Catastrophe by Mistake: The Button and the Danger of Accidental Nuclear War

The most likely way for the United States to end up in a nuclear war today is not because of an aggressive nuclear attack by Russia or North Korea or some other nation. Nor is it likely to be because the United States launches such an aggressive attack on another nuclear-armed nation. The most likely scenario for nuclear war in 2020 is as the result of a complete accident.

Faulty early warning data or some other technological failing will lead a US president to believe the United States is under nuclear attack when it isn’t. The president will order the many nuclear weapons that are currently kept ready for use at a moment’s notice to be launched in retaliation. By the time the mistake is discovered, it will be too late. The other nuclear-armed nation, now under a genuine nuclear attack by the United States, will retaliate and mutual destruction is assured.

Preventing such a catastrophic mistake is the major concern of The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump, by William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina. Perry served as secretary of defense under Bill Clinton and had been part of the US national security establishment for decades before that. Collina is the policy director of the Ploughshares Fund and has long been involved in arms control advocacy. Their book is a powerful warning about the nuclear danger as well as a guide to reducing that danger.

Perry and Collina’s most urgent concern is reforming US policies to avoid the kind of nuclear-war-by-false-alarm scenario I described above (and which they describe in far more detail in the book’s introduction). Beyond this top priority, however, they discuss other steps to lessen the nuclear threat, including the need to improve American relations with Russia and pursue mutual nuclear weapons reductions. While they don’t discuss it in depth, Perry and Collina seem to reach toward nuclear abolition as their ultimate goal.

An Explosive Combination

Several different conditions combine to make accidental nuclear war such a plausible risk. The United States has hundreds of land-based nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would likely be destroyed if Russia attacked the United States first with nuclear weapons. Unlike nuclear weapons on submarines or bomber planes, land-based missiles cannot be moved and are fixed targets for an adversary. If the United States were to use its nuclear ICBMs in response to a nuclear attack, it would have to use them in the short window of time between when an incoming nuclear attack is reported and when the attacking missiles land.

Moreover, the inherent practical difficulties of maintaining functional military command and control after the country has been devastated in a nuclear attack also create major pressure to use nuclear weapons at the first sign of an attack, while command and control is still intact. This approach to using nuclear weapons is known as “launch on warning.”

The authority to order such a launch-on-warning attack lies with the president alone. While presidential authority over nuclear weapons was originally established to ensure civilian control over these weapons, its practical legacy is that a single human being has sole authority to order the most destructive act in human history. The president doesn’t have to consult with Congress, despite Congress having the constitutional authority to declare war. He doesn’t have to consult the cabinet or his closest advisors. No one else can legally check or obstruct his decision. Thus, if an incoming nuclear attack is reported to the president, he can decide on his own to order a launch-on-warning response—and he will have only minutes to make such a decision.

Along with the launch-on-warning option and sole presidential authority, the final condition creating our current perilous situation is fallibility. The fallibility of technological systems produces false alarms—The Button discusses some historical examples of such frightening errors—and also makes these systems vulnerable to hacking or cyber-attacks. The fallibility of human beings produces bad decisions. Moreover, the likelihood of bad decisions increases dramatically if the president were drunk, on drugs, or otherwise impaired—and the book provides historical examples of these situations, as well. When fallibility is combined with launch on warning and extraordinary presidential power, we have the real possibility of accidental nuclear war.

Defusing the Situation

Perry and Collina recommend specific policies to avoid catastrophe. US policy should prohibit launch-on-warning. Land-based ICBMs as a category of nuclear weapon should eventually be retired. The authors argue that nuclear weapons on submarines and bomber planes, which being mobile can survive an adversary’s attack and so are less subject to launch-on-warning pressure, provide a sufficient nuclear deterrent. They also recommend limiting sole presidential authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.

Along with steps to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war, Perry and Collina recommend policies to slow down the arms race and ease international tensions. The US plan to replace current nuclear forces, which they estimate will cost about $2 trillion over the next 30 years, should be significantly scaled back. Anti-missile defense systems, which are ineffective and sour US-Russian relations (the Russians perceive such defenses as preparations for a US attack on them), should be limited. The United States should work with Russia to radically reduce both nations’ nuclear arsenals and should seek a more peaceful relationship with Iran and North Korea.

Weaknesses and Strengths

To pacifists or others with a commitment to nonviolence, or even just people who believe war should be kept within strict limits, The Button leaves much to be desired. As their proposals suggest, Perry and Collina are willing to retain a considerable number of nuclear weapons for a long time (they refer to keeping nuclear-armed submarines for “decades to come”).[1] Although they recommend reduced spending on nuclear weapons, they still seem to envision spending hundreds of billions of dollars on such weapons. Moreover, while they correctly wish to avoid nuclear war, they never question the morality of even threatening the indiscriminate killing of millions while maintaining the weapons to carry out this threat.

Nevertheless, even if The Button falls short of what many peace activists would hope for, Perry and Collina’s recommended policies would definitely mark a step in the right direction. They would decrease the danger from nuclear weapons and could serve as a stepping stone to abolition or something like it. Indeed, their proposals bear a strong resemblance to those of the abolition-aimed Back from the Brink initiative (

At times, the authors gesture toward nuclear abolition. They write sympathetically of the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) ( that worked for the treaty. (They interviewed Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s executive director, who is among The Button’s endorsers.) Perry and Collina even comment, “the best way to prevent use of the bomb is to eliminate it from the face of the earth.”[2] That they don’t elaborate on how to reach this goal is unfortunate.

While not a blueprint for nuclear abolition, The Button provides sound recommendations for countering the nuclear danger, as well as much other valuable information. The book is a useful primer for those wishing to learn about the anti-nuclear cause, as it provides historical overviews and analyses of both the arms race and arms control diplomacy.

The authors also have insights applicable to other causes. They have valuable observations on the role government bureaucracies and other vested interests play in perpetuating specific military technologies or otherwise shaping policy.

They also point out that activists need to be consistently engaged. Even if a US president committed to ending the nuclear danger were elected, she or he might not follow through on that commitment without constant pressure from activists outside the government. Whatever the precise cause, protecting human life from violence cannot be left just to politicians; the work requires engagement and persistence across society.        

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina, The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2020), 211.

[2] Ibid., 171.

© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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