Nuclear weapons have been used as strategic threats and deterrents in the 72 years since they were deployed for the first and only time at the close of World War II.
The U.S. President has access to the most top-secret nuclear launch codes that control our nation’s entire arsenal, and a seemingly unilateral ability to deploy them at a moment’s notice.
But should that much power be in the hands of one man (or woman)?
Let’s take a look at our nation’s “nuclear option,” and what kinds of checks and balances (if any) exist.
1. Does The President Have Unilateral Authority?
As the commander-in-chief, the U.S. president can legally order a nuclear strike without getting approval, with limited exceptions. This seems like an immense responsibility to entrust to a single person (especially for a controversial figure).
A walkthrough of how nuclear weapon use situations arise, however, explains how it may be the only sensible way to handle the nuclear decision.
2. What Does Football Have To With Global Thermonuclear War?
Yes, the nuclear football is a briefcase. The steel Halliburton case, which is covered in a black leather jacket, contains the Gold Codes. These nuclear codes would be used by the president to order a strike. It’s carried by a military aide-de-camp, who accompanies the president whenever he is away from a strategic command post, such as the White House Situation Room.
3. Protocol Calls For Him To Consult With His Advisers
The President has unilateral power to order a strike, but protocol calls for him to make the decision after consulting with the Secretary of Defense. This is referred to as the National Command Authority. The Secretary of Defense has to confirm the President’s order for it to be carried out. Although that seems like a check of the President’s power, should the Secretary disagree, the President can nonetheless order the strike.
Unless the attack is not a crisis situation.
4. Non-Crisis Strategic Attacks Probably Require Approval
Even though the President ultimately calls the nuclear shots, the Constitution requires the President to consult with Congress prior to engaging in acts of war. In non-crisis situations, a decision to nuke North Korea just because he didn’t like something he saw on CNN would likely be unconstitutional.
This is one potential control on the President’s unilateral power, but there are others.