Reagan, Trump, and the Nuclear Codes

Over at the National Security Archive you can peruse some recently declassified papers related to briefings and nuclear war exercises that Ronald Reagan participated in during his first term in office. The experience, I warn you, will be disturbing.

For starters, it’s alarming to realize how slowly the new president was brought up to speed. It’s true that even before he was sworn in he received some vital information. For example, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman David Jones had a discussion with the president-elect on “our nuclear forces and their relationship to the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SlOP)” and a White House military aide named Major John Kline, USMC, provided “an overview of the White House Emergency Plans (WHEP) and described some of the communications procedures that we would use in the event of an attack.”

But, when Reagan was shot by John Hinckley on March 30th, 1981, he still hadn’t been fully briefed on what his options would be in the event that the Russians launched a surprise nuclear attack on our country.

The attempted assassination and Reagan’s physical recovery may have delayed further briefings, but in mid-November 1981 the president took what amounted to an accelerated course in command-and-control. On 15 November, on his way back from Texas, he flew on the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) and received a briefing by General Philip Gast (J-3) on the National Military Command System (NMCCS). The following day, Major Kline provided him with additional detail concerning the “black bag” (or “suitcase” as the “football” was also known). Finally, on 17 November, Reagan met with JCS Chairman Jones at the National Military Command Center (NMCC) for a briefing on U.S. Strategic Forces and a run-through of a simulated missile attack conference.

That this didn’t occur until a year after Reagan was elected is disturbing, especially when you realize that less than two years later, in early November 1983, we came close to instigating a first-strike reaction from the Soviets with a provocative series of military exercises in Europe called Able Archer.

Here’s something else you probably don’t want to know:

Sharper understanding at high levels of the grave danger of nuclear war was one consequence of a Defense Department nuclear war game that occurred in mid-1983. In the “Proud Prophet” game, among the lead players were JCS Chairman John W. Vessey and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger. According to Paul Bracken’s account, during the game Vessey and Weinberger followed standard policies constructed for crises; as a U.S.-Soviet conflict escalated, their actions initiated a major nuclear war. “The result was a catastrophe” in which “a half billion human beings were killed in the initial exchanges and at least that many more would have died from radiation and starvation.” Bracken argues that Proud Prophet had a chastening and moderating impact on the Reagan administration’s rhetoric and thinking about nuclear war, but much needs to be learned about the game and its impact. The Product Prophet report remains massively excised and it is unknown even if or when Weinberger briefed Reagan on it.

It would be nice to know if Casper Weinberger did or did not brief the president on the fact that their war games had resulted in a billion people dying.

During the recent presidential campaign, the prospect of Donald Trump having responsibility for the nuclear codes was a recurring theme, since that’s an absurdly ridiculous risk that no one should have countenanced. Many people felt the same way about Ronald Reagan, since his rhetoric was unnaturally bellicose. However, Reagan was never a fan of nuclear weapons and he grew to fear them with real urgency once he saw how he was expected to use them and came to understand how close we had come to a nuclear exchange in 1983. He made nuclear disarmament a priority.

Donald Trump, at least so far, is more interested in boosting our nuclear arsenal. His comments on nuclear weapons have been incoherent and terrifying, ranging from a lack of familiarity with the term “nuclear triad,” to a stated preference that countries as varied as Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia develop their own nuclear weapons programs, to expressing a willingness to use them against ISIS, to a recent tweet calling for the United States to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.”

There’s probably a little bit of Alex Jones in each of us, but I don’t think it’s entirely crazy to worry that Vladimir Putin might conclude that our country would be helpless to retaliate against a nuclear first strike with a captured buffoon like Donald Trump on the other end of the strike response. In 1982, when it was determined that Reagan was woefully under-informed about how to conduct a retaliatory response, it was his National Security Adviser who addressed it.

Reagan’s aides did not believe that he knew enough about the SIOP and related procedures in a nuclear crisis, so during February 1982 the new national security adviser, William Clark, made arrangements for the president to receive a fuller briefing. In addition, the dates for a high level nuclear command post exercise, IVY LEAGUE 82, were approaching (1-5 March 1982) and national security officials believed that Reagan needed more information on the SIOP so he could better understand the exercise when he sat in on some of the sessions.

But, in this case, the National Security Adviser is a man who was recently on Putin’s payroll and sat at his right hand during a dinner celebrating the anniversary of the launch of Russia Today or RT, the Kremlin’s propaganda news agency.

I don’t think Putin wants to blow up the United States, but he’s arranged things so that he might be able to do so with impunity. Let’s just say that the mutually assured part of mutually assured destruction is looking a little frayed around the edges.

We’re seriously about to give the nuclear football to a narcissistic and revenge-minded simpleton, whose disposition and top advisers are more aligned with Russia’s interests than our own.

So, yeah, you probably don’t want to look too closely at those newly classified documents at the National Security Archives. Not if you want to sleep, anyway.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.