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.

A Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile.
A Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile

It was a risk. Dedicating a book to someone I'd had had a five-minute phone conversation with three decades ago. Someone who, last I'd heard, had become a long-haul trucker and whom I'd given up trying to track down.

But I went ahead and dedicated my new book, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, to Maj. Harold Hering because Maj. Hering sacrificed his military career to ask a Forbidden Question about launching nuclear missiles. A question that exposed the comforting illusions of the so called fail-safe system designed to prevent "unauthorized" nuclear missile launches.

It was a question that changed his life, and changed mine, and may have changed—even saved—all of ours by calling attention to flaws in our nuclear command and control system at the height of the Cold War. It was a question that makes Maj. Hering an unsung hero of the nuclear age. A question that came from inside the system, a question that has no good answer: How can any missile crewman know that an order to twist his launch key in its slot and send a thermonuclear missile rocketing out of its silo—a nuke capable of killing millions of civilians—is lawful, legitimate, and comes from a sane president?

I tried to track Hering down before my book went to press but failed to connect. And so I chanced it, dedicating the book to someone who, for all I knew, had gone from self-sacrificing hero to—who knows?—subprime mortgage broker? Not that it would have diminished his original sacrifice; heroes don't always fare well after they've left the stage, especially when they go unsung.

But I had an intuition when I first read about Maj. Harold Hering and his Forbidden Question that in addition to courage he had a rare kind of uncompromising integrity. And when I finally tracked him down ... well, let me first explain why I think he's an American hero.

Let's say you were a Minuteman missile crewman during the Richard Nixon presidency at the very height of the Cold War. You and your fellow crewmen are down in your underground launch control center, tending to your sector of the "silo farm"—the vast field under which nuclear missile silos (actually heavily reinforced concrete silo-shaped holes in the ground) shelter the instruments of mass death that lurk beneath the bleak badlands of the northern Great Plains. There you are, running through a drill, going down a routine checklist for launch readiness, when suddenly you get what seems like a real launch order. Not a drill. Get ready to twist your launch keys in their slots and send anywhere from one to 50 missiles rocketing toward Russia. World War III is under way.

Or is it? Your launch order codes are "authenticated," everything seems in order, the seconds tick away. But in what may be the last seconds of your life—for all you know Soviet missiles are about to rain down on the plains—a thought crosses your mind. About "authentication." It's supposed to ensure that the launch order comes from the president himself, or (if the president has been killed) from the surviving head of the nuclear chain of command.

But what about that person at the top of the chain of command, the person who gives the order? Has he been "authenticated"? Who authenticates the authenticator? Can the president start a nuclear war on his own authority—his own whim or will—alone? The way Brigadier Gen. Jack D. Ripper did in Dr. Strangelove? What if a president went off his meds, as we'd say today, and decided to pull a Ripper himself? Or what if a Ripper-type madman succeeded in sending a falsely authenticated launch order? You're about to kill 10 million people, after all.

How the End Begins. By Ron Rosenbaum.

Such a scenario was not inconceivable at the time when Maj. Hering was going through missile training class at Vandenberg Air Force base. Bruce Blair (then a missile crewman himself, a wing commander in charge of 200 minuteman missiles, and now the head of the nuclear abolitionist Global Zero Initiative) discloses in my book that he had figured out a way to launch all 200 of his "birds" without authorization. Good thing he's a very stable guy.

But you've probably read about Richard Nixon acting erratically, drinking heavily as Watergate closed in on him. You may not have read about the time he told a dinner party at the White House, "I could leave this room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead." (Try that line out at one of your dinner parties. I've always found it a good conversation starter.)

Anyway, back down there in your launch capsule you might allow yourself to wonder: "This launch order, is this for real or for Nixon's indigestion?"

If you were asking yourself that question, you wouldn't be the only one. James Schlesinger, secretary of defense at that time, No. 2 in the nuclear chain of command, was reported to be so concerned about Nixon's behavior that he sent word down the chain of command that if anyone received any "unusual orders" from the president they should double-check with him before carrying them out.

So there you are, having just received the order to launch nuclear genocide. Should you suppress any doubts, twist your launch key in the slot simultaneously with your fellow crewman and send death hurtling toward millions of civilians halfway around the world? Without asking questions? That's what you're trained to do, not ask questions. Trainees who asked questions were supposed to be weeded out by the Air Force's "psychiatric consideration of human reliability" requirement. I've read this absurd Strangelovian document, which defined sane and reliable as being willing to kill 10 or 20 million people with the twist of a wrist, no questions asked.

