TAKE ACTION: Tell Congress to Restrict Trump's Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
For Immediate Release: January 24, 2017
Media Contacts: Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 105; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107
The Arms Control Association applauds Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) for reintroducing legislation to highlight the unconstrained and undemocratic ability of the president to initiate the first-use of U.S. nuclear weapons. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.
Put simply, the fate of tens of millions depends in large part on the good judgment and stability of a single person. At any moment, there are roughly 900 U.S. nuclear warheads–all of which are far more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945–that can be launched within minutes of an order by the president. The president, and the president alone, has the supreme authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. Congress currently has no say in the matter. Continuing to vest such destructive power in the hands of one person is undemocratic, irresponsible, and increasingly untenable.
In an August 2016 HuffPost/YouGov survey, two-thirds of respondents said the United States should use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack or not at all, while just 18 percent think that first-use is sometimes justified. Indeed, it is all but impossible to imagine a scenario where the benefits of the first-use of U.S. nuclear weapons would outweigh the severe costs.
The inauguration of President Donald Trump has heightened fears about the sole authority of the commander in chief to use nuclear weapons. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed deep concern about his erratic behavior and loose talk on nuclear weapons. Now is the time to put responsible checks on the use of nuclear weapons in place. Such a decision is far too important to be left in the hands of one person.
Numerous options can be pursued to bring greater democracy and transparency to U.S. nuclear decision-making and reduce the risk of nuclear use. In addition to the proposal in the Markey and Lieu legislation, additional options include:
- Requiring that a decision to use nuclear weapons be made by more than one person. This could include the president, vice president, secretaries of state and defense, and perhaps one or more designated members of Congress, such as the speaker of the House.
- Eliminating the requirement to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under attack, which in some scenarios would give the president only minutes to decide whether to launch the missiles before some or all of them are destroyed on the ground. Given that a president would almost certainly not make the most consequential decision a president has ever made in a matter of minutes, retaining a launch under attack posture is unnecessarily risky and eliminating it would increase the time available to consider the possible use of nuclear weapons in retaliation to a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies.
- Provide Congress with more information on U.S. nuclear war plans, including targeting data, attack options, damage expectancy requirements, estimated civilian casualties, and more, which is currently not shared with Members of Congress.
The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.