Nuclear War Shouldn’t Be Up to Any One Person

Congress and President Biden now have a narrow window to restrict the ability of any future president to launch nuclear weapons.

Illustration of a man standing on top of a red button
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: Jon B. Wolfsthal is a member of the Science and Security Board at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a former adviser to President Obama and then–Vice President Biden.

President Joe Biden has sought to avoid having the United States or NATO dragged directly into the war in Ukraine for fear that the situation could quickly escalate to a nuclear war with Moscow. This fear is based on his experience but also one simple reality: All American presidents since 1945 have had the unfettered authority to launch nuclear weapons at any time. During the Cold War, this was seen as stabilizing, a deterrent. Today, this presidential power—known as nuclear “sole authority”—is a dangerous anachronism that rests too much on the stability and indeed the sanity of any given president. Stability in the White House is not a given.

Making that point even more clear, Donald Trump, who seems likely to run again for president of the United States, still talks loosely about threatening to use nuclear weapons, this time against Russia. If he wins the 2024 election, he will regain control of America’s 4,000-warhead-strong nuclear arsenal, capable of global destruction in minutes. Congress and President Biden now have a narrow window to restrict the ability of any future president to launch nuclear weapons without consent from other senior officials, except in response to a nuclear attack on America or its allies.

Congress should work with the Biden administration to address this danger, writing new laws that prevent the president from initiating on his own authority the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, and that require him to gain concurrence from a Senate-confirmed official such as the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If neither of these positions is yet Senate-confirmed under a president, then the authority might come from the speaker of the House or the president pro tempore of the Senate—second and third in the constitutional line of succession. Efforts have been made in the past to change the current protocol, but the prospect of a second Trump administration makes doing so all the more urgent.

Eliminating the president’s nuclear sole authority would not impede America’s ability to defend U.S. allies in the face of nuclear attack. But new barriers to first nuclear use could reduce the risk of unintended escalation by making clear that the United States is not going to undertake a nuclear strike without either provocation or a deliberate process. Above all, adopting these changes would provide the U.S. military with the legal authority it needs to stand in the way of a deranged president intent on starting a nuclear war for his own political benefit.

Many of the standards that guide today’s nuclear operations were born out of the Cold War. Back then, the survival of America’s nuclear forces—and their capacity to deter Soviet aggression—depended on the president’s ability to rapidly launch weapons either on warning of an attack or while an attack was under way. If the Soviet Union thought it could land a fast nuclear “sucker punch” and destroy American bombers or missiles in their silos, American military planners feared that might tempt Russia into such an attack. Thus the need for the president to be able to launch an attack quickly, at any time, was seen as crucial to defense and deterrence. Eventually, America’s ballistic-missiles submarines at sea provided a formidable and all-but-undetectable force that would deter any nuclear adversary from launching a strike at America. Yet although the nuclear landscape has shifted, the old policies remain intact.

And what they dictate is untenable: Contrary to what many people believe, no civilian or military leaders, including the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are currently in the chain of command for issuing a nuclear-strike order—the chain includes only the president, as commander in chief of the armed forces. To put an even finer point on it, neither official would even need to be informed that a strike had been ordered if a president did not want to tell them (although the president customarily consults with them prior to making a decision).

The details of how this works are bracing. The nuclear “football”—a briefcase that contains page after page of information on nuclear targets all over the world and which U.S. nuclear weapons can destroy them—goes wherever the president goes. The president carries with him at all times authentication codes (yes, like the one you get on your phone to log in to your bank account) in a laminated pack, called the “biscuit.” Night or day, the president can pick up the phone, ask to be connected to the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, crack open the biscuit, and authorize an attack anywhere in the world. Once he issues an order to launch and authenticates his identity, the missiles will fly in minutes. That’s it. The only limiting factor is that the attack plan has to be within the preapproved set of options, but even then the president can reassign a weapon to a new target at his discretion. This can all happen in less time than it takes to read this article.

Being worried that an unhinged president will put the world at risk is not a far-fetched scenario. In his final weeks in office in 2021, Trump’s behavior and actions were so worrisome that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi publicly expressed concern that he might order a nuclear strike. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, privately requested that the Military Command Center staff notify him in the event of a nuclear-launch order. He also reached out to his Chinese counterpart to reassure him that America would not attack China during the presidential transition. That the speaker of the House and the president’s own top commander took such steps in a time of national crisis shows that this is not some conspiracy theory, but a real-world concern.

If you think that giving Trump total command over 4,000 nuclear weapons was incredibly risky, you’re right. But if you think that the risk is confined to Trump, you’re wrong. Trump is not the only president whose staff privately worried about his competency to command a globe-killing nuclear arsenal. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger also had to go to extreme and possibly illegal lengths to prevent a soon-to-resign Richard Nixon from being able to order a drunken nuclear strike at the end of the Watergate scandal. Schlesinger told the military to contact him if the president tried to order a nuclear launch. On whose authority he did so remains unclear, as does whether his instructions would have been followed.

America has had 14 presidents in the nuclear era, starting with Harry Truman. At least two have been so worrisome to their own subordinates that officials acted contrary to the law and the military chain of command to prevent the “impossible” from being very possible. Fortunately, Biden understands nuclear issues as well as any president in history. He is well versed and experienced in deterrence theory and nuclear operations. Biden’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been explicitly guided by his concerns about nuclear escalation and risk.

In considering reform, the benefits of the protocol for launching nuclear weapons must outweigh the risks. When military officials believed that rapidly launching American nuclear weapons in response to an imminent or ongoing attack was fundamental to the credibility of our deterrent, perhaps these risks were necessary. That is no longer the case, and the time to adopt reasonable precautions—consistent with the decision of the Founding Fathers to give Congress, not the president, the authority to declare war—has come. There are also few downsides to adopting a new policy. America has stated clearly, along with two other NATO nuclear states, France and the United Kingdom, that its nuclear arsenal is the ultimate insurance to protect alliance members. NATO deters nuclear strikes against any of its member states by the implicit threat of swift and commensurate retaliation. However, NATO’s long-standing official policy of reserving the right to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, in response to conventional aggression, might have to be adjusted, as any American nuclear strike would require broader political support in the United States. That said, allies and even adversaries have always questioned whether the U.S. would actually use nuclear weapons in response to conventional or other non-nuclear attacks anyway.

This may be the last chance for reform, with a Democratic-controlled Congress and a president who seems to understand the stakes. Any president will instinctively resist an effort to reduce his power as commander in chief, but perhaps in this instance the president and Congress will align. If they can enact these changes, they just might prevent the greatest calamity in the history of humanity.