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Maj. Hering decided to ask his question anyway, regardless of consequences: How could he know that an order to launch his missiles was "lawful"? That it came from a sane president, one who wasn't "imbalance[d]" or "berserk," as Maj. Hering's lawyer eventually, colorfully put it?

Hering needed a lawyer because as soon as he asked the question he was yanked out of missile training class, and after two years of appeals, eventually had to leave the Air Force, trade in a launch key for the ignition keys to an 18-wheeler.

But he forced the Air Force to face the question. We couldn't ignore the problem any longer. Although, as it turned out, we couldn't solve it, either.

If you think Hering's question is a relic of the Cold War, consider the situation now. Say you're a missile crewman today (remember, they're still down there, both the missiles and the "Missileers," no longer just missilemen), all briefed and ready to launch. Let's say you're at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, the place where some mysterious glitch caused 50 missiles to go offline last October. You know the missiles stopped talking to base. Stopped responding to all commands. And you've read about the way the Stuxnet computer worm demonstrated an ability to insinuate itself into the actual control systems of nuclear facilities in Iran and turn them to its own ends.

And you get a launch order. It looks like it's the real thing, it's all "authenticated." It directs you to retarget your "de-targeted" missiles and then tells you to get ready to launch. Should you entertain doubts? You know most of your fellow missileers (really, didn't someone in the Air Force realize how much this would sound like "Mouseketeers" in a Strangelovian way?) will follow orders and fire. If you don't fire it won't make much of a difference, a few million fewer dead among what will probably be tens of millions minimum. (The number of deaths that might result from a nuclear strike has been the subject of controversy. It might vary depending on conditions such as the height of the blast, but a minuteman missile carries a warhead at least 12 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, which killed—again it's in dispute—around a 100,000 people in the first few days and many more over the years from radiation sickness and cancers. And a recent Scientific American study of the possible effects of a "small" nuclear war—say, between India and Pakistan—concluded that in addition to the immediate effects, the ash-shroud kicked up into the atmosphere by the blasts would chill and kill enough crops worldwide to starve 1 billion more people.)

Should you question the order to launch such an attack, not knowing for sure it doesn't come from a president off his meds? Or a cyberworm disguised as a president?

Do you have the right to question? Do you have the duty, under the Nuremberg precedent in international law, which denies a "just-following-orders" defense for genocide?

One would think so, since our policy of nuclear deterrence—a legacy of the Cold War—is based on threatening genocidal retaliation to prevent genocidal attack. Indeed, even if a retaliatory attack would be entirely pointless—indeed morally obscene—it's one that we're committed to carry out 24/7.

In the book I wrote, I focus on the astonishingly unexamined morality of retaliation that Maj. Hering-type questions open up. One of the most surprising discoveries I made was in my conversation with Moshe Halbertal, the Israeli military ethicist who said no—no nuclear retaliation is morally acceptable. I found myself in agreement. And you, dear reader, would you question such an order, like Hering or Halbertal, or just carry it out? Would you kill 20 million people to carry out a threat that failed?

There's no question the president now has just as much authority as he had then. You should read then-Vice President's Dick Cheney's declaration about the president's unchallengeable power to launch nuclear missiles whenever he sees fit.

Here's what Cheney told Fox News: "The president of the United State is now, for 50 years, is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a 'football' that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. He could launch a kind of devastating attack the world's never seen. He doesn't have to check with anybody. He doesn't have to call the Congress. He doesn't have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in."

There was a fascinating debate among constitutional law specialists on the Volokh Conspiracy blog following the Cheney statement, and, alas, from my reading of the cases cited, there was no definitive judicial limit to his power as commander in chief to avow he had no time to consult Congress for a declaration of war. No one could come up with a definitive constitutional refutation of this. If a president said he had intelligence of an imminent nuclear attack there was no provision requiring him to prove it to anyone else. Congress couldn't defund a missile once in flight. (Well, it could, but lawmakers would have better things to do at that point—i.e., run for the hills.)

