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A congressional hearing into Donald Trump’s authority to launch a nuclear strike brings into focus the grim prospect of atomic warfare and recollections of a time when America stopped worrying and learnt to love the bomb. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Donald Trump and the nuclear codes

Nearly three weeks ago, for the first time since 1976, a United States congressional hearing was held concerning presidential authority to deploy nuclear weapons. In those 41 years, the bipolarity of the Cold War splintered kaleidoscopically, the bomb proliferated, and the US elected a man dangerously unsuited to the responsibilities of commander-in-chief. This last fact seems to have prompted the inquiry, led by a Republican senator, Bob Corker.

Having declared his belief in President Donald Trump’s recklessness, Corker has publicly wondered if legislative change isn’t required to diffuse the executive authority required to deploy a nuclear first strike – conferred by the constitution to the president alone.

Fear of Trump’s mental instability marked a few senators’ statements. Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, asked the question he hoped would frame the first session: “Given today’s challenges we need to revisit this question of whether a single individual should have the sole and unchecked authority to launch a nuclear attack under all circumstances – including the right to use it as a first strike ... I would like to be able to tell my constituents and the American people we have a system in place that prevents an impulsive and irrational decision to use nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, I cannot make those assurances today.”

Another Democrat member of the senate foreign relations committee, Chris Murphy, put it more bluntly: “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he may order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with US national security interests. So let’s just recognise the exceptional nature of this moment.”

Longstanding anxieties about nuclear war concern systemic vulnerability – in 1983, the Soviet satellite warning system misinterpreted a flock of geese for US intercontinental ballistic missiles. That vulnerability still exists, but there’s currently also a simpler cause for anxiety: that Trump is mentally unstable. And here, seated before the senators, were three experts reaffirming that the president held exclusive authority to order the deployment of nuclear weapons. “US nuclear forces operate under strict civilian control,” Robert Kehler, the retired Air Force general, and commander of US Strategic Command under Barack Obama, said. “Only the president of the United States can order the employment of US nuclear weapons. This is a system controlled by human beings … nothing happens automatically.”

Kehler did, somewhat reassuringly, also offer this: “It is important to remember that the US military doesn’t blindly follow orders ... A presidential order to employ nuclear weapons must be legal. The basic legal principles of military necessity, distinction and proportionality apply to nuclear weapons as they apply to every other weapon.”

But under questioning from Cardin, the apparent simplicity of this grew fuzzy. How precisely would a military refusal to fulfil a president’s illegal order work? And how might the military be sure of its illegality if time were against them? “Other than to state their view about the legality of the move, the president retains constitutional authority to order some military action,” Kehler said. “You would be in a very interesting constitutional situation. The military is obligated to follow legal orders, but is not obligated to follow illegal orders.”

The three experts all agreed that legislative change – such as requiring the president to formally consult with another constitutional officer – was unnecessary. It would crimp the power of the presidency. “Hard cases make bad law and this is a hard case,” said witness and former acting under secretary for policy in the Department of Defence Brian McKeon. “I think taking away the president’s authority as commander-in-chief or diluting it in some respect by requiring him to go to another constitutional officer in a formal sense – I’m not sure that is a wise course.”

The nuclear threat has changed in the four decades since the previous hearing, but one thing hasn’t: the US’s official insistence that the president, and the president alone, is authorised to command the use of nuclear weapons. This isn’t strictly true, and hasn’t been since at least president Eisenhower.

 

After kissing the hand of the Crown, one of the first duties for a British prime minister is to write a letter of last resort. It is a short letter – very short – but in the unlikely event of its being opened and acted upon, would immediately determine the fate of millions.

The letter is addressed to the commander of the nuclear-armed submarine. There are four such craft, and at all times one of them is invisibly active. A sealed letter is secured in a safe in each of them. In the event of a devastating nuclear attack on London, the prime minister posthumously confers authority upon the commander to execute the written order.

But how can the commander, under water and many miles from London, be certain his civilian superiors are dead? Perhaps only communication systems have been damaged in an attack, and the prevailing – but unheard – order is contrary to the one in the letter? Perhaps there hasn’t been an attack at all, but a chain of failures and misassumptions? The Trident commander must satisfy himself via a series of secret checks, believed to include whether BBC Radio 4 is still broadcasting. Everything beyond this is highly classified.

