Is the United States a “Thermonuclear Monarchy?”

As we celebrated this July the severing of ties to the royal house of Great Britain in 1776, the truth is that we have come full circle and have since 1945 been living under a far more dangerous and absolute system than anything King George III could have contemplated in his wildest dreams, what author Elaine Scarry calls, “the Thermonuclear Monarchy.”

Scarry provides ample evidence to back up her thesis. During his 1974 impeachment hearings, President Richard Nixon told reporters, “I can go into my office, pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” Nixon’s lawyer, when appearing before a federal court in relation to the Watergate investigation, opened his remarks with this astonishing statement: “The President, my client, wants me to argue that he is as absolute a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time.” Nixon’s sense that the country had endowed him with monarchic power was also expressed in his attempt to dress the White House guards in uniforms straight out of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.

While, as Scarry points out, Nixon’s somewhat unique combination of “candor and bad taste” shined a brief light on the Thermonuclear Monarchy, all presidents since Truman have held this awesome, unchecked power. Moreover, the use of nuclear weapons has been seriously contemplated far more times than most Americans realize. We’ve all at least heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis because President Kennedy chose to go public about it. But how many know that, according to Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara (who only revealed this 40 years after the president’s death) there were two more occasions when Kennedy came very close to using nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union? How many know that presidents Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon also all considered using nuclear weapons against either the Soviet Union, North Vietnam or China? How many know that in 1979 a computer error at NORAD led to full preparation for a non-existent Soviet first strike, that President Carter was given 3 to 7 minutes decide on whether to retaliate and that, luckily for the fate of humanity, the error was discovered within 7 minutes?

Scarry links this solitary presidential power over nuclear war with post World War II presidents’ disdain for the constitutionally mandated congressional declaration of war. Since the invention of nuclear weapons, each new war has been carried out without such a declaration. In Scarry’s words: “Since the president has such genocidal power at his personal disposal, obtaining Congressional permission for much lesser acts of injuring has often struck presidents as a needless bother.” Referring to the 1991 Gulf War, President George HW Bush boasted: “I didn’t have to get permission from some old goat in the Congress to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.” Scarry also contends that the loss of war powers has helped to “infantilize” Congress, leading to much of the dysfunction we see today.

Scarry forces us to confront our “willingness to speak in reverential, hushed tones of the awful responsibility of being president in a nuclear age.” She cites a passage by Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter and advisor in his book, Decision-Making in the White House as being exemplary:

“[The President] alone is ultimately held accountable for the lives of 190 million citizens (the book was published in 1964), to more than 40 foreign allies and, in a very real sense — as custodian of the nuclear trigger — to all men and to all mankind.”

How can it be, Scarry asks, that a man of Sorenson’s intellect or more to the point, Kennedy himself could not have been revolted or indeed not have revolted against a system that allows one man such power? We might ask ourselves the very same question.

Scarry’s prescriptions for restoring the pre-1945 republic are less certain. She believes the “tools” are to be found within the Constitution in Congress’ power to declare war and the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, which she sees as “distributing to the entire adult population shared responsibility for use of the country’s arsenal.” It is her belief that these two provisions make the decision to go to war a collective responsibility, that nuclear weapons are incompatible with this and should therefore be discarded But are Congress and the American people really prepared to take back their war making power, to say nothing of dismantling our nuclear arsenal? The record is not promising. Even a cursory glance at U.S. history since World War II reveal that the apparatus and prerogatives of the “national security state” have become paramount over the letter of the Constitution. This situation went into overdrive after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and will no doubt get even worse if a similar tragedy occurs in the future, unless something is done to reverse the trend.

With 122 UN member nations voting to ban nuclear weapons also this July, perhaps this is as good a time as any to pick up a copy of Scarry’s book — which is loaded with other terrifying tidbits of information such as the glacial, primitive pace of communication with a nuclear armed submarine operating at great depth and the fact that subs have the power to launch on their own in certain instances — and at least put the issue of the Thermonuclear Monarchy on the table for discussion.



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Al Ronzoni

Al Ronzoni

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City