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75 years after Hiroshima, should U.S. president have authority to launch nuclear attack?

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic weapon on Hiroshima, Japan. Seventy-five years later, the NewsHour revisits how the president became the sole authority on when nuclear weapons are used. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to former Secretary of Defense William Perry, co-author of "The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic weapon on Hiroshima, Japan.

    In the coming days, we will examine this 75th anniversary, the bomb's immediate aftermath and its lasting legacy.

    Today, Nick Schifrin looks at the president's sole authority to launch such a weapon and how that authority came to be.

  • Former President Harry Truman:

    An American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, President Truman announced, the U.S. had harnessed the basic power of the universe.

    The Manhattan Project took three years to successfully build and test an atomic bomb. Throughout, Truman and his advisers called it the Gadget, thinking it was just another very big weapon.

  • Narrator:

    Even the thousands of men and women working on the project had no idea of the staggering energy they were to release.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Truman had actually delegated to the military when and where to launch. On August 6, he believed only atomic bombs could end the war.

  • Former President Harry Truman:

    If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never been seen on this Earth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But after the Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima, and the mushroom cloud slowly darkened the sky, the devastation of the city was overwhelming and endless. Survivors' hair was burned, their skin peeled off.

  • Narrator:

    A few days later, the second atomic terror was loosed on Nagasaki.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After that, Truman decided the decision to drop a third bomb could only be made by him. Presidential sole authority was born.

  • Former President John F. Kennedy:

    The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1962, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy wanted to tighten nuclear control, so a briefcase with launch codes started traveling with the president. Today, that so-called football is the symbol of the president's sole authority to launch.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump is the first president in more than 40 years to have his sole authority questioned openly by Congress.

  • Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.:

    Many Americans share my fear that the president's bombastic words could turn into nuclear reality.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And sole authority is the subject of a new book,"The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race From Truman to Trump," by former Secretary William Perry.

    Secretary Perry, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's begin with this fundamental question. Is the threat of nuclear annihilation a distant one?

  • William Perry:

    Well, we can be thankful that we have gone 75 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki without launching the bomb.

    But I believe the likelihood of it being used now, of breaking that record, is higher today than it was any time during the Cold War, that is, the danger of a nuclear catastrophe today is equal to the darkest days of the Cold War. And most of the public simply do not understand that reality.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There are many checks in the system that you write about, preventing an unintentional launch, preventing an unauthorized launch. But is there any way to prevent a determined president from launching a nuclear weapon?

  • William Perry:

    If a president decides to launch, he has the authority to do it, he has the equipment to do it, and, if it goes, there's no way of calling it back and there's no way of just destroying it in flight.

    It would be an unprecedented catastrophe, far greater than World War II.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that's, of course, the context for the main proposition that you have in the book, that the president should not have the sole authority to launch.

    Why is that?

  • William Perry:

    There is a likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today, but that's not because we expect Russia to be making an attack on us. That's not going to happen. Their leaders are not suicidal. Deterrence really does work.

    It could happen by a political miscalculation by the president, a false alarm. Or it could happen because of a lack of sanity on the part of either the American president or the Russian president.

    All of those things — none of them is likely, but even if it's only one in 100, these odds are not good, when you consider the other end of the odds would be the end of our civilization.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The main argument, of course, for having nuclear weapons at the ready and having the president as the sole authority to launch is the requirement to respond quickly.

    As you write, Russian nuclear weapons hypothetically could be launched and land inside the United States within 30 minutes. Doesn't the president need to be able to respond quickly?

  • William Perry:

    The reason we thought we needed a quick launch was because we believed that we were going to get a surprise attack, originally from the Soviet Union, today from Russia, and we wanted to launch our ICBMs before that attack landed and destroyed our ICBMs is in their silos.

    We have, however, at sea more than enough nuclear capability to respond to Russia. And Russia knows that. There is no hurry about ending civilization. We should take time to consider that. We can wait it out to ensure it really is an attack before we respond.

    The best way of ensuring that is to give us enough time to consider what's happening, bring in other people for consultation, technical consultation and political consultation, before a launch is ever made.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to ask about whether this is about the current inhabitant in the White House.

    You write that, for Donald Trump, starting a nuclear war is as easy as sending a tweet. How much of what you're arguing here is about Donald Trump personally, whom you call impulsive?

  • William Perry:

    I believe that no person, no president should have that authority solely by himself, without consultation, without taking time in deliberation.

    We have in the past President Kennedy, when he was taking heavy medications, and that could have clouded his judgment. We had Richard Nixon, who was, in the last few months of his office, drinking heavily. And that could have clouded his judgment.

    Even Ronald Reagan, the last few months he was in the White House, was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. So, there is no reason that we have to give this authority to one person. And we should make every effort then to bring as many — bring other people into the decision, and slow down the decision process, no quick launch.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The other main change you advocate in the book, Mr. Secretary, is that the U.S. cannot launch on the warning of an attack, that is, before an attack is unambiguously confirmed. Why is that?

  • William Perry:

    Because we have had false alarms in the past, three of them that I'm historically aware of.

    And if a president responds to an alarm, and it turns out to be false, there is nothing he can do to recall the missiles. So, he will have started a nuclear war by accident.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And lastly, Mr. Secretary, if I could ask you, you were a soldier who helped occupy Japan and saw the aftermath of a nuclear weapon.

    You have, of course, seen and been through a lot in those decades since. But how much of your argument today is grounded on what you saw back in the 1940s?

  • William Perry:

    I saw, first of all, the devastation in Tokyo. And then I saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was one bomb, one airplane in an instant.

    If it's a nuclear war, not just a city can be destroyed in an instant, but a whole civilization. Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev said it best, which is, a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Former Secretary William Perry, thank you very much.

  • William Perry:

    You're very welcome. Thank you.

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