Nuclear explosion, by FEMA News Photo

One Man Has the Power to End the World

What would I say to the Joint War Room to launch an immediate nuclear strike?

The question above was asked by John F. Kennedy to his military advisors following the Cuban missile crisis. It highlights, in no uncertain terms, the absolute power of the Office of President of the United States, and the scale of the responsibilities associated with it. On their own, without checks or veto, and in a matter of minutes, the President can order a nuclear strike and put a stop to Humanity’s journey.

One person has the power to end the world, and for a few more weeks, this person is Donald Trump.

There is a logic behind giving the President the power to unilaterally launch an immediate nuclear strike, as twisted as it is. It boils down to a concept called deterrence. In a first strike scenario, in which the US is the nuclear aggressor, a longwinded decision-making process gives the enemy time to gather intelligence and prepare for retaliation. In a second strike scenario, where the US has been hit or is about to be hit by enemy nuclear warheads, retaliation must be immediate to ensure mutual destruction.

We live a few minutes away from doom, 100 seconds away to be accurate, the closest we’ve ever been to total annihilation. All that separate the living from the dead is one man’s sanity.

Once again, the man whose sanity we’re talking about is, for 24 more days, Donald J. Trump.

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

When he witnessed the Trinity explosion, the first-ever detonation of nuclear fission bomb he had helped build, J. Robert Oppenheimer was struck by emotions. He didn’t feel proud of his achievement, like many of his colleagues. He wasn’t elated for a job well done. He realised that he’d ushered in a new in human history, and all he could do was quote Krishna and the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Every president since then has measured the gravity of their situation and the weight bestowed upon their shoulders. Truman was the first and only one to carry out a nuclear decision and had to live with the burden for the rest of his life. Trump’s levity towards the nuclear question doesn’t align with his predecessors' views or behaviours, though.

In 2017, a Mar-a-Lago guest took a picture with the nuclear football and the president’s aide-de-camp who was carrying it. In 2018, Trump boasted about his “nuclear button” and how much “bigger and more powerful” it was than North Korea Kim’s button. In 2019, he suggested “nuking hurricanes” to stop them hitting America. In December 2020, Trump did not comment on the revelation of a massive Russian hack into the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Energy, among thousands other government agencies. Both these administrations handle the American nuclear arsenal, and they have been breached into by a foreign power, yet Trump said nothing.

As we draw near the end of Trump’s presidency, we can count our very few blessings, one of which being that, for now, he hasn’t sent us spiralling towards nuclear Armaggedon. Seeing how he reacts to Twitter hashtags, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

It should come as no surprise that a man who doesn’t have a fully developed moral compass, who doesn’t have a firm grasp of causality, and who seem not to have developed object permanence would not appreciate the gravity of his responsibilities and the significance of his Office’s powers. It’s like putting a gun in a toddler’s hands, except the gun can wipe us from the surface of the Earth.

We were saved by legitimate doubt and cold reason; by people doing what was right, and not what was ordered of them.

Since Trinity, decades of research have done nothing but increase the destructive power of atomic weapons. While our capacity to inflict damages increased exponentially, our dread of nuclear doom has receded in a similar fashion. We no longer live in constant fear; perhaps we have too much on our plates to think about it; perhaps we’re simply inured to it.

We shouldn’t forget, however, that since the 1950s there have been 14 nuclear close calls. Fourteen times in 70 years we have flirted with the apocalypse, once every five years on average. What prevented it from occurring was the good faith, courage, and cool-headedness of a few people like Stanislas Petrov.

Indeed, in a mutually-assured-destruction standoff, retaliation must be immediate and conducted without doubts or second thoughts. The whole process is designed to exclude human emotions because emotions tend to make one not want to kill billions of people. More importantly, the vacuity of a second strike would compel most people not to order it. All a second strike does is guarantee the end of the world; it doesn’t prevent the damages from the first strike. This is a lose-lose scenario built on the notion that “if I die, everybody should die too.”

The only thing that has saved the world until now is the prevailing of emotions and common sense in situations of emergency. We were saved by legitimate doubt and cold reason; by people doing what was right, and not what was ordered.

A few people have saved us. A few can doom us. One has his finger on the button for 24 more days. And this person is Donald Trump.

The press, the experts, the intellectuals, his political opponents, we, citizens of America and the world, have ve all discussed at great length the changes in US governance that need to happen following Trump’s presidency. A government system based on good faith and “being a gentleman” and founded on the premise that all politicians are honest and well-meaning has proven its limitations. The Founding Fathers never envisioned half of Washington would become what the GOP is today: a personality cult whose only aim is to reduce tax on their wealthy donors’ estates and keep power at all costs. The political system of the US needs a critical update.

The Founding Fathers never considered the nuclear bomb either. That the President would one day possess a power so immense it could be considered divine cannot have possibly touched their minds. That, through firepower, the President would act as an absolute ruler on the lives of all citizens of the world is something they simply couldn’t conceive. Yet, here we are, subjects of a man’s desires, vassals of our nuclear overlords. For Humanity’s sake, the US must also update its nuclear strategy and rethink the powers given to the President.

We all live under the threat of nuclear Armageddon. We all live a few inches away from destruction, a mere step separating us from the precipice.

And, for 24 more days, the man who gets to decide whether we take that step and throw ourselves in the abyss is Donald Trump.

I write about politics, business, society and culture on Medium. For startup/business content, check my newsletter:

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