Finger on the button
If America ruled out using nuclear weapons first the world would not be any safer
In 1973 Major Harold Hering, a veteran pilot and trainee missile-squadron commander, asked his superiors a question: if told to fire his nuclear-tipped rockets, how would he know that the orders were lawful, legitimate and from a sane president? Soon after, Major Hering was pulled from duty and later kicked out of the air force for his “mental and moral reservations”.
His question hit a nerve because there was, and remains, no check on a president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons. That includes launching them first, before America has been nuked itself. The United States has refused to rule out dropping a nuclear bomb on an enemy that has used only conventional weapons, since it first did so in1945.
Many people think this calculated ambiguity is a bad idea. It is unnecessary, because America is strong enough to repel conventional attacks with conventional arms. And it increases the risk of accidents and misunderstandings. If, when the tide of a conventional war turns, Russia or China fears that America may unexpectedly use nukes, they will put their own arsenals on high alert, to preserve them. If America calculates that its rivals could thus be tempted to strike early, it may feel under pressure to go first—and so on, nudging the world towards the brink.
Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic contender for the presidency, is one of many who want to remedy this by committing America, by law, to a policy of No First Use (NFU). India and China have already declared NFU, or something close, despite having smaller, more vulnerable arsenals.