Apr 7, 2017


President Richard Nixon once boasted that at any moment he could pick up a telephone and - in 20 minutes - kill 60 million people.  Such is the power of the US President over the nation’s nuclear arsenal.  But what if you were the military officer on the receiving end of that phone call? Could you refuse the order?

This episode, we profile one Air Force Major who asked that question back in the 1970s and learn how the very act of asking it was so dangerous it derailed his career. We also pick up the question ourselves and pose it to veterans both high and low on the nuclear chain of command. Their responses reveal once and for all whether there are any legal checks and balances between us and a phone call for Armageddon.

Reported by Latif Nasser. Produced by Annie McEwen and Simon Adler with production help from Arianne Wack. 

Special thanks to: Elaine Scarry, Sam Kean, Ron Rosenbaum, Lisa Perry, Ryan Furtkamp, Robin Perry, Thom Woodroofe, Doreen de Brum, Jackie Conley, Sean Malloy, Ray Peter, Jack D’Annibale, Ryan Pettigrew at the Nixon Presidential Library and Samuel Rushay at the Truman Presidential Library.

Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.   

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists







HAROLD HERING: And so your name again is?


CEDRIC: Cedric.


HAROLD HERING: Cedric. I'm gonna write that down.


CEDRIC: And they're on the line now, so you'll be able to talk to them.


ROBERT KRULWICH: So Harold can you hear ...?


HAROLD HERING: Yes, hello?


ROBERT: Hi. Okay.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD ABUMRAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: This is Radiolab.


JAD: And a little while ago, our producer Latif Nasser brought us the story about a guy.


HAROLD HERING: My name is Harold Hering. I use the middle initial 'L' for Louis in honor of my father.


JAD: Who asked a question.


ROBERT: It was a pretty simple question.


JAD: Maybe a dangerous question?


ROBERT: Maybe a dangerous question. Certainly just the mere asking of it pretty much ruined the man's life.


JAD: And he never got an answer.


ROBERT: No. But today on Radiolab, we are going to re-ask Harold's question, and this time ...


JAD: We get an answer.


ROBERT: And Latif Nasser takes it from here.


LATIF NASSER: Yeah. So our main guy Harold, he's former military and he's 81 years old.


HAROLD HERING: I'm staying pretty active. I'm competing at the national and the world level at duathlon competition.




LATIF: And right off the bat, this is the kind of guy you could tell he just does not give up.


HAROLD HERING: I really am not supposed to be competing because I've had both knees replaced. But anyway ...


LATIF: So Harold grew up in this tiny town called Browns, Illinois, from a poor family. He was the eldest of 11 kids. When he was growing up, he would always hear Air Force planes flying overhead, and that's why from when he was very young he always wanted to be an Air Force pilot.


ROBERT: So why don't you just tell us a little bit about your military background?


HAROLD HERING: Well, most of my career was with the Air Rescue Service.


LATIF: This was in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. And if an Air Force pilot went down ...


HAROLD HERING: Got shot down, whatever.


LATIF: Harold and his team would jump into their helicopters.


HAROLD HERING: Two Jolly Green heavy-lift helicopters.


LATIF: They'd fly him in, hover over the survivors on the ground.


HAROLD HERING: Lowering the hoist cable.


LATIF: And then a para-rescue man would climb down to the forest floor, find the injured soldier and attach the cable to him.




LATIF: And while that was happening, Harold had to hold the helicopter steady. He had to hold his hover.


HAROLD HERING: And a lot of times the enemy would wait until that process started before they opened fire. I had some wonderful experiences, probably chief among them was my crew and I, we picked up a pilot that ejected into the North Sea at night in the wintertime.




HAROLD HERING: 200 miles out to sea. And we picked him up and brought him back.


LATIF: So it was a super high-risk, high-adrenaline kind of job.


HAROLD HERING: And I had an outstanding record.


LATIF: And then, well ...




LATIF: He got old.


LATIF: How old were you around this time?


HAROLD HERING: Oh, about 30. I was old. [laughs] Pilots my age and with my experience were put into desk jobs, and I wanted to be on the front line if I could.


LATIF: This was 1973, middle of the Cold War. So Harold decided that the way for him to be on the front lines without actually having to be on the front lines, you know, because he couldn't anymore, was to go into training to become a missileer.


HAROLD HERING: A missile launch officer.


LATIF: Those are the people who sit in a underground bunker and just wait to get an order to turn their key and unleash a nuclear attack.


HAROLD HERING: In training I mean, you just -- the information I can remember just virtually verbatim, is that each missile launch officer has under his direct control more firepower than all generals in all wars in the history of warfare.


LATIF: And so Harold started his training at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Nixon was president at the time, and at the time the prospect of nuclear war felt very real.


HAROLD HERING: There was a lot of responsibility there and there's no room for error.


