The president of the United States poses a threat to our collective existence. The choice voters face is spectacularly obvious.
In 1973, a United States Air Force officer, Major Harold Hering, asked a question that the Air Force did not want asked. Hering, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was then in training to become a Minuteman-missile crewman. The question he asked one of his instructors was this: “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”
The writer Ron Rosenbaum would later call this the “forbidden question.” Missile officers are allowed to ask certain sorts of questions—about the various fail-safe systems built to prevent the accidental launching of nuclear weapons, for instance. But the Air Force would not answer Hering’s question, and it moved to discharge him after determining that officers responsible for launching nuclear weapons did not “need to know” the answer. “I have to say I feel I do have a need to know because I am a human being,” Hering said in response.
Hering’s question was taboo because the national defense strategy of the United States is built on the unstated assumption that the American people will not allow a lunatic to become president. If that assumption is wrong, then no procedural, legal, or technological mechanisms exist that are able to fully protect the human race from such a lunatic. Hering discovered a catastrophic flaw in U.S. nuclear doctrine, and for this he was driven from the Air Force.
In most matters related to the governance and defense of the United States, the president is constrained by competing branches of government and by an intricate web of laws and customs. Only in one crucial area does the president resemble, in the words of the former missile officer and scholar Bruce Blair, an absolute monarch—his control of nuclear weapons. Richard Nixon, who was president when Major Hering asked his question, was reported to have told members of Congress at a White House dinner party, “I could leave this room and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.” This was an alarming but accurate statement.