The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The same nuclear fears Pelosi has about Trump cost an Air Force major his job in 1973

An inert Minuteman 3 missile is seen in a training launch tube at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in 2014. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

This story, originally published in 2017, has been updated.

Like any good student with a sensitive question, Harold Hering approached his teacher after class, out of earshot from his classmates.

“How can I know,” he asked, “that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”

It was 1973. President Richard M. Nixon was seriously depressed about Watergate. Hering, an Air Force major who rescued downed pilots in Vietnam, was training to be a missileer — the guy who turns the keys to commence nuclear Armageddon.

“I assumed there had to be some sort of checks and balances so that one man couldn’t just on a whim order the launch of nuclear weapons,” Hering, then 81, told Radiolab in a remarkable interview in 2017.

It was a question that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wondered about in the wake of President Trump inciting a mob that attacked the Capitol this week. Pelosi said Friday that she consulted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, about keeping an “unstable president” from accessing nuclear codes. She repeated those fears Sunday night on “60 Minutes.”

A spokesman for Milley said he “answered her questions regarding the process of nuclear command authority.”

But the answers, over the years, have proved murky — and disturbing.

As Hering discovered, a president could order an attack all on his own.

“The whole point of U.S. nuclear weapons control is to make sure that the president — and only the president — can use them if and whenever he decides to do so,” Alex Wellerstein, the director of the science and technology studies program at the Stevens Institute of Technology, wrote in 2016 after Trump’s election. “The one sure way to keep President Trump from launching a nuclear attack, under the system we’ve had in place since the early Cold War, would have been to elect someone else.”

Back in 1973, the drama that followed Hering’s question did not, as he hoped, fundamentally alter the fate of the world, but it certainly reshaped his life. Forced to retire, Hering took up a career with a less dangerous set of keys: long-haul trucking.

His career blew up because he wouldn’t stop questioning the launch protocol, even after a military judge gave him an opportunity. Ron Rosenbaum, in his book about nuclear war, “How the End Begins,” referred to Hering’s query as the “forbidden question,” writing:

You might think such a question — the sanity of a president who gives a nuclear launch order — would require some extra scrutiny, but Major Hering’s inconvenient query put a spotlight on the fact that the most horrific decision in history could be executed in less than fifteen minutes by one person with no time for second-guessing.

Hering just couldn’t wrap his mind around that fact, especially after learning about the fail-safe protocols involved after the president gives the order — that two people, after each agreeing that the secret nuclear codes are correct, have to turn their own set of keys. Missileers even carry handguns in case the other guy goes mad.

But what about the president?

In a letter detailing his concerns, Hering explained his rationale: “I would be required to assign blind faith values to my judgment of one man, the president, values which could ultimately include health, personality and political considerations. This just should not be.”

Hering had sufficient reason to be troubled.

As Rosenbaum chillingly writes, Nixon during the mid-1970s was under close watch by advisers concerned that he “seemed to be losing control over his own mind.” Defense Secretary James Schlesinger issued a quiet decree that he be consulted if Nixon gave any “unusual orders.”

Nukes were certainly on the president’s mind.

While meeting privately with congressmen at the height of the Watergate hearings, Nixon bragged that, “I could leave this room and in 25 minutes 70 million people would be dead.”

Not good.

All these years later, Hering did not regret asking the forbidden question. After driving trucks, he became an addiction counselor to homeless people at the Salvation Army. He spent his life worried about it all.

“It bothers me immensely that the only area there is not a check and balance is the one that could literally result in the end of the world,” he told Radiolab. “That seems strange to me.”

“Goodness in human beings begs for a resolution of this,” he said. “I just think that the need for that is at least as great now as it’s ever been in the history of our republic.”

The forbidden question, Hering pointed out, was not his alone.

“It was,” he said, “for all of us.”

Read more Retropolis:

This impeached, one-term president refused to go to his successor’s inauguration. Now Trump will do the same.

The Founders didn’t prepare for a president who refuses to step down, historians say

Trump 2024? Only one president has returned to power after losing reelection.