But I went ahead and dedicated my new book, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, to Maj. Harold Hering because Maj. Hering sacrificed his military career to ask a Forbidden Question about launching nuclear missiles. A question that exposed the comforting illusions of the so called fail-safe system designed to prevent “unauthorized” nuclear missile launches.
Let’s say you were a Minuteman missile crewman during the Richard Nixon presidency at the very height of the Cold War. You and your fellow crewmen are down in your underground launch control center, tending to your sector of the “silo farm”—the vast field under which nuclear missile silos (actually heavily reinforced concrete silo-shaped holes in the ground) shelter the instruments of mass death that lurk beneath the bleak badlands of the northern Great Plains. There you are, running through a drill, going down a routine checklist for launch readiness, when suddenly you get what seems like a real launch order. Not a drill. Get ready to twist your launch keys in their slots and send anywhere from one to 50 missiles rocketing toward Russia. World War III is under way.
Or is it? Your launch order codes are “authenticated,” everything seems in order, the seconds tick away. But in what may be the last seconds of your life—for all you know Soviet missiles are about to rain down on the plains—a thought crosses your mind. About “authentication.” It’s supposed to ensure that the launch order comes from the president himself, or (if the president has been killed) from the surviving head of the nuclear chain of command.
But what about that person at the top of the chain of command, the person who gives the order? Has he been “authenticated”? Who authenticates the authenticator? Can the president start a nuclear war on his own authority—his own whim or will—alone? The way Brigadier Gen. Jack D. Ripper did in Dr. Strangelove? What if a president went off his meds, as we’d say today, and decided to pull a Ripper himself? Or what if a Ripper-type madman succeeded in sending a falsely authenticated launch order? You’re about to kill 10 million people, after all.
How the End Begins. By Ron Rosenbaum.Such a scenario was not inconceivable at the time when Maj. Hering was going through missile training class at Vandenberg Air Force base. Bruce Blair (then a missile crewman himself, a wing commander in charge of 200 minuteman missiles, and now the head of the nuclear abolitionist Global Zero Initiative) discloses in my book that he had figured out a way to launch all 200 of his “birds” without authorization. Good thing he’s a very stable guy.
But you’ve probably read about Richard Nixon acting erratically, drinking heavily as Watergate closed in on him. You may not have read about the time he told a dinner party at the White House, “I could leave this room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.” (Try that line out at one of your dinner parties. I’ve always found it a good conversation starter.)
Anyway, back down there in your launch capsule you might allow yourself to wonder: “This launch order, is this for real or for Nixon’s indigestion?”
If you were asking yourself that question, you wouldn’t be the only one. James Schlesinger, secretary of defense at that time, No. 2 in the nuclear chain of command, was reported to be so concerned about Nixon’s behavior that he sent word down the chain of command that if anyone received any “unusual orders” from the president they should double-check with him before carrying them out.
So there you are, having just received the order to launch nuclear genocide. Should you suppress any doubts, twist your launch key in the slot simultaneously with your fellow crewman and send death hurtling toward millions of civilians halfway around the world? Without asking questions? That’s what you’re trained to do, not ask questions. Trainees who asked questions were supposed to be weeded out by the Air Force’s “psychiatric consideration of human reliability” requirement. I’ve read this absurd Strangelovian document, which defined sane and reliable as being willing to kill 10 or 20 million people with the twist of a wrist, no questions asked.
Maj. Hering decided to ask his question anyway, regardless of consequences: How could he know that an order to launch his missiles was “lawful”? That it came from a sane president, one who wasn’t “imbalance[d]” or “berserk,” as Maj. Hering’s lawyer eventually, colorfully put it?
Hering needed a lawyer because as soon as he asked the question he was yanked out of missile training class, and after two years of appeals, eventually had to leave the Air Force, trade in a launch key for the ignition keys to an 18-wheeler.