If we had a nickel for everyone who has muttered some variation on “I worry about Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button,” we could finance an anti-Trump Super-PAC.
Obviously the temperament of the leader of any nuclear nation matters deeply. But there will be moments when it matters not whether the leader is sober and restrained, because the action will be elsewhere, further down the chain of military command and control. Thousands of military personnel around the world have access to nuclear weapons. We are told that battlefield commanders of the Pakistani army deployed in Kashmir are free to unleash their tactical nukes without the command and control of their political leaders.
One of the lesser-known pivotal moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred on a Soviet submarine deep beneath the Atlantic. From an article in the Guardian, October 2012: “In late October, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the decision to sidestep WWIII was taken, not in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the control room of a Soviet submarine under attack by the US fleet. The submarine’s batteries were failing, air conditioning was crippled, communication with Moscow was impossible, and Savitsky, the captain of the ship, was convinced that WWIII had already broken out. He ordered the B-59's ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing against the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force. The launch of the B-59's torpedo (2/3 the power of Hiroshima) required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. Vasili Arkhipov, one of the three, was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov's reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer, son of peasant farmers near Moscow, had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save K-19, a submarine with an overheating reactor. That radiation dose eventually contributed to his death in 1998. What saved us was not only Arkhipov’s clear-headedness under great stress, but the established procedures of the Soviet navy, which were respected by the officers aboard the B-59.”
How bizarre, this barely acknowledged truth: we all owe our lives to one ethical Russian man, a man already sick unto death with nuclear radiation.
In 1940, speaking of the Nazis and Mussolini, the poet Wallace Stevens wrote of the “absence of any authority except force.” Held up against Trump’s simplistic and bullying bombast, how refreshing are the outspoken convictions of the late Muhammed Ali, who refused to go to Vietnam and kill people with whom he had no quarrel. Too many of us prefer the comforting lie that soldiers in Vietnam died for our freedom. Has not the absence of any authority except force, with a few quiet intervals, been a constant ever since?
The most frightening element in our present world situation is not only that nuclear weapons could slip out of the control of national leaders, but also that there is no non-military endgame in sight for many contemporary conflicts. Terrorists multiply faster than we can kill them with our drones. The United States especially seems to know only the endless use of overwhelming force, actual or potential. The two major candidates for president, sadly, share this empty lack of vision, one dangerously habituated to military options, the other dangerously inexperienced in their use. There is no vision of other, better ways to stabilize an unstable planet, such as increased humanitarian aid, adherence to international law, and non-violent processes of reconciliation.
We are a young, great, and dynamic nation, made so by the genius of our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. Our original sin, still not fully confronted and repented, is our treatment of Native Americans and African slaves. Our contemporary temptations have been materialism and militarism. But our future includes the inevitable end of exceptionalism. While we may persist with our nativist pride in our freedom and prosperity, the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin got it right: “The age of nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the earth.” The three greatest challenges we face are global in scope and require global cooperation: climate, food, and nuclear weapons. We’re all in this together.
That “common sense” is lacking among the nuclear powers. Instead, they are playing a game of chicken that accelerates toward the purest folly. However effectively Mr. Obama represented us in his visit to Hiroshima, there was a haunting distance between his rhetoric and the obscenely expensive renewal of our nuclear arsenal that our government is planning. No matter whom we choose to allow access to the nuclear button, before America can “become great again,” we need national repentance and reflection. Perhaps this will yield a new vision of our commonality and interdependence with all peoples. If we can grow into that understanding, we will no longer need anyone’s finger on the nuclear button.