The scene from the White House south lawn on August 9, 1974, is vivid in the nation’s memory. That morning, President Richard Nixon famously boarded Marine One for the final time, put on a wide grin and fired off a final double-V to the assembled crowd.
But one of the most interesting aspects of that day is what didn’t happen on the south lawn: Even though Nixon had more than two hours left in his tenure, the most critical tool of the modern presidency had already been taken away from him. He never noticed it, but the nuclear “football” didn’t travel with him as he boarded the helicopter, and later, Air Force One for his flight back to California.
In a democratic country without hereditary power, royal crowns or bejeweled thrones, the nuclear football is in some ways the only physical manifestation of our nation’s head of state.
Yet, on that August day, t had been quietly removed from Nixon’s hands—remaining behind at the White House with the incoming commander in -chief, Gerald Ford.
Moreover, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger recalled years later that in the final days of the Nixon presidency he had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president gave any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them. Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon. Nixon himself had stoked official fears during a meeting with congressmen during which he reportedly said, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” Senator Alan Cranston had phoned Schlesinger, warning about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.”
Cranston’s concern is something that has nagged at nuclear war planners since the earliest days of the Cold War. The U.S. nuclear system is designed to respond to a commander in chief’s launch order instantaneously. Missiles would leave their silos just four minutes after the president’s verbal command. During the Cold War, there wasn’t a second to waste.
That unilateral launch authority is so powerful, so unchecked, and so scary that, years before Watergate, Nixon had turned it into its own geopolitical strategy, the so-called Madman Theory, with which he threatened the Soviets and the Vietnamese that he might actually be crazy enough to nuke Hanoi—or Moscow—if they didn’t accede to his demands. The “mutually assured destruction” of the Cold War was predicated on the idea that the leaders of both superpowers were rational enough to avoid a war that would end with the destruction of both nations. The Madman Theory forced the world to consider a more frightening option: That the man in charge of the nukes might not be rational at all.
The world is contemplating that possibility again this week, as Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump lob nuclear threats across the Pacific. Nearly 72 years to the day after a silver-plated B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing more than 60,000 in an instant, and 43 years to the day after Nixon was stripped of the nuclear Football, the U.S. president threatened to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on Kim’s isolated regime. North Korea, in turn, threatened to turn the U.S. mainland into a “theatre of nuclear war” and announced plans to bracket Guam with nuclear-capable missiles. Are we watching two tough-talking “madmen,” rational actors playing a calibrated game, or are we seeing something else?
Trump’s staff and top U.S. officials spent all of Wednesday downplaying his impromptu and unvetted remarks about “fire and fury,” effectively telling North Korea and world leaders that the president’s words don’t actually represent U.S. policy, but by Thursday afternoon, Trump himself was even more threatening. “Frankly the people that were questioning that statement, was it too tough, maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” Trump told reporters at his golf course in New Jersey. “If anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.” He added that North Korea “better get their act together” or face trouble “like few nations have ever been in trouble in this world.”
The uncertainly has turned this into one of the scariest geopolitical weeks since the end of the Cold War, and has forced Americans to reckon with the most difficult question surrounding the bomb: How vulnerable we are to “madness,” either real or feigned—and how little control anybody but one man has over the ultimate deployment of the ultimate weapon. It’s a problem that has plagued many in the security establishment for decades, and they’re still thinking of ways to solve it.
Nixon, as much as staffers worried about his mental state at the end, actually had a healthy fear and wariness of nuclear weapons. Early in his presidency, he’d flown aboard the presidential nuclear command plane, the “Doomsday Air Force One,” and run through nuclear drills. Later, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman recorded in his diary how chastened the president had been by the exercise, writing that Nixon had “asked a lot of questions re: our nuclear capability—and kill results. Obviously worries about the lightly tossed-about millions of deaths.” Kissinger understood Nixon would never execute the insane large-scale attacks that the Pentagon planned in the event of a Soviet attack on the homeland; in one meeting, Kissinger bluntly explained, “If that’s all there is, he won’t do it.”
But Nixon had certainly tried to convince the Soviet Union that he would.
In the summer of 1969, Nixon knew he needed to do something bold about Vietnam. He’d been elected with a promise to end the war, but months later, the conflict continued to consume his presidency, and peace was nowhere in sight. When the Paris peace talks had collapsed earlier that summer, the North Vietnamese had declared that they’d sit silently “until the chairs rot.”
