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The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act


Lawmakers, Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) introduced a bill in both houses of Congress called "The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016."  This piece of legislation would prevent the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war.*  

As it stands right now, Congress holds the power to declare war. The president cannot declare war without their approval. This bill would update previous acts to address the nuclear question. 

  1. The concept of Congressional approval to declare war is not new--in fact, it's in the Constitution. However, in recent history there have been some major side-steps by both parties.
  2. Advancing the checks and balances to match the modern political system isn't ~new~ either. Specifically, limitations to wartime tenants have been a common topic among both pundits and academics. 
  3. Interest in such limitations tend to ebb and flow with increased interest during times of hostility; election seasons; or when a nation is heavily divided regarding a policy or leader (consider Nixon telling the press during his impeachment: “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead”). 

Further Reading

  • Foreign Policy has a short, informative piece outlining the history of this discussion.
  • Harvard Magazine published a piece in 2014 that can also provide some insight into the discussion--I daresay even the comments section had some thoughtful gems (thanks, Crimson).
  • If you're new to the nuclear discussion read this piece by Michael Rühle from NATO. If you're LOVING deterrence and want to kick it old school, hit up Carl von Clausewitz.

* As the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, many presidents have sent troops to battle without an official war declaration (ex. Vietnam, Korea). The 1973 War Powers Act attempted to define when and how the president could send troops to battle by adding strict time frames for reporting to Congress after sending troops to war, in addition to other measures.



    1. Read the bill on the US Congress website, or read the excerpt below.
    2. You can call or write to your representatives and let them know you support the bill.
    3. You can sign a petition supporting the bill here.

    Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016


        (a) Findings: Congress finds the following:

    1.  The Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war.
    2. The framers of the Constitution understood that the monumental decision to go to war, which can result in massive death and the destruction of civilized society, must be made by the representatives of the people and not by a single person.
    3.  As stated by section 2(c) of the War Powers Resolution (Public Law 93-148; 50 U.S.C. 1541), "the constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces''. (4) Nuclear weapons are uniquely powerful weapons that have  the capability to instantly kill millions of people, create long-term health and environmental consequences throughout the world, directly undermine global peace, and put the United States at existential risk from retaliatory nuclear strikes. (5) By any definition of war, a first-use nuclear strike from the United States would constitute a major act of war. (6) A first-use nuclear strike conducted absent a declaration of war by Congress would violate the Constitution.

    (b) Declaration of Policy: It is the policy of the United States that no first-use nuclear strike should be conducted absent a  declaration of war by Congress.


    (a) Prohibition: Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the President may not use the Armed Forces of the United States to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress that expressly authorizes such strike.

    (b) First-Use Nuclear Strike Defined: In this section, the term "first-use nuclear strike'' means an attack using nuclear weapons against an enemy that is conducted without the President determining that the enemy has first launched a nuclear strike against the United States or an ally of the United States.

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