LATIF: And so in Harold's training ...


HAROLD HERING: We were a very small class.


LATIF: He learned all about the technical stuff.


HAROLD HERING: You know, all the mechanical stuff and the emergency procedures that were involved.


LATIF: All the nitty-gritty details of how a missile actually launched.


HAROLD HERING: And then part of the time we had classroom instruction.


LATIF: Where he learned about the chain of command, and all the different safeguards and checks.




LATIF: So imagine that he gets an order to launch. That order has to be decoded, so he would decode the order and then his partner would decode the order, and then they would verify it with one another. So one guy would be like, "Okay. I got the order Alpha Bravo One Two Four." And then his partner would say, "I confirm. Alpha Bravo One Two Four." And then they launch. So neither of them has the power to launch on his or her own.


HAROLD HERING: And both of you were armed. You carried a sidearm with you.




HAROLD HERING: Well, you know, it's serious business, and if you had someone that was -- you know, if they threatened your life ...


LATIF: If one of the officers wanted to just go rogue ...


HAROLD HERING: You had a sidearm too.


ROBERT: Well, if I took my gun and pointed it at you and said, "Turn the key, Harold."


HAROLD HERING: I wouldn't do it. I may go down, but I'd be drawing my weapon.


ROBERT: And these keys have to be turned simultaneously, so if I shoot you, turn my key then run over, get your key and turn your key, it's too late, right? It has to be a simultaneous ...




LATIF: So the whole point is the system is designed so that no one person can launch a nuclear attack.


HAROLD HERING: I was very pleased, very satisfied with the checks and balances at the crew member level.


LATIF: You know, the bottom where they're turning the keys.


HAROLD HERING: I was not concerned about that at all.


LATIF: But then a few weeks into training ...


HAROLD HERING: There was some discussion about pre-emptive strike.


LATIF: Real quick. Obviously, if someone launched a nuclear attack against the US, we would be able to strike back, you know, in response. But a preemptive strike would be where we, for whatever reason, decided to strike first.


HAROLD HERING: And that raised the hair on the back of my neck a little bit. You know, it's just I thought we're receiving all of this information and about all these elaborate checks and balances within the system, but ...


LATIF: They never got any information about how things worked at the presidential level.


HAROLD HERING: There is a complete void or blackout at the level that the order is initiated.


ROBERT: When you had this thought did you say to the other classmates?


HAROLD HERING: No, I didn't. It wasn't my intent to try to create a scene by involving other people, students whatever. So ...


LATIF: Harold waits until the end of class, walks up to the front of the room and asks the instructor a question.


HAROLD HERING: A very reasonable question.


LATIF: He's like, "Just checking. There's a safety net in place if the president is making a crazy decision, right?"


HAROLD HERING: I wanted to find out more about checks and balances at the top level.


LATIF: And the instructor pauses, looks at him and says, "Can you put that in writing, please?"




LATIF: And so he did.


HAROLD HERING: Let me find it first. You do your best to have everything ready to go.


LATIF: No, no, no. Take your time. Yeah.


HAROLD HERING: Oh, here it is. Okay. "There's presently a degree of doubt in my mind as to whether I might someday to be called upon to launch nuclear weapons as a result of an invalid, unlawful order."


LATIF: This is part of the letter that Harold wrote explaining his question.


HAROLD HERING: "I asked myself, 'How will I know, or can I be sure I'm -- I am participating in a justifiable act?'"


LATIF: In his letter, he says that if he were ordered to turn his key he would absolutely do so, but because he had not been told what the checks and balances are for the President, he would be doing so with ...


HAROLD HERING: "... a conflict of conscience." Which I've underlined. "I would be required to assign blind faith values to my judgment of one man, the President. Values which could ultimately include health, personality and political considerations. This just should not be."


ROBERT: So we've got a guy training to be the person who pulls the trigger, and he's sitting there wondering, "Okay. There's a lot of checks on me, but who's checking the President?"


JAD: And this struck us as a really kind of serious question. Because right now we have a president, President Trump, who is clearly interested in nuclear weapons. He talks about it constantly.


ROBERT: You got the thing with North Korea.


JAD: Yeah, escalating tensions with North Korea. Syria, for chrissakes. Sort of makes you stop and think like okay, if and when these decisions get made, how are they made? Is there someone else in the room?


ROBERT: Yeah, and who? If the president is -- is determined. If he -- if he's ready to go, is there somebody there who can turn to the President and say "Stop?"


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: That is a great question.


LATIF: This is historian Alex Wellerstein. He's the one who introduced us to Harold. He wrote an article in the Washington Post about this very topic.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Am I at the right place?


LATIF: Yeah, you tend to want to be just like a fist's-length away. Yeah, perfect.


