Can a Nuclear War Really Be Launched in Haste? And By Who?

Journalist Eric Schlosser reports that the president isn’t actually the only American who can launch a nuclear attack all by himself or with one other person.


With the transition from the exceptionally restrained Barack Obama to the mercurial Donald Trump, a lot of people have been thinking about the big red button at a president’s disposal. Is launching a nuclear war is as easy to do on impulse as sending out a 3 am tweet? No. And there is no big red button. It’s a matter of entering codes identifying the Commander in Chief — hey, that is kinda the 140 characters of a tweet — found in the nuclear “football,” a briefcase kept near the president at all times. But a president absolutely can make the decision all by himself, with no checks and balances, to launch a nuclear attack. And so—we think—can a handful of other people in the U.S. government.

The details are understandably a matter of tremendous secrecy, so it’s impossible to know with certainty if the system described by Eric Schlosser is still in place. But it may well be: It’s been reported that the main reason David Petraeus had to resign his position as CIA director after the discovery of his extramarital affair was because he’d violated rules of conduct he’d sworn to uphold when he was pre-delegated with the power to launch a nuclear attack. 

About the football, and where its odd name comes from. Smithsonian Magazine explains that, according to 1960s Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, an early nuclear war plan had the code name “Dropkick,” and you can’t have a dropkick without a football.

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