Conference: Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?

4 Nov 2017 - 00:00

Cambridge, Mass

Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?”

The Conference will be held Saturday November 4th, 2017 at the Harvard University Science Center and Harvard-Epworth Church, Cambridge, Mass.

We note that Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress noot the President – the power to declare war.

We are writing to invite Win Without War to be a co-sponsor of the Conference, and to have representatives of your organization attend.  We expect co-sponsors will circulate the announcement of the conference to their networks. Your organization will be listed in the prior publicity and in the program.

Confirmed Speakers include:

Bruce Ackerman (Yale Law School professor, a leading constitutional theorist, named as one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy in 2010)

Kennette Benedict (former executive director of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Senior Advisor to Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and Lecturer at University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy).

Bruce Blair (former missile launch officer, Princeton professor, and co-founder of Global Zero).

Sissela Bok (philosopher, senior visiting fellow at Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, author of A Strategy for Peace).

Rosa Brooks (Georgetown University Law Center professor and author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything).

John Burroughs (Executive Director, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, Director of the UN office of International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms).

Jim McGovern (US Representative, Massachusetts 2ndDistrict, first co-sponsor of Markey-Lieu bill, prominent Congressional voice on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Zia Mian (physicist,  co-director of Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security, co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, and a leading expert on India and Pakistan)

William Perry (former US Secretary of Defense; mathematician and engineer; Institute for International Studies, Stanford University; author, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (2015)).

Conference Co-Chairs: Prof. Elaine Scarry (Harvard University; author, Thermonuclear Monarchy); Prof. Jonathan King (MIT; Chair, Mass. Peace Action Nuclear Disarmament Working Group).

Organizational Sponsors to date: 

  • Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University; Office of the Dean of Arts and Humanities, Harvard University.
  • American Friends Service Committee; Council for a Livable World;Massachusetts Peace Action Education Fund; Massachusetts Peace Action; Institute for People’s Engagement.

The increased international tensions with North Korea and with Russia, and the election of Donald Trump as President, have intensified long dormant concerns over the danger of nuclear weapons use. Nuclear weapons strategy in the United States is designed around “presidential first use,” an arrangement that enables one manthe president to kill al and maim many millions of people in the course of a few hours.  Is this arrangement just? Is it legal?  Is it constitutional, given the Article I granting of war powers to the Congress?  Since the start of the atomic age, how many times have presidents come close to launching a nuclear weapon? What responsibilities does a president have while in office or once out of office t to inform his own citizenry and the world citizenry of any such contemplated actions?

What acts might a foreign nation or foreign leader commit that would warrant or justify launching U.S. nuclear weapons at them? What legal or philosophical principle differentiates the moral harm or moral wrong that would be attributed to a terrorist, non-state actor or hacker who delivered a nuclear weapon, from a presidential launch of a nuclear weapon? What brakes (technological, legal, legislative, political) on executive action are currently in place? What brakes (technological, legal, legislative, political) might potentially be put in place?  Which of the nuclear states have a first-use policy or first-use missile architecture? What cities around the world do U.S. missiles currently target? Is the intuition articulated by W. E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King, Jr. that nuclear weapons are “racist” borne out by the geographies in which weapons have been dropped, tested, or targeted?

The Saturday Nov. 4th in Cambridge, Mass, conference will bring together international and constitutional scholars and statesmen, to examine the nature of presidential first use in the United States, as well as parallel arrangements in the other nuclear states. The conference will aspire to present rigorous historical information with interrogation of the legal, constitutional, and philosophical principles. We hope that it will lead to a formal hearing in Congress on presidential first use of nuclear weapons.

The conference will be advertised to and be open to the general community. We expect from our prior experience to draw an audience in the range of 100-200, both members of the area academic communities, and the concerned public. The event, we hope, will stimulate increased attention, discussion, and engagement with the critical issues under consideration.


Elaine Scarry -Conference Co- Chair:

Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value,

Harvard University; author of Thermonuclear Monarchy



Jonathan King CConference Co-Chair

Prof of Molecular Biology, MIT;

Chair, Mass Peace Action Nuclear Disarmament Working Group

617 253 4700


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