Riddles of Armageddon: Legal Enigmas of a Nuke Launch Order

Trump military

The recent discussion of whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or President Donald Trump has the bigger “nuclear button” raises the question again of procedures, policies and circumstances surrounding the use of nuclear weapons. U.S. military officers who would be in a position to receive an order for a nuclear strike might particularly lose sleep over their role in such a scenario. A hypothetical example illustrates the gaps in U.S. law that complicate such decisions.

In this hypothetical, responsible U.S. military officers receive an order from the president to launch a nuclear attack on a foreign state that: 1) has been publicly hostile to the U.S. for over half a century; 2) is led by a dictator who has repeatedly made bellicose statements threatening to destroy the U.S.; 3) has an aggressive nuclear weapons program; 4) is believed to have at least a few operational nuclear weapons; 5) is conducting test launches of a missile that appears to be capable of reaching the United States; and 6) has not attacked the U.S.

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