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Nuclear War Game Theory: Who Passes the Presidential Sanity Test?

While the president is "the ultimate authorizer of Armageddon," what if his mind "is deranged, disordered, even damagingly intoxicated?

“How can any missile crewman know that an order to twist his launch key in its slot and send a thermonuclear missile rocketing out of its silo—a nuke capable of killing millions of civilians—is lawful, legitimate, and comes from a sane president?” When Maj. Harold Hering asked this question it made his commanders so uncomfortable that it cost Hering his career. 

Major Hering wasn’t asking this question in an historical vacuum. This happened at the height of the Cold War and the Watergate scandal. President Richard Nixon was not only losing his mandate to govern and lead, but also, some feared, Nixon was losing his grip on reality. The extent of the president’s alcohol abuse may not have been public knowledge at the time, but there were plenty of signs of erratic behavior that raised eyebrows. For instance, Nixon reportedly told a group of Congressmen at a White House dinner party “I could leave this room and in 25 minutes 70 million people would be dead.” Nixon may have been many things, but genocidal maniac was fortunately not one of them. And yet, Hering had challenged the very foundation of the nuclear “failsafe” system. 

As Ron Rosenbaum writes in the new book How The End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, while the president is “the ultimate authorizer of Armageddon,” what if his mind “is deranged, disordered, even damagingly intoxicated? Should there be a breathalyzer lock on the nuclear football? A brain scan?” In other words, the most horrific decision in history “could be executed in less than fifteen minutes by one person with no time for second-guessing.”

How do we safeguard against a President who is “off his meds” or otherwise mentally incapacitated? This is not a far-fetched question considering that a 2006 Duke University study found that mental illness has affected about half of all U.S. presidents, including Lincoln, John Adams and James Madison. U.S. presidential history, in fact, is filled with “secret surgeries and strokes.” John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson all hid illnesses from the public, leading to the 25th Amendment that mandates, among other things, that presidential illnesses be disclosed. 

Of course, in today’s media environment, it is almost impossible to imagine a president being able to hide an illness the way FDR did during World War II. Moreover, our culture has greatly evolved when it comes to discussing illness openly. “I’d prefer to live in a world where people can embrace that our [public figures] can be ill, and still be great leaders” says bioethicist and Big Think Delphi Fellow Dr. Jacob Appel. “Now that this information is open, I think it can be for the greater good.” 

But how much information is really open? Are there actually sufficient medical background checks in place for presidential candidates? This became an issue in 2008, when the 71 year-old candidate John McCain allowed only select members of the media a three-hour “peek” at his medical records. 

On the other hand, our public vetting process must be some measure of comfort. “The presidency is the most intimate office we have,” Time magazine columnist Joe Klein recently told Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball. “They live in our kitchens. They live in our living rooms.” We demand to get to know them.

Indeed, evaluating a candidate’s mental competency has indeed become a staple of our politics in the nuclear age. Remember Lyndon Johnson’s devastating attack on Barry Goldwater in 1964. While Johnson’s infamous “Daisy” ad only hit the airwaves once, as it has been noted, “once was enough“. The American public is extremely wary of “nuclear cowboys” who might risk “total extinction in the defense of liberty.” This subject is no joking matter, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan’s famous mic check gaffe that cost him 9 points in public opinion polls in 1984:

“My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

So if we were to administer a presidential sanity test, who would pass it? 

Let’s pick on Ron Paul, for instance. While 90 percent of what he says might be defended by a reasonable person, what about the 10 percent that appears to be insane gibberish?

But what about JFK, who took LSD? 

And what about Ulysses S. Grant, who was drunk at his own inauguration? Would he have passed the test?

What about our military strategists that Rosenbaum references in his book? Their literature is a bizarre mix of “nuke porn” and nuclear war game theory, in which the “calculated irrationality” of men like Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper builds to an inevitable climax, or “wargasm.” Are these “young Strangeloves” not demonstrably insane? Or, as Rosenbaum asks, are we all going crazy together? 

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But it might not be up to us. 

What about an imposter? Rosenbaum writes: “We know that hacker attacks, many believed to have originated from China’s military, have regularly targeted the Pentagon and our nuclear control system.” Indeed, in a previous post on Chinese espionage, intelligence expert David Wise told Big Think how “a few key strokes on the computer” can function as a weapon of mass destruction.

I don’t feel very failsafe now. 


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