LATIF: And he has spent so much time in just archives, behind microfilm readers, and FOIAing documents and doing all kinds of different things to figure out the history of our relationship to this uniquely destructive weapon. And -- and what he found was a kind of tug of war between the military and the President that has gone back more than 70 years.


[NEWS CLIP: As the nation is plunged into mourning by President Roosevelt's death, Harry S. Truman becomes President. The seventh American president ...]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Truman learned he had a bomb the day that Roosevelt died.




LATIF: This is April 1945. At this point, America has been at war with Japan for over three years.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: It was impressed upon Truman that this was not just another weapon. That this was something that could be bigger and better than any other weapon before. But there's no point at which somebody says, "Hey, Mr. President should we bomb Japan with this bomb?" It's assumed that of course you're gonna do it. You have the bomb, you have the enemy. And in fact, nobody ever goes to Truman and says, "Should we do this?"


ROBERT: Really?


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: They go to him and they say, "We are doing this." So Truman writes in his journal, "We're going to use the atomic bomb, but we will not use it on a civilian target. We will use it on a purely military target." That's the term.


ROBERT: Purely military.




LATIF: Now we can't get into his head to know exactly what he was thinking, but that is what he wrote in his journal at the time.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: And then he says, "We will not be killing women and children."


ROBERT: So the first atomic bomb is gonna be dropped by a president who thinks that he's dropping it on soldiers only.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: He's somewhat congratulating himself on that no women and children will be killed in this attack.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Harry S. Truman: The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base.]


LATIF: That's part of Truman's announcement after they dropped the bomb.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: The day after, they get casualty estimates from the Japanese, and he realizes this is not purely a military base.


[NEWS CLIP: There is reason to believe that the Japanese city of Hiroshima, approximately the size of Memphis or Seattle or Rochester, New York, no longer exists.]


LATIF: The total death toll was almost 200,000.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: So there's a real switch that happens between Truman talking about the bomb, and also everything he says about the bomb before he hears about the casualties is how it's about the greatest thing ever, and this is the greatest day in history, and he's so proud and so happy. And then he hears about the casualties and he hears about the women and children, and suddenly it becomes a burden.


ROBERT: Now what happens?


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: So on August 10th, he gets a message from General Groves.


[NEWS CLIP: Nagasaki. Just three days after Hiroshima ...]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: That says, "We dropped two bombs. We're gonna have a third one in a week, just FYI." And it's not clear that Truman knew that two bombs were gonna be dropped so soon.




ALEX WELLERSTEIN: So he has just learned that Hiroshima is a city when he just learns that another city gets destroyed. He is not in control.




ALEX WELLERSTEIN: And he has immediately written back to them and says, "Just stop. Knock it off. You are not gonna drop another bomb without express permission of the President of the United States." So the major theme of Truman's approach to nuclear weapons is to keep them out of the hands of the military.


ROBERT: Hmm. Why?


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: He believes that the military, if you give them a new weapon, they will use it. It's not a crazy idea.


LATIF: So they actually start to design and build these bombs to make sure the military can't launch them on its own.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: The nuclear parts of the bomb have to be in the possession of the civilians.


ROBERT: The nuclear parts. So the plutonium.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: The plutonium. The core.


LATIF: Right.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: And the early bombs allow you to do that. The fronts of them actually open up and allow you to stick the core in and close it back up.




ROBERT: So the civilians walk into the room with the explosive part, the soldiers open the lid.




ROBERT: The civilians put the explosive part in, close the door, now you have an active bomb.


LATIF: So it's like putting in a battery or something almost, like into your Walkman. Why do I have that analogy? Am I, like, an 80 year old?


ROBERT: Where does the President put the nuclear part?


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: They have their own vaults with their own guys with their own guns. And their job is to shoot anybody who tries to take a core without presidential authorization.




LATIF: So for the rest of his presidential term, Truman doesn't budge. The nuclear power is his and his alone.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: But the technology starts to make it trickier to do this. If you want a very small atomic bomb, you can't separate the pit out from that. It's just not gonna happen. It's physically, like, glued to the explosives and things like that.


LATIF: So it's 1953, just a few years before Harold entered the military.


[NEWS CLIP: The Commander-In-Chief returns to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he served ...]


LATIF: President Eisenhower comes to power. And he's a former General.




LATIF: And so he's a little bit less concerned about who has control over these nuclear weapons. So he eases up a little bit.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: And he says in his administration, atomic weapons, small ones, are to be treated as basically any other kind of weapon.


[NEWS CLIP: A nuclear age arsenal of awesome proportions!]


LATIF: This is archival footage from 1960, when President Eisenhower is getting a first look at some of the newest additions to the nuclear arsenal.


[NEWS CLIP: He pulls out his binoculars to watch helicopters and foot soldiers in the field.]


