Michael KreponA Three-Person Rule for Nuclear First Use

Quote of the week:

“We still tend to conceive of national security almost solely as a state of armed readiness, a vast, awesome arsenal of weaponry… We are haunted by this concept of military hardware.”
—Robert S. McNamara, The Essence of Security

Whiffs of grapeshot and sarin gas are in the air – enduring conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, increased friction with Russia and, above all, possible military action on the Korean Peninsula. The president of the United States has unrestricted powers to use nuclear weapons first if deemed necessary. Concerns about the absence of checks and balances on the first use of nuclear weapons have spiked because of Donald Trump’s bellicose temperament and shallow understanding of nuclear flash points. These concerns have led some on Capitol Hill to introduce legislation that would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.

The intention is understandable, but this remedy is unworkable and unachievable. No president in the modern era has accepted the absolute requirement of congressional consent on war-making powers. Declarations of war have been extremely rare – against Great Britain in 1812, Mexico in 1846, Spain in 1898, Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917, and Japan, Germany, and their allies in 1941-2. None of the wars that have been fought in the past eight decades – large (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq) or small – have been preceded by a declaration of war.

Any scenario in which an American President contemplates the first use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed foe, such as the current escalation of risk involving North Korea, implies a situation or a sense of great urgency. Otherwise, there is no need to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, as U.S. conventional superiority would succeed on the battlefield over time.

The sense of great urgency is, however, a two-way street, as first use will be contemplated if either adversary senses that time is running out. The deeper the crisis, the more both sides will increase readiness to use nuclear weapons – steps that are hard or impossible to distinguish from readiness to use nuclear weapons first. (This scenario applies to the Subcontinent as well as to the Korean Peninsula.)

Now overlay onto this scenario the pursuit of a declaration of war by the Congress or a resolution supporting an administration’s resolve. Rather than buying time, as conceived by its backers, the prospect of a vote on Capitol Hill could instead compress decision-making time in a crisis – if the leadership in the country facing U.S. conventional superiority concludes that this is a prelude to military action. In every case when the executive branch has sought support for war-making powers, Congress has seen fit to provide backing. A congressional vote ‘yea’ connotes toughness and steely resolve, applying leverage on an adversary to do Washington’s bidding. A vote ‘nay’ undercuts an administration and emboldens a bad actor. This is how the Congress enabled the George W. Bush Administration to engage in war-making in Iraq.

For these and other reasons, a declaration of war prior to the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States does not pass the “do no harm” test. A far more realistic check on the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States can be found, oddly enough, in the case of a Soviet diesel submarine that was depth-charged to the surface during the most harrowing days of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Back then, diesel submarines had limited capabilities to remain submerged and to “phone home.” So the captain, second captain and deputy political officer on the B-59, a Foxtrot-class vessel, observed a compact in the event that they were unable to receive instructions from Moscow authorizing the use of a nuclear-armed torpedo on board. They agreed that to fire the torpedo against a surface ship, their vote had to be unanimous; if not, they would hold their fire.

The United States Navy was unaware that Soviet submarines carried nuclear-armed torpedoes, just as the Pentagon and the American intelligence community, while planning pre-emptive strikes, were unaware that nuclear weapons had already been sited on Cuban soil. The job of enforcing President John Kennedy’s naval quarantine of Cuba fell to the chief of naval operations, Adm. George Anderson. He, like the Air Force’s chief, Gen. Curtis LeMay, wished to strike first, rather than seek a diplomatic settlement, which they perceived to be a riskier option.

Everyone knows that the Cuban missile crisis was a close call, but very few people knew just how close the two superpowers actually came to nuclear war. Only later, when American and Soviet veterans of the crisis met to swap reminiscences, did the world learn that on Oct. 27, 1962 — the same day that an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba — the three Soviet officers on board the B-59 cast the most important vote in the history of Western civilization.

While being depth-charged to the surface, the submarine’s captain and the political officer voted to fire their torpedo at a United States Navy target. The third officer, Second Captain Vasili A. Arkhipov, voted nay.

This cautionary tale teaches many lessons. What a president knows, or thinks he knows, in a severe crisis can be less important than what he doesn’t know. Hasty decision making can have catastrophic consequences, while diplomacy can be a far safer course than pre-emptive strikes.

The president alone is the decider when it comes to first use, but the decision maker can have faulty judgment. The choice to use nuclear weapons in war for the first time since 1945 is too consequential to rest on the shoulders and mind of just one person. A three-person consensus rule for the first use of nuclear weapons worked on the B-59. It can work for the United States as well.

