Should Control of the Nuclear Button Require Advance Assurance of Sanity?

By BILL BONVIE | Sep 06, 2017

So little North Korea now claims it has the H-bomb, as well as the means to deliver it to one or more American cities, a threat we might or might not have the capability of stopping before it arrives. And all we can really hope is that the pathologically narcissistic leader of that country is rational enough not to attempt anything of that nature.

But guess what? We now also have a leader who many people, including behavioral experts, are increasingly convinced exhibits signs of suffering from a personality disorder that’s similar in certain respects. This leader also has been endowed with the same singular catastrophic power, except to a far greater degree.

And inquiring minds are increasingly starting to wonder just how we managed to put ourselves into such a precarious predicament.

While explanations all have to do with the evolution of the Cold War and the arms race that accompanied it, what I’d like to know is: Why didn’t we take preventive measures well before things got to this point?

I’m referring specifically to a couple of missed opportunities during the early 1970s when the potential perils of such an arrangement should have become readily apparent to our nation’s collective leadership.

The first such indication was back in the fall of 1972, in the form of the starting-gate stumble that undoubtedly helped doom the candidacy of that year’s Democratic nominee in the presidential race, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern.

McGovern had emerged victorious from a divided convention (the primary system not yet having predetermined such outcomes in those days), but had yet to fill the No. 2 spot on the ticket.

After his first choice, Sen. Ted Kennedy, turned him down and similar rejections came from other like-minded liberals, he was persuaded to offer the potential vice presidency to a politician with whom he wasn’t all that well acquainted, Missouri Sen, Thomas Eagleton. This running mate would help him win over Catholic and working-class voters.

Following a brief conversation, Eagleton readily accepted, and the two hit the campaign trail – that is, until two-and-a-half weeks later. That was when, under mounting pressure, Eagleton was forced to withdraw after it was discovered that, some years before, he had suffered from severe depression for which he had been administered electroshock treatments on three different occasions.

It wasn’t that McGovern wanted him to leave – in fact, he initially rejected the suggestion. It was just that after belatedly talking to two of Eagleton’s psychiatrists, as Joshua Glasser recounted in his book The Eighteen-Day Running Mate, the candidate decided that the well-liked Missouri senator was “too much of a risk to have his finger potentially on the metaphorical button.”

That year, of course, incumbent Richard Nixon won in a landslide, despite a festering little scandal that appeared to be going nowhere. In the ensuing months, however, the Watergate affair would snowball into an avalanche of revelations that ultimately resulted in Nixon’s resigning when faced with imminent impeachment proceedings. Before his resignation, the president had begun to show paranoid tendencies that alarmed many of those around him.

So great was their concern, in fact, that in the days before Nixon’s departure, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger instructed military commanders to first check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before complying with any nuclear launch order, following a call from Sen. Alan Cranston over “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.” Furthermore, during the final couple hours of his presidency, the so-called “nuclear football” containing the codes used to get such an attack underway was also quietly removed from Nixon’s custody, as author Garrett M. Graff noted in an article entitled “The Madman and the Bomb” that ran in Politico Magazine last month.

Just how much we depend on the occupant of the Oval Office to keep us from being plunged into such a holocaust had already been demonstrated a decade prior to those events. That’s when President Kennedy showed the presence of mind to pull us back from the brink of one during the Cuban missile crisis, even while some advisers were urging him not to back down, no matter what the cost.

That brings us around to the subject of the present president and to those overlooked opportunities to repair a structural defect in our basic foundation that now could pose a threat to the future existence of the entire human race.

The feeling that there is something seriously amiss in the psyche of Donald Trump is no longer just a source of idle speculation by his ideological opponents or pundits for liberal media. In recent weeks, his bizarre behavior, unhinged utterances and twisted tweets have given pause to key members of his own party who have publicly and privately called his psychological fitness for such an onerous responsibility into question.

Just last month, in fact, a group of psychiatrists, in a letter to Congress, warned, “It no longer takes a psychiatrist to recognize the alarming patterns of impulsive, reckless, and narcissistic behavior – regardless of diagnosis – that, in the person of President Trump, put the world at risk,” adding, “We now find ourselves in a clear and present danger, especially concerning North Korea and the President’s command of the US nuclear arsenal.” One of the signers, Dr. Bandy Lee of the Yale School of Medicine, has also been asked by congressional Democrats to convene an expert panel of professionals to “review the president’s mental health” on a periodic basis.

That wasn’t the first time that members of the psychiatric profession have issued alerts about this president’s rationality, defying the so-called “Goldwater rule” that supposedly prohibits them from making proclamations on the mental state of public figures without having personally evaluated them.

Other red flags about the dangers of someone with Trump’s temperament being in possession of nuclear codes were being waved even prior to the election. One example, cited by Graff, took the form of a letter signed by dozens of former nuclear launch officers, and another such warning came from Tony Schwartz, the actual author of Trump’s The Art of the Deal and a man who got to know him about as well as anyone outside of his own family.

So what’s now to be done to modify the risk? Graff seems to concur with the solution proposed by Joe Cirincione, who runs the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund, that presidential authority to launch a nuclear strike be shared with some other official in the same way that two individuals, rather than one, are assigned responsibility all down the nuclear weapons chain of command, thus forming an “institutional barrier to an insane president launching nuclear war.”

My opinion, however, is that while such an arrangement would certainly be helpful in preventing Armageddon, it wouldn’t go nearly far enough. What we really need to do is to go back to the drawing board and do what should have been done decades ago in response to the fiascos involving Sen. Eagleton and President Nixon. We should require a battery of psychological tests for any contender for the top job or anyone who might inherit that mantle.

Had we acted on those aforementioned alerts, we might not now be in a position where a man who appears to revel in shocking us on an almost daily basis might not be holding our collective fate in his unsteady hands as we all hold our breath. I daresay that had the Founding Fathers foreseen a situation in which the power to literally destroy the world would be vested in whoever was chosen to steer the ship of state, they would have written such a safeguard into the Constitution.

While we’re at it, perhaps a civil service-type exam to measure basic competency for the job might not be such a bad idea, either. After all, if the public servants hired to carry out everyday governmental tasks are required to possess a certain amount of knowledge and understanding before assuming their responsibilities, why in heaven’s name is anything less expected of the individual at the pinnacle of the power structure?

Bill Bonvie, a freelance writer based in Little Egg Harbor Township, is the co-author of Badditives! The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in your Diet – and How to Avoid Them and author of the essay collection Repeat Offenders.



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