LATIF: At that time, they were getting really creative with their new nuclear weapons.


[NEWS CLIP: That bazooka-like weapon is the red eye, a one-man operated missile launcher.]


ROBERT: Does he continue to maintain authority over the bigger bombs?


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: He allows them to be transferred to the military, but he says, "Don't drop them without my permission."




ALEX WELLERSTEIN: But there are some cases in which he says, "Under really bad circumstances, you can use some of these weapons without my permission."


LATIF: So compared to Truman, he's really shifting that power back to the military.




[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dwight D. Eisenhower: Good evening, my fellow citizens.]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: By the time Kennedy is the president ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John F. Kennedy: It is an ironic but accurate fact ...]


LATIF: 1961. Harold is 24. He's a pilot in the Air Force.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, John F. Kennedy: That the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation.]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: The Soviet capabilities are greatly increased. So ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: That signal means to stop whatever you are doing and get to the nearest safe place fast.]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: You get real anxieties. And some of these anxieties bubble up in popular -- these are kind of out there.


[ARCHIVE CLIP: (singing) So long, mom. I'm off to drop the bomb. So don't wait up for me.]


LATIF: At this point, popular culture is saturated in nuclear fear.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, movie dialogue: First thing will be a white light that'll blinds us. Then a hot flame that'll burn ...]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, movie dialogue: Take it easy!]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, movie dialogue: I don't want to die!]


LATIF: People are building bomb shelters. Kids in classrooms are practicing hiding under their desks.


[ARCHIVE CLIP: First you duck, and then you cover.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP: At this distance, the heat wave is sufficient to cause melting of the upturned eyeball.]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: You have bombers flying from the United States, and on these routes that take them near the Soviet borders. And the problem is you put up a lot of bombers.


LATIF: It's only a matter of time before ...


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: They'll expect one to crash or have a malfunction.


[NEWS CLIP: A SAC B-52 carrying hydrogen munitions ...]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: And so indeed there are a bunch of accidents where bombers crash with hydrogen bombs on board. They crash in Spain and drop hydrogen bombs. One of them are gets dropped on Greenland.


[NEWS CLIP: The Thule airbase, Greenland.]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: They crash in the United States numerous times. There's one in the South where a bomb basically lands on somebody's house.


ROBERT: An atomic bomb?


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: An atomic bomb.


LATIF: An atomic bomb landed on someone's house?


[NEWS CLIP: An atomic bomb breaks loose from a mounting shackle in a B-47 jet over Florence, South Carolina. Plummets to Earth.]


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: It didn't detonate.


[NEWS CLIP: Six were injured. The home of Walter Greg was turned into a shambles.]


LATIF: Oh my God, that would be the most terrifying thing. Imagine you're just brushing your teeth and then ...




LATIF: Atomic bomb!


ROBERT: And there's a knock on the door and say, "Excuse me. We're gonna remove this.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: So there's all these accidents.


LATIF: And on top of that, America is keeping a bunch of its bombs in bases all over the world.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: And they start to worry that some of these bases are not American bases, and there aren't that many Americans on them. So ...


LATIF: For instance, some nukes are kept at a base in Turkey.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Now Turkey's our friend, right? Not a problem.


LATIF: But they are, like, two American guys guarding these things.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: They have the keys to turn these missiles on. What do you need to do if Turkey wants to become a nuclear power?


ROBERT: Uh ...


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: They need to hit these guys over the head with a hammer and take the keys. Now Turkey's a nuclear power.




LATIF: Whoa!


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Yeah. This is more or less what Kennedy says.


LATIF: Yeah.


LATIF: So Kennedy actually has the exact same instinct that Truman did.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: He issues a directive which says no weapons can be kept overseas, unless they have locks on them. And the first versions of these are very crude. They're, like, literally combination locks.


ROBERT: Really? Like, bike locks?


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Yeah, they're pretty simple. So you're doing this technological enabling of this kind of vast political metaphor that the President is in control of these nuclear weapons at all times.


ROBERT: Mm-hmm.


LATIF: So it's like Truman wanted it close to the chest, and then Eisenhower wanted it out there, and then Kennedy now is pulling it back in.




LATIF: At the time, this felt safe. Who better to trust than the President with something so powerful it could end the world? And even after Kennedy, the laws around this solidify, the power stays with the president.




LATIF: But then, you get this guy.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Nixon: People have got to know whether or not their President's a crook.]


LATIF: Richard Milhous Nixon.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Nixon: Well, I'm not a crook.]


LATIF: And this feeling of safety, and really all trust in the presidency just starts to erode.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: So in the last days of his presidency, there's the Watergate break-in, there are all the investigations. Nixon was drinking more than the President perhaps ought to. He was under an intense amount of stress. He did a few things that made people uncomfortable.




