The President and The Bomb

This post was originally featured on Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology, investigates the question of presidential nuclear authority brought up in Radiolab's recent podcast, "Nukes." To learn more about presidential nuclear power, read Part I and Part II of 'The President and the Bomb'. 

The President and the Bomb

by Alex Wellerstein

One of the several projects I’ve been working on for the past several months has, at last, come to fruition. Way back in late November 2016, I got in touch with my friends at NPR’s RadiolabLatif Nasser and Robert Krulwich, right after I had my Washington Post piece on the question of presidential nuclear weapons authority. The final product is now out, as a podcast given simply the title of “Nukes


Radiolab, as many of you probably know, is a show about science and many other things. The pitches they like tend to revolve around interesting people who, traditionally, need to still be alive to be very effective at radio. (And as such, their concerns are often very different from those of historians, who prefer to traffic in the dead.) Latif and I have been friends for a long time now (we were in graduate school together), and have bounced ideas around for a long time, and he has pushed me in the past to find “living specimens” of the nuclear age that illuminate interesting questions.

One of the cases I mentioned in my Post piece was Harold Hering, the Major who was kicked out of the Air Force for asking a “dangerous question” while training to be a Missile Launch Officer at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Hering had asked, in essence, how could he, in his Minuteman missile bunker, know that an order to launch he received from the President had been a legal, considered, and sane one? (And if you want to know exactly what Harold asked, listen to the podcast, where we worked to make sure we really could nail this down as best we could, four decades after the fact.) The fact that his persistence in asking this question, and his lack of satisfaction with the answers, got him drummed out of the service was, I thought, and interesting comment on the nature of what “reliability” means in the context of nuclear weapons personnel. I had gotten interested in Harold’s story because it was discussed in Congressional testimony from 1976, during the only serious hearings that Congress had on this matter, and there was an article from Parade magazine about him appended to the hearings.

"Who pushes the button?" An article about Hering's case from Parade attached to Congressional hearings on Presidential authority and First Use (1976).

It had occurred to me that while Harold was likely quite old, he was probably still alive. I thought it might be worth seeing if I could track him down, and to see if he would be potentially willing to talk about his experiences with me, and to be recorded for the radio. In tracking him down, I thought I might have to utilize all of my Internet-searching, archive-crawling, database-accessing skills. A glance at’s records made it clear he was born in Indianapolis, and helped me pin down his exact age. A good start, I thought, but with the elderly in particular it can be very hard to get further than that, since they are often not very wired into the modern world.

On a whim, though, before really starting the heavy-duty work, I would put his name into Facebook. Sure enough, there he was: the right age, the right place (still living in Indianapolis), and a Facebook profile photo of him as an USAF officer in the 1970s. So much for my searching skills.

I got in touch with Harold, got in touch with Latif and Robert, and thus started our multi-month process of researching, interviewing, and digging. There were a few issues that we thought would work best for the Radiolab format: the nuclear chain of command, the tensions between automation and human judgment, the question of how one might “remedy” the current situation (assuming one thought it was worth remedying, which I do).

One of the more dramatic sections of Hering's 1973 journal — where the question he asked got finally translated into a disqualification, delivered in front of his family. "A more false statement has yet to be made," writes Herald.

I sat in on a number of the interviews, and provided a lot of additional research. I’ve worked with Radiolab in the past, but never quite this close. It was fun. In the process, I got to talk and correspond a bit with not only Harold — which was a complete joy, as was the fact that he had kept a journal of his troubles in the 1970s, and was willing to provide it to us — but also with scholar and former missileer Bruce Blair, US Representative Ted Lieu, and the estimable William J. Perry, the former Secretary of Defense.

I also tried to see how far I could dig into a few of the lingering questions that had kept coming up after my other pieces. One that I really wished I could nail down more, what exactly is the nuclear chain of command? How many people are in between the President and the actual use of nuclear weapons? Where exactly is the “jump” between the “political” wing of the US government (e.g., the Executive Branch) and the “military” wing that actually implements the order?

This is a place where people still had pushed me after my Post piece. How much could one really say about such things, as someone without a clearance? And on what evidentiary grounds could one say it?

