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U. scholar Bruce Blair works to reduce nuclear weapons

It only takes the President six minutes to decide if nuclear missiles will be launched, so his decision is all that counts. University research scholar Bruce Blair thinks this is a poor structure.

“We want more democracy built into the decision for the use of nuclear weapons than that exists,” Blair said. “Right now it’s a monarchy.”


Blair has been a research scholar in the Program on Science and Global Security since 2013. Prior to joining the University, he founded the World Security Institute and he helped establish the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting there. Blair is also the founding board chairman of the Center on Global Interests, which is a nonprofit focusing on United States-Russia relations. In addition, he currently serves as a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board.

From 1987 to 2000, Blair served as a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, and in 1999 he received a MacArthur Fellowship for his work on nuclear arms control.

At the University, Blair is currently working to let people know the truth about nuclear warfare. Among other things, Blair said that nuclear warfare needs to be removed from the world’s repertoire of warfare, a movement known as “global zero.” He explained that the lack of safeguards preventing accidental launching and the lack of chain of command regarding the usage of these means are terrifying, and they are all evidence of the fact that there needs to be a change.

“Nothing in my childhood set me up for the future that I would eventually have,” Blair noted.

He said that his journey to his current profession was more of a random walk than a deliberate path. Born and raised in Illinois, he spent his summers on his grandfather’s farm and lived a fairly average life through college, calling himself an “ordinary Midwestern boy.” After graduating from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1970, Blair said he found himself with a low lottery number for the draft and wound up working for the U.S. Air Force, where he was assigned to the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command's Airborne Command Post in Omaha, Neb.

The Strategic Air Command was responsible for Cold War command and control of two out of the three components of the U.S. military's strategic nuclear strike forces, often referred to as the “Nuclear Triad.” The SAC controlled land-based strategic bomber aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). From 1970 to 1974, Blair served as a Minuteman ICBM launch control officer at the SAC, where he operated the missile systems from the SAC headquarters in Omaha.


After spending time at the command center, Blair went on to pursue a Ph.D. in operations research at Yale University and graduated in 1984. He also served as a project director at the U.S. Congressional Office of Technological Assessment from 1982 to 1985. Blair said that while he was studying at Yale, he began to notice serious discrepancies between what he knew to be true about nuclear warfare and what society thought to be true.

“There was a notion that America would be able to absorb the worst attack from the enemy and then respond with so much power that it would deter the attack in the first place,” he said.

Blair explained that today’s prevalent ideology of American power as a deterrent is actually a myth. He said that America wouldn’t be able to survive a nuclear attack in the first place due to the collapse of leadership in the United States. Furthermore, this idea — that America would be able to survive the first hit and retaliate — led people to believe that America took on a “Second Strike Policy,” whereby U.S. weapons were only meant for retaliation, not instigation.

That idea, Blair said, couldn’t be more wrong. He explained that during the Cold War, America had everything in place to ensure that America would strike first. From the time a threat is perceived, the President has six minutes to decide whether or not to utilize nuclear force. Those men in charge of actually pressing the button, dubbed "minutemen," had exactly a minute to execute their task. Blair, who was one of these minutemen, also remarked at the fact that this entire process did not really involve much rationale, rather it was effectively a checklist.

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Unfortunately, according to Blair, Americans cannot even rest easy despite the fact that there were many safeguards put in place to make sure that no mistakes were made with these devastating weapons. In Blair’s eyes, we all live in this “hairpin” state whereby we are one mistake, one false alarm, or one wrong assessment away from nuclear devastation.

“[We need] to creatively formulate changes in our nuclear policy,” he explained. “[We need] to formulate a path forward to make the country safe.”

Blair explained how his work currently in the University's Program on Science and Global Security is focused on truly educating the masses and our government about the question of nuclear warfare. Calling the current American system a "nuclear monarchy," Blair lamented that even today, we still have these archaic rules and regulations put in place surrounding our use of nuclear bombs.

“Under the Constitution, under Article II, there is no limitation on [President Trump’s] authority to use nuclear weapons,” he said.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, Blair held talks explaining just how much unilateral power the President has with regards to the usage of these weapons. Blair is calling for more checks and balances surrounding the decision to launch nuclear weapons in order to bring the debate back into the realm of democratic discussion.

With regards to tangible goals, Blair said that in order for there to be hope, the nuclear warheads and ideology of nuclear warfare needs to be eradicated by millennials within the next 20 to 30 years, otherwise these warheads will be used.

In order to accomplish these goals, Blair is working with his colleagues at the Program on Science and Global Security. He explained that he finds the program here at the University impactful, prolific, and productive.

“It’s great to come to Princeton it has a wonderful program right here in global security,” Blair said. “I also wanted to be around young people because I think the future lies in the next generation.”

Blair and his colleagues are working to create a safer, more aware America. His colleague and long-time friend Frank Von Hippel cites Blair as the one who alerted him to the issue in the first place.

“I learned a lot, [Blair] knows huge amounts about the U.S. nuclear forces and posture” von Hippel said. “I guess I would say that I’m his student.”

Von Hippel is co-director of the University’s Program on Science and Global Security.

Blair said the public needs to wake up and learn about the dangers directly around them. That is why he co-founded the organization Global Zero, which works to remove nuclear weapons from the equation of warfare worldwide. According to Blair, the organization has a strong grassroots and activist component to it.

Blair emphasized how pivotal it is that young adults and students take up this issue. He said he would love to hear from interested students and would be excited to start a chapter of Global Zero here at the University. In order to have a lasting impact, Blair advised students to get involved now.

He explained that it's necessary for today’s generation to clear up the mess of their parents and grandparents’ generations or else it will be too late and nuclear fallout could be imminent.