LATIF: The most infamous moment like this happened in the summer of 1974.




LATIF: When all the Watergate stuff was really coming to a head.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: He was talking with two congressmen, and he was trying to impress upon them what a waste of time this quote "little burglary" was. And to give an example of how minor this was, he explained that his responsibilities were huge. If he wanted to, he could go into the other room, pick up a telephone and in 20 minutes 60 million people would be dead.


LATIF: Whoa!


ROBERT: He said this.




LATIF: And that's exactly the kind of situation Harold was thinking about when he asked his question. Like, since I'm the guy with my hand on the key, just kind of curious here, is there a system for making sure a President doesn't just walk into the other room, pick up the phone and order me to kill 60 million people?


HAROLD HERING: "There's presently a degree of doubt my mind."


LATIF: So he asks this question, first out loud, then he does it in writing.


HAROLD HERING: And then I was pulled out of training. I think it was about six days before graduation.


LATIF: That leads to a series of meetings with superior officers, where they basically tell him ...


HAROLD HERING: That I need to have more faith in our leaders. You know, not to question them. And I was told that I didn't have a need to know.


LATIF: That leads to a trial where he has this one meeting with this military judge who basically says, "Here, I have your question in my hand. I will tear it up and we can all forget this ever happened."


HAROLD HERING: But I still wanted the question answered.


LATIF: And then that leads to appeals. And he's writing letters.


HAROLD HERING: I would spend days and nights virtually continuously writing ...


LATIF: To congressmen.


HAROLD HERING: And writing and writing.


LATIF: To the President.


HAROLD HERING: But it really didn't matter at all what I had to say.


LATIF: And at that point he's basically like, "Okay, fine. I -- I don't want to be a launch officer anymore."


HAROLD HERING: I asked to be, you know, reassigned if they weren't going to give the information.


LATIF: But instead of reassigning him ...


HAROLD HERING: My promotion to lieutenant colonel was withheld. I was removed from flight status, so I no longer would get flight pay. I was then permanently disqualified from the human reliability program, and along with that my top secret security clearance was taken away from me. And once you have a security clearance removed and you're permanently disqualified, there's no hope for your career.






HAROLD HERING: I pursued every avenue available to me to have my military record corrected, and to have the findings reversed and to remain in the Air Force. Only after I exhausted all of my appeals was I ordered to be retired.


LATIF: What?


JAD: I don't -- why? Why? I mean, I know that, like, the whole military thing. You got to stay in your lane. You don't question your superiors. But why would they ...


ROBERT: It's such an innocent question.


JAD: He just asked a question. And why would they -- what's wrong with him asking the question? Why is it such a threat?


LATIF: Well, I'll tell you. Right after we take a break.


[TIMOTHY: This is Timothy Franzic calling from Stillwater, Minnesota. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]




JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. And so Latif, why was Harold's question such a threat?




LATIF: Well, here's how it was put to me.


SONYA MCMULLEN: You know, the other side has to know. The only reason -- the only way that -- let me phrase it this way.


LATIF: Sure.


SONYA MCMULLEN: The whole -- the whole premise is deterrence. That has been our founding philosophy since we developed these things.


LATIF: This is Dr. Sonya McMullen.


SONYA MCMULLEN: And I'm a former Air Force missileer.


LATIF: She had her hand on the nuclear keys from 1997 to 2001. And by deterrence, she means ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: There is only world peace where there was power to preserve order among nations.]


LATIF: We keep other countries from nuking us ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: B-52s represent a shield.]


LATIF: ... by making clear that if they do ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: The missiles are ready.]


LATIF: ... we'll nuke 'em right back.


SONYA MCMULLEN: But if the other side doesn't believe that you will respond in kind, then it doesn't work.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: You have to believe my threat is legit. I have to be credible.


LATIF: So if you're the guy whose hand is on the key when the order comes down to launch, there can't be any doubt that you will do what you are ordered to do.




ALEX WELLERSTEIN: So the problem with somebody like Harold is that you're -- if you start allowing people to -- at the bottom to start making up their mind, then it's not a credible threat because ...


ROBERT: So do you understand in your own mind why they had to have a committee to sit in judgment on him and review some sort of facts, or I don't know what ...


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: It's hard to know. I haven't seen their side of it. I'm filing to get access to that side. We'll see how that goes.


LATIF: Oh great! So I found this -- I actually just -- we got this this morning.


LATIF: So we actually ended up finding a statement by the Commander-In-Chief of the Strategic Air Command, General Russ Doherty.


LATIF: I don't know if you have seen it, Harold.


LATIF: And to be fair, we thought we should let Harold respond to it.


LATIF: Do you know what I'm talking about?


HAROLD HERING: No, but he was the SAC Commander-In-Chief of Strategic Air Command.


LATIF: Right. Right, right. And so let me just read to you what he said.




