It is said that, when President Richard Nixon, assailed by Watergate, drunk and psychotic, wandered the corridors of the White House in the dead of night, talking to portraits of his predecessors, members of his administration put measures in place to keep the President’s hands away from ‘the football’, the briefcase that always accompanied him, containing the codes to launch a nuclear attack. Is this true and could something similar happen today?
James R. Schlesinger became Nixon’s Secretary of Defense in July 1973. The story goes that, as Nixon became increasingly erratic, Schlesinger and the military Joint Chiefs ‘kept a close watch to make certain that no orders were given to military units outside the normal chain of command’, that is, that the President could not start a war or launch some nuclear missiles (or perhaps even stage a domestic coup) without the involvement of Schlesinger and the top military men.
The quote is from the Washington Post of 22 August 1974, just after Nixon resigned in disgrace. Historian Gil Troy, writing nearly 43 years later, suspected that the Post story came from a leak by Schlesinger himself. Schlesinger allegedly had told the Joint Chiefs to check with him (some variations say Schlesinger or Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State) before responding to any military order from Nixon. Schlesinger spoke to General George S. Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and this exchange is said to have followed:
“I’ve just had the strangest conversation with the Secretary of Defense”, Brown informed his colleagues. One of them – who [in 2017] remains anonymous – recalled: “We sat around looking at our fingernails; we didn’t want to look at each other. It was a complete shock to us.” Schlesinger told another friend he wanted to ensure that “no idiot commander somewhere was misled”.
Nixon himself had made people nervous by allegedly saying to some congressmen, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead”. Democratic Senator Alan Cranston had warned Schlesinger about “the need for keeping a berserk President from plunging us into a holocaust”.
Troy claimed ‘most historians’ accept the Schlesinger story. Historian Stanley Kutler pointed, however, to the lack of written evidence or corroborating witnesses and to Schlesinger’s personality flaws, including his tendency to self-promotion. (Troy argues that no ‘paper trail’ would have existed.) Nixon himself later described the Schlesinger claim as ‘incredible’. Nixon died in 1994. Schlesinger died in 2014.
Troy asked whether Schlesinger had committed the most patriotic act of treason in American history. The jury will always be out on that one but could a ploy like Schlesinger’s work today (if indeed it was put in place in 1974)? The Schlesinger story has been revived in the United States recently, as commentators have considered the consequences of the nuclear codes being under the control of a President whom former Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, recently labelled a ‘narcissistic ignoramus’, a description that nails only a couple of Trumpian traits, and not the most dangerous ones at that. Trump himself is on record a number of times as asking, if the United States has lots of nuclear weapons, why should it balk at using them?
Are there any scenarios which might prevent Armageddon, the ultimate reality show, playing out today? Trump’s trio of generals – Kelly (Chief of Staff), Mattis (Defense) and McMaster (National Security Adviser) – have been called ‘the axis of adults’, the mature, experienced professionals who are supposed to be keeping the President out of trouble. (Secretary Tillerson is sometimes included in this group.) Keeping Trump safe – and the rest of us safe from Trump – might well include keeping him away from the nuclear codes.
Even before Watergate and his own flaws unstitched Nixon, a Major Harold Hering was dismissed from the US Air Force for asking in 1973, ‘How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane President?’ Yet, in the American system, regardless of how many diligent officers and sober courtiers circle, ultimately it is the President who has the say about nuclear war. Missiles launch four minutes after the President commits. In those few minutes, there are two decision-makers at every point but, at the top of the chain, the President is on his or her own. Short of manacling the man, it is Trump’s ‘tiny hands’ that will be on the ‘button’. (Actually, there is no button, but a set of procedures.)
There are alternatives. In January this year, Democrats Senator Ed Markey and Representative Ted Lieu introduced legislation into Congress (the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act) which would prevent the President launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war. The idea is not new but Trump’s character and predilections seem to make it particularly necessary.
“It is a frightening reality [said Mr Lieu] that the U.S. now has a Commander-in-Chief who has demonstrated ignorance of the nuclear triad, stated his desire to be ‘unpredictable’ with nuclear weapons, and as President-elect was making sweeping statements about U.S. nuclear policy over Twitter. “
The Markey-Lieu legislation has been publicly supported but lacks a single Republican co-sponsor and is stalled in committee.
So, that is the United States covered. Perhaps the axis of adults will do a Schlesinger, even if Schlesinger never actually did it himself. Perhaps the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act will sneak through a Republican-controlled Congress. Both of these scenarios seem very unlikely. Perhaps – and this may be a more hopeful prospect – the boredom of Trump’s job, his unhealthy lifestyle and diet, his reckless ditching of erstwhile allies, the disillusionment of his ‘base’, or the Mueller and other probes of ‘Russiagate’, will get to him before he gets his hands on the ‘football’.
Another question remains, however: who in North Korea might play the role that Schlesinger may have played all those years ago and that Kelly and his fellow generals may aspire to today in Washington? Are there adults in Pyongyang?
David Stephens is Secretary of the Honest History Association, editor of its website (honesthistory.net.au) and co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book. References for this article will be posted on the Honest History website.