So I got to thinking last night, as I do every couple of years: What if, in order to access the codes he needs to authenticate his identity and order a launch of nuclear missiles, the president of the United States of America had to personally kill a man with a meat cleaver?
No, seriously, this is a possibility that the military has considered before. Bear with me.
Pretty much ever since North Korea became a nuclear power in 2005, started underground testing, and crowned a new, squat dictator, Americans have lived again with a once-quaint Cold War idea: Unprecedented nuclear devastation could begin whenever an unpredictable, undeterrable rogue world leader wanted it. And that was before last night, when President Donald Trump tweeted his now-notorious boast to Kim Jong Un about the size of the presidential, uh, nuclear button.
Trump being Trump and Twitter being Twitter, that tweet sent pundits — professional and armchair alike — into frantic swoons about brinkmanship and U.S. nuclear command authority. They have a point: America is the most powerful (and powerfully armed) nation in human history, and in this interconnected society of 320 million citizens, built over a quarter-millennium of constitutional rule, we invest the power to literally blow up civilization in a single human: namely, whichever dark-suited, heavily bankrolled character wins the most purplish states in an election every four years.
That flurry of media angst sent me back to an old idea I’d first learned about in a grad-school study of nuclear strategy, put forward in a 1981 speech by arms negotiator Roger Fisher, reprinted that year in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Fisher, who’d crewed a B-17 bomber in World War II and later advised NATO military officers on strategic decision-making, was no wilting flower when it came to war — but he feared leaders who seemed aloof to war’s costs. So he floated “an early arms control proposal” to counter what he called “the problem of distancing” that a president might have when considering the nuclear option:
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.
It may sound bizarre as hell, but this idea bubbles up in the national conversation every couple of years, whenever someone starts talking about using nukes as a serious policy instrument. A lot of commentators believe that Fisher’s proposal would be horrible for the credibility of American nuclear deterrence; at least, that’s how the first U.S. military planners responded when he told them about it:
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.”
The Pentagon planners’ assumption is clear: Most presidents couldn’t bring themselves to cleave a man’s chest cavity with their own hands… or, at least, they’d need a couple of minutes and a stiff drink. The notion of physically bludgeoning someone to death in cold blood and then mutilating the body really bothers most people.
Good, Fisher seems to say to that: If close-in murder bothers you so much, then maybe immolating millions with fission reactions and salting the earth with cesium-137 should bother you, like, at least that much. It’s supposed to be a little absurd, like Jonathan Swift’s old 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” a master class on satire in which he argues that to end Irish overpopulation and poverty, everybody should eat Irish babies.
All in all, I think Fisher’s proposal is a good exercise in circumspection about nuclear conflict. I used to think it was a pretty good idea to put into practice, too, for the same reason I also once favored televising executions: a belief that Americans would be more educated — and circumspect, if not hesitant — about killing in their name if they had to witness it, participate in it. But in an era where our kids make a YouTube millionaire out of an idiot who goes hunting for the corpses of suicides, I’ve had to seriously lower my expectations of humanity.
Maybe you were already thinking about this stuff months ago, when the penultimate episode of HBO’s The Leftovers aired. In that episode, viewers see “the Fisher protocol” in action when a president has to hack into the heart of his twin to get his atomic apocalypse on:
How did that POTUS resolve the sticky situation? Uh, well…
What’s your take on the “Fisher protocol”: Useful moral exercise, urgently needed safeguard, bleeding-heart fantasy, or an invitation to elect presidents with an urge for meat-sculpting where their scruples should be? Tell us what you think — in the comments below, or with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.