There Is No Check on Trump’s Rage Going Nuclear
An angry, entitled man has total control over devastating weapons.
Donald Trump is taking the United States back to an earlier time—one most people thought had been left behind. His aggressive boorishness, entitlement, and belief that he can do whatever he wants are qualities from an age when men’s control was assumed, and others stayed silent. And nowhere is his retrograde masculinity more dangerous than in his control of the nuclear button.
As president of the United States, Trump has absolute authority to launch nuclear weapons—without anyone else’s consent. In the past, it was taken for granted that the president would follow an established protocol that included consultation with the military, his cabinet, and others before taking such a grave step, but Trump is not legally bound to these procedures. Presidential launch authority is a matter of directive and precedent rather than specific law.
Trump’s bravado, penchant for inflated rhetoric, and impulsive decision-making style—including catching his leadership off guard by informing them of policy directives via tweet—have stoked old fears about placing the authority to launch in the wrong hands. So has his constant violation of once cherished presidential norms, including refusing to make public his tax returns and failing to read his daily intelligence brief.
Debates about launch authority have always been intimately bound up with whether we consider nukes’ function to be primarily military or political. Nuclear weapons are so destructive that, since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even the explicit threat of their use has been sparing. They have been used as political deterrents and levers, instead of direct weapons of war.
Reserving launch authority for the president was a key way to emphasize the political nature of the nuclear mission.
Historians trace the precedent of presidential launch authority to President Harry Truman’s decision to check his generals’ use of nuclear weapons. After destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they planned to bomb a third Japanese city, but Truman forbade them to carry out the attack without his express consent and ultimately decided against it. According to Truman’s commerce secretary, Henry Wallace, the president thought killing “another 100,000 people was too horrible.” By assuming personal responsibility for the launch order, Truman started a tradition of differentiating this new technology from conventional weapons.
Reserving launch authority for the president not only underscored the special status of nuclear weapons as a political asset, but it also took them out of the hands of the generals—men like Gen. Curtis LeMay. LeMay was a laconic man’s man, known for his ruthlessness and impolitic statements. During World War II, he directed the firebombing of 63 Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It was LeMay who relayed the orders for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and later, as the head of Strategic Air Command (SAC), oversaw the war plans for an all-out nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. LeMay had no patience for subordinating operational effectiveness to moral concerns, or what he referred to as an American “phobia” against the use of nuclear weapons.
LeMay resented the fact that SAC was subject to presidential launch authority. According to the historian Richard Rhodes, he had his own launch plans, ignoring national policy. While LeMay continued to believe that the United States could obliterate the Soviet Union while minimizing its own losses, in the civilian world ideas about the use of nuclear weapons were evolving. A new breed of defense intellectual was pushing the idea that the primary purpose of nuclear weapons was not to decimate U.S. adversaries but to prevent such weapons being used at all. Anchored in a game theoretic approach, these intellectuals assumed that the holders of nuclear weapons would be rational and that what each side believed about the other—credibility—was central to deterring nuclear use.
Robert McNamara, who served as President John F. Kennedy’s defense secretary, was emblematic of this new approach and responsible for introducing this new breed of defense intellectual into the Pentagon. In contrast to LeMay’s gruff demeanor, McNamara cut a refined figure with his wire-rimmed glasses, tailored suits, and perfectly coiffed, slicked-back hair.
While no less callous than LeMay, McNamara carried himself in a manner consistent with his policies: He was a model of sophistication and restraint. A graduate of Harvard Business School, with an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, he was a member of the first wave of business leaders to develop and adopt quantitative methods for decision-making—methods that resonated with the new game theoretic approach to nuclear strategy.
Where LeMay’s approach openly celebrated slaughter, McNamara’s bloodlessness could lead to just as much destruction. The fact that teams of scientists provided mathematical justifications for the Cold War buildup in nuclear arms did not make the possibility of their use any less brutal.
