America’s nuclear weapons are thousands of times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago. They’re on hair-trigger alert: ready to be set off by a false alarm, computer malfunction, or by human error. President Trump has the sole authority to start a war that would end civilization as we know it.
KCRW’s Warren Olney talks with former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina of the Ploughshares Fund about their new book, “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump.” They explain the terrifying potential of America’s current nuclear policy, and how there’s still a chance to make the world safer.
Olney also talks with former California Governor Jerry Brown. He’s now Executive Chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has set its famous Doomsday Clock inching closer to midnight than ever before. Brown criticizes the mainstream media for reporting the news of the day while ignoring the prospect of a future disaster.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Long ago you said that a nuclear war cannot be won, therefore it should never be fought. But in your role as a deputy advisor to the Defense Department, the department actually built up the nuclear arsenal.
William Perry: “I didn't think — and more importantly in those days — didn’t build up the conventional forces. But I’ve come to believe that our nuclear forces are more of a liability to our security than an asset.”
When you say more of a liability than an asset, is it worse now than when you first perceived nuclear war couldn't be won?
William Perry: “I think the difference now is that we, the population, didn't fully appreciate the significance of nuclear weapons. Many people still thought of them as just bigger bombs, more destructive bombs. They didn't realize that the bombs are so destructive. We have so many of them that the result of using them in the war would simply be the end of our civilization. In a nuclear war, there could be no winners, everybody is a loser. All of civilization is at stake.”
How did we determine that a president has the sole power to unleash nuclear weapons?
Tom Collina: “This is a fascinating history, and something that I didn't realize until we actually sat down to write the book. I had assumed that the reason we had sole authority was so that the president can make a decision quickly. If there were a Russian attack on the way, the president would have just minutes to launch U.S. weapons before a possible attack arrived.
But that, in fact, is not the origin. If you go back to 1945 when President Truman initiated, or took for himself, the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, there were no Russian nuclear weapons. No one else had nuclear weapons other than the United States. So it wasn't even possible for there to be a quick launch or a bolt from the blue.
When we examined the origins, it was because President Truman was so horrified by the results of using the bomb on Japan that he determined he wasn't going to use them again. And the way he was going to do that was take the authority away from the military, from the generals, who he didn't completely trust, and put it only in civilian hands. I certainly support putting it in civilian hands as opposed to the military, but the mistake he made is by putting it in only one civilian's hands: his own. He didn't share that authority with the other civilian authority, which is Congress.
So one of our recommendations in the book is that the president should share sole authority for first use with Congress. … The U.S. Constitution says Congress declares war, not the president. And we see the first use of nuclear weapons as the ultimate declaration of war.”
Jerry Brown, we heard former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Tom Collina say that there’s a Renaissance going on with nuclear weapons. You've indicated you think the same thing. How much does this have to do with lack of media interest in this issue?
Jerry Brown: “We have a highly competitive media market, driven by clicks and eyeballs and advertising dollars. And so that's the imperative — not necessarily the biggest problem, but the biggest response. The biggest reach is through the media networks. Take something like the Doomsday Clock that we presented last year as advancing 20 seconds closer to midnight (or Doomsday). That was from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and their scientific committee. That would not be published by the New York Times because it was not considered news.
It got a little coverage in the Washington Post and somewhere around the world, but for the most part, there are other issues: #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Trump, COVID. Those are all important, but they're not as important as the elimination of the human race, which would happen if there was a false alert, as there was when Perry was Secretary of Defense.
He got a report in the middle of the night. Hundreds of Russian missiles were coming our way, and he had minutes to respond. Had he taken [it] seriously, we would have blown up the world. And on the other side, Russia had a similar false alert. That was a technical mistake by the man in charge who did not relay the message up to the higher-ups. Absent that we wouldn't be here.
Same thing in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy did not know that the Russian submarines were coming with nuclear charged torpedoes, nor did he know that they already had in place nuclear short range missiles. If [he] follow[ed] the advice of the Joint Chiefs and actually bombed Cuba, then Cuba and the Russians, at that point, had the authority to fire without even talking to Moscow. So if they fired on Florida, or wherever those short range missiles would go, we would have fired on Moscow. Moscow would have retaliated, and we could have had the end of the human race. This is the most serious and profound danger facing humankind every day, every moment. Yet it's barely talked about by most people.”