Nixon and Kissinger sought to restart the negotiations by pushing the Soviets to lean on the North Vietnamese. And so, Nixon turned to what came to be known as the “Madman Theory”—a game-theory based approach he had witnessed as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president that was meant to raise uncertainty in the Soviet mind about whether Nixon would launch his nuclear weapons if provoked. The White House needed to convince the Soviets that Nixon would resort to anything—including a nuclear attack—to get peace in Vietnam. As Defense Secretary Melvin Laird said later, “He never [publicly] used the term ‘madman,’ but he wanted adversaries to have the feeling that you could never put your finger on what he might do next. Nixon got this from Ike, who always felt this way.”
The first step of the Madman Plan was setting a public deadline for progress at the peace talks. Nixon and Kissinger agreed on November 1, and during a secret August meeting, Kissinger relayed that date to the North Vietnamese. “If by November 1, no major progress has been made towards a solution,” he told the envoy, “we will be compelled—with great reluctance—to take measures of the greatest consequence.” What precisely Kissinger meant was purposefully left to the imagination. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war,” Nixon told Haldeman during one meeting that fall. “We’ll just slip the word to them that ‘For God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.’”
As the fall unfolded, Nixon and a small group of senior advisers took the bluff one step farther. On October 6, Kissinger telephoned Laird, ordering a “series of increased alert measures designed to convey to the Soviets an increasing readiness by U.S. strategic forces.”
“Could you exercise the DEFCONs for a day or two in October?” Kissinger asked the defense secretary, using the phrase for the nation’s defense readiness. “The president will appreciate it very much.”
Eventually the White House, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council settled on a menu of eight options, including suspending training flights, maintaining communications silence, and the dispersal of nuclear bombers to airfields around the country. And on October 10, as thousands of anti-war activists descended on Washington for the first of a series of long-scheduled protests, the U.S. military began to plan secretly for a war. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs sent a cable to U.S. commanders around the world, laying out the goals of the readiness exercises, explaining, “These actions should be discernible to the Soviets, but not threatening in themselves.” Each different U.S. military theater, the Pentagon ordered, was to implement different steps on different days, beginning on October 13—a date that would coincide with another military readiness exercise, code-named HIGH HEELS 69, that brought together dozens of U.S. military units and intelligence agencies to practice for nuclear war. To minimize the chance of leaks, just four officials in the White House—Nixon, Kissinger, Haldeman and Alexander Haig, then Kissinger’s military assistant—knew about the plan, and the rest of the president’s staff wes kept in the dark.
On October 13, Strategic Air Command, the nation’s nuclear bomber force, put on alert 176 bombers and 189 refueling tankers—nearly the number called for by the nation’s nuclear attack plan. That was something the Soviets would notice.
Haldemann wrote in his diary on October 17 that Kissinger had “all sorts of signal-type activity going around the world to try to jar Soviets + NVN [North Vietnam].” It worked. Just days into the exercises, the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, asked to meet urgently with Nixon and Kissinger. Kissinger, in a background briefing, emphasized to the president, “Your basic purpose will be to keep the Soviets concerned about what we might do around November 1.”
In that meeting, the president pushed the Soviet emissary again and again on Vietnam. Kissinger was impressed at Nixon’s cool, telling the president later that he had the “guts of a riverboat gambler.” As Dobrynin reported back to the Kremlin in a lengthy memorandum, the American president had said “he will never (Nixon twice emphasized that word) accept a humiliating defeat or humiliating terms. The U.S., like the Soviet Union, is a great nation, and he is its president. The Soviet leaders are determined persons, but he, the President, is the same.”
Dobrynin warned his Soviet leaders, “It was perfectly clear from the conversation with Nixon that events surrounding the Vietnam crisis now wholly preoccupy the U.S. President. … Apparently, this is taking on such an emotional coloration that Nixon is unable to control himself even in a conversation with a foreign ambassador.”
