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Politics & Current Affairs

The History of America’s Nuclear Weapon Chain of Command, with Eric Schlosser

Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser shares the chilling history of myriad Americans who have at one time or another had the authority to launch nuclear weapons.

Who in the United States has the authority to launch nuclear weapons? According to the law, that responsibility falls to the president alone. But what if the president is killed in an attack? What if the regular chain of command is decimated? Do the nukes not fly? According to investigative journalist Eric Schlosser in his latest Big Think interview, the U.S. government has never found a safe, stable, and secure answer to this question:

"Beginning in the Eisenhower administration the decision was made for the President to pre-delegate his authority to use nuclear weapons to other officials down the chain of command. And that would mean that if the White House was destroyed and the President was killed that there would be officers in the military who knew the codes and had the ability to launch nuclear weapons in retaliation. The problem becomes though with command and control how far down the line do you pre-delegate that authority. And if you give junior officers access to the codes what’s going to prevent them from deciding on their own one day to just launch a few nuclear weapons. And that sort of dilemma of maintaining presidential authority and also maintaining the ability to retaliate has never been fully resolved."

Schlosser is best known as author of the bestselling books Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. His latest, Command and Controlanalyzes nuclear weapons and the illusion of their safety. In the above interview, he addresses issues regarding chain of command and the eerie similarities between Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and real life:

"The film Dr. Strangelove was brutally attacked by the Pentagon, by the Air Force when it was released because the central plot element is that a crazed American general is going to try and start World War III by ordering American bombers to attack the Soviet Union without the President’s approval. And the Pentagon said that was ridiculous and the Air Force said that was ridiculous and that could never happen. We now know as a result of declassified documents that the basic scenario of Dr. Strangelove was entirely possible."

It wasn't until the 1970s that any sort of locks were installed on American nukes. Up until then, a rogue military officer could easily have launched an attack without presidential approval. Much to the U.S. military's credit, the professionalism and training of American forces prevented such an event from occurring. But, as Schlosser muses at the end of the interview, it's still unnerving that this great and grave responsibility had been thrust upon young men and that still today one man or woman could make a decision that condemns the lives of millions of people.


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