In other words, what Richard Nixon said still holds true: Any president could, on his own, leave a room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million (or more than that) would be dead. Not likely but in the new, more unstable, multi-polar nuclear age we've entered, Maj. Hering's question about the instability or sanity of the president himself remains valid, as does the larger sanity question: Can any order to kill 20 million with the twist of a wrist be sane?

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Maj. Hering, I should emphasize, did not ask his question because he was some kind of peacenik or a pacifist. You wouldn't have seen him at a Jackson Browne no-nukes concert in the '80s. He had done multiple tours of duty in Vietnam, doing dangerous Air Rescue Service work, flying copters into live-fire zones to pick up the wounded and the dead. He hoped to make the Air Force his lifetime profession and was expecting a promotion to lieutenant colonel when he asked his Forbidden Question.

He asked his question, he later told the Air Force Board of Inquiry that heard his appeal, because his fidelity to his oath as an officer required him to carry out only "lawful orders." The Air Force maintained that the information he sought, about how he'd know a launch order was lawful, was beyond his "need to know."

To which Maj. Hering replied, in an interview, "I have to say, I feel I do have a need to know, because I am a human being." Yes!

"It is inherent in an officer's commission that he has to do what is right in terms of the needs of the nation despite any orders to the contrary," he went on. "You really don't know at the time of key turning, whether you are complying with your oath of office."

It was only by accident that I came upon Maj. Hering's story. I was flipping through the inside news pages of the New York Times back at the height of the Cold War and saw the following headline:

 AIR FORCE PANEL
 RECOMMENDS DISCHARGE
 OF MAJOR WHO CHALLENGED
 "FAILSAFE" SYSTEM

This seemed to me to be a more important story than its placement indicated, so I took the clipping up to Lewis Lapham at Harper's, and he commissioned a story that would explore not just the sanity question raised by the Major but the larger sanity of the system itself.
I spent three years investigating and writing a story about the mechanics and morals of the nuclear command and control system.

It was a story that took me into the underground war room of the Strategic Air Command (now STRATCOM) beneath Omaha's Offutt Air Force Base, and eventually out to a silo farm in the badlands where, at a missile launch control center, I got to hold a launch key in my hand and twist it in the slot in a test console, exactly as if I were executing a launch order that would kill 10 million people or more.

And believe me: Once you hold a launch key in your hand and twist it (hard to the right and hold for two seconds) it unlocks a door you never can close again. A door to the abyss.

So I came to understand the major's focus on "the time of the key turning." But I had trouble reaching the major. After his discharge, his job as long haul trucker made it difficult to reach him. But finally, as my story was going to press, I caught him at home in Indianapolis. He told me he'd just put his cartons of files on the Forbidden Question in storage, but that I was welcome to come out and go through them. I was already up to my eyeballs in Congressional hearings on the subject and he sounded as if he was weary of the matter and wanted to move on. And so did I.

So I moved on—like we all did after the Cold War ended, during the "holiday from history" that ensued. I moved on until 2007, when several events awakened me to the fact that we had entered a new age of nuclear peril with the same old flawed command and control system the Major had questioned.

And I wondered what had become of the major.

In the intervening years, Maj. Hering's question was not a tree that fell in the forest. Even if it didn't get the attention it deserved, it influenced some influential people.

Daniel Ellsberg, for instance, was very familiar with Maj. Hering's question. Ellsberg's post-Pentagon career has been devoted in great part to anti-nuclear activities. In fact, Ellsberg had saved clippings he had found in Detroit and San Francisco newspapers about the Major's case which he'd scanned and sent to me.

Another key figure, Bruce Blair, the missile-crewman-turned-anti-nuke-activist, had also been provoked to investigate the question of launch-order authentication. (He's the one who figured out that he could launch 150 missiles all by himself. He even told me how he'd do it.)

After Blair left the Air Force, he eventually became a consultant to the Congressional Office of Science and Technology, where he was given "above top secret" clearance to study the Pentagon's nuclear command and control systems. Blair told me that one of the reasons he went from being an advocate of nuclear arms control—in favor of a reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons, but not abolishing them—to being an advocate of "Global Zero" for nuclear weapons, is that even now, with all the digital modernizations of command and control, "no one has yet come up with an answer to Maj. Hering's question."

