(Barré) #1

8 Scientific American, April 2020


Experts generally agree that the world came closest to nuclear
war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the U.S. and
the U.S.S.R. faced off on the issue of Soviet ballistic missiles being
installed just 90 miles away from the American mainland. In the
end, President John  F. Kennedy found a way to back away from
the brink of disaster: he was rational enough to see the inevitable
catastrophe that would have resulted from “pushing the button.”
But what if he hadn’t been? Since the atomic bomb was first
used against Japan in 1945, all U.S. presidents have had wide lat-
itude to order a nuclear attack. And although we don’t dwell on
the fact, psychiatric and neurological disorders are not uncom-
mon among people who ascend to the world’s most powerful of-
fice. Lyndon  B. Johnson and Richard  M. Nixon displayed behav-
ior suggestive of paranoia. Earlier, Abraham Lincoln showed signs
of depression. In fact, the study of presidents from 1776 to 1974
found that nearly half the top office holders demonstrated signs
of psychopathology. The potential for irrational decision-making
cries out for limits on the power to destroy the world.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. Erratic behavior has been
the norm during his presidency. Trump’s order for the precipitous
assassination of Iran’s high-ranking officer Qassem Soleimani in
January is only the most recent example. Shortly after he took of-
fice, Trump threatened North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un with
“fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Then he turned
around and declared that he and the dictator were “in love,” de-
fending Kim even when the country continued to conduct missile
tests. The full list of Trump’s capricious behaviors would fill many
pages. The American Psychiatric Association states that it is un-
ethical to offer a professional opinion about someone before a thor-
ough medical examination, but some psychiatrists have begun to
argue that breaching the rule is justified in this case for the pub-
lic good. And practitioners have followed through: hundreds of
psychiatrists and medical professionals submitted a document to
Congress last December stating that Trump’s mental health was
declining during the course of the impeachment proceedings.
A highly impulsive U.S. president should not be able to single-
handedly start a global nuclear conflagration that could kill tens
of millions of people. Trump himself might even agree. The self-
styled “stable genius” tweeted in 2014: “The global warming we
should be worried about is the global warming caused by NUCLEAR
WEAPONS in the hands of crazy or incompetent leaders!”
He was right. Fortunately, there are a few possible solutions
that may be brought to bear. Proposals have circulated to require

either Congress or cabinet officials to give assent to any first use
of nuclear weapons. And Section 4 of the 25th amendment to the
Constitution can be invoked to determine whether a president is
fit to continue serving in office.
The apocalyptic danger posed by an unstable president with
his or her finger on the nuclear button would be moot if the world
scrapped nuclear weapons entirely. Failing that, the most impor-
tant measure the U.S. could take as the world’s preeminent mili-
tary power should be to pledge never to initiate a first strike—a
promise we have never made despite lawmakers’ efforts—signal-
ing that our current nuclear arsenal serves solely as a deterrent.
In tandem, given that the nuclear early-warning system activates
every day, usually in response to a rocket launching somewhere
on the globe, the U.S. should take nukes off their current launch-
on-warning status to remove the pressure on any president to re-
spond in minutes to what may well be a false alarm.
The legislation needed to enact any one of these measures may
have to await a new administration and a shift away from the un-
precedented partisanship that divides the U.S. political scene. Pub-
lic fear of nukes appears to have abated somewhat from the time
when every schoolchild had to practice duck-and-cover drills. Still,
a hopeful sign of congressional willingness to implement a check
on presidential power came from the massing of bipartisan Sen-
ate votes in response to the Soleimani killing to limit Trump’s au-
thority to take military action in Iran.
Whether Democrat or Republican, any post-Trump adminis-
tration should prioritize nuclear de-escalation while maintaining
security. My-button-is-bigger-than-yours tweets should be re-
placed with reminders of the joint statement made by Ronald Rea-
gan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987: “A nuclear
war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

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An Erratic Finger

on the Button

The U.S. president alone should not

be able to start a nuclear war

By the Editors


Getty Images

© 2020 Scientific American
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