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This is not idle worry. We came close to blundering into nuclear war several times during the Cold War. False alarms, in particular, are a real and growing concern. Dr. Perry experienced a false alarm 40 years ago, on June 3, 1980, when a faulty 46-cent computer chip indicated the launch of hundreds of missiles from the Soviet Union, but luckily that malfunction was caught in time. Today false alarms are even more likely because our weapons and warning systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks like the one the United States conducted against Iran’s uranium enrichment program in 2009. If the president launches nuclear weapons in response to a false alarm, he would start World War III — by mistake.
Luckily, we don’t need to take such risks.
The whole concept of sole authority is built on the false assumption that Russia might launch a surprise first strike. The Cold War ended 30 years ago, and we now know that Russia never seriously considered a first strike against the United States, for the same reason that we never seriously considered a first strike against Russia: it would be national suicide. Both sides have to assume that an attack would provoke an unacceptable nuclear retaliation. Both nations, and much of the rest of the globe, would be obliterated. Starting such a war would be insanity.
With this harrowing reality in mind, President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s leader as general secretary of the Communist Party, declared in 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They were right.
By focusing on an unlikely surprise attack, we are making it more likely that we will blunder into Armageddon. In a crisis situation, the last thing we should want is for the president to feel under pressure to make a quick decision. Maintaining an effective deterrent does not require us to rush into a nuclear war; rather, we need to increase the decision time from minutes to hours.
First: the president should not have sole authority for first use but should share that decision with a select group in Congress. There is no need to make this decision quickly.
Second: The United States should declare that it will never start a nuclear war, and would only use the bomb in retaliation.
Third: The United States should retire land-based ballistic missiles that could force a president into a quick “use-them-or-lose-them” decision. These missiles are not needed for deterrence, which is ensured by survivable submarine-based weapons.
Seventy-five years ago, President Truman gave himself exclusive power over nuclear war. Every president since has clung to it. It was bad policy then; it is inexcusable now. We no longer need to take these risks, and we can safely back away from the brink. It is time to retire the nuclear button. No one should have the unchecked power to destroy the world.
William J. Perry served as secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and Tom Z. Collina is director of policy at Ploughshares Fund. They are the co-authors of the forthcoming book “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump.”
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Source of original article:John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (www.nytimes.com).
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