LATIF: "The Major's hesitation initiated extensive hearings and administrative procedures. Later, he professed that he really would turn keys and that his hesitation had been misunderstood. I examined the record thoroughly and discovered that, for a fact, he had repeated several times in the record that he would readily turn keys. Then in each instance, his affirmative assertion was followed immediately by a personal subjective qualification. Yes, he would turn keys upon receipt of an authentic order from proper authority; if he thought the order was legal; if he thought the circumstances necessitated an ICBM launch; if he was convinced that it was a rational moral necessity, and so on. Every affirmative answer was qualified by a subjective condition."


HAROLD HERING: No, no, no.


LATIF: No. Okay.


HAROLD HERING: I did not say that anywhere. Nowhere did I say that. Nowhere did I use those words. And I'm sorry, but that's just -- that's just false. That doesn't surprise me.


LATIF: According to Harold, he never wanted to doubt an order coming from the President.


HAROLD HERING: I assumed that there had to be some sort of check and balance, so that one man couldn't just on a whim order the launch of nuclear weapons.


LATIF: He just wanted to be told that something like that existed so that he and his fellow launch officers would not have to have a conflict of conscience.


HAROLD HERING: And we not put anybody in a position where they're just following orders and throwing our conscience to the four winds. I think it's an affront to play the game of, you don't have the need to know of someone that's doing one of the most serious, grave jobs that there is in the Armed Forces.


LATIF: And so since Harold never got an answer to his question, we decided to make it our question.


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Where do you get somebody who's allowed to question the President? Because we know that by the time you get to the bottom, there's no way that that's possible. So what about the guy above them? Let's say there's an officer whose one more up the tier. Is he gonna question the order? Well, I don't know. He's getting it from the generals who coordinate all of the nuclear attacks. If it got to him it must be a legitimate order, right? Maybe those top-level major heads of the military branches, maybe they get to. I don't know. And so my question is: where, if anywhere, if the President issues an order, can they, will they say no?


LATIF: After a lot of digging around, Alex says that he thinks ...


ALEX WELLERSTEIN: My guess is you're not allowed to question the President more than a couple steps down from the very top. If you're allowed to question the President at all, maybe the Secretary of Defense can do it.


LATIF: And when we talked to Sonya McMullen, our missileer, she also thought that the Secretary of Defense could probably provide a check.


SONYA MCMULLEN: The Secretary of Defense is the -- is the first person to say, "Hey, let's -- let's think about this. Let's think about this in detail."


BILL PERRY: All right, we're ready.




BILL PERRY: This is Bill Perry, formerly Secretary of Defense, 19th Secretary of Defense of the United States.


LATIF: So we decided to ask an actual Secretary of Defense. William Perry served under President Clinton from 1994 to 1997.




ROBERT: Let's just pretend for a moment that the President issues you an order that you disagree with, because you don't think the President is of right mind or sober or whatever. What authority do you have as Secretary of Defense, if any?


BILL PERRY: Well, the system is set up so that only the President has the authority to order a nuclear war. Nobody has the right to countermand that decision. He might choose to call the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to get his advice or his counsel, but even if he does that he may -- he may or may not accept that counsel.


ROBERT: If you as Secretary of Defense say to the President -- he says, "Let's go," and you say, "Let's not."


BILL PERRY: First of all, if he calls me.




BILL PERRY: And then if I say, "That -- Mr. President, that would be a very serious mistake. Don't do that." He might or might not accept my advice.


ROBERT: Are you necessary to launch? Like ...




ROBERT: No. Suppose everybody in the room thought that it was a bad idea, would he still be able to do it?


BILL PERRY: Yes. He has the call directly to the Strategic Air Command to do the launching, and they will respond to his orders. They don't call the Secretary of Defense or the Chairman and say, "Should I do this?" They do it.


BRUCE BLAIR: Yeah, so in our training we were conditioned almost like a Pavlovian dog.


LATIF: This is Dr. Bruce Blair. He was a missile launch officer at the exact time that Harold was training to become one, and ever since then he basically spent the whole rest of his career studying nuclear command and control.


BRUCE BLAIR: I wrote studies so classified that the Pentagon demanded that I not be allowed to read them anymore.


LATIF: And we asked him, like, why does it work like this? Why would we give one person that much power?


BRUCE BLAIR: It's always been -- it's always been set up that way.


ROBERT: Why would that be? What's the reason? Why?


BRUCE BLAIR: It came out of the Cold War, you know, in the 1960s. I don't know. It's ...


LATIF: By the 1960s, the US and the Soviet Union were building ICBMs, which were these nuclear missiles that could go from a silo in one country to a target in the other in a matter of minutes. So if the Soviets ever launch their missiles at us ...


