Harold Hering

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Harold L. Hering
Birth nameHarold Lewis Hering
Born (1936-02-01) February 1, 1936 (age 87)
Olney, Illinois
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branch United States Air Force
Years of service1955[citation needed]–1975
Service number
UnitAir Rescue Service
Commands held
  • ATC (Air Training Command)
  • SAC (Strategic Air Command)
  • MAC (Military Airlift Command)
Battles/warsVietnam War (1964–1973)

Harold L. Hering (born 1936)[2] is a former officer of the United States Air Force, who was discharged in 1975 for requesting basic information about checks and balances to prevent an unauthorized order to launch nuclear missiles.[3] Hering was subsequently presented the 2017 Courage of Conscience Award at the Peace Abbey, Boston, Massachusetts.


Hering served six tours of duty in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Hering received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal[citation needed], and Air Medal with eight Oak leaf clusters[citation needed] for his work in Vietnam flying helicopters.[1]


Hering served in the Vietnam War as part of the Air Rescue Service.[3] Twenty-one years into his Air Force career[failed verification], while serving as a Minuteman missile crewman and expecting a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel,[3] he posed the following question during training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in late 1973, at a time when Richard Nixon was president:[4]

How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?

The Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) specifies that, when the National Command Authority (NCA) issues an order to use nuclear weapons, the order will filter down the chain of command. Per the SIOP, decision-making is the responsibility of the NCA, not of officers lower in the chain of command, who are responsible for executing NCA decisions. To ensure no opportunity for execution by a rogue operator, the two-man rule requires that at each stage, two operators independently verify and agree that the order is valid. In the case of the Minuteman missile, this is done by comparing the authorization code in the launch order against the code in the Sealed Authenticator, a special sealed envelope which holds the code; if both operators agree that the code matches, the launch must be executed.

In 1978, journalist Ron Rosenbaum wrote a 15,000-word article in Harper's Magazine about the nuclear command and control system in which he publicized the case of Hering.[5] Rosenbaum later wrote that Hering's question exposed a flaw in the very foundation of this doctrine, and asked "What if [the president's] mind is deranged, disordered, even damagingly intoxicated? ... Can he launch despite displaying symptoms of imbalance? Is there anything to stop him?"[4] Rosenbaum says[4] that the answer is that launch would indeed be possible: to this day, the nuclear fail-safe protocols for executing commands are entirely concerned with the president's identity, not his sanity. The president alone authorizes a nuclear launch and the two-man rule does not apply to him.[6]

Hering was pulled from training and, unable to receive a reply to his satisfaction, requested reassignment to different duties. Instead, the Air Force issued an administrative discharge for "failure to demonstrate acceptable qualities of leadership".[1] Hering appealed the discharge, and at the Air Force Board of Inquiry, the Air Force stated that knowing whether or not a launch order is lawful is beyond the executing officer's need to know. Hering replied:

I have to say, I feel I do have a need to know, because I am a human being. 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. You really don't know at the time of key turning, whether you are complying with your oath of office.

The Board of Inquiry ruled that Hering be discharged from the Air Force.[7] After his discharge, Hering became at first a long-haul trucker, and then a counselor.[3][8]


In 2017, Hering was profiled in the Radiolab episode "Nukes". In the episode he refuted the characterization by General Russell E. Dougherty of his statements. According to Dougherty, Hering's assertions that he would readily turn keys (to launch the nuclear missiles) if so ordered had always been qualified by subjective conditions expressing his own judgment of the validity of the order. Hering insisted, on the contrary, that he had always expressed a commitment to follow orders, but that if he was not informed about the checks and balances of presidential decision making that he assumed had to exist, he would do so with a conflicted conscience. He said, "I think it's an affront to play the game of you don't have the 'need to know' for someone who's doing one of the most serious, grave jobs that there is in the armed forces."[9]


  1. ^ a b c "Air Force Panel Recommends Discharge of Major Who Challenged 'Failsafe System'". The New York Times. 1975-01-13. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-04-07.
  2. ^ The Boßecker Newsletter (Volume 2 Issue 1, Winter 1996)
  3. ^ a b c d Rosenbaum, Ron (February 28, 2011) "An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age - Maj. Harold Hering and the forbidden question that cost him his career" slate.com. Retrieved February 13, 2012
  4. ^ a b c Rosenbaum, Ron. How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1-4165-9421-3.
  5. ^ Ron Rosenbaum (Mar 1978). "The subterranean world of the bomb". Harper's Magazine: 85.
  6. ^ Broad, William J.; Sanger, David E. "Debate Over Trump's Fitness Raises Issue of Checks on Nuclear Power - NYTimes.com". Retrieved 2016-11-09.
  7. ^ "Air Force Panel Recommends Discharge of Major Who Challenged 'Failsafe' System". The New York Times, January 13, 1975, p. 16.
  8. ^ Fowler, Wendell (March 24, 2014) "Never too late, never too old" seniorlifenewspapers.com (archived link)
  9. ^ "Nukes". Radiolab. April 7, 2017. Retrieved 2017-04-07.