Last week 30 House Democrats wrote President Biden a letter asserting that the president shouldn’t have exclusive control over nuclear launch codes and that the authority to order a nuclear strike should be shared with the vice president and speaker of the House.
This is so unusual a letter — let’s call it the “Strangelove Letter” for reasons we’ll get to in a minute — we have to ask why it was sent. Do the Democrats believe Biden is so lacking in mental capacity or capable of such insanity that he might order a nuclear strike for no reason?
The letter asks Biden to change the chain of command to ensure that no single person has the ability to launch a nuclear strike. “Vesting one person with this authority entails real risks,” the letter states. “Past presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons or exhibited behavior that caused other officials to express concern about the president’s judgment.”
The letter says that the necessary change in the command structure would include both the vice president and the speaker of the House in any decision to launch a nuclear strike because both of them are in the constitutional line of succession to the presidency and because the president cannot remove them from it.
During the ’50s and through the ’60s, the fear of nuclear war stayed on the front page before America’s attention was absorbed by the Vietnam War. Part of that fear was that a nuclear war could start by accident or by some madman who commanded some part of the U.S. or Soviet nuclear forces. Two of the best movies of the era, both of which premiered in 1964 — Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe — dramatized what could happen.
In Fail Safe, an accident causes the “go codes” to be sent to U.S. bombers to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Though most are stopped, one can’t be, and it incinerates Moscow. New York City is sacrificed on a presidential order to prevent all-out war.
In the 1964 Stanley Kubrick classic Doctor Strangelove, a crazy Air Force general (Jack D. Ripper) orders the B-52s under his command to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Action is split among a top-secret U.S. war room (into which the president brings the Soviet ambassador), the crazy general’s office, and one of the B-52s desperately trying to get through to its target.
Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies, with a great many perversely funny moments. As the plot unfolds, the U.S. president is trying to help a drunken Soviet premier shoot down the U.S. bombers to avoid the automatic detonation of the Soviets’ ultimate deterrent, the “Doomsday Device,” which is supposed to kill every human on the planet. (Dr. Strangelove reminds the Soviet ambassador, “The whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost if you keep it a secret!”)
There’s a wrestling match between another Air Force general (Buck Turgidson) and the Soviet ambassador (DeSadesky). (Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!) Eventually, the pilot of the last B-52 accidentally (Major “King” Kong) ends up riding a nuclear bomb to its target, resulting in the detonation of the “Doomsday Device.”
The movie’s message is that because nuclear war could be started by a crazy person, no individual can be trusted with launching nuclear weapons.
Before Dr. Strangelove hit theaters almost 60 years ago, the events it dramatized could have occurred because there were commanders in the field who could have, for example, authorized the use of nuclear artillery in response to a Soviet invasion or nuclear air-to-air missiles in the event a Soviet bomber strike was detected.
Beginning in the early days of the Kennedy administration, significant actions were taken to prevent both accidental launch and to vest the authority to launch nuclear weapons solely in the president. Hence the “nuclear football,” a briefcase with the codes the president could use to order a nuclear strike on an enemy. The “football” is handcuffed to a well-vetted military officer who is never more than a few feet away from the president.
Today there are a multitude of additional safeguards, including mental health exams of, for example, the poor guys and gals who sit in missile silos for days on end, staring at the walls, reading or playing cards. But safeguards aren’t foolproof because they are designed by humans. And there are no mental capacity or sanity tests for the president.
The recent Strangelove Letter’s proposal is, like the War Powers Act, undoubtedly unconstitutional. Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution makes the president the commander-in-chief of the military and puts him in charge of foreign policy. To share that power with Congress would violate the separation of powers doctrine.
So why was the Strangelove Letter sent? When its authors wrote, “Past presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons,” did they remember Ronald Reagan’s 1984 joke in which he said we’d outlawed the Soviet Union and “bombing begins in five minutes”? Hardly.
The letter is another demonstration that House Democrats haven’t gotten over their case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. The letter’s words about presidents who have exhibited behavior that worried other officials address Trump’s behavior, no one else’s. Trump wasn’t crazy enough or so lacking in mental capacity that he would have ordered a nuke attack, but is Joe Biden?
Biden’s diminished — and diminishing — mental capacity is not spoken of in polite company. He has so often lost track of what he is saying and mangled his words that it’s been clear to everyone but the Democrats and the media that he’s not up to the job of president. Perhaps that’s why Vice President Kamala Harris is being groomed through, for example, meeting with foreign leaders in Biden’s absence, to step in once Biden is replaced under the 25th Amendment.
It’s extremely unlikely that the Democrats were thinking only of Biden’s mental incapacity when they wrote the letter. And it’s equally unlikely that Ol’ Joe would suddenly decide to nuke someone.
The Strangelove Letter is more than a demonstration of the House Democrats’ case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. It couldn’t have been sent without Nancy Pelosi’s permission, which means it is, at least in part, just another one of her power grabs. But it’s undeniably a demonstration of the signers’ lack of confidence in Biden.
Buck Turgidson, call your office.