Biden and the Nuclear Codes


Should an American president have the power to unilaterally use nuclear weapons under any circumstances?

There’s a saying that “generals are always preparing to fight the last war.” That applies to publics too. The song by Sammy Kate, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” recorded ten days after the Kido Butai struck battleship row in Hawaii, was soon forgotten but the fear of a sneak attack engendered by the event persisted through the Cold War.


As Glenn Reynolds points out in his article in the New York Post, American presidents’ power over the strategic arsenal grew out of the fear of an “atomic Pearl Harbor.”

Since the dawn of the Cold War, the United States has held itself ready to respond to a massive nuclear attack from an adversary — the Soviet Union originally, now Russia or China — by launching its own missiles and bombers while the attacking missiles were still in flight, a strategy known as “Launch on Warning.”

The advantage of launching before enemy missiles had even landed was that it made it impossible for an enemy to wipe out our missiles on the ground, ensuring that a retaliatory strike would get through. That being the case, no sane enemy — or even very many crazy enemies — would bother to attack at all.

Fear of a sneak attack gradually diminished with the insurance provided by America’s second-strike capability, principally consisting of hidden nuclear ballistic missile submarines on constant patrol, ready to wreak revenge from the depths of the sea. Moreover, advances in biological warfare technology made it possible to retain countervalue capability against an enemy even if there was no remaining nuclear response capability. This ensured no sneak attack would ever go unavenged and, more importantly, no decision to retaliate need be made in haste.

On September 11, 2001, the “sneak attack” model was finally rivaled by a new paradigm: the anonymous proxy attack on New York. Against this mode of attack, submarine ballistic missiles were largely useless and America adopted the strategy of identifying and destroying the proxy masterminds in the War on Terror.


The critical path became “how could you know who hit you?”

Unlike a hypothetical response to a nuclear first strike, with minutes ticking, action in the War on Terror involved lengthy discussions lasting months, including negotiations with allies, UN resolutions, and, finally, congressional authorization. The problem, critics say, is that America invaded the wrong countries.

No sooner had September 11 started to establish itself as the paradigm of war in the public imagination than another disturbing event occurred in the shape of the Covid-19 pandemic. The vague origins of the pandemic meant that the decision problem is whether one is experiencing an attack at all or just a misfortune. How ambiguous this remains was underscored by Joe Biden‘s White House.

White House cites ‘deep concerns’ about WHO Covid report, demands early data from China. The Trump administration had said it suspected the virus may have escaped from a Chinese lab, which Beijing strongly denies.

Reuters. WASHINGTON — The White House on Saturday called on China to make available data from the earliest days of the Covid-19 outbreak, saying it has “deep concerns” about the way the findings of the World Health Organization’s coronavirus report were communicated.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that it is imperative that the report be independent and free from “alteration by the Chinese government”, echoing concerns raised by the administration of former President Donald Trump, who also moved to quit the WHO over the issue.


One would have thought the question of whether Joe Biden — or any president — should have authority to launch a nuclear strike would have been most pressing during the Cold War. But the Voice of America says that 31 Democratic legislators, for some reason, chose this time to have that power removed:

[L]awmakers of the current president’s own party are asking President Joe Biden to surrender that unilateral power.

Giving one person such authority “entails real risks,” according to a letter endorsed by 31 Democratic members of the House. “Past presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons or exhibited behavior that causes other officials to express concerns about the president’s judgment.”

The letter, led by Representatives Jimmy Panetta and Ted Lieu, both from California, calls for officials, such as the vice president and speaker of the House, to concur with a launch order before it can be issued.

Fair enough, now that the Soviet Union is gone. Glenn Reynolds goes further: “I encourage these members not to simply write a letter, but to step up and introduce legislation.”

The US Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war. It also grants the legislative branch the power to “make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces,” and, of course, to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” not only for carrying out Congress’ powers, but “all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States or in any department or officer thereof.”


The Crazy Man in the White House, like an “atomic Pearl Harbor,” was a staple of the Cold War. While it is better late than never to fix the legacy problems of the Strangelovian era, it is somewhat odd to see Congress reclaim its powers 30 years after it would have done the most good. As Glenn Reynolds put it, “for longer than I have been alive, the United States has let a single person control the nuclear trigger. Maybe it’s time that changed.”

Perhaps the reason presidents didn’t blow up the world before is because, as the BBC says, it is hard in practice to order a capricious nuclear attack. While in theory the president can order a nuclear attack, “in theory, the vice-president could oust the president if a majority of the cabinet agreed that the president was unfit to serve.”

But saving the world from nuclear misadventure is probably easier and more eye-catching than addressing the more modern challenges of anonymous proxy wars or ambiguous attacks.  That is much harder to solve. The legislators can work on fixing the rules of nuclear engagement while Joe Biden gets to figure out whether Iran is friend or foe and if the Chinese Communist Party is a partner or a threat.

BooksStealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite. In Stealth War, retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Spalding reveals China’s motives and secret attacks on the West. Chronicling how our leaders have failed to protect us over recent decades, he provides shocking evidence of some of China’s most brilliant ploys.


Wake Up: Why the world has gone nuts. Piers Morgan. In 2020, the world faced its biggest crisis in a generation: a global pandemic. In the UK, it exposed deep divisions within society and laid bare a toxic culture war that had been raging beneath the surface. From the outset, Piers Morgan urged the nation to come to its senses, once and for all, and held the Government to often ferocious account over its handling of the crisis.

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