Who should the president be obliged to consult before making this profound choice? These individuals must be quickly accessible. They should also have the confidence of both the president and the Congress — meaning that they should be subject to Senate confirmation, which would rule out the vice president and the national security adviser. The most obvious choices would be the secretaries of state and defense. The president should, of course, consult with others, but the final words of advice should come from those two officials.

By mandating consultation and approval of both secretaries for the first use of nuclear weapons, Congress could increase the odds that well-reasoned judgment would forestall the rashest action that could ever be taken by an American president.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay was published in the New York Times on April 13th.


  1. Tom Burdick (History)

    Are you proposing a constitutional amendment to limit and diffuse the President’s (current) sole discretion to command the American military?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Excellent question, and one that I am not now prepared to answer.
      I would like to explore other, less time-consuming avenues than a constitutional amendment, and need help from those who are versed in constitutional law.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The Constitution says the President is commander in chief, but it also says Congress makes all rules concerning the military forces. Just as Congress could eliminate all nukes, Congress can make whatever rules on their use it deems appropriate. The Congress could say nukes are always under civilian control, merely guarded by the military, and releasable for first detonation only if the President and Secretaries of Defense and State all agree.

      The political hurdles against sane legislation are already high enough (gain Presidential assent or overcome a Presidential veto); fortunately, constitutional amendment is likely not necessary. This should not be a partisan issue. Even Trump can agree that not all of his successors will have stupendous judgment.

  2. J_kies (History)

    First Strike is a rather clear ‘declaration of war’ if not a declaration of ‘lets exterminate the species’. As only Congress has the power to declare war, this is merely a codification of the constraints that should already apply to the limits of Presidential authorities (which are tied to responding to an attack in progress).

  3. Tom Burdick (History)

    Nuclear weapons are catastrophic, yes, but only an option in our military arsenal. The reality of nuclear weapons is that they are the most effective deterrent history has ever known between major powers.

    Yes we have had brush wars, Cold Wars, police actions and many have died. But, so did 800,000 Tutsi’s in Rwanda with no more weapons than small arms. Which of those dead died honorably, peacefully, gently?

    The era of nuclear weapons has been the least savage, on a mass scale, in human history. The problem is, that we have no alternate history, one without nuclear weapons, to compare. Or do we?

    If we’d had nuclear weapons, would Hitler and Stalin have dared to do what they did? I say no.

    We choose leaders for their talent and energy and beliefs, but at a minimum, because we trust that they are patriots and want America’s best interests to succeed.

    Any weapon so catastrophic in use, places the mantle of history on those empowered to use it. We can only trust that the weight of historical consequences will daunt our leaders and their trusted advisors.

    • Trevor P. (History)

      You are assuming a depth of understanding of the issues and a sense of his own mortality (and morality) that the current POTUS manifestly DOES NOT demonstrate.
      I don’t want to have to rely on the Commander in Chief of STRATCOM’s willingness to refuse an illegal order to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Remember, “I was just following orders” is not a legal defense.

    • Tom Burdick (History)

      I never said that I understood Trump. Trump is the thinly veiled backstory target to the article and its replies. How do you or anyone claim to judge his morality or sense of mortality? Based on what?

      None of us know exactly what he will do. But we elected him. Whatever happens, we did it to ourselves, good or bad.

      We cannot diffuse the power of Trump or any future president by leading the military by committee. There are really bad and powerful enemies that want us and our friends dead. If America is seen to blink or be indecisive, they will act worse, not better.

      For our and our friends safety we have to trust those that we elected to do the right thing. Trump did not get as many votes as Obama did four years ago, how can he be the POTUS? Because too many good people did nothing. Now we have to live with it.

      Scaring ourselves with “what ifs” after the fact is a waste of time. This is no time to propose changes to the future POTUS’s power when all that is really intended is to bash Trump.

  4. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Nuclear weapons may have reduced the odds of major conventional war, but only at the cost of increasing the odds of nuclear war. I am convinced this is a bad bargain. Suppose I am wrong, though, and nuclear weapons are like a cure for cancer that comes with few side effects.

    Suppose that nuclear deterrence is great and wonderful, nearly always prevents major war and seldom results in nuclear war. How does that impact a one-person rule vs. a three-person rule for starting a nuclear war? Does nuclear deterrence work only under a one-person rule, but fail under a three-person rule? Is nuclear deterrence that fragile?

  5. Dan Gilchrist (History)

    I was frankly gob-smacked to find that this wasn’t the rule already.