Now it was time for Nixon to up the ante. On the morning of October 26, Strategic Air Command launched six armed B-52 bombers, sending them into a lazy circular orbit over Alaska. There was no way for the Soviet Union to misunderstand these feints. It was the first time in nearly two years that nuclear bombers had been kept in the air. For three days, nuclear-armed B-52s tested the Soviet defenses, dancing around the edges of the country with their deadly arsenals in a display more provocative than perhaps any since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That same day, in a telegram to Moscow, Dobrynin followed up his report on the earlier meeting with Nixon. “The vehemence of his remarks testified to his growing emotionalism and lack of balance,” the Soviet ambassador warned.
And then the whole thing stopped—as seemingly abruptly as it had started. The B-52s landed, the alerts ended, peacetime resumed without warning. The government never received a single inquiry from an allied nation, nor did any reporter ever ask about it. The rest of the world wouldn’t learn of the global nuclear alert in the fall of 1969 until the mid-1980s and wouldn’t get a full picture until the mid-1990s.
Over the coming months, it became clear that the feint had done little to move forward either peace talks in Vietnam or alter the U.S. balance with the Soviet Union, although Nixon would later credit the alert with bringing the Soviets to the table faster on arms-control talks in the 1970s. It had still been worth trying, he believed. As he later told Haig, “When a bold move has to be made, if someone tries and fails I understand and I will back him up, but if somebody doesn’t try, then they’re out.” As Kissinger told an interviewer decades later, “Something had to be done,” to back up the threats Nixon had made and push the Soviets toward helping with Vietnam. “What were they going to do?” he said dismissively.
That, of course, was the big question: What might the Soviets have done? Had they really thought Nixon was crazy enough to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack, they very well might have decided to launch their own attack first.
At least some of the nation’s military leaders feared that possibility, and were not so sanguine about feinting nuclear war. As Laird’s aide, Colonel Robert Pursley, who had developed with Haig the plan to scare the Soviets, said later, “It was wrong to push sticks through the bar at a caged animal; that was not in our strategic interest.”
The whole “madman” strategy hinges on one pivotal fact: That the president has almost unlimited and instantaneous authority to push the button. It’s undoubtedly the most powerful unilateral action that a commander in chief can take. Whereas there are careful multi-branch checks on most presidential powers, over many decades the U.S. carefully honed its nuclear launch procedures to strip away any check or balance that could delay or stymie a launch. It was important that the country be able to launch its arsenal as quickly as possible.
“All this was driven by Cold War thinking,” explains Joe Cirincione, who runs the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. “The president needed to be able to launch our missiles before the Soviets destroyed them. The whole process is set up to be rapid and decisive. Anything that would slow it down was taken away. We have a system that makes the president a nuclear monarch.”
Eisenhower played a large role in setting this precedent. At the dawn of the atomic age in 1954, he made clear to Congress that nuclear war would unfold too quickly to ever ask for advice or consent. As reporters pressed him at a news conference that year on whether he would launch a war on his own, he said—effectively—yes: “The element of surprise, always important in war, has been multiplied by the possibility of creating such widespread destruction quickly. Therefore, any president should be worse than impeached, he should be hanged, I should say, if he didn’t do what all America would demand that he do to protect them in an emergency.” Eisenhower’s conclusion, while logical, represented a major departure from the Constitution’s checks and balances—establishing for himself the right to launch a pre-emptive war before Congress even knew it was in the offing.
There’s been very little debate of that doctrine ever since. “Once you introduced ICBMs with 30-minute travel times, boom, all consultation was gone,” Cirincione says.
Today, if a president were to decide to launch nuclear weapons, he first would turn to the military aide carrying the nuclear “football,” the black briefcase filled with the nation’s nuclear plans. (The playful nickname for the deadly satchel comes from the code word for the first set of nuclear war plans, DROPKICK.) The aide is never far away from the president, as Americans were reminded when a party guest at Mar-a-Lago snapped a selfie with the man carrying the most important briefcase in the world.
After choosing an option—one military aide referred to the visual guide in the "football" as the “Denny’s menu” of nuclear war—the president would then use a short code phrase (sealed in an envelope opened only in the event of nuclear war) to identify himself as the commander in chief. The Pentagon would confirm the code. And from there the launch orders would radiate out through the chain of command; the codes would be confirmed at each level, right down to the missile silos, bombers and submarines as they prepared to launch. The first nuclear missiles would hit their targets less than 30 minutes after the president had given the initial order.
