On Sunday, John Oliver took a look at U.S. nuclear weapons on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. Irreverent as usual, Oliver pointed out the absurdities and dangers of the bloated U.S. arsenal of 4,800 weapons.
The episode was funny and sobering all at once.
Oliver pointed out that when you have that many weapons sitting around, plenty of things can—and do—go wrong. Like the time in 1961 when we accidentally dropped two nuclear bombs on North Carolina, and one almost detonated. Or the time in 2007 when we unknowingly flew six nuclear-armed cruise missiles across the country and no one realized it for 36 hours, while they were sitting unguarded on the tarmac.
My favorite part is where he compares U.S. nuclear weapons to the tiny arms of a T. Rex dinosaur, noting that they are useless and that the T. Rex is plenty scary without them. But it’s not just a joke—as Oliver makes clear when he next shows a clip of General Colin Powell saying these weapons are useless.
What Oliver left out—and this is definitely not funny—is that the United States keeps almost all of its 450 U.S. land-based missiles on hair-trigger alert so that they can be launched within a few minutes. This increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch, or one in response to a false warning of an incoming attack.
There is no reason to accept these dangers. Keeping missiles on high alert is completely unnecessary. A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately, and U.S. submarine-based nuclear weapons are invulnerable to attack.
When he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama called attention to the dangers posed by this alert policy, noting that they are unacceptably high. Now that Obama is president, he can make us all safer by taking these missiles off hair trigger alert. It’s past time that he does so.