The "farthest end" of the chain of command: "1st Lt. Pamela Blanco-Coca, 319th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, and her deputy commander, 2nd Lt. John Anderson, simulate key turns of the Minuteman III Weapon System Feb. 9, 2016, in a launch control center in the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., missile complex. When directed by the U.S. President a properly conducted key turn sends a 'launch vote' to any number of Minuteman III ICBMs in a missileer's squadron, with two different launch votes enabling a launch. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Wiese)"

Blair has insisted (in e-mail to me, and in our interview) that the whole “could the Secretary of Defense refuse an order” question was a red herring. The Secretary of Defense, he insisted, was completely dispensable with regards to the deployment of nuclear weapons. As I noted in my Post piece, there are several descriptions of the nuclear chain of command that imply that the Secretary of Defense is necessary, as the “conduit” (my term) between the political and military worlds. But is it true? Blair emphatically said no — but I never felt completely comfortable just taking his word for it. It’s not that I doubted Blair’s sincerity, but I’m a historian, I want a document to point to!

What’s tricky, here, is that there are clear instances where the Secretary of Defense’s job is defined as translating a presidential order into a military result. And there are places in the descriptions of various components of the US nuclear command and control organization where the uppermost political “unit” is the National Command Authorities, which is defined as the President and the Secretary of Defense. Which has led a lot of authors to insist that there is a big role there, of some sort. And even I entertain the possibility in the Post piece, and in the Radiolab piece (my specific interview was recorded some months ago). The reason is pretty clear — DOD Directive 5100.30 states:

The NCA [National Command Authorities] consists only of the President and the Secretary of Defense or their duly deputized alternates or successors. The chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense and through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Commanders of the Unified and Specified Commands. The channel of communication for execution of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) and other time-sensitive operations shall be from the NCA through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the executing commanders.

Which seems to set up the Secretary of Defense as an essential part of the chain. The directive in question is not especially recent (the unclassified version of the directive  dates from 1974), and it doesn't clarify exactly how important the Secretary of Defense might be.1

But over the last few weeks, while working on this episode and my own further digging into the matter, I have become convinced that the weight of the open evidence points to the idea that Blair is correct — the Secretary of Defense is not just unnecessary, but not even in the nuclear chain of command. What convinced me?

First, I found perhaps the only piece of military doctrine that actually explained, in a clear and concise fashion, how a nuclear order would be carried out. And it’s not some ancient Cold War archival document… it’s from 2015! On the website of the USAF’s (appropriately named) Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, one can find ANNEX 3-72 NUCLEAR OPERATIONS, last updated in May 2015. It states, in a clarity that (after reading a lot of DOD doctrine) makes me want to weep with joy, despite the message:

The President may direct the use of nuclear weapons through an execute order via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commanders and, ultimately, to the forces in the field exercising direct control of the weapons.  

Which seems pretty definitive. The order jumps immediately from the President to the military, in the form of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and from there percolates through the system of command, control, and communication to the various people who actually turn the keys and put the “birds” into the air.

Could the doctrine be wrong? Presumably such things are carefully screened before being offered up as official doctrine, and it seems about as clear as can be, but it's always possible that something got mangled. But one other useful piece of evidence is that we asked Perry, the former Secretary of Defense, at point blank whether the Secretary of Defense was in the chain of command. The answer was a clear “no.” Perry explained that while, presumably the Secretary of Defense would express opinions and given counsel, the President was under no legal obligation to take such counsel, and the objection of the Secretary of Defense had no bearing either legally or practically.

I don’t know what your standard of evidence about such a question might be, but personally I find the testimony of a former Secretary of Defense, combined with a reasonably up-to-date piece of Air Force doctrine, to settle the case for me (at least, pending more evidence). No other assertions about the nuclear chain of command that I’ve seen have quite that kind of weight behind them.

Does this change our initial question, about who might say no? It shifts the attention away from the civilian Secretary of Defense (which is a civilian job, whether or not the person in the role is a retired General, as is currently the case) to the military position of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Could such a person disobey the order? Perry suggested they might in practice try to, but there would be legal consequences (e.g., a court martial).

I gave a talk on these issues last week at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I was a postdoctoral fellow in the Managing the Atom Program some years ago, and where I maintain an active affiliation), and two members of the audience (one an Air Force officer, the other my grad school colleague Dan Volmar, who works on the details of nuclear command and control history) pointed out that when doctrine says “the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” it is usually referring to a staff and not an individual person. Which is to say, it doesn’t necessarily indicate an individual personage, but instead indicates a web of people that are connected to the authority of that personage. I am not sure what would apply in this kind of extraordinary situation, but I thought it was an interesting point to bring up.

A slide from my Belfer Center talk on nuclear chain of command (in the talk, I end up removing, the SecDef from the chain, per the issues discussed in this post) — the graphical whimsy is a purposefully a little bit of levity on a serious topic. Graphics created using Keynote's shape templates (yes, the hair is an upside-down speech bubble). And yes, I know I have "black boxed" C3 (command, control, and communications) operations in a "and now a miracle occurs" fashion.

I have even less faith than before in the idea that an order of such would be disobeyed. Not that I think the military is eager to deploy nuclear weapons — I’m sure they are not, and in fact I tend to feel that they have in the post-Cold War come to realize at some deeper level the risks associated with such weapons and the difficulties they impose on their services. But I do think that the nuclear command and control system is set up, both practically and doctrinally, to avoid asking the questions that are seen as being in the purview of the “political” side of the equation. From the same “Annex 3-72” (my emphasis):

The employment of nuclear weapons at any level requires explicit orders from the President. The nature of nuclear weapons — overwhelmingly more significant than conventional weapons — is such that their use can produce political and psychological effects well beyond their actual physical effects. The employment of nuclear weapons may lead to such unintended consequences as escalation of the current conflict or long-term deterioration of relations with other countries.  For this reason above all others, the decision whether or not to use nuclear weapons will always be a political decision and not a military one.

Now, obviously conditions would dictate varying responses. I have faith that an “obviously bonkers” order would be somehow avoided (e.g., a frothing, “nuke them all, ha ha ha,” sort of thing). I’m not worried about that situation (it’s not outside the realm of human possibility — all humans are fallible, many develop various forms of mental illness, etc.), but I am worried about what I consider to be “ill-advised” orders, or “bad idea” orders, or “spur of the moment” orders that are considerably less apocalyptic (at least on their surface) than, say, a full nuclear exchange.

What would the military do in such a situation, if a correctly authenticated, correctly-formatted “execute order” came to them on their secure channels? I don’t have faith they’d abort it. Maybe you do — that’s fine, and I appreciate the company of optimists. But I just want to point out, the notion that the system won’t work as intended is not a real “check.” It’s just hoping things will break in a way that would be convenient. I think we can do better, and I think that the consequences associated with the possibility of the rash use of nuclear weapons by an American President — any President — large enough to warrant trying to make a better (if not perfect) system, even if one thinks the probability of such a thing happening is low.


  1. Blair's interpretation of 5100.30 is that it was about removing the service chiefs and JCS from decision-making positions, and established the JCS as (only) an intermediary. He says that "on the inside" it is understood that the Secretary of Defense is just an advisor, like the Secretary of State. (E-mail to me.) On the history of 5100.30, see William Burr, ed., "Top Air Force Official Told JCS in 1971: 'We Could Lose Two Hundred Million People [in a Nuclear War] and Still Have More Than We Had at the Time of the Civil War'," National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 580 (February 15, 2017). Later (post-1970s) updates of DODD 5100.30 appear to be classified, and its last iteration was in 2006, and it was cancelled in 2014. See Reference (a) in DODD 3700.01, its successor document, which has nothing illuminating on the chain of command question in it.

    I asked Blair if he had any further thoughts that I ought to share on this, and he sent me the following in an e-mail:

    5100.30 mainly tried to change the priorities of command-control investment.  Dep Sec David Packard (justifiably) feared that the U.S. nuclear command structure would collapse under attack and render U.S. retaliation impossible. He correctly understood that this acute vulnerability stemmed in large part from the chronic neglect of the national command centers and communications links by the chiefs of staff and civilian secretaries of the military departments [services] as well as the combat CINCs [unified and specified commanders], all of whom invested in their own service-specific command and communications networks at the expense of the national system and of interoperability.  Packard promulgated 5100.30 in a vain attempt to reverse these priorities and compel the service chiefs and CINCs to invest seriously in fixing vulnerabilities at the top and make systems compatible up and down and across the chain of command.  The directive makes the CJCS responsible for implementing this directive.

    In operational respects, 5100.30 sought to reinforce this change of priorities by requiring the creation of robust capabilities at the national level to ensure that the NCA could survive a nuclear attack and effectively communicate nuclear war orders not only to the CINCs but also directly to the executing forces at the level of the individual commanders of strategic submarines, bombers, and land-based missiles.  Again, the JCS was assigned responsibility for implementation — i.e., ensuring the transmission of the "go-code" (as well as termination) messages.  The Deputy Director for Operations's war room in the Pentagon was the assigned conduit.  The service chiefs of staff and civilian secretaries were bypassed by this flow chart, as was the Secretary of Defense, who served merely as an advisor to the President, like the Secretary of State, and who might or might not be asked his opinion at the moment of truth.  Even the CINCs became less critical in execution since the launch order was supposed to flow directly from the Pentagon war room (the National Military Command Center) to the firing crews at the bottom of the chain of command.