At every step of the way, there’s a hard-and-fast “two-man” rule, to ensure that no one is ever in a situation of having to deciding to detonate a nuclear bomb alone. In the missile silos buried beneath the Great Plains, two missileers must simultaneously turn their keys to launch the missiles—and the keys must be turned in at least two different silos to launch the ICBMs from a missile field. Aboard the submarines, the commanding officer and the executive officer must both concur about a valid launch order, a scenario made famous by the Denzel Washington movie Crimson Tide. In fact, all of our nuclear systems are considered “No Lone Zones,” staffed by two qualified and certified personnel, to guard against accidental or malicious nuclear launches.
All of them, except, of course, the president himself.
In the 1970s, one Harold Hering, an Air Force officer training to be a missileer, famously wondered what a historian has since called the “forbidden question” in America’s nuclear plans: Who makes sure that the president should be launching nuclear weapons? Hering’s question was seemingly straightforward: “How could he know that an order to launch his missiles was ‘lawful’? That it came from a sane president, one who wasn’t ‘imbalance[d]’ or ‘berserk’”?
In fact, that very situation presented itself soon after Hering raised his objection, as Schlesinger stepped in quietly to order a pause on any launch nuclear strike commanded by Nixon. But Schlesinger didn’t legally have the right to do what he did, and it’s not clear at all what might have transpired had Nixon actually tried to launch a final strike as he departed office.
Today, again, the world is wondering how far the man in the White House will go, and whether anyone can stop him.
It’s not so easy to discern Trump’s plans. Unlike with Nixon in 1974, we have no evidence that the current president shares Nixon’s deeply grounded reluctance to use nuclear weapons. Trump, in fact, has an apparent long-standing affinity for the impressiveness of nukes—even though it’s not clear that, before last year, he even understand the “nuclear triad” of bombers, ICBMs and submarines that has been the cornerstone of the nation’s deterrent forces since the 1960s. In 2015, he said, “For me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.” During one conversation last year, he expressly endorsed Nixon’s “Madman theory,” telling Mark Halperin, “At a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would use [nuclear weapons], OK?”
On the campaign trail, he made terrifyingly casual references encouraging other countries, from Pakistan to South Korea to Saudi Arabia, to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. Joe Scarborough related a story about a foreign policy expert’s briefing with then-candidate Trump: “Three times, he asked, at one point, ‘If we have them, we can’t we use them?’ … Three times, in an hour briefing, ‘Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?’” Later, in December, Trump casually endorsed a renewed nuclear arms race with Russia during an interview with Mika Brzezinski.
We know, too, Trump likes grand gestures. He seemed happy enough, after all, with the “Mother of All Bombs” being dropped in Afghanistan, a massive convention weaponal roughly equal in size to the bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As North Korea’s saber-rattling continues—with hints that its latest missiles could soon deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States—it doesn’t seem impossible to think that Trump, who has proved a master of distraction from scandals aplenty, could see a strike there as a nice way to refocus attention away from the Russia probe, especially since, looking back on his first hundred days, he clearly sees his missile strike on Syria as a rare success and moment of bipartisan approval.
Dozens of former nuclear launch officers signed a letter in October saying they felt Trump should not be given the launch codes. “The pressures the system places on that one person are staggering and require enormous composure, judgment, restraint and diplomatic skill,” they wrote. “Donald Trump does not have these leadership qualities. On the contrary, he has shown himself time and again to be easily baited and quick to lash out, dismissive of expert consultation and ill-informed of even basic military and international affairs — including, most especially, nuclear weapons.” Bruce Blair, a former nuclear launch officer who has devoted his life since to raising warnings about the weapons, said, “The thought of Donald Trump with nuclear weapons scares me to death. It should scare everyone.”
That sentiment was echoed by no less an authority than the man who then held the office of commander in chief. “How can you trust him with the nuclear codes?” President Barack Obama said at one October rally. “You can’t do it.”
All the previous worries about the potential of a deranged president to use a nuclear button irrationally have been multiplied.”
Today, as the sense of crisis around Trump’s administration deepens—both from the Russia probe, where Wednesday also brought news of an FBI raid on the home of one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and from the geopolitical morass on the Korean peninsula—even those around the president appear to be raising similar worries about his state of mind. One GOP figure close to the White House was quoted in newspaper accounts this spring wondering whether Trump was “in the grip of some kind of paranoid delusion.”
