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Should we let an unstable person have control of the nuclear arsenal? No, but that's not the right question

A growing chorus of politicians and national security experts have questioned whether it would be safe to have Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button. But are they asking the right question?

In an open letter, 50 leading Republican national security experts warned that Trump possesses “dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be president and commander in chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

Or, as Hillary Clinton put it in her speech accepting the Democratic nomination: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Indeed, it would be very dangerous for an unstable, ill-informed person to have control of the nuclear arsenal.

Implicit in these admonitions, however, is the notion that it is OK to have a “normal” person in charge. In fact, many of Trump’s critics explicitly endorse the idea that nuclear weapons, in the right hands, constitute an effective deterrent to nuclear attack by other powers and are the best, even the ultimate, guarantors of our national security.

Their argument — for the continued maintenance of a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying human civilization — depends on the assumption that these weapons only exist to persuade other nuclear powers not to attack, and that we will never actually use them.

Unfortunately, the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review explicitly rejects the notion that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is deterrence, and the U.S. has threatened to use them many times. Leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance, the U.S. refused to take the nuclear option off the table. Russian nuclear policy is even more dangerous, explicitly endorsing the early use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional war with NATO.

Pakistan has a similar nuclear doctrine that envisions the early first use of nuclear weapons if it should find itself in another war with India.

So the “normal” leaders of nuclear weapon states have already decided that under a variety of circumstances, nuclear weapons can and will be used.

Even if none of these nuclear powers ever makes a deliberate decision to use its nuclear arsenal, there is a very real danger that these weapons will be deployed because of miscalculation or computer error.

An article published this summer in the journal Space Weather described for the first time how a solar flare in May 1967 knocked out communication with a number of key radar installations in the Arctic. The U.S. military incorrectly concluded that the Soviets had disabled these early warning stations as the opening move in a surprise attack and prepared American nuclear armed bombers for takeoff. War was averted at the last minute when the Air Force received information about the true cause of the black out.

There have been at least five other major episodes when computer errors or misinterpretation of intelligence data led either Moscow or Washington to prepare to launch a nuclear war in the mistaken belief that the other side had already initiated an attack. The most recent of these took place in 1995, well after the end of the Cold War.

Furthermore, studies have shown that we don’t need to have a full-scale nuclear war to destroy human civilization.  Even a very limited nuclear war, confined to one corner of the globe, would have disastrous consequences across the planet. The use of just 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs — less than 0.5% of the world's nuclear arsenal — against targets in urban areas could loft enough soot into the upper atmosphere to disrupt climate worldwide, cutting food production and putting 2 billion people at risk of starvation.

For the nuclear weapon states, these are most inconvenient truths. They view their nuclear arsenals as tools to project national power that they do not want to give up. All nine are currently spending enormous sums on upgrading their arsenals, and they have shown a fierce opposition to the efforts of non-nuclear weapon states that wish to legally prohibit the possession of these weapons.

Commenting on the Cuban missile crisis, the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said, “It was luck that prevented nuclear war.” Nuclear weapons do not possess some magic power that keeps them from being used. We have survived the nuclear era so far because of an incredible string of luck, and we cannot expect that luck to last forever. Sooner or later, if we do not get rid of these weapons, they will be used and they will destroy us.

The right question for us to ask is: “Should anyone be able to press the nuclear button?” And the right answer is a resounding “No.”

Ira Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Robert Dodge is president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles.

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