Confronted With Nuclear Launch, a President Can Fall Prey to Procedure

President John F. Kennedy was an outlier for his courage in the face of opposition during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pictured: Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the crisis. (Photo: Wikipedia)

President John F. Kennedy was an outlier for his courage in the face of opposition during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pictured: Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the crisis. (Photo: Wikipedia)

At Politico magazine, Bruce Blair addresses the hypothetical du jour: What if Donald Trump’s finger were on the nuclear button? Though less freaked out by the prospect than some others, he does exhibit concern. But, in the course of the article, Blair poses this question: “Would the next president” – whoever it is – “exercise independent judgment in a crisis, or would he or she get swept into the whirlpool of groupthink?”

After all, he or she “will be immersed in a complex web of nuclear operators,” of which Blair was once one, “who live and die by checklists.” In fact

There is little choice but to follow checklists given the tremendous temporal and emotional pressures weighing on them. The deadlines are tight for everyone involved in nuclear operations.

… This crew is expected to assess whether North America is under nuclear attack within three minutes of receiving the initial sensor input, and to promptly report their preliminary assessment up the chain of command in order to start the clock on a presidential response. The president and his or her top nuclear advisers then convene an emergency telecommunications conference to receive a briefing about the size and character of an incoming raid and the time to impact, and a briefing from the Strategic Command about the president’s response options (war plan menu) and their consequences. The press of circumstances if submarine warheads are en route may force the latter briefing to be shortened to as little as 30 seconds. Then the president has just a few minutes to decide and convey his decision to the military war rooms.

Some believe that the president will delegate the decision whether or not to order a launch to the chief of USSSTRATCOM (among other things, the U.S. nuclear weapons command) in Omaha, currently Admiral Cecil Haney. In any case, you are living in a fool’s paradise if you are expecting another president to slow the nuclear roll as John Kennedy did during the nuclear missile crisis.

I’m just finishing reading The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths Versus Reality, the if-you-only-read-one book about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Author Sheldon Stern, who has also written other books about the crisis, was the historian of the John F. Kennedy Library for over two decades and the first historian to listen to the secret tapes that Kennedy had made during the crisis. In any event, even though Kennedy arguably got the world into that mess, the strength of character he showed in not letting his hawkish advisors steer him into war, which would inevitably turn nuclear, was truly extraordinary. Especially with the type of conciliatory candidates who win presidential and prime minister elections, it would be a mistake to expect them to demonstrate that kind of resolve in the face of an opposing consensus.