President's Dilemma

General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, started a minor controversy in responding to a question by saying that he would not obey a president’s illegal command for a nuclear strike.  Of course, he was completely correct in his response.  He explained further that he would advise the president on a legal approach and an appropriate course of action would then be worked out.

The much deeper question was not asked:  What would the general do if the president ordered a perfectly legal, but profoundly immoral, nuclear strike?  The trials at Nuremburg were precisely about this question.

This second question illuminates the most important burden carried by our president.  This is the kind of burden that prematurely ages a vigorous individual.  This is also the most important question that should confront us as we judge a candidate for the presidency.  We cannot afford to have someone who lacks a strong moral foundation occupying the Oval Office.

In my estimation we have only had one president who faced the issue head-on and made the right decision about this dread challenge.  That man was Ronald Reagan.

In 1983 President Reagan called for a robust missile defense program to be called the “Strategic Defense Initiative.”  This idea, which many thought to be childish, was sarcastically named “Star Wars.”  The name stuck because of its positive associations and was adopted by those actually favoring missile defense.  The next year the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was established to implement Reagan’s intentions.

Shortly thereafter I was invited to join a small, high level, working group supporting SDIO.  This group of senior aerospace industry executives, program managers and engineers was chartered to do a top-level design of a new multi billion dollar National Laboratory.  Among several things relating to the SDIO mission, the new laboratory would provide the technical foundations for the Government’s missile defense architecture.  For months we worked hard at the task with meetings sometimes starting before breakfast and ending just before midnight.  The proposed laboratory now exists.  It is Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

Don, a vice president of TRW, was leader of the working group.  It was in casual conversations with him that I first became aware of what must have been going through the mind of President Reagan when he called for the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Several years before, then-Governor Reagan sent out an inquiry to industry for information about strategic defense and what might be done about it.  Perhaps Reagan was just curious, as he had already been exposed to the subject through a lecture by the nuclear physicist Edward Teller.  Perhaps, also, he was beginning to think about running for resident and wanted to be prepared.  In any event, Don was selected to brief the governor.

Now Don had given this kind of briefing to politicians several times before and was well prepared. Don had two sets of charts: kindergarten level for politicians and a backup set covering some of the technical details.  Don was in for a big surprise.  He was only into a few of the low level charts when Reagan started quizzing him on relatively advanced specifics about strategic defense.  Even Don’s higher level charts did not provide sufficient information to answer the governor’s questions.  It was clear that Governor Reagan was thinking well ahead on the subject.  The two of them agreed to meet again with Don being presented with a set of questions that the governor wanted answered.  This led to a series of meetings.

They soon got into the weeds:  Disarming strikes verses population annihilation.  Boost phase verses terminal defense.  What to do about decoys.  How to manage operational command and control.  How to manage deployments so as to maintain deterrence stability.  Cost control.

The political issues were beyond Don’s charter – they were left for Reagan to mull over.  Governor Reagan soaked up all this information and dove even deeper.  At the end of each meeting Reagan posed further questions for Don to research and answer.

Don told me that Ronald Reagan stood head and shoulders above all the people he had briefed in terms of intelligence and creativity and mastery of detail.  I subsequently heard the same opinion from some of my other acquaintances who had gotten to know Reagan.

Through it all one question remained hanging in the air:  what to do about innocent civilians caught in the nuclear cross fire?  The question was never answered.

Time passed and Governor Reagan became President Reagan.  He was now faced with this question for real:  what to do about innocent civilians?  Now President Reagan was caught in what we might call the “President’s Dilemma.”

Consider the following nightmare scenario:  It is the early 1980’s.  Ronald Reagan is newly installed as president.  Despite Nixon’s Opening to China, ever since the last stages of the Viet Nam war, relations with China have been deteriorating.  Now, they have reached the crisis stage.  China decides to roll the dice.  They launch a massive nuclear missile strike against the people of the United States.  The Chinese reason that the American retaliation will kill a great many Chinese, but their key industries and their cadres are safely underground and will survive and flourish in the post war world.  Most of their population, being rural, will likewise survive.  A world with a destroyed America is a tantalizing prospect.

As the crisis built up the president was safely sequestered somewhere in the remote Virginia countryside.  Minute by minute he receives reports as the Chinese warheads arc around the Earth.  What can we do to stop them, he asks.  We can do nothing, he is told. 

The Chinese missiles in that era were relatively primitive and inaccurate.  The Chinese therefore targeted cities.  Not all the Chinese missiles work as planned, not all the warheads actually explode on target. But enough do that the American population is decimated – several tens of millions of Americans are dead.

What does President Reagan do now?  Long established doctrine says he must launch a massive retaliation against the population of China as well as against its industrial and military centers.  But Ronald Reagan is a moral man.  He knows that following the doctrine, following the law, will result in maybe hundreds of millions of innocent victims.  They may be Chinese but they are also husbands, wives and children.  They are human beings, just like Americans.

The president faces a dilemma.  Follow the law, follow established doctrine, and commit mass murder on a stupendous scale.  Or, absorb the loss of American life and not respond with nuclear force.  He knows that the latter choice means he likely will be hung by his fellow citizens who are out for bloody revenge.  But the latter choice may be the only moral choice.

We cannot know if a scenario such as this troubled President Reagan’s thoughts.  But something much like it must have occurred to him, for he sought a better way.  The key to that better way was clearly the means to intercept those missiles so that no American need die.  This he actually said when calling for his missile defense program.

The irony in all this is that President Reagan could tell no one, not even his closest advisors, what he would do in an eventuality such as described above.  If he even so much as hinted that he might not retaliate with nuclear weapons then the deterrent value of those weapons would be lost.

Until proper defenses are in place, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and the promise of massive nuclear retaliation must be maintained – even if the president understands that the doctrine is merely a myth.  There is no way to predict what a moral president would do in this extremity.  MAD is a myth that poses the President’s Dilemma.

After Reagan, foolish presidents immediately scaled back missile defense R&D almost to the point of extinction.  Consequently, we have now only a weak deployed missile defense system.  Thus the President’s Dilemma remains to haunt our current president.