their treaty obligations. The US is already formally committed to nuclear disarmament by virtue of its participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s just never taken that obligation seriously.

Congress recently took up the question of whether or not President Donald Trump can be trusted with the authority to order a nuclear strike. His personal temperament alarms them. That temperament may or may not truly be more prickly than that of past presidents, but in the age of Twitter it’s more openly alarming.

Unfortunately, Congress has ceded so much of its authority over foreign and military policy to the presidency since the end of World War Two — the last time the US entered a war by congressional declaration, as required by its Constitution — that trying to claw back just this one little bit of that authority is theater without substance.

Possession of the “nuclear football” is nine tenths of the law. To keep Donald Trump, or any other president, from using nuclear weapons wickedly (as if there were some other way to use them), Congress needs to get rid of the  nukes, not just tinker with the legal authority to use them.

Nuclear weapons have no legitimate military use. They are weapons of terror, not of war. It’s time that the first and only government to ever use them become the second (after South Africa) to voluntarily give them up, for its own sake and the world’s.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Also published on Medium.

  • Much though I hate some polls I wonder what the average American voter thinks of this idea?

    • I honestly don’t know.

      I do notice that this op-ed appeared in the Pierre, South Dakota Capital Journal this morning — South Dakota being where much of the US nuclear arsenal once sat in silos atop Minuteman missiles. The South Dakota Minutemen were supposedly all decommissioned by 1996, but apparently nuclear weapons are still an important topic in the state.

  • freetexas2

    I wish the world didn’t have nuclear weapons. And, it would be great if the US got rid of them. The problem is, Russia, China and probably the little guys (India, Pakistan, maybe Iran and maybe North Korea) aren’t going to get rid of theirs. No American would want to hang out that sign, “Kill us anytime you like.” Even if Russia and China disarmed, I’m not sure I’d believe them. They lie even more than our own government.

    • As defined by UN membership, there are 193 nation-states in the world.

      Nine of those states (the US, Russia, China, England, France, Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel) have nuclear weapons.

      By your logic, 182 nations have “kill us any time you like” signs hanging out. And yet none of those nine nuclear powers have looked at those signs and said “well, OK, then.”

      There are lots of good reasons to not use nuclear weapons even if you have them and the country you’re thinking of using them on doesn’t.

      One is the absence of an existential threat to which a last-ditch response is needed.

      Another is inability to prevent the negative consequences of a nuclear detonation from crossing borders into one’s own territory, or into the territory of someone who wasn’t an enemy but now might be.

      A third is that nuclear weapons are useless as a tool of conquest. They destroy infrastructure, irradiate arable land, etc.

      • freetexas2

        I should have added Israel to the list of states that would not disarm. They are hated to the point that it would be suicide to give them up. In their case, it would be a last resort if the surrounding nations were succeeding in invading their nation. Or, of course, they would use them if others launched a nuclear attack, just like we would. Now back to your good points above. A strategy of fusion air-bursts to minimize fallout could take us out, and the fallout that was created would flow eastward, depending on the time of year, and it’s possible very little would reach Europe. Then, Russia and China would rule the world, although there would be a huge economic disruption that might be enough to prevent the attack. And, true it’s folly to hit a nation with H-bombs and then expect to do any occupying anytime soon. Wealth recovery teams in suits would arrive soon enough, because we have so much “stuff” to recover. Even after a strike like that, there will be some survivors, so they could expect a little resistance. It’s the stuff B movies and video games are made of. I’m a fan of the 1989 film, “The Day After.” If you’ve seen it, you know there’s nothing more horrible than a nuclear war. Absolutely nobody wins. How about a compromise for the world? All major nuclear nations get to keep three warheads for self defense. The rest get to keep one. It’s kind of like the 2nd Amendment. “An armed society is a polite society.” Maybe after a while, everybody will just forget they have them.

        • I suspect you’re correct that Israel would not get rid of its nuclear weapons.

          But getting rid of nuclear weapons is not “disarming.” It’s just getting rid of weapons that have no legitimate use and no military value.

          The US getting rid of its nuclear arsenal would result in two losses:

          1) The loss of the massive cost of maintaining them; and

          2) The loss of the ability to use them for terroristic purposes, that being the only thing they CAN be used for.

          I’m comfortable with those two losses.

          • freetexas2

            I agree on those two. Humans being who they (we) are, I think it’s likely we’ll continue to miniaturize nukes until they aren’t the planet killers they are now. Then we’ll find more interesting missions for them, sad to say.

  • vroman

    What is your opinion on privately owned nuclear weapons?

    • I have no problem with them as long as they are not kept in force-initiating form. That is, they’d have to be kept far enough away from non-force-initiators to not constitute a blast, radiation or fallout threat to those non-force-initiators.

      Otherwise, they’re the equivalent of driving a Hummer at high speed through a crowd with a guy randomly aiming a .50 caliber machine-gun, set to hair-trigger, up top in the turret. Even if the driver and gunner haven’t killed anyone yet, they are clearly offering to do so either intentionally or negligently. That’s an “offer to do harm,” the “assault” element of “assault and battery,” and is itself an initiation of force.

      • vroman

        Let’s say Libertopia is founded somewhere. It quickly becomes Hong Kong level financial center, and thus an attractive target for the superpower.
        While of course most Libertopians would own small arms, it would be ghastly expensive to match the superpower’s effectively infinite supply of naval and air power.
        Thus to efficiently deter an attack, a heavily invested Libertopian industrialist spends a feasible $10m of his own money building a single ICBM and silo.
        The industrialist keeps his missile fueled and aimed at the superpower’s capital, which is filled with millions of innocent serfs, in addition to the elites making “foreign policy” decisions.
        If you lived in Libertopia, would you ask the industrialist to disarm his nuke?

        • No. I’d give the industrialist an hour to disarm his nuke and then start crowdfunding an assassination effort.

          • vroman

            Ok, say we both live in Libertopia in our equivalent station. Convince me to donate to your fund.
            I say this guy is doing us a huge favor by efficiently bearing the full cost of deterring imperial armies.

          • And I say he’s aiming a giant gun with a hair trigger at all of us.

  • John Zube

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