BRUCE BLAIR: If we're under missile attack, there's very little time to assess the attack, to brief the President on his options.


LATIF: Because the assumption was that the Soviets would target our missiles.


HAROLD HERING: Our ICBMs. And they would be the first to go. And so therefore, the President has to decide whether to launch our ICBMs before the other missiles land.


BRUCE BLAIR: For any incoming missiles could destroy the command and control system, and that forces the President to make a decision on how to respond immediately, because missiles are flying in at four miles per second.


HAROLD HERING: It's about six or seven minutes to make that decision.


LATIF: Oof. Six minutes, wow!


BRUCE BLAIR: The decision process just is too short.


LATIF: For any kind of thoughtful or serious deliberation.


BRUCE BLAIR: And the pressure is intense. And there I think you would find that different Presidents would respond differently. And their character, their temperament, are they thinking people or are they intuitive people who respond instinctively? And so, you know, you would see a lot of variation in the way Presidents react to a nuclear emergency.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dick Cheney: The President of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football.]


LATIF: This is then Vice President Dick Cheney, also a former Secretary of Defense, talking on Fox News Sunday back in 2008.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dick Cheney: He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world's never seen. He doesn't have to check with anybody. He doesn't have to call the Congress. He doesn't have to check with the courts. He has that authority, because of the nature of the world we live in.]


HAROLD HERING: It bothers me immensely that the only area that there is not a check and balance is the one that can literally result in the end of the world. That seems strange to me.


ROBERT: Have you thought about this at all and wondered whether there's a better way to do this?


BILL PERRY: Yes, I have.


ROBERT: Yeah, what would you suggest?


BILL PERRY: I have specifically proposed and continue to propose unsuccessfully ...


ROBERT: Again, former Secretary of Defense William Perry.


BILL PERRY: ... that we phase out our ICBMs, and to the extent we have to have a nuclear deterrence, we limit it to submarines and airplanes because they don't have to launch in five minutes or six minutes or seven minutes.


LATIF: And when it comes to pre-emptive strikes, he says ...


BILL PERRY: We have before the Congress now a bill making a modification which says that unless -- unless the United States has been verifiably attacked, then the president has -- before he launches his nuclear weapons, has to go to Congress for permission.


TED LIEU: So our bill is very simple.


LATIF: This is congressman Ted Lieu, and he and Senator Ed Markey are the guys who authored the bill.


TED LIEU: It basically says before the President can launch a nuclear first strike, the President must first get a declaration of war from Congress.


LATIF: I believe that you introduced this bill before the election. Is that right?


TED LIEU: Absolutely. Senator Markey and I believe we need a structural fix. We believed actually Hillary Clinton was gonna be president, so this bill would have applied to her. And that's because the fate of humanity and our world should not rest on one person.


LATIF: And -- and -- wait, so are you seeing this as -- just as you're sizing this up, is this a systemic problem or is this a problem with one person who just happens to have the office right now?


TED LIEU: It's absolutely a systemic problem. And it's also a problem with the current person in the office of the President. But you can see future Presidents.


LATIF: Yeah.


TED LIEU: Right? That could be elected with judgment or temperament issues. Or maybe they simply go to advanced age and get Alzheimer's, right? Or some other sort of issue. That's why we can't have a system where there's so little checks and balances.


LATIF: Do you know about this bill, or have you heard of it?


SONYA MCMULLEN: No, actually I don't. And I -- that's interesting. That is a very interesting bill. That's -- let me say it this way.


LATIF: Yeah.


SONYA MCMULLEN: On one hand I agree because again, I always like to have checks and balances.


LATIF: Yeah.


SONYA MCMULLEN: On the other hand, I also think that it -- it says to a potential adversary, you know, now there's doubt.


ROBERT: So there are two sort of values here. One is your humane interest in making sure that the end of the world, if it comes to that, is happening for a good reason and a just reason, as best you can define it. And the ongoing hope that by making this -- our system credible, that we will never have an end of the world. So my question to you is like, how do you weigh those together?


SONYA MCMULLEN: Yeah. Well, and it's -- that's a dilemma.


LATIF: Yeah.


SONYA MCMULLEN: You know, that's a dilemma.


LATIF: So after the military forced Harold to retire, he became a truck driver.


HAROLD HERING: And once I got that job I made up my mind that I was gonna devote my time to making a living for my family and to that company, and I wasn't gonna be off dealing with this subject anymore.


LATIF: And eventually he started doing addiction counseling at the Salvation Army, mostly with homeless people.


LATIF: How -- what's your sort of emotional state around all this right now? Like, how often -- is this something you still think about? How -- what do you -- how do you feel right now?


