Who launches a nuclear weapon if the president has been killed? How far down does the chain of command go? Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser recounts the chilling history of American nuclear authority from the Cold War to the present and explains that the situation portrayed in the film “Dr. Strangelove” wasn’t so farfetched after all.
Eric Schlosser: Well under the law the President is supposed to be the only person in the United States who can authorize the use of a nuclear weapon. But one of the challenges throughout the Cold War to the present day has been well what if there’s an enemy attack and the President’s killed. How do we retaliate with nuclear weapons? So beginning in the Eisenhower administration the decision was made for the President to pre-delegate his authority to use nuclear weapons to other officials down the chain of command. And that would mean that if the White House was destroyed and the President was killed that there would be officers in the military who knew the codes and had the ability to launch nuclear weapons in retaliation. The problem becomes though with command and control how far down the line do you pre-delegate that authority. And if you give junior officers access to the codes what’s going to prevent them from deciding on their own one day to just launch a few nuclear weapons. And that sort of dilemma of maintaining presidential authority and also maintaining the ability to retaliate has never been fully resolved.
The film Dr. Strangelove was brutally attacked by the Pentagon, by the Air Force when it was released because the central plot element of Dr. Strangelove is that a crazed American general is going to try and start World War III by ordering American bombers to attack the Soviet Union without the President’s approval. And the Pentagon said that was ridiculous and the Air Force said that was ridiculous and that could never happen. We now know as a result of declassified documents that the basic scenario of Dr. Strangelove was entirely possible. And it wasn’t until the early 1970s that there were any locks on our nuclear weapons to prevent bomber crews or missile crews from using them. Again, you know there was this concern during the Cold War that the President would be killed and there’d be no way to use these weapons. So as recently as 1970, 1971 if an American bomber crew on its own had decided to fly to Moscow and bomb Moscow or an American bomber crew had decided to fly to Chicago and bomb Chicago with nuclear weapons there was nothing physically to prevent them from doing it.
There was nothing physically to prevent missile officers from just turning their keys and launching their missiles whenever they wanted to. The only thing that stopped that was the professionalism and the discipline of our military forces. And I give the military great credit for, you know, training their troops and training their officers so that never happened. But that’s an enormous responsibility and enormous power to be vested in officers who are 23, 24, 25 years old. And it only took during the Cold War in terms of our missiles two guys – if two guys in their underground command center had decided hey, let’s nuke the Soviet Union there was nothing to prevent those two guys working in concert from turning the keys and launching their missiles. So ideally you would not have the power to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people vested in two young guys. And it’s still unnerving that the President of the United States, one man, one woman, has the ability without a formal declaration of war to make a decision that could kill millions of people.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton