When I was 8 years old, another rural Maine girl just two years older than me made international headlines when she had the audacity to write the Soviet premier and ask him if he was going to go to war against the United States. When her letter went around the world, Maine’s “fearless girl,” Samantha Smith, created space for world leaders to negotiate a de-escalation of the Cold War. The courage she showed resulted in three decades of nuclear arms control with what is now Russia, including treaties to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.
President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior, Twitter tirades and general instability has followed him off the campaign trail and into the White House, jeopardizing the relative progress we have made to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Despite the U.S. intelligence community’s reports that Russia interfered in the election to swing it in Trump’s favor, tensions between these two nuclear-armed nations remain worryingly high. Moreover, Trump’s rhetoric and posturing toward North Korea are increasing the risk of nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula. A war with North Korea would be catastrophic.
With that in mind, Maine’s own Stephen King recently sent out a pointed tweet: “That this guy has his finger on the nuclear trigger is worse than any horror story I ever wrote.”
That this guy has his finger on the nuclear trigger is worse than any horror story I ever wrote.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) May 4, 2017
I couldn’t agree more.
Trump’s sole control of the United States nuclear arsenal is worse than any nightmare King could turn into a novel. But the real danger lies in the fact he can launch thousands of our nuclear weapons within the time it takes to order a cup of coffee — and there are no checks and balances in place stop him.
The framers of our Constitution purposefully gave the legislative branch of government the power to declare war because, as James Madison put it, the executive was not “ safely to be trusted with it.” American democracy is built on a system of checks and balances, ensuring that no one entity retains absolute power. But in a shocking disregard for this principle, ultimate authority over whether nuclear weapons are used rests solely with the president.
It takes approximately five minutes to launch a nuclear weapon. Once the president gives the order to launch, the Pentagon and everyone down the chain of command must comply with the commander-in-chief’s directive. Short of disobeying a direct order or an outright coup, no mechanism exists as a stopgap on this power.
This is, at its core, completely undemocratic. The decision to use nuclear weapons should be undertaken only with the utmost caution and not left up to any single individual, let alone one so erratic.
Growing alarm over this very real possibility isn’t isolated, and it isn’t occurring in a vacuum. Earlier this month, former nuclear commanders around the world launched a crisis group to serve as a “shadow security council” in order to advise world leaders in reducing the growing danger of a nuclear conflict. In January, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock, which signals how close humanity is to destruction, closer to midnight. And former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, who oversaw the U.S. nuclear arsenal for decades and played a supporting role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, continues expressing his alarm over the skyrocketing risks of a nuclear exchange.
Several members of Congress also have taken note of the great power that is vested in the executive branch when it comes to nuclear weapons. In February, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act, which would prevent any president from launching nuclear weapon in a pre-emptive first strike without congressional authorization. The legislations is backed by at least 500,000 Americans who signed a petition calling on all members of Congress to co-sponsor it.
We have an opportunity to write a new page in the American history books for the courage of Maine leaders in reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. Let Stephen King write the horror stories. If U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King co-sponsor this common-sense legislation, they would be acting to uphold Samantha Smith’s legacy of preventing nuclear war.
Diane Russell served eight years in the Maine House of Representatives. She currently serves as the national security political director at Women’s Action for New Directions. Follow her on Twitter: @MissWrite.