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My Take: The Button: Revisited with new urgency

By Douglas Neckers  |  McMaster Distinguished Professor emeritus

In December, I wrote: “Does it make sense to give any one man the power to blow up the world?” Little did I know!

“Seventy-five years ago, science created the most terrible weapon in human history — the atom bomb. … Since then, we’ve gotten used to living with the bomb, first the atomic, then the hydrogen. Tens of thousands of bombs, that is. For most, or all of our lives one man — the president of the United States — has had the unchecked power to begin a nuclear war without consulting with anyone, should he so choose.”

More: My Take: The Button

My eyes were opened to this by a fascinating new book, “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump.” That’s not something we think much about — but we should. Particularly after the near-insurrection of the seats of power when thugs and goons invaded the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6: We now need to think about it, big time. 

These rioters were on a crazy mission sent by the defeated president to try to get senators to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. “Hang Mike Pence,” they cried, because the otherwise pliant vice president had told Trump he had no authority to not accept the electoral result. Another high-pitched male voice could be heard yelling “Nancy, where are you Nancy?” meaning the speaker of the House.

Had the rabble captured one or both, it’s not clear what would have happened or if anyone would have been strong enough to reclaim order. But what if Trump, desperate to cling to power, had managed to launch a nuclear weapon to cow Congress and the nation into submission?

Far-fetched? Wouldn’t you have thought the notion of a president inciting thugs to attack the Capitol far-fetched two months ago? In my earlier column, I noted: 

“As most of us know, World War II ended when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. … The devastation was enormous.” The idea that any one person should have the power to essentially destroy the world was never a good idea — and is useless and dangerous now.”

Now, it is even more urgent that we have that debate. On Jan. 6, as Pence was being hurried from the Senate chamber to hide from that mob, he had the “football” with him — the nuclear suitcase with all the codes needed to launch a nuclear war. He turned back to look as he left. 

He knew a military officer was carrying the football. “That man” in the blue coat hurrying to catch up running past one of Pence’s daughters carried everything needed to destroy the world. 

But why was the nuclear football there on that particular day? Simply because the VP, like the president, is always accompanied by a bag containing the directions to bomb humankind to oblivion. I understand the trigger codes for launching the nuclear weapons are changed daily. But what if, say, the goon with the antlers and his buddies had managed to get one of America’s nuclear footballs?

Humankind may have dodged a nuclear bullet! But as we all know, American voters have from time to time, elected people with personality disorders to office. In a world where a minority of voters can elect a president, the majority of us have to get serious about controlling our destiny.

We have a lot of anomalies in our system. The idea that a single individual with no more than an average college education should have the power to potentially destroy the world ought to be unthinkable. Especially when you realize he still had this power while running away from berserkers sent by his boss.

Think about this: In Great Britain, when a prime minister loses an election, he or she is gone the next day. Trump and Pence were solidly defeated last November. Yet they still commanded the nuclear codes for 78 days after the voters tossed them out!

This needs to change, and we need to take steps to secure America’s nuclear arsenal. It made some sense for President Harry Truman, not the military, to be solely in charge of our nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. His generals’ minds were clouded by the fog of war, and could have plunged us into trouble.

But the world is different today. We’ve just survived a president who threatened our democracy, and whose own stability was called into question. That is a clear and urgent signal it is time for all Americans, especially our leaders, to rethink who is holding our nuclear bullets. 

— Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMaster Distinguished Professor emeritus and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. Follow him on 3dscienceblog.com.

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