If a president is, there’s very little anyone can do about it. There is no one who has to confirm a nuclear launch order, no one who has to certify that the man giving the order is of sound mind, no congressional leader or Cabinet secretary who has to countersign the order. The 25th Amendment, which allows the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to temporarily strip the president of his powers, is slow and cumbersome.
“All the previous worries about the potential of a deranged president to use a nuclear button irrationally have been multiplied,” says Ron Rosenbaum, who authored a book on nuclear war entitled How the End Begins. “He has no sense of history, of nuclear deterrence, etc., etc. Only his own impulsiveness separates us from nuclear war.”
Would any of the three military generals atop the nation’s command structure—Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and White House chief of staff John Kelly—ever dare to quietly issue some version of the same command that Schlesinger says he did in the final days of Watergate? Something akin to “If the president orders you to launch a nuclear weapon, check with me first?” Technically, only Mattis stands as part of the National Command Authority that oversees the nation’s nuclear launch system, but even he doesn’t officially have a chance to second-guess the commander in chief.
“If he gave the command, his executing commanders would have no legal or procedural grounds to defy it no matter how inappropriate it might seem,” concludes Bruce Blair, a Princeton scholar who has dedicated his life to understanding our nation’s nuclear apparatus. “There is no wiggle room for evasion or defiance of the president’s orders.”
Our system is predicated on military commanders obeying a presidential launch order without question, and just last week, the commander of the Pacific Fleet confirmed that he’d fire off nuclear weapons if Trump told him to do so. “The answer would be yes,” Admiral Scott H. Swift told an Australian audience. “Every member of the U.S. military has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the officers and the president of the United States as the commander in chief appointed over us.”
There are some nascent efforts to change and update the nation’s nuclear protocols. Rep. Ted Lieu and Sen. Ed Markey introduced legislation in January that would prohibit a president from launching a first nuclear strike absent a congressional declaration of war. “In a crisis with another nuclear-armed country, this policy drastically increases the risk of unintended nuclear escalation,” Markey said at the time. “Neither President Trump, nor any other president, should be allowed to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack.” In endorsing the proposal, former Defense Secretary William Perry said, “Certainly a decision that momentous for all of civilization should have the kind of checks and balances on executive powers called for by our Constitution.”
Indeed, the nuclear power that rests in a president’s hands today seems deeply off-kilter with the geopolitical reality. In 2017, the United States is less likely to face what in the Cold War was known as a BOOB, a massive “bolt-out-of-the-blue” attack of thousands of Russian ICBMs and bombs that would have destroyed any U.S. nuclear weapons that weren’t launched in response within minutes. The Cold War system—designed to respond quickly enough to protect America’s ability to retaliate—is simply outdated. “I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s a remotely likely possibility,” Cirincione says. Plus, even a massive successful surprise attack today would leave both the U.S. and Russia capable of launching hugely devastating retaliatory attacks. The U.S. has scores of missiles aboard its hidden submarines, and according to a new study by Global Zero, Russia, even caught off-guard by a U.S. attack, could use its mobile nuclear missiles to level every U.S. city larger than 172,000 people, killing some 22 million. There’s no longer an real need for a hair-trigger response.
The most likely scenario today is a handful of missiles lobbed skyward by North Korea—a possibility that, while devastating to the target zones, certainly would fall well short of knocking out America’s retaliatory capability. And it would leave plenty of time—hours, even days, to plot an appropriate and proportional response.
There’s also, perhaps, an even easier solution: Simply apply the same rule to presidential launch authority that the nation applies to nuclear procedures at all other level and turn the "football" into a “No Lone Zone.” Given the reality that any nuclear strike today would likely include plenty of time to plot revenge, it seems well worth discussing whether our nuclear command system should include a second voice, either from the vice president, the secretary of defense or a congressional leader.
“If you decide for whatever reason that you don’t want Congress involved, that you don’t want the body that is supposed to have sole authority over warmaking have a say in the war that matters most, well at least have it be two monarchs—have it be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs who has to weigh in as well,” Cirincione says. “There should be an institutional barrier to an insane president launching nuclear war.”
“This is highly dangerous, undemocratic system,” he says. “It’s an obsolete vestige of the Cold War.”