The Constitution imposes only three qualifications that a president must meet: being (1) a natural-born U.S. citizen, (2) a resident of the U.S. for 14 years, and (3) at least 35 years of age. In addition, there is one unwritten requirement that voters need to put at the top of their list. Could you trust this person to decide on directing the use of nuclear weapons?
America was fortunate for most of its Cold War history to have selected presidents who took this awesome power and responsibility deadly seriously. Harry Truman, the only man who ever actually approved the use of nuclear weapons, did so because he believed that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki would save lives. His only alternative, he believed, was an invasion of the Japanese home islands, an action his military advisors told him would cost at least 500,000 American lives plus millions of Japanese lives. Dwight Eisenhower resisted the temptation to use nukes in response to China’s threats against Taiwan, and advocated the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes (“Atoms for Peace”). Despite his military background, he was our most anti-war post-World War II president. Jack Kennedy eschewed a nuclear response to the Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons and delivery systems 90 miles away in Cuba, overruling the unanimous opinion of his entire group of military and civilian advisors. Lyndon Johnson vetoed the use of tactical nukes in Vietnam to stop Hanoi from supplying the Viet Cong. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter (who knew more about nuclear weapons than anyone who ever occupied the Oval Office) vigorously sought nuclear arms reduction agreements with the Soviets. Upon assuming office, Ronald Reagan wrote that he was overwhelmed by the realization that he had the sole authority to go to DefCon One (global thermonuclear war). Both Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were acutely aware of the awesome power and the vital restraints that come with the presidency.
And then there was Donald Trump. His erratic, impulsive nature combined with his ignorance regarding both nuclear weapons (he wanted to use them against hurricanes!) and their history terrified both congressional leaders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They worried with good reason that, in the interregnum between the November 2020 elections and the inauguration of a new president, Trump was dangerously unhinged to the extent that he could not be trusted to refrain from blowing up the planet.
The lesson from this is that we cannot allow a Trump-like, reckless individual anywhere near the nuclear button. Unfortunately, our candidate selection process does not weed out madmen. And it is clear from both the 2016 and 2020 elections that tens of millions of voters either don’t understand the dangers associated with putting an oblivious lunatic in power or, perhaps unbelievably, don’t care.
There is no way, aside from the remote possibility of amending the Constitution, to impose additional qualifications for presidential office to guarantee that a sane, sober, mature individual will always be the one to make such a world-altering decision. The responsible media must fill this void by picking apart the character, intellect and life experience of prospective candidates and report their findings to voters. And voters owe it to themselves and the nation to discount media that promote unfit candidates.
January 6, 2023