The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What if the president ordering a nuclear attack isn’t sane? An Air Force major lost his job for asking.

The U.S. Navy launches a Trident II missile from the submerged submarine USS Tennessee in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida in 1989. (Phil Sandlin/Associated Press)

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, now 81, told Radiolab in a remarkable interview earlier this year.

Hering was wrong. And decades later, so is anyone who thinks President Trump, having recently threatened “fire and fury” for North Korea, can’t order a nuclear attack anytime he darn well pleases, even from a fairway bunker on the golf course.

In Trump’s North Korea warnings, his military school classmates hear echoes of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis

Just ask Hering.

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.

Listen to this story on “Retropod”:

Listen to this story on “Retropod”:

For more forgotten stories from history, listen online or subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | More options

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 judgement 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.”

Like Trump, Nixon was obsessed with leaks. It led to Watergate — and ruin.

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 does not regret asking the forbidden question. After driving trucks, he became an addiction counselor to homeless people at the Salvation Army. He lives in Indiana. He still worries.

“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.”

Later in the interview, Hering expanded on that, not mentioning North Korea or Trump, who on Thursday escalated his rhetoric, saying “things will happen to them like they never thought possible”

“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:

Before North Korea had nuclear missiles, it had wild and often deadly plots

Think Trump was tough on Sean Spicer? Nixon literally shoved his press secretary.

Who coined ‘Saturday Night Massacre’? A birthday party at a YMCA may hold the key.

 The secret deal the Associated Press made with the Nazis during WWII

‘Great God, he is alive!” The first man executed by electric chair died slower than Thomas Edison expected.