William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina

Aug 6, 2020

The Button

The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

BenBella Books 2020

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, American nuclear policy continues to be influenced by the legacies of the Cold War. Nuclear policies remain focused on easily identifiable threats, including China or Russia, and how the United States would respond in the event of a first strike against the homeland. In their new book, The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump (BenBella Books, 2020), Tom Z. Collina, Policy Director at Ploughshares Fund, and former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry argue that American nuclear policy overemphasizes the first-strike threat, while ignoring other, more likely nuclear scenarios. The Button outlines the hazards in current American nuclear policy and argues for realistic improvements in nuclear defense policy and processes.

Collina and Perry identify two main problems of American nuclear defense policy. First, American policy incorrectly focuses on a first strike by China or Russia as the major threat. The two authors refute this and describe such a scenario as unlikely because China and Russia know that any nuclear attack by them will be met with retaliation from the United States. A nuclear attack and response would undoubtedly cripple both sides and provide little if any benefit to anyone. The second problem defined in The Button is that in the United States, since the advent of nuclear weapons, has placed sole authority to use the weapons in this first-strike capacity in the hands of the president and the president alone. This process and structure continue to be based in a holdover of Cold War mentality and have always been at odds with the constitutional requirements around war declarations. Drawing on historical examples and Secretary Perry’s own experiences in a number of positions within the national security structure in the United States, The Button describes instances of false alarms, moments where presidents had faulty intelligence, and times when presidents were not necessarily thinking clearly. In each of these examples, the president could mistakenly or accidently launch a nuclear attack and set off World War III.

Recognizing these gaps in nuclear defense policy, Collina and Perry recommend a number of changes that start with changing the thrust of the policy itself and moving away from the first-strike capability. Instead, they advocate for policy that is more clearly focused on cyber attacks, noting that in the 21st century, cyber warfare is a more clear and present threat than is nuclear war. Additionally, Collina and Perry argue that the president should not have sole authority over the capacity to launch the U.S. nuclear arsenal. While there have been recent congressional hearings on this dimension of American national security, The Button sketches out how various approaches that will maintain national security while also minimizing the potential for accidental use of nuclear weapons. Collina and Perry advocate for a rethinking of the structure of nuclear defense policy in the United States and for installing greater protections against nuclear war.

Adam Liebell-McLean assisted with this podcast

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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