Since the Trident-armed fleet launched in 1969, each letter has been destroyed upon its author leaving office. The existence of the letter offers an obvious deterrent – that a retaliatory capacity would survive a decapitating strike upon London. It’s what’s known as a dead man’s switch. But the letter can only be maximally deterring if its existence is known. Which begs the question: why has the US never announced, however vaguely, its system of contingent delegation? Presumably it has opted for calculated ambiguity.

In his opening remarks in the senate hearing, Senator Marco Rubio began by warning others that “our allies are watching ... our adversaries are watching” and that nothing should be said that would dismay the former, embolden the latter, or damage what he referred to as “strategic ambiguity”. Senator Jim Risch went further, after telling the hearing that “every single word ... is going to be analysed in Pyongyang” and suggesting that questions about legality and philosophy were moot as the president’s decision to launch nuclear weapons would likely need to be “pragmatic” and near-instantaneous.

But Risch’s description only applies to a condition where the US is facing imminent attack – when “the military is waking up the president”. It does not speak to the president’s choice to launch a first strike – which is precisely where the sole authority exists, and is the grim prospect that alarms so many in congress.

 

It’s a personal curiosity that the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen as an adult, I had first seen as a child in the classroom. Produced by the BBC, in partnership with the Nine Network, Threads first aired in Britain in 1984. The following year, Kerry Packer’s network broadcast it without commercials. A few years after that, the Berlin Wall still up, my class was corralled into the TV room. Movie screenings were rare and cherished moments, but our joy was quickly lanced when we watched a few hundred discharged megatons of nuclear payload melt the astonished faces of the Sheffield townsfolk.

It was only as an adult, revisiting the film and reading critical responses to it, that I learnt how widely and nauseatingly affecting Threads was to adults. Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw nominated it as the most frightening film he had ever seen, and suggested that it would be useful viewing for President Trump – it might tame his recklessness.

We were only about eight years old. Perhaps our teacher had a strange faith in our precocity; perhaps our morbid excitement was designed to shake our parents’ presumed complacency about nuclear annihilation. I’m unsure.

What I do know is that Threads was the first dramatisation of a nuclear winter, informed by the research of famed astronomer Carl Sagan, who once said that the great threat of nuclear war “lies not in the heat of the fireball, but in the deadly cold of winter in July”. Happily untested, the concept of a nuclear winter remains theoretical, regardless of how rigidly it sticks to our popular anxiety. The theory is simple enough: that the smoking ruins of cities would catastrophically obscure the sun.

Two years before Threads first aired, Dr Brian Martin published his academic paper “The global health effects of nuclear war” in the Current Affairs Bulletin. A physicist who specialised in stratospheric modelling, Martin was at the time a research assistant at the Australian National University. Years earlier, he had fled America to escape conscription in the Vietnam War, and was a member of the Canberra Peacemakers – a group dedicated to “social defence”, described in their literature as “nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence”.

But Martin’s findings put him at odds with the anti-nuclear movement, whose rhetoric matched the bleak vision of Threads – that nuclear war would likely cause human extinction. Invested in nuclear disarmament, Martin was also compelled to faithfully record his modelling results, which didn’t quite match those of his peers in the peace movement. A preface to his paper stated: “In the following article Dr Brian Martin, without belittling the horrendous effects of nuclear war, dispels a little of the gloom surrounding the subject – from Australia’s point of view at least – by arguing that contrary to Tom Lehrer’s assertions we may not ‘all go together when we go’. While a full-scale nuclear war would devastate some parts of the earth, particularly in the northern hemisphere, present evidence indicates that ‘nuclear war poses no threat to the survival of the human species’.”

Today, Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong. I asked him if his findings in 1982 might still apply today. “Very nearly all of it applies,” he told me. “I’ve never seen a convincing argument that nuclear war would lead to human extinction. If a bomb falls on the Opera House and you live in Parramatta, you’ll probably survive. That’s what people don’t realise. Today, the total tonnage is smaller – today’s bombs are smaller and can be better targeted. The largest conventional weapons today are larger than the smallest nukes.

