In my last article, I suggested that if North Korea launches missiles, which side Vladimir Putin takes may push the balance of the inevitable Third World War that will follow. But what happens if President Trump decided he would launch a pre-emptive strike? Would he have to go to Congress and have them declare war? (That method does have the advantage of being in the US Constitution) Who would stop him? Well, if you like getting a good night’s sleep, you might want to skip this one, because the answer is: Bupkis.
Bupkis, for my non-jewish friends, is a Yiddish word meaning “of so little value it is worthless.” The reason for this dates back to World War 2, when President Truman ordered the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most people don’t realize that the military lied to Truman and told him that those cities were military targets, rather than cities full of women and children. Since then, Truman and presidents since have successfully put in safeguards to keep the military from launching nukes without authorization from the president.
Because the way The Cold War played out, it was necessary to have a strong leader in the White House who could drop “The Bomb” at a moment’s notice. Deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction don’t work when you have one side hemming and hawing and voting. The person whose finger is on the Big Red Button must have the authority to act decisively. The enormity of the act would keep it from actually happening. And in fact, JFK brought Khrushchev to a stalemate in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which allowed both sides to negotiate an agreement. But, on the other hand, Richard Nixon, in 1974, bragged that in twenty minutes he could order the deaths of 60 million people. And this was after Watergate. Amazingly, Congress never got around to introducing a bill preventing a nuclear first strike without an express declaration of war from Congress until…January of 2017? This is NOT a law!
In theory, the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would stop Trump and talk him out of it, or at least talk to him until The President has convinced them it’s the right course of action. But, there’s no law that says he has to talk to them. If they aren’t in the room with him at that exact moment, there’s nothing to stop him. In theory a doctor might declare him to be unstable or unfit to serve (“insane” is not exactly an acceptable medical term today), and remove him.
Would The Generals (whoever they are) refuse an order from The President? Well, that’s a dicey one. Former CIA and NSA director General Michael Hayden said on Bill Maher’s show that they would disobey the orders. We’ve already seen Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman directly say he won’t enforce any ban on transgender servicemen/women until he sees a policy directive in writing. So, he might just stop the order cold. But if that happens, we are now in the middle of a military coup. Within days, or maybe even hours, the military will likely splinter, and we’ll have a civil war.
It is with some irony that this is all happening because of North Korea. In 1950, President Truman ordered Naval and Air troops into action in Korea without a declaration of war from Congress, and in 1953, North and South Korea signed an armistice, not a peace treaty. Technically, the Korea War never started or ended. And since the Korean War, presidents have been granted the authority to “use military force” in congressional resolutions rather than formally declare war. So, now Congress is desperately trying to claw back power they haven’t had in 75 years.
Much of the information in this article came from the Radiolab episode, “Nukes” and Dan Carlin's Hardcore History episode, “The Destroyer of Worlds.”