In 1973, a United States Air Force officer, Major Harold Hering, asked a question that the Air Force did not want asked. Hering, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was then in training to become a Minuteman-missile crewman. The question he asked one of his instructors was this: “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”
The writer Ron Rosenbaum would later call this the “forbidden question.” Missile officers are allowed to ask certain sorts of questions—about the various fail-safe systems built to prevent the accidental launching of nuclear weapons, for instance. But the Air Force would not answer Hering’s question, and it moved to discharge him after determining that officers responsible for launching nuclear weapons did not “need to know” the answer. “I have to say I feel I do have a need to know because I am a human being,” Hering said in response.
Hering’s question was taboo because the national defense strategy of the United States is built on the unstated assumption that the American people will not allow a lunatic to become president. If that assumption is wrong, then no procedural, legal, or technological mechanisms exist that are able to fully protect the human race from such a lunatic. Hering discovered a catastrophic flaw in U.S. nuclear doctrine, and for this he was driven from the Air Force.
In most matters related to the governance and defense of the United States, the president is constrained by competing branches of government and by an intricate web of laws and customs. Only in one crucial area does the president resemble, in the words of the former missile officer and scholar Bruce Blair, an absolute monarch—his control of nuclear weapons. Richard Nixon, who was president when Major Hering asked his question, was reported to have told members of Congress at a White House dinner party, “I could leave this room and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.” This was an alarming but accurate statement.
When contemplating their ballots, Americans should ask which candidate in a presidential contest is better equipped to guide the United States through a national-security crisis without triggering a nuclear exchange, and which candidate is better equipped to interpret—within five or seven minutes—the ambiguous, complicated, and contradictory signals that could suggest an imminent nuclear attack. These are certainly not questions that large numbers of voters asked themselves in 2016, when a transparently unqualified candidate for president won the support of 63 million Americans.
At the time, Donald Trump had not yet served in public office, so concerns about his ability to protect the United States from harm were hypothetical, though grounded in his long and terrible record as a human being. As The Atlantic stated in its October 2016 endorsement of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, Trump “traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself … He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”
What we have learned since we published that editorial is that we understated our case. Donald Trump is the worst president this country has seen since Andrew Johnson, or perhaps James Buchanan, or perhaps ever. Trump has brought our country low; he has divided our people; he has pitted race against race; he has corrupted our democracy; he has shown contempt for American ideals; he has made cruelty a sacrament; he has provided comfort to propagators of hate; he has abandoned America’s allies; he has aligned himself with dictators; he has encouraged terrorism and mob violence; he has undermined the agencies and departments of government; he has despoiled the environment; he has opposed free speech; he has lied frenetically and evangelized for conspiracism; he has stolen children from their parents; he has made himself an advocate of a hostile foreign power; and he has failed to protect America from a ravaging virus. Trump is not responsible for all of the 220,000 COVID-19-related deaths in America. But through his avarice and ignorance and negligence and titanic incompetence, he has allowed tens of thousands of Americans to suffer and die, many alone, all needlessly. With each passing day, his presidency reaps more death.
But let us lay all of this aside for the moment. Let us even lay aside the extraordinary fact that Donald Trump has been credibly accused of rape. Compelling evidence suggests that his countless sins and defects are rooted in mental instability, pathological narcissism, and profound moral and cognitive impairment. Which returns us to the subject of Major Hering.
Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, is in many ways a typically imperfect candidate, but if we judge these men on two questions alone—Who is a more trustworthy steward of America’s nuclear arsenal? Which man poses less of a threat to our collective existence?—the answer is spectacularly obvious.
The Atlantic has endorsed only three candidates in its 163-year history: Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Hillary Clinton. The latter two endorsements had more to do with the qualities of Barry Goldwater and Donald Trump than with those of Johnson and Clinton. The same holds true in the case of Joe Biden. Biden is a man of experience, maturity, and obvious humanity, but had the Republican Party put forward a credible candidate for president, we would have felt no compulsion to state a preference. Donald Trump, however, is a clear and continuing danger to the United States, and it does not seem likely that our country would be able to emerge whole from four more years of his misrule. Two men are running for president. One is a terrible man; the other is a decent man. Vote for the decent man.
— Jeffrey Goldberg, on behalf of the editors of The Atlantic
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