A man should not control the nuclear button

General Mark Milley is criticized for taking steps to prevent the possibility of an inappropriate nuclear launch order by President ...


General Mark Milley is criticized for taking steps to prevent the possibility of an inappropriate nuclear launch order by President Trump. Criticism is based on stages the general would have taken, as described in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril”. General Milley was apparently concerned that Mr. Trump was unstable and could order a nuclear launch for political reasons. The general told Congress last month that because he believed China had unwarranted fears of a US attack, he had acted to “defuse” the situation and contacted his Chinese counterparts to say that no attack was being made. was planned.

Critics miss the point. The overriding question is not whether General Milley was correct in his assessment, or whether he was authorized to take the reported actions, but what the consequences might have been had his concern been justified. It is no exaggeration to say that the consequences could have been a profound tragedy and, in the worst case, the end of civilization.

This is not the first time that unauthorized actions have been taken to prevent an unstable president from starting a nuclear war. At the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency, while the president was drinking heavily, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger

is reported calling the commander of Strategic Air Command and telling him that if he received a launch order from Nixon, he shouldn’t take any action without first checking with Schlesinger or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The Secretary of Defense had no authority to do so and could not be sure that the general would follow his orders. But he felt he had to do something to avoid such a possibility. Schlesinger was not criticized because neither he nor the general made his action public. From my conversations with Schlesinger many years later, I am convinced that the story is true.

A related incident took place in the Soviet Union in 1983. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, on duty at the Soviet missile warning station, refused to alert his commanders of an attack assessment on radar. Petrov believed the assessment was wrong and feared that President Yuri Andropov would launch a response without waiting for further confirmation. This story is told in the documentary “The Man Who Saved the World”.

Petrov was right, which soon became evident. One can only speculate on what might have happened if the incorrect warning had reached Andropov in the middle of the night. Petrov used his judgment instead of following orders because he understood the possible consequences of the end of civilization if his radar or computers were wrong, which they were. Yet he was not praised for “saving the world”; he was sanctioned for not following the policy.

I personally experienced three different false alarms while I was Under Secretary of Defense during the Cold War. In 1980, the North American Air Command officer of the watch woke me up at 3 a.m. and told me that his computers indicated that hundreds of ICBMs were en route from the Soviet Union to the United States. . He went on to say that he concluded it was a false alarm. He wanted me to help him figure out what was wrong with his computer, which took several days – in this case, a faulty chip. We replaced the chip and persevered, but with deep unease about the reliability of our warning system.

General Milley is to be commended and not condemned for seeking to avert a nuclear holocaust. America is fortunate to have military leaders with the judgment and courage to take such action, even when it means ignoring politics. Punishing General Milley could make it more difficult for his successors to act with the same courage.

The problem is not that General Milley has strayed from politics; the problem is politics. No president should have the exclusive power to start nuclear war. The Constitution places the responsibility for waging war on Congress, and launching a nuclear strike is certainly the start of a war. The reason is that a president may only have a few minutes to decide whether to launch an ICBM if, for example, a surprise attack is detected. But we have more than enough submarine missiles to respond with devastating force to any attack, even one that destroyed our silos. We can avoid any suspected attack until we are sure it happens.

We shouldn’t be launching a response just because our warning systems suggest an attack has started. False alarms have occurred and will continue to occur, especially in the age of cyber warfare. We should never launch our nuclear missiles in a rush, and our force structure is strong and diverse enough that we don’t have to.

A decision to launch nuclear forces requires serious deliberation and proper consultation. We should reject a policy that gives the president exclusive power to launch nuclear forces and establish one that allows deliberation, including consultation with leaders in Congress. Such a policy would anticipate the perceived need of military leaders to break the rules to save the world.

Mr. Perry was US Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997.

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