Recently declassified documents reveal that during the Vietnam War, the military made plans to move nuclear weapons into South Vietnam, and use them if U.S. forces trapped in Khe Sanh were in danger of being overrun. This operation was thankfully rejected by President Lyndon B. Johnson, demonstrating the importance of civilian control over nuclear weapons. However, the need to ensure the order to use nuclear weapons comes only from the president should not overshadow the need to place checks and balances on the undemocratic nuclear launch process. One individual should never have the sole authority to order the first use of nuclear weapons.
The importance of Presidential Launch Authority and civilian control over nuclear decisions
The United States military’s willingness to deploy and possibly use nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War highlights the importance of preserving Presidential Launch Authority, meaning that the order comes from the president and not the military. Vulnerable nuclear command and control systems created pressure on previous presidents, starting with President Eisenhower in 1959, to “pre-delegate” their authority to launch nuclear weapons to military commanders if the president is unable or unavailable to do so. The catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapon use and the additional political nature of these weapons make it vital to preserve civilian control and prevent the transferring of control to military command during conflict.
Above all, nuclear weapons have horrific humanitarian and ecological consequences. Throughout the Vietnam War, the United States military showed no regard for human lives, as evident by their deployment of Agent Orange and landmines. In making these decisions, the military’s judgement should have been questioned. The fact that they wanted to go one step further in their atrocity by introducing nuclear weapons into the region shows the importance of checks and balances in the system: Johnson drew the line. Johnson’s non-military perspective gave him a clear mind to be discerning and prevent a potential nuclear disaster.
The catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapon use and the additional political nature of these weapons make it vital to preserve civilian control and prevent the transferring of control to military command during conflict.
Need to establish a No First Use policy
In an effort to ensure there is civilian control over the decision to use weapons that have catastrophic effects, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 takes the power to order the launch of nuclear weapons out of the hands of the military and places it in the hands of the U.S. President. The Act gave the president sole authority: they do not have to consult with anyone and no one can veto the decision. While the president would likely receive advice from the Department of Defense, the military, and others, they are not required to consult with anyone and there may be only minutes to decide.
As tensions continue to escalate amongst global powers, the need for the United States to establish a No-First-Use policy becomes more apparent. While civilian control over nuclear weapons is important, this does not mean that one person should be the sole decision-maker; no one individual should have the power to jumpstart a nuclear war and cause massive civilian casualties.
Nuclear first-use could happen due to false warning, miscalculation, or a misguided split-second decision to achieve military objectives. As we saw in Vietnam, a decision to possibly use nuclear weapons can be made out of desperation, when emotions are running high and logic is flawed. The best way to ensure that the president – any president – cannot initiate a nuclear conflict is for Congress to enact a legally-binding no-first-use policy.