How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence? Part 6

Drug or alcohol abuse is another potential source of irrationality in nuclear deterrence. This problem has affected a number of top nuclear decision makers, including JFK, Richard Nixon, Boris Yeltsin, and Tony Blair.

Along with a number of other celebreties, John F. Kennedy received massive doses of amphetamines from Dr. Max Jacobson, known to his clients as “Miracle Max” for the effect of his treatments. A New York Sun article reports:

Truman Capote found Jacobson’s shots caused “instant euphoria. You feel like Superman. You’re flying. Ideas come at the speed of light. You go 72 hours straight without so much as a coffee break.” … long-term use of amphetamines in Jacobson-size doses can cause paranoia and symptoms of schizophrenia, and discontinuing it suddenly often causes sudden extreme depression …

Mutual friends introduced JFK to Jacobson during the 1960 campaign. The first shot elevated his mood. From then on, it was clear sailing. Miracle Max shot up the president before the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the major state addresses, and even the 1961 Vienna summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. Secret Service files and the White House gate log confirm that Jacobson saw JFK no fewer than 34 times through May 1962. … 

When Kennedy photographer Mark Shaw, another Jacobson patient, died in 1969 at age 47, the city’s chief medical examiner concluded Shaw had died of “acute and chronic intravenous amphetamine poisoning.” [Jacobson’s medical license was revoked in 1975.]

We caught a glimpse of President Nixon’s drinking problem in the last installment in this series, and an article in the Atlantic claims:

[Kissinger aide Roger] Morris says. “Nixon drank exceptionally at night and there were many nights when you couldn’t reach him at Camp David.” … [At Kissinger’s request,] Morris often listened in on Kissinger’s conversations [and witnessed] an obviously drunk Nixon. “There were many times when a cable would come in late and Henry would say, ‘There’s no sense waking him up—he’d be incoherent,'” Morris recalls. The young aide was frightened by the idea of a President who was not fully competent after sundown. He often wondered what would happen if the Soviet Union attacked at night. … [John Ehrlichman] refused to work on Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968 unless Nixon promised to stop drinking.

Formerly secret telephone conversations of Henry Kissinger provide additional evidence of Nixon’s drinking problem: On October 11, 1973, when British Prime Minister Edward Heath requested a phone conversation with Nixon during the crisis produced by the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger told his assistant, “Can we tell them no? When I talked to the president, he was loaded.”

While he was president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin frequently suffered from slurred speech and bizarre behavior. According to a review of a book based on taped interviews with President Clinton:

The drunken behaviour of Yeltsin, who was known for his fondness for vodka and died two years ago aged 76, were revealed by former US president Bill Clinton … [in] a new book The Clinton Tapes … Mr Clinton told how he was briefed by [the] secret service after they found Yeltsin standing outside [Blair House, where he was our guest] dressed in his underwear trying to hail a taxi. In a slurred speech he told the agents he wanted a pizza. The following night he eluded his Russian bodyguards to climb out of Blair House into the basement where he was initially mistaken for an intruder.

On page 613 of his memoirs, A Journey: My Political Life, Tony Blair admits that, while Prime Minister of Britain, his daily alcohol consumption was “definitely at the outer limit. Stiff whiskey or G&T before dinner, couple of glasses of wine or even half a bottle with it.” If it was illegal for Mr. Blair to have driven a car, how risky was it for him to have launch authority over Britain’s nuclear arsenal?

The above instances of drug and alcohol abuse were limited to known cases involving heads of state of nuclear powers. The true risk is magnified by the much larger number of people with the ability – which is different from the authority – to launch a nuclear attack, lose a nuclear weapon, or otherwise create an unacceptable nuclear risk.

Martin Hellman


This is part of a series on “How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence?” Here are links to each post: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, and Part 8.

How You Can Help If you agree that society’s complacency concerning nuclear may be unwarranted, please sign our petition asking Congress to authorize a National Academies’ study of that risk, and encourage friends to do the same. My paper, “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism,” provides a brief, but more complete summary of the reasons such a study is needed.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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