Asking if the nuclear button at President Trump’s disposal is an actual button, as the president claimed on Twitter Tuesday, or merely a figurative term to describe the means by which a nuclear missile can be deployed is a bit like asking someone if they’d preferred to be shot or stabbed to death—a distinction without a difference. And yet here we are in the first week of the new year asking precisely that question.
It began Monday as Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, delivered his New Year’s Day speech, where he offered the possibility of talks with South Korea to reduce tensions caused by his nuclear-weapons and missile programs. But he also delivered an ominous warning: “The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat.”
Much of the subsequent analysis focused on what it would mean for the U.S., which has taken a tough line on North Korea in order to force it into talks, if its ally South Korea begins talks with the North with no preconditions. The U.S. wants the North to renounce its nuclear weapons before beginning any talks—a precondition viewed as unrealistic by regional experts. But it was the part about “a nuclear button” that apparently caught Trump’s attention.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Notwithstanding the puerile, schoolyard-like taunt from Trump, his tweet referred to the “nuclear football,” a series of launch codes contained in a briefcase that the president must enter in order to authorize a nuclear strike—one that no country has ordered since President Harry Truman dropped nuclear weapons on Japan to force it to surrender in World War II. (An early plan for nuclear war was codenamed “Dropkick.” According to former defense secretary Robert McNamara, the Kennedy- and Johnson-era defense secretary, you need a “football” for a “dropkick.”)
But the term “nuclear button” has been in use for decades. The earliest mention that I could find was from Lester Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1957. Pearson, a former Canadian prime minister, won the prize for his role in resolving the Suez Crisis, but it was his “four faces of peace” speech in Oslo, in which he called for detente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, for which he is often remembered. “Surely the glamour has gone out of war. The thin but heroic red line of the nineteenth century is now the production line,” he said in Oslo (perhaps optimistically). “The warrior is the man with a test tube or the one who pushes the nuclear button. This should have a salutary effect on man’s emotions. A realization of the consequences that must follow if and when he does push the button should have a salutary effect also on his reason.”
The term’s use continued through the Cold War. In the U.S., criticism of Senator Barry Goldwater’s apparent openness to using nuclear weapons in Vietnam prompted a New York Times story on September 27, 1964, with the headline: “Controversy Grows On Who Controls Nuclear Button.” But even as it slipped into common usage—according to Google Trends, which tracks such data, it has been in wide use this century and well before that, according to LexisNexis—the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis ensured that it would take more than the pressing of a single button for a U.S. president to launch nuclear weapons. In 2014, former Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs wrote in Smithsonian magazine that President John F. Kennedy was so “horrified by the doctrine known as MAD (mutually assured destruction), [he] ordered locks to be placed on nuclear weapons and demanded alternatives to the ‘all or nothing’ nuclear war plan.” The result: the nuclear football, housed in a black briefcase carried by a military aide who accompanies the president.
“The Football does not actually contain a big red button for launching a nuclear war,” Dobbs wrote. “Its primary purpose is to confirm the president’s identity, and it allows him to communicate with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, which monitors worldwide nuclear threats and can order an instant response.”
The term “nuclear button” might have outlived the Cold War, the fear of global destruction, “duck-and-cover” drills, and even its original antagonists, the U.S., the Soviet Union, but as other countries, such as India and Pakistan, began developing their own nuclear-weapons programs, the metaphorical “nuclear button” entered their lexicon of war, as it did in countries like Israel, which does not confirm or deny the existence of a nuclear program.
It’s not known if Kim Jong Un possesses an actual nuclear button, as he claimed, or a metaphoric one—but he, like his father and grandfather before him, enjoys absolute power. Even if he doesn’t have an actual button to order a nuclear strike, it’s quite possible he has something like it—with fewer safeguards in place than in the more established nuclear-weapons states. It’s that uncertainty that enhances the dangers of a “nuclear button”—the idea that annihilation can be unleashed with such ease by simply pressing a button.
Pete Souza, the White House photographer for Presidents Reagan and Obama who has used his Instagram account to showcase his work and his criticism of Trump, said after the president’s tweet on Tuesday:
In a subsequent post, he too noted that the “nuclear button” isn’t, in fact, a button.
But that’s little comfort for tens of millions of people if a nuclear warhead is hurtling toward a major city on the Korean Peninsula or the United States.