“A lot depends on the number of weapons used and where they go off. A limited nuclear war, for example between India and Pakistan, might involve a few or a few dozen weapons, with horrific effects on targeted areas but limited effects elsewhere. In a global nuclear war, with hundreds or thousands of weapons exploded, the main immediate effects are blast and heat near detonations and downwind fallout over the following days, usually to the east. If global cooling is triggered – i.e. nuclear winter – this could last two or three years and wipe out most crops for one or more seasons, depending on what time of year the war occurs.

“In Australia, we’d be better situated. Presumably, a nuclear exchange would occur in the northern hemisphere. Depending on the blast site, radiation would be unlikely to spread here. We have an agricultural surplus. Possibly Pine Gap becomes a military target, that’s one scenario, but we are well placed geographically.

“The problems – the things that haven’t been modelled – are the great social changes. You would have political clampdowns that make post September 11 look like a warm-up. And you would have at least hundreds of thousands of sudden refugees. We don’t know how we respond to this – how we might respond to an enormous increase in people wanting to relocate here.”

 

Prompted by the Korean War, in the early 1950s the US government moved nuclear tests from the Pacific Ocean back to domestic soil, where there was less chance of enemy surveillance but a vastly increased one of irradiating its citizens. The government chose an area of the Mojave Desert in Nevada, 105 kilometres from Las Vegas, and preferred for its relative remoteness and favourable climate.

Las Vegans were initially sceptical, fearing their nascent industries of gambling, prostitution and quickie weddings would suffer. They needn’t have worried. The federal government issued false assurances of safety, the Nevada Chamber of Commerce spruiked commercial benefits, and local columnists argued that the tests were a redemptive opportunity – Sin City would now be known for its contribution to national security, and not merely for its provision of “doubtful pleasures”.

At dawn on January 27, 1951, a brilliant flash – seen as far as San Francisco – marked the beginning of Operation Ranger, the first series of atomic tests in Nevada. Witnesses in Las Vegas described an astonishingly intense light, followed, seven minutes later, by shockwaves. The force blew out windows and fractured hotel walls along the casino strip. No one was injured.

So began the Vegas dawn parties. Rechristened “Atomic City”, Vegas’s casinos and hotels hosted raucous parties, starting at midnight and fuelled by the “atomic cocktail” – a potent blend of vodka, brandy and champagne. The house pianist played boogie-woogie and jazz standards until dawn, when revellers retired to the roof in the hope of experiencing the flash, the cloud, and, seven minutes later, the shockwaves.

Revellers could not be guaranteed their explosion because the Atomic Energy Commission was not yet declaring test dates. But averaging a blast every 48 hours for the project’s one-month duration, “bomb tourists” could almost be assured of one if they stayed a few days. As tourism increased, the chamber of commerce persuaded the AEC to publicise the dates, and then gave blast calendars to visitors.

Atomic City had learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. So much so that after subsequent low-yield tests, hoteliers and tourists became nostalgic for the more bludgeoning effects of Operation Ranger. The following year, Americans watched their first televised atomic blast. The same year, Nevada founded its Miss Atomic beauty pageant and transformed Vegas showgirls into Cold War pin-ups. Seven years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the winner was crowned with a cotton mushroom cloud.

While Los Angeles and Las Vegas were not, theoretically, downwind from the blasts, small Mormon communities in Utah were. After most tests, a pink, radioactive ash settled on their towns. In the distance, mushroom clouds were visible for hours. Proudly accepting of the government’s praise that they were assisting the war effort, they also believed its health assurances, until years later they suffered unusual clusters of teenage leukaemia and adult cancers. Known as “Downwinders”, trials in the 1980s found the AEC had manipulated evidence concerning their health, and a compensation act passed in 1990 has so far compelled payments of more than $2 billion.

Only in America, to borrow from Don King. Today, the tallest residential building in Las Vegas is the Trump hotel, which opened in 2008. It requires little effort to imagine it, in the 1950s, hosting the “biggest” bomb parties and serving the “best” atomic cocktails. Since selling nuclear sunrises, America’s enchantment with empty hustlers continues. It has now installed one as president.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 2, 2017 as "Nukes and hazards". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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