HAROLD HERING: Well, I'm -- I'm just -- I think that common sense, I think the goodness in human beings begs for a resolution of this. I just think that the need for that is at least as great now as it's ever been in the history of our republic. And I might add on a personal level, that I had -- I mean, I was really committed to the military, to the Air Force. Volunteered several times, you know, to -- to do my duty with respect to the Vietnam War. And I just felt that I had asked a very reasonable question that deserved an answer. And -- and it was not for me alone, it was for all of us.


JAD: I keep thinking about those six minutes.


ROBERT: Not a long time.


JAD: No. Big props to reporter Latif Nasser. This story was produced by Annie McEwen with production help from Simon Adler.


ROBERT: And a big thank you to historian and reporter Ron Rosenbaum whose research we relied on in some part for this story.


JAD: And to our special consulting researcher Alex Wellerstein who is by day a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.


ROBERT: And to the US Air Force. To Captain Chris Mesnard and to Carla Pampy and to Lieutenant Esther Willette, and to Lieutenant Veronica Perez.


JAD: Also, thanks to Elaine Scarry, Ryan Pettigrew at the Nixon Presidential Library, Ryan Furtkamp, Robin Barry and Lisa Barry, Thom Woodroofe, Doreen de Brum, and Ray Peter. And finally, the Tampa Bay Times, who we worked with over the past two years on the previous two episodes we put out about police violence, their project called Why Cops Shoot is now online. Definitely, definitely check it out at Tampa Bay.com/WhyCopsShoot. That's Tampa Bay.com/WhyCopsShoot. I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: Thanks for listening.


[ANSWERING MACHINE: To hear the message again, press 2. Start of message.]


[BRUCE BLAIR: This is Bruce Blair at Princeton.]


[BILL PERRY: I'm Bill Perry.]


[BRUCE BLAIR: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design.]


[BILL PERRY: Soren Wheeler is Senior Editor, Jamie York is our Senior Producer.]


[BRUCE BLAIR: Our staff includes Simon Adler, Brenna Farrell ...]


[BILL PERRY: David Gebel, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich ...]


[BRUCE BLAIR: Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack and Molly Webster.]


[BILL PERRY: With help from Tracie Hunte, Valentina Bojanini, Nigar Fatali, Phoebe Wang and Katie Ferguson.]


[BRUCE BLAIR: Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


[ANSWERING Machine: End of message.]




TONY DE BRUM: I'd be happy to share whatever I may remember. Remember this took place early in the morning of March 1st, 1954. So it's been a while.


JAD: So a couple weeks back, the writer Sam Kean put us in touch with this guy.


TONY DE BRUM: But it was quite traumatic and hard to forget.


ROBERT: How old were you on that day?


TONY DE BRUM: In 1954, I was nine years old.


ROBERT: Nine years old. Okay, good. All right.


JAD: His name is Tony de Brum. He is an ambassador for the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific. And he tells this story about a particular moment that happened when he was nine, on a day very early in the morning.


TONY DE BRUM: At that moment in the early morning hours, I was out fishing with my grandfather. It was customary in the village that we lived in to go net fishing, thrownet fishing for scads.


JAD: Tony says he and his grandpa were out on the beach before the sun had risen. And they waded through the water tossing their net, pulling it back, tossing it out, pulling it back. And after they'd done that for a while ...


TONY DE BRUM: The sun was beginning to -- to rise from the east. And I was carrying the basket, he was throwing the net when the flash went off. We were temporarily blinded by the flash. It was as if someone had walked up to you with a -- with a flash camera, and -- and took a shot right, you know, inches from your eyes. I cannot with any certainty tell you how many seconds passed, but we felt a shock. It was like the real heavy bursts of wind going through the land.


JAD: He says he turned away from the light and back towards the shore.


TONY DE BRUM: And you can see the -- the vegetation move. It's indescribable. I thought it was the end of the world.


JAD: What Tony didn't know is that 300 miles away the US had just tested a bomb they called Castle Bravo. It was a hydrogen bomb about a thousand times as strong as the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima.


TONY DE BRUM: And then the -- the rumble and the roar and the thunder of the -- the sound of the explosion. Because it was not one big explosion that goes just boom and that's it. The chain reaction caused it to -- to roll like thunder.


JAD: And then, he says, the sky erupted.


TONY DE BRUM: Everything turned red. The sky turned red. The -- the ocean was red. The sand was red. My grandfather was red, and the fish we caught were red. The whole -- the whole atmosphere, the whole hemisphere, the effect was like you're standing under a glass bowl and somebody poured blood over it. We -- we were terrified.


JAD: That explosion, and the many others like it, would poison the Marshall Islands, poison its people. But in that moment, Tony says, he and his grandpa just stood there listening to the explosions and staring at the blood red sky.


TONY DE BRUM: It seemed to have lasted for what seemed like hours. I am now 72 years old, and every time I speak about this my skin still crawls and I still get goosebumps.


Copyright © 2019 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.