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No one person should be able to start a nuclear war

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

By Maryland Delegate Pamela E. Queen

“Our moral imperative is to work with all our powers for that day when the children of the world grow up without the fear of nuclear war.” — Ronald Reagan

MD Delegate Pamela Queen, MD Delegate and WAND Board Member Ana Sol Gutierrez, and MD Delegate Angela Gibson at the 2017 WiLL/WAND National Conference

As women, mothers, and legislators who grew up experiencing the schoolhouse “duck and cover” drills and imminent threat of nuclear war, we thought — like most Americans — that the threat of nuclear war had waned. This past year has turned that thinking on its head — and added to our fears.

President Trump threatened a new arms race with Russia before even taking office. Not long after, he was threatening North Korea with “fire and fury.”That episode was followed by tweets about whose “nuclear button” was bigger. Frightened residents of Hawaii were sent a terrifying warning of an incoming missile attack. In February, Time magazine’s cover story, “Making America Nuclear Again,” outlined the Trump administration’s aggressive plan to spend well over a trillion of our tax dollars — a sum most people can barely begin to imagine — on new nuclear weapons. In March, Russia threatened the US in return. Then he violated a working nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, also known as the Iran Deal).

This ominous trend reverses a 30-year bipartisan consensus in favor of steadily reducing the world’s nuclear arsenals through mutual and verifiable agreements. It also occurs in the context of an unprecedented level of erratic decision-making.

Every American should understand one core fact: the president has the sole and unchecked authority to start a nuclear war — even if the United States has not been attacked or declared war.

It is that simple. While the president might choose to consult with members of his Cabinet, congressional leaders, or Pentagon officials, there is no requirement to do so. If he gives the order, the discussion is over. If a military commander refuses to execute his order (and they might), he has the power to relieve them of their duties on the spot and immediately replace them.

Once the missiles are in flight, there is no calling them back. We should be clear that any attack on another nuclear power would unquestionably be met with massive retaliation and a catastrophic loss of American lives.

This reality places far too much power in the hands of a single individual. There is no system of checks and balances. As it stands, the status quo policy on ordering a nuclear attack bets the lives of every American on one person’s decision-making.

It is also profoundly undemocratic: the framers of the U.S. Constitution specifically warned against concentrating too much power in the hands of the president. They explicitly placed the decision to start a war in the hands of the Congress. While they could not have imagined a nuclear-armed future, we can be certain they would be dismayed at the current presidential launch authority.

We cannot be silent. As mothers and fathers, as members of our community, and — in my case — as a State legislator, we have not only a right, but a responsibility, to raise our voices.

That is why we are supporting a growing national effort to demand that Congress fix this problem. Here in Maryland, I introduced Joint Resolution 12, a bill in the state legislature that directs our Congressional delegation to take action to limit the president’s authority for first-strike nuclear weapon use. I am joined in this campaign by women legislators in CA, IL, VT, MN, GA, MA, IA. In a year that has seen enormous gains in the political empowerment of women, it makes perfect sense to us for women to take the lead in making our communities safer. Plainly stated, we don’t believe one man — any man — should hold our fate, our children’s fate, and our community’s fate in his hands.

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