How Cold War Maj. Harold Hering Asked a Forbidden Question That Cost Him His Career

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 28 2011 5:40 PM

An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age

Maj. Harold Hering and the forbidden question that cost him his career.

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"I still miss/regret the loss of promotion to lieutenant colonel and believe I had the potential to advance further," he told me. "And I have certainly missed flying. But in the final analysis, I definitely would ask the question if I had it to do over. The Officer's Oath of Office demands it, I think. In looking back over my life, most of my working career has been saving lives and helping people. I have thought about the issue of Nuclear Warfare a lot and still do not have a definitive, fit-all, answer. But the concept seems generally insane to me and begs for very stringent checks and balances at all levels, especially pre-emptive strike considerations."

"Generally insane." It's interesting that he's moved from the special case of presidential sanity, to the question of the larger sanity of the system itself.

And, indeed, he told me that when he read the last page of my book, in which I urge anyone with a launch key or a launch code, not to send it, not to twist it, no matter what the circumstances—because any nuclear launch is genocidal—he said he agreed with me.

"I am left with a deep and growing hunger for peace among people at every level," he wrote me. "It seems urgent to me that we find ways to become a more tolerant and forgiving people. Perhaps," he says "I was not a good match for duty as a missile launch officer."

It depends on what you mean by a good match. If you want unthinking automatons imposing genocidal punishment on the innocent citizens of an attacker nation, he's not your man, he's not your major, not your "good match."

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On the other hand, some might say we can't give the impression that everyone in missile launch control centers engages in Socratic debate about whether genocidal revenge is justified, or could be seen as "insane" in itself. Such debate, the official line goes, would end up "weakening the credibility of our deterrent" and perhaps inviting a genocidal attack. The major knows this. He's still a divided man.

In a way, we all are. We may feel the threat of an insane or unbalanced commander-in-chief doing something "irrational" is unlikely. But is the genocidal retaliation we've pledged ourselves to in the policy of nuclear deterrence, ever rational?

What I learned when I finally tracked Hering down didn't change anything I felt about him or his act. But I learned a lot more about what it cost him. I learned that he still doesn't really know he's a hero, though he comes as close to a definition of it as anyone I know. That on some level he's had to come to term with shame. And shame on us that he did and we didn't feel shame, that we didn't properly recognize his heroism.

So I'm writing this for Maj. Harold Hering, to convince him that in my mind he deserves more than a dedication, he deserves a medal of honor. The president who called for a world without nuclear weapons should give it to him. It's long overdue. And time is running out.

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