The Nuclear Button

The United States was abruptly catapulted into the types of conversations that personified the height of the Cold War on Tuesday. It happened at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the protocols of nuclear decision-making.

Even though the prospect of a nuclear confrontation with North Korea has been a matter of public discussion for months, and the crudest threats and insults have been hurled between Pyongyang and Washington, the detailed discussion of what used to be called “the nuclear button” brought back the real chill of the Cold War when Washington and Moscow had the entire world on a razor’s edge of mass immolation.

Actually, there is no such button. Rather, the president has at his side at all times a case with top secret codes which enable him to give the order for war to the U.S. Strategic Command, if he determines that that is what must be. A series of carefully designed technical safeguards are in place along the line of command from the White House to the officers at missile silos, submarines and air bases around the world. Similar systems exist in other countries with nuclear weapons. It is unknown, however, whether North Korea is one of them.

During the hearing, the rhetorical and the abstract yielded to a single specific question: Can the senior officers of the Strategic Command refuse a direct presidential order to launch nuclear weapons, if they deem it to be out of proportion to the threat or illegal?

The answer, said retired Gen. Robert Kehler, a former head of Strategic Command, was “Yes.” It was clear, however, that if the order was “legal,” there is nothing that can keep the president from starting a nuclear war or retaliating in case of attack.

Precisely how these patriotic Americans might define “proportionality” or “legality” in such circumstances was left unexplored during the hearing. It was noted, though, that in the event such an order was refused, the president could replace the uncooperative generals with somebody else.

There are two things to be said about this extraordinary discussion: First, that it contained nothing new. The presidential power to make nuclear war has been a fact of life since Harry Truman gave the order to drop the bomb on Japan in August 1945. The weapons and the command procedures have changed, but the authority has remained in the hands of the chief executive.

It has also been a matter of record that key officers of the government can intercede to prevent an out-of-control president from starting a war to end all wars. In the closing days of the Nixon administration, when the president was known to be under great emotional strain, then-Defense Secretary James Schlesinger issued the order that military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them. No doubt, it was always understood that American officers would not carry out nuclear orders mindlessly, and would do so only if absolutely sure that they were properly authorized.

As such, the Senate hearing did not expose any hitherto undisclosed peril. No doomsday machine that could go off automatically, no button that could be pushed in a moment of confusion or insanity.

That should be reassuring. On the other hand, what is troubling is that the hearing took place at all, at least in public.

If Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, and his colleagues, felt a need to clarify these matters, he could have asked for a closed-door meeting.

Not that the basic mechanism of nuclear decision-making should be concealed from the American people, but because at this volatile time, when enemies, as well as friends, are monitoring every word said about it, the U.S. has to think about the impression such a lively give-and-take creates.

Two anecdotes will serve to illustrate the point: Earlier in his administration, President Nixon sought to enlist the Soviet Union in pressuring North Vietnam to agree to peace terms. He employed the so-called “Madman Theory,” to raise uncertainty in the Soviet mind about whether Nixon would launch his nuclear weapons to secure peace in Vietnam. As Defense Secretary Melvin Laird said later, “He never [publicly] used the term ‘madman,’ but he wanted adversaries to have the feeling that you could never put your finger on what he might do next. Nixon got this from Ike, who always felt this way.”

The second anecdote concerns Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy and then President Johnson. Mr. McNamara had a personal abhorrence of nuclear weapons, and he held passionately that there was no difference between the smaller, tactical ones and the bigger strategic ones — “once you use them, you use everything else. You can’t keep them limited. You’ll destroy Europe, everything,” he told a confidante. Accordingly, he worked hard to implement a system of safeguards to prevent any precipitous action.

Mr. McNamara’s personal feelings about the weapons were a closely guarded secret, almost as secret as the command codes for launching them. Why? Because as one historian put it, “if word got out of the Secretary’s negative attitude, it would mean that the United States was virtually disarmed, so of course he would not be able to stay in office.”

That is to say, any doubts among allies or enemies would undermine the deterrent value of the nuclear arsenal. World peace depended — and still depends — on the credibility of American force.

This is why a public hearing on the subject was ill-timed and ill-considered. The United States cannot afford to invite Kim Jong-un to think that senators don’t trust the president, and that the nation’s military chiefs might not carry out his orders, whether nuclear or conventional, in a conflict with North Korea.

The Madman Theory, unpleasant as it was, had its uses. It kept the other side uncertain and afraid. Now North Korea has taken over the Madman Theory — apparently with a real madman. Dealing with him effectively will require strong nerves, and careful consideration of what should and should and should not be said.