A lot of people were shocked at the speed with which Donald Trump could act on a number of issues. Also surprising was the extent to which Presidential decrees could influence government functioning without having to go through the legislative body.
This erosion of power of the US Congress and into the hands of the executive branch has been gradual and relentless over many years. One major turning point occurred at the end of World War 2. The US President at the time was Harry S. Truman. Truman, originally a haberdasher is supposed to have cried saying he was not worthy of the responsibility when the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed him from Vice Presidency to the Presidency in the closing stages of the war.
Harry S. Truman
At the time, the Los Alamos scientists had developed the nuclear bomb. Truman was faced with the alternative of dragging the war on and fighting the Japanese from island to island costing many American lives or using the newly developed super weapon. At the time, public opinion was such that it would have been difficult to justify prolonging the war. Some have speculated that this could have even resulted in Truman’s impeachment.
In any case, Truman gave the go ahead to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was only then that most people appreciated the terrible power of these weapons. The decision to use them had come from the President. But how were these weapons to be regulated in the future?
Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)
The most natural choice seemed to be that their use should be controlled by the military as was the use of all other weapons till then. But it was immediately apparent that the use of such a bomb would invite world-wide condemnation. Truman worried that he did not want some mid-level army “Lieutenant Colonel” pulling him into World War 3 by deciding to drop an atom bomb.
The other natural choice would have been the US Congress. But unfortunately, the emergency of war and a nuclear strike would mean that there was unlikely to be time to assemble the Congress for a vote. Therefore, it fell on the President as the only man who could be trusted with the American nuclear arsenal.
After the war, many countries were occupied by axis forces. One such place, Northern Iran was occupied by Soviet troops. While the allies were showing, the Soviets showed remarkable reluctance to return their troops to within their own borders. Truman is alleged to have threatened Stalin with a nuclear attack unless he withdrew his troops from Iran. The Soviets rapidly withdrew.
In all, Truman is alleged to have threatened USSR with nuclear war at least 4 times until 1949, when the Soviets developed their own nuclear bomb.
Today, the US president carries with him at all times a credit card sized container which when broken open contains the launch codes to signal the US military to activate its nuclear weapons. A person is assigned to follow the president with the “nuclear football” which is a device into which these codes are fed and which then signals the US military.
There have been a number of accidents in the past with this procedure. Famously, Jimmy Carter’s code container went to his dry cleaners with his suit.
A similar system is followed by the Russians where officers carrying the nuclear trigger device are expected to be near the Russian President at all times even sleeping in a room adjacent to him. In 1995, a Norwegian sounding rocket carrying a scientific payload crossed an arctic corridor stretching between a US Minuteman ICBM base and Moscow. The altitude of the rocket made it resemble a sea launched Trident missile. On that occasion, the nuclear command suitcase was presented to Boris Yeltsin who fortunately demurred.
Britain being a small island near the former Soviet Union envisioned a scenario where the country could be devastated before the Prime Minister gets an opportunity to activate the weapons. There is therefore a protocol for the nuclear armed submarines to surface and determine whether or not their command in the UK is still operational. The multi-step procedure even includes checking to see if the BBC is still transmitting. In the event that the submarine captain is convinced the island is lost, he is to open a special safe and open a sealed package containing the last orders of the Prime Minister. These orders are one of the first things that a new Prime Minister has to issue and can order the submarine to retaliate or place it in the hands of a friendly ally. After a Prime Minister leaves office, the orders are destroyed.
Recently, on a routine test of its Trident missile system, a malfunction caused the US made British launched nuclear capable Trident to misfire avoiding its programmed trajectory into the Atlantic. Instead, it veered off towards Florida. Of course, there were no armed nuclear warheads on board but it does make one wonder about the reliability of these things.