Harold Hering

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Harold L. Hering
Born 1936 (age 79–80)
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch Seal of the US Air Force.svg United States Air Force
Rank Major
Unit Air Rescue Service
Battles/wars Vietnam War

Major Harold L. Hering (born 1936)[1] is a former officer in the United States Air Force, who was discharged for questioning the process for launching nuclear missiles.[2]

Hering served in Vietnam in the Air Rescue Service.[2] 21 years into his Air Force career, while serving as a Minuteman missile crewman and expecting a promotion to lieutenant colonel,[2] he posed the following question during training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in late 1973:[3]

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

The Single Integrated Operational Plan specifies that, when the National Command Authority 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 on 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. Journalist Ron Rosenbaum claimed[3] Hering's question exposed a flaw in the very foundation of this doctrine:

"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?"

Rosenbaum says[3] 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.

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".[4] 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.[5] After his discharge, Hering became a long-haul trucker.[2]


  1. ^ The Boßecker Newsletter (Volume 2 Issue 1, Winter 1996)
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ a b c Rosenbaum, Ron. How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1-4165-9421-3.
  4. ^ The sword and the cross: reflections on command and conscience (James Hugh Toner, 1992)
  5. ^ "Air Force Panel Recommends Discharge of Major Who Challenged 'Failsafe' System". New York Times, January 13, 1975, p.16.