Since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, American presidents have thought of their nuclear responsibilities as the heaviest burden one could shoulder.
Harry Truman wrote, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world.” Dwight Eisenhower, no stranger to conflict, said that nuclear bombs have made war “not just tragic, but preposterous.” John F. Kennedy called the weapons a “sword of Damocles,” one all Americans were forced to live beneath.
Those men bring us to 2016 and the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, who also had some deep thoughts on nuclear weapons. That is, “if we have them, why can’t we use them?”
But consider Trump’s words in a town hall event during the primaries: “Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” Or the words of Trump’s spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, who also asked the unaskable on Fox News: “What good does it do to have a nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”
Having spent five years of my life as a Minuteman III launch officer, and a year as an instructor teaching young officers how to run that weapon system, I’m equipped to answer the Trump campaign’s question. The very point of nuclear weapons is that they are never used. We have them to dissuade hostile powers from attacking us, and vice versa.
Deterrence, as this policy is known, has been the backbone of U.S. national security for decades. That a candidate for the highest office in the land needs this explained to him, not once but thrice, should give every voter pause.
During my years in the Air Force, I worked over 300 nuclear “alerts”—24-hour shifts 100 feet below the Wyoming tundra. I sat at my post believing, through both the Bush and Obama administrations, that the president was fundamentally rational and would never ask me to do my terrible duty. Not unless the country was in the direst of national emergencies.
With Trump as president, the young men and women who are assigned to our nuclear forces will have no such assurances.
The very point of nuclear weapons is that they are never used.
I am a Republican and I have long worked in Republican politics. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I believe my party’s nominee for president is mentally unfit to assume this heavy responsibility.
Trump cannot be trusted with weapons that can kill millions. He cannot be handed the nuclear “football” – a briefcase containing the war plans and codes for our nuclear forces—and be made responsible for its contents.
These duties are simply too grave to entrust to a man who has exhibited sociopathic and chronically narcissistic behavior throughout his checkered career.
I don’t want to mislead anyone here. America’s nuclear triad – the three-legged stool of nuclear submarines, bombers, and missiles — is a good thing. The mere potential for a devastating attack has kept the peace between major powers for decades. Conflict has of course always been part of the human experience; the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons seems to be the one thing that gets it through our thick skulls that war is hell.
Presidents from both sides of the aisle have determined as much, and worked to formulate responsible policies designed to keep nuclear weapons in silos and armories where they belong. That’s one of the reasons that this election couldn’t be more important.
Consider the age of our nuclear triad. The Minuteman III missile was first fielded in the Nixon administration. The Ohio-class submarine came into widespread use in the Carter years. And the B-52 bomber first flew when Truman was in the White House.
As time eats away at America’s strategic forces, our next president will have to make difficult decisions about how to best modernize and improve our nuclear weapons. These decisions will require serious thinkers who care about maintaining a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent.
Trump is not capable of making those decisions and he is not capable of formulating those policies.
In a GOP debate, Trump was asked which leg of the nuclear triad was most important to him and how he would prioritize funding – to the submarines, bombers or missiles. In a rambling answer that was so incoherent it sent shock waves across the globe, Trump managed to say something that made sense.
He warned viewers of the dangerous possibility of “having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon,” and said “that’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.”
I couldn’t agree more.
John Noonan is a Republican national security expert and former Minuteman III nuclear launch officer. Follow @noonanjo
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