With startling speed, public commentary about Trump has moved to open expressions of doubt about his mental stability and the threat that this poses to the safety of the world. A number of cable news commentators have expressed the hope that the generals with whom Trump has surrounded himself – Kelly, Mattis, McMaster – will dissuade him from launching a nuclear attack on North Korea in a fit of pique. This speculation was given new currency by the dire warnings of James Clapper, an Army Lieutenant General who is recently retired from a seven year stint as Director of National Intelligence. I think it is important to understand why this speculation is misguided, and why General Clapper is so worried. The readers of this blog may all understand these matters, but since this is quite literally the most important subject in the world just now, a little repetition will not hurt.
During the Cold War, American military planners believed the nation to be in perpetual danger of a preemptive nuclear attack by the Soviet Union [whether this was true is irrelevant for what I am saying, as will become clear.] The received scientific wisdom was that there was no defense against such an attack, once launched. Hence it was essential to deter the Soviet Union from attacking by so arranging America’s nuclear arsenal that it could respond with absolute certainty and reliability to an attack, regardless of the extent of the damage. Despite the existence of a fleet of American nuclear submarines perpetually on patrol in the world’s oceans, armed with half-megaton missiles capable of being fired with sufficient accuracy to obliterate a Russian city, there were considerations that seemed to American planners to necessitate circumventing the ordinary military chain of command.
Under normal non-nuclear circumstances, when the order to launch an attack of some sort is given by the President in his or her role as Commander in Chief, the order goes to the Secretary of Defense, who conveys it to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in turn conveys it to the Chief of Staff of the appropriate service [Army, Navy, or Air Force], who sends it down to the commander overseeing the unit tasked with the attack, who then communicates the order to the field commander of the men and women actually selected to carry out the attack. This is the chain of command, and everything in the military rests on it.
But military planners believed that it might prove impossible to rely on this chain of command in the event of a nuclear attack. They recognized that if the Russian attack came by way of intercontinental ballistic missiles, there would be at most eight or ten minutes between the time when the missile launches were detected by radar and the time when the missiles struck the United States. This posed a series of problems:
First, the President might be killed, leaving a constitutional vacuum with no settled way to determine who now had the authority to order a counterattack with such weapons as survived the first strike. Second, key individuals in the chain of command might be killed, disrupting the orderly transmission of a Presidential order. Third, communications might be interrupted physically or electronically, making it impossible for a lawful launch order actually to reach the missile silo personnel or the Captain of a nuclear submarine. Fourth, even if a lawful order did reach the military personnel actually in a position to fire the nuclear weapons, it might be impossible for those men and women to double check the order by communicating back to headquarters before carrying out the order.
For all these reasons [and some others besides,] the deliberate decision was made entirely to circumvent the normal chain of command and place at the hand of the President the ability unilaterally to order a nuclear strike immediately and without the chance for second thoughts or countermanding or even slow walking down the chain. Hence the oft mentioned “nuclear football” containing the launch codes, carried by a uniformed officer who accompanies the President everywhere. Hence also the training and clear orders to missile silo personnel or nuclear submarine Captains designed to guarantee that once the launch order is received with the proper codes, it will be immediately carried out.
Now, if General Kelly or General McMaster or General Mattis happens to be in the room when Trump decides to launch a nuclear attack, the general can try to dissuade Trump. He can even go against a lifetime of training and experience and physically try to wrestle Trump to the ground and stop him from giving the order. But should Trump be alone when he gets it into his head to start a nuclear war, there is nothing between him and the men and women who will actually launch the attack.
General Clapper knows all of this, of course. That is why he is worried.