18 July 2016

Deterrence for a first-strike nuclear attack


A suggestion first made by Roger Fisher in the March 1981 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.
Text from an old post at The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, with a hat tip to the staff at Radiolab.

Reposted in order to add the cartoon of the Founding Fathers anticipating nukes, drones, or an imperial presidency.

10 comments:

  1. What a very fine idea, in principle.

    I suspect, though, that anyone who would seek the US Presidency, or the Russian Premiership or any other position where their utterances determine the fates of millions, might be too much of a psychopath for the plan to be effective.

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  2. Actually, wouldn't they be sociopaths?

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    1. There's no difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. Some people propose that making a distinction would be useful, but there's no widespread agreement on what that distinction (if any) should be, so for now the terms are officially interchangeable.

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  3. Nah, I bet Cheney would have done it without a second thought.

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    1. Would even be incentive for Rumsfield.

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  4. This is the kind of thing that sounds profound until you think about it for a few seconds.

    Okay, so you have about 30 minutes give or take. Cutting open a person's chest isn't like slicing a tomato. You got to get through bone and cartilage to access the heart, and even then the tiny capsule might be difficult to locate. Presidents usually aren't in their prime physical shape either, so add that into the equation. Is he going to get to practice? Proper gear? Blood is slippery, so he'll need some good gloves to keep a grip. Are we stuck with just the knife, or can we get a scalpel a rib spreader too? Minutes count here, people!

    I presume this is just for strategic-level nuclear bombardment? Sure would suck for George if Soviet tanks were cruising over NATO and the only recourse was a tactical-level strike. I wouldn't want to give my life for anything less than the total destruction of the USSR, so a tank column would be kinda disappointing. Unless we have multiple Georges. I hope they're kept organized. I'd be embarrassed to chop up one George and find out 5 minutes before the missiles hit that all I had the codes for were a few B1s in Alaska. And those poor submariners! Cruising around under the sea until God knows when, wondering where all that background radiation came from!

    Well, I guess it's a good thing our leaders somehow resist the temptation to destroy the world without George.

    But for HOW LONG!?

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    1. "so you have about 30 minutes give or take"

      Why do you have 30 minutes? Note this tactic was proposed (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) as a deterrent to a first-strike attack only - not as a counterresponse to a nuclear attack.

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  5. If you're psychopathic enough to launch a first strike, why would one more death bother you?

    I suspect this would be more like Stalin, who murdered millions of people, but never actually killed anyone himself. The psychopath would just mention he was thinking about it, and his sycophants would whisk the "code holder" away, and their heart would be delivered, beating and still warm, on a silver tray.

    However, launching a nuclear strike is launching a nuclear strike. Having a system like this in place will make it harder to launch a response-strike. In that case, you haven't stopped the psychopath from launching his first strike, and you've added time and difficulty to launching a response strike. That reduces the nuclear balance, and actually decreases deterrence

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  6. would work better if it was his granddaughter

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  7. Aww come on, man....

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