Nerves, Nukes and the Oval Office
The president seems unstable, impulsive and prone to threatening other nations with bombs. Even his top aides worry about his unchecked power to set the globe afire.
This was in the 1970s, and president was Richard Nixon – not Donald Trump, who has bragged that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s in North Korea.
Kenneth B. Clark, the most prominent black scholar in 1970, raised his voice about unstable nuclear leaders, their fragile egos, lust for power and unchecked ability to wipe out the human race. Without mentioning Nixon, his shifty eyes or sweaty upper lip, Clark called for curbing the power of all nuclear leaders.
As president of the prestigious American Psychological Association at the time, Clark explained his position at the prestigious group’s convention in Washington.
Calling for research on drugs to blunt the aggressive impulses of nuclear leaders, Clark declared: “This form of psychotechnical medication would be a type of internally imposed disarmament.” But drug testing was needed first, he said, and compulsive criminals might volunteer for the clinical trials.
“Kenneth Clark Asks New Drugs to Curb the Hostility of World Leaders,” read the New York Times’ A-1 headline. The Washington Post’s declared: “Dr. Clark Wants to Prevent Nuclear Holocaust – Drugs Prescribed for World Leaders.” The reaction was swift as hundreds of writers nationwide ridiculed Clark for his “Peace Pill” speech.
But few Washington leaders were laughing in 1974 as Nixon sank into despair and heavy drinking because of the Watergate scandal. At a meeting with congressmen, Nixon had said: “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.”
Alexander Hague, Nixon’s chief of staff and a former four-star general, privately expressed concern about the president. And Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger ordered the military to check either with himself or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before following any orders for a nuclear strike.
Nearly a half-century later, this problem is still with us: No matter how dull-witted or unstable, the president’s authority to launch nuclear missiles remains absolute. More than once, President Trump has asked: “Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?”
Kenneth Clark had the wrong solution to the problem back in 1970, but at least he was asking some of the right questions. Shouldn’t someone in Washington today be working on better answers?