In other words we have risked the fate of the earth, the fate of the species, on the mental stability of a few ambitious politicians who rise to the top of the heap, not necessarily because of their rationality. There is no foolproof command and control system. The imposing phrase "command and control" belies its meretriciousness.

It was Blair who put me back in touch with the major, whom he'd checked in on periodically over the years, and it was through Blair I first got a working phone number for the major during my research for this new book. But some voice-mail glitch led to an unreturned message and a feeling that perhaps Hering had moved on or didn't want to talk. It was only after the book went to press, at the urging of my editor, that I tried one more time. After all, I dedicated the book to him. I didn't want it to come as a complete surprise.

This time he got my voice mail, or a version of it.

He responded by e-mail that he understood from my phone message that I wanted to send him a copy of a Harper's story I'd written and that he was glad that people were still interested in what he called "my Board of Inquiry," the hearing before the division of the Air Force judiciary which had rejected his appeal of his dismissal from the missile class because of The Question.

In other words he'd never seen the original 15,000-word story that had been inspired by him. I would blame the turbulent state of my life back then for my not sending him a copy. I guess I just assumed someone had brought it to his attention and that despite my admiration for his question, he'd read it and not responded because it was a chapter in his life he wanted closed.

I was wrong about that. I replied by e-mail to clarify that I was trying to reach him because I had dedicated my book to him (and wanted to send him a galley). I also sent along some questions about what course his life had taken after the Air Force ended his military career. How The Question had changed his life. I must admit the response was moving and surprising.

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It was clear from his reply that he'd always been conflicted in a certain way about what he'd done. In his initial statements at the time of the Board of Inquiry he made clear that he was not seeking to disobey or ignore a "lawful" order, but he felt a responsibility imposed by his oath as an officer and by his "conscience" to be sure an order to launch his missiles was truly "lawful." He had wanted to be both loyal and unquestioning but had to question to be truly loyal. He'd found himself in an impossible catch-22 position.

It had taken him a long time, he told me, to absorb the "devastating" consequences of what he thought was strict adherence to duty. After cautioning me that he didn't want me to mention any family matters, he said, "I've been through some pretty rough times but have tried not to be bitter about it all."

The difficulty and the bitterness have been exacerbated by the kind of self division of which I speak. He told me: "I thought my actions were proper, but felt shame."

Proper. Shame. He was doing the right thing but had to suffer the ostracism of those who didn't understand the urgency of his question, who blindly sought to inculcate an unquestioning "follow orders" order of things.

He seemed to have a kind of love-hate relationship with the military. He said, "For a number of years I did not use many of the military facilities available to me as a retiree." He said that was because, "I didn't feel like I fit in any more, like damaged goods or general inadequacy."

The military that so undeservedly caused him to feel this way, that treated his urgently important question without the seriousness it deserved, caused him to reject the free medical care available at VA hospitals or other outreach services to assuage the suffering he'd gone through. The suffering they'd caused!

Instead, he sought alternate remedies, he told me. "During this time I became involved in several personal growth workshop/events, some very intense and also spent over a year in solitude in the mid '80s." He had a lot to think about.

A year in solitude. Like burying himself in an underground launch control center.

"Sixteen months," he told me later, where his only companion was a cat and the only contact he had with the outside world was listening every Saturday night to Prairie Home Companion.

I know, it sounds a bit bizarre, but we all have our own ways of healing our wounds.

"I left work as a road driver early on to work for the Salvation Army as a counselor into the mid-'90s. During that time I also volunteered for a year as a clinical associate for the Crisis Suicide Line."

Crisis suicide line. What could be more appropriate? It's impossible not to infer a kind of connection: Maj. Hering's question went directly to the issue of whether the human race would commit collective suicide in a crisis. He felt a responsibility then and later to intervene. We were, we are, a system in need of salvation from ourselves.

All the while he was counseling the suicidally inclined, he was in a "dark emotional hole" himself, he told me.

For one thing, despite all that had happened, he said, he "missed the Air Force, especially flying with the Air Rescue Service."

Indeed, one of his proudest claims to me was that at age 72, he'd become a marathon runner and competed in the U.S. Air Force marathon. "And today," he adds, "I proudly wear the Air Force insignia." In fact, he tells me, he was recently married for the second time "in [a] Navy Chapel … wearing the new Air Force dress uniform."

But he can't help feeling a loss and he can't help feeling his question still goes unanswered.

"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."

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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