This article is part of a series from the November 2017 Harvard University conference entitled “Presidential First Use: Is it legal? Is it constitutional? Is it just?” To access all of the transcripts from this conference, click here.
Citizens have always been at the forefront of reducing the risks of nuclear weapons. In the 1980s, the US nuclear freeze movement and the Committee on Nuclear Disarmament in Europe arguably helped to end the Cold War and subsequently reduce US and Soviet arsenals by 80 percent. Before that, in the 1950s, a citizens’ movement aimed to stop atmospheric nuclear testing. Doctors had found strontium 90 from radioactive fallout in babies’ teeth and in mothers’ breast milk. Citizens, outraged that weapons testing programs could harm them directly, came out on the streets to protest, resulting in the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty.
Even before the first test of an atomic bomb, near the end of World War II, a movement of citizen scientists was born at the University of Chicago in 1945. The scientists who helped build the atomic bomb understood that these weapons could incinerate masses of people and cause untold damage. Led by James Franck, they wrote a report to the government arguing that these indiscriminate weapons should not be used on civilians, and that before dropping them, they should first be tested in a demonstration to show the Japanese leadership how terrible they were. These scientists also established the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, to publish information about nuclear weapons so that citizens could understand the dangerous consequences of this new form of energy.
Most recently we’ve seen another private group of citizens, nongovernmental organizations allied as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, organize the world to devise a new treaty that would ban nuclear weapons under the auspices of the United Nations. For their efforts, the Campaign received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
Citizens have had enormous success in reducing the risks from nuclear weapons, but until very recently, with the introduction of the Lieu-Markey bill to prohibit presidential first use of nuclear weapons, it has been difficult to see how Congress has actually attempted to check the executive power to build and potentially use nuclear weapons.
What has prevented Congress in the past from acting on clear citizen preferences for nuclear weapons reduction? Experts offer two reasons why congressional members have been kept from having a say in nuclear weapons policy.
The first is speed. Experts suggest that in order to retaliate against a surprise attack or even to deter a surprise attack, leaders need to act very quickly, and that the executive and the military are the only entities able to do that. Congress is a deliberative body set up to take many views into account, and, the argument goes, a legislature cannot possibly respond quickly to a dire emergency.
The second is secrecy. Since the development of the bomb, the expert community and the military have tried to prevent enemies from learning about our plans. The irony is that our enemies quickly managed to get that information. In reality, secrecy has never been maintained. The Russians tested their first nuclear weapon in 1949 and their first thermonuclear weapon in 1955. The knowledge was there, and there wasn’t much being kept from them.
On the other hand, secrecy has prevented citizens and their representatives from gaining the knowledge we need about nuclear weapons capabilities and costs; about war plans; and about mistakes and accidents. This secrecy further empowers the executive branch. Citizens and their representatives are kept in the dark, our enemies know a lot, and the executive enlarges its power.
The result of all of this is that the people have no voice in the most significant decision the United States president can make: whether to destroy another society with weapons of mass destruction and in turn risk us being destroyed ourselves. Elaine Scarry brilliantly and rightly calls this a “thermonuclear monarchy”; Garry Wills refers to it as “Bomb Power.” Robert Dahl, a political scientist from Yale, in his 1985 book Controlling Nuclear Weapons, argued that these policies treat citizens as children who, lacking expertise and knowledge, have no right to participate in how nuclear weapons are developed and deployed. He suggests that this turns the people into wards of the state who can exercise only the rights assigned to them by the “guardians of the arsenal.”
Without congressional deliberation and citizen participation in the gravest decisions of life and death, democracy is greatly diminished. Indeed, can we even call ourselves a democracy at all when our rights to life and liberty are so abridged? If citizens and our elected representatives cannot make decisions about the most fundamental and consequential issues of war and peace, life and death, then we are disempowered and delegitimized.
What are the remedies? We can begin by reducing the speed at which these decisions are made. There is no longer any need, if there ever was, for the kind of speed that people argued was required during the Cold War, when we were worried about a surprise attack from the Soviet Union. We should take weapons off of high-alert status. Former nuclear missile launch officer Bruce Blair and former Secretary of Defense William Perry have also said that we need to reduce launch readiness. This would allow more people to participate in the decision about what to do in the face of an attack.
We should also reduce secrecy. If we’re going to make decisions about nuclear weapons, we need to have information about them. In April 2015, the US State Department finally declared the numbers of weapons in our arsenals. In May 2016, the Defense Department did the same thing. Thanks to experts in the scientific community, since 1987 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published estimates of nuclear weapons in a feature called the Nuclear Notebook. The Notebook’s current coauthors, Hans Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, of the Federation of American Scientists, and their predecessors should be given a Nobel Prize for making these estimates available; the estimates are the only reason that the public knows roughly how many weapons the US, Russia, China, North Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, India, and Pakistan have.
We can also reduce secrecy by requiring that congressional members and outside experts participate in the nuclear posture review—a process to determine what role nuclear weapons should play in US security strategy—that the executive branch and the military conduct from time to time. If citizens are to participate in decision-making, then we have a right to know about these war plans.
A move toward congressional participation is suggested in a September 2017 Washington Post article by former Senator Sam Nunn and former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. They argue that the chairs and the ranking minority members of key committees in both houses should review and oversee relations between US and Russia. They are modeling this proposed new body on an earlier Senate Arms Control Observer Group, established in 1985 by Senators Robert Byrd and Bob Dole, a Democrat and a Republican.
That group met with the secretary of state and with arms control negotiators in Geneva when the US was dealing with the Soviet Union. The group also had opportunities to meet unofficially and informally with the Soviet delegation. The experience provided congressional members with much more information and a sense of what was at stake in those negotiations. It improved their ability to talk to their Senate colleagues about the treaties being discussed and about other foreign policy matters. It is high time that an observer group be established to oversee the US nuclear posture review.
Finally, we must return to Congress the authority to declare war. The proposed legislation to limit the president’s first use of nuclear weapons is a necessary first step. But to move to what I would call nuclear democracy will take more than simply limiting the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons first.
I began by citing the long history of successful citizen opposition to nuclear testing, proliferation, and secrecy. I want to end with a quote from Garry Wills that alerts us to the long arc of bomb power and thermonuclear monarchy. He writes:
The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial rolling of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the Commander in Chief, the worldwide web of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the whole National Security State, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the Cold War, and the Cold War with the war on terror—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to efforts at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.
Wills describes a complex national security system that denies democratic accountability and will require heroic efforts to dismantle. But citizens and their representatives are awakening to its dangers and consequences. It is time to take advantage of that awareness to move toward nuclear democracy.