As Air Force chief of staff, LeMay clashed with McNamara over whether or not the existence of nuclear weapons should induce restraint when it came to confronting the Soviet Union. The conflict came to a head during the Cuban missile crisis. LeMay’s advice to Kennedy during the crisis was to go all in. The goal was to emasculate the Soviets: “The Russian bear has always been eager to stick his paw in Latin American waters,” he said. “Now we’ve got him in a trap, let’s take his leg off right up to his testicles. On second thought, let’s take off his testicles, too.”
McNamara worked with Kennedy to deescalate the conflict, until the U.S. missiles in Turkey were eventually traded for Soviet ones in Cuba. At the end of the crisis, McNamara concluded: “In a sense, we’d won. We got the missiles out without war. My deputy and I brought the five Chiefs over and we sat down with Kennedy. And he said, ‘Gentlemen, we won. I don’t want you ever to say it, but you know we won, I know we won.’”
LeMay countered: “Won? Hell, we lost. We should go in and wipe ’em out today.”
When McNamara became defense secretary in 1961, U.S. nuclear strategy was a direct outgrowth of LeMay’s strategic bombing campaigns. By 1965, McNamara had ushered in a shift in thinking about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security away from LeMay’s legacy of total war and toward a deterrence framework informed by rational calculation and restraint. In February of that year, with the support of President Lyndon Johnson, McNamara forced LeMay into retirement.
McNamara’s approach prevailed—not only politically but culturally. The 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove rejected LeMay’s approach to nuclear weapons. The cigar-chomping Gen. Jack D. Ripper is portrayed as insane, his paranoia leading him to release an airborne nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Maj. T.J. “King” Kong rides the bomb down, brandishing his cowboy hat.
LeMay and McNamara not only represent two different approaches to nuclear strategy but two different ideals of masculinity. The election of Trump has reversed the usual stereotypes of generals and civilians. In the Trump White House, generals like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis inspired confidence in their respect for social norms and display of restraint, while Trump represents the rejected LeMay model of masculinity—without the virtues of actual service and endurance that LeMay also exemplified.
Trump’s personal manner is like LeMay’s—belligerent, inarticulate, refusing meaningful discussion, and deflecting criticism. And, like LeMay, his statements about nuclear weapons prioritize use over doctrine. When pressed on nuclear use by Chris Matthews of MSNBC in March 2016, Trump responded, “Let me explain. Let me explain. Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke? … Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?”
Trump’s focus on the individual, the leader is not just narcissistic but also deeply patriarchal. For Trump’s supporters, it is precisely the hope that Trump might “make America great again” by restoring their social world to its “natural” order, one in which the (white) man’s home is once again his castle. His masculine bravado and willingness to eschew social norms in favor of social aggression and emotional combativeness are his attractive qualities, but it is precisely these characteristics that lead to senseless and irrational conflicts—conflicts that could quickly become global catastrophes in the nuclear era. These days Trump not only brags about grabbing women by the pussy but also boasts about how his nuclear button is bigger than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s.
This style of personal entitlement stands in sharp contrast to prior presidents, who (with rare exception) accommodate themselves to the role by placing the demands of the office before personal desires. It also stands in contrast to the masculine ideal that we have come to associate with the office of the president, one that values rationality and sound judgment over brutishness and bravado.
The debate about civilian control of nuclear weapons, including presidential launch authority, was not only a struggle over whether nukes are primarily political tools or military weapons but also what type of person could be trusted with the ability to forever alter life on Earth. The move to take nuclear weapons out of the hands of the military was also a way of taking them away from trigger-happy generals like LeMay who were not only willing but eager to do the unthinkable. In the nuclear era, a more refined masculine ideal was ascendant. As epitomized by McNamara, this rational man took no pleasure in violence but rather, after careful study and consultation, accommodated himself to its necessity.
Would Trump be willing to use nuclear weapons? That’s unknowable—but he certainly doesn’t need your, or anyone else’s, consent to do it.
Anne Harrington is a Lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University.