Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, has dropped a nuclear bombshell, metaphorically speaking. Shelton’s recently released memoirs Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, assert that President Clinton lost a card containing key phrases needed for ordering a nuclear strike, and that the codes were missing for months. This confirms a similar allegation, made in 2004 by Lt. Col. Robert Patterson, a military aide who frequently carried the “nuclear football” during the Clinton presidency.
Coming just three days after my Col. Strangelove post, this revelation helps illuminate the level of risk posed by nuclear weapons. Other examples of human fallibility within the nuclear weapons complex:
- In 2007, the US Air Force lost six nuclear warheads for well over a day, during which time they were improperly guarded. The fact that live warheads were in a location where they could be mistaken for dummies is disconcerting in and of itself.
- President Kennedy was given amphetamines by Dr. Max Jacobson. Known as “Dr. Feelgood” and “Miracle Max” because of the massive amphetamine doses administered to his clients. Kennedy photographer Mark Shaw, also a Jacobson client, died in 1969 from “acute and chronic intravenous amphetamine poisoning.” Jacobson’s medical license was revoked in 1975.
- Some reports attributed Boris Yeltsin’s bizarre behavior to alcoholism. Whatever the cause, his behavior often seemed incompatible with the responsibilities of a world leader capable of starting a nuclear war.
- George W. Bush and his wife have admitted that his use of alcohol impaired their relationship prior to his becoming president. There have been allegations that Bush’s alcohol problem may have been more serious and lasted longer than admitted.
- Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent memoirs acknowledge that he often had a “stiff whisky or G and T before dinner, couple of glasses of wine or even half a bottle with it.” At a minimum, this would mean that he might have to make a decision involving the use of nuclear weapons when he was impaired enough that it would be illegal to drive a car.
- There were reports that, prior to President Nixon’s resignation as a result of the growing Watergate scandal, he “broached the possibility of suicide … [seriously enough that White House Chief of Staff] Gen. Haig ordered doctors to take away Nixon’s tranquilizers and deny his requests for pills.”
- Some religious groups welcome chaos, including nuclear war, as ushering in an apocalyptic end to a sinful world. Of particular relevance to American nuclear policy is the belief by some Christians that certain Biblical prophesies – notably the Battle of Armageddon – are necessary precursors to the Second Coming of Christ. There is evidence that a number of prominent American political figures have been influenced by such thinking, though to what extent is an open question.
Human error is just one component of the risk and, when all factors are considered, my research indicates that depending on nuclear weapons is as dangerous as living in a town surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants.