In his annual New Year's Day address, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un warned the U.S. not to attack his country. "The entire mainland of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear weapons and the nuclear button is always on the desk of my office," Kim said, according to NBC News.
Kim's utterance was just one of many in the North Korean regime's long history of making bellicose threats, though recent North Korean advances in missile capability may have made it seem a little more chilling. But what was even more startling was U.S. President Donald J. Trump's response the next day. "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!" he tweeted.
Trump's retort may have led some Americans to wonder whether he actually has a "Nuclear Button" on his desk in the Oval Office, similar to the box with the red button that he uses to order one of the numerous Diet Cokes that he consumes each day. ("Everyone does get a little nervous when I press that button," Trump once joked to a visiting Financial Times journalist.)
But rest assured that he doesn't actually have such a button, a fact conceded by the White House press secretary in a Jan. 3 press briefing:
Reporter: The President knows that there's no actual one nuclear button. You're saying it is actually bigger. But the reality is —
Ms. Sanders: The President is very well aware of how the process works and what the capacity of the United States is. And I can tell you that it's greater than that of North Korea.
For those who worried about Trump's temperament, his tweet probably brought back memories of the 2016 presidential campaign, when a TV ad for his opponent Hillary Clinton featured a former nuclear launch officer, who warned that the prospect of Trump controlling the nuclear arsenal "scares me to death."
Nevertheless, the process of launching a nuclear attack isn't something that can be initiated simply with the tap of a finger. As the Union of Concerned Scientists' All Things Nuclear blog details, instead of a button on his desk, Trump has something called "the football." It's a 45-pound (20-kilogram) black leather suitcase with an aluminum frame, carried by a military officer who constantly accompanies him everywhere he goes. It contains a secure communications system and a manual of launch options created by the Pentagon for the president to choose from.
But in order to use those options, the president would have to be able to prove to the officers who actually would carry out the attacks that he's who he says he is. To do that, he would use special nuclear codes, which are written on a 3-by-5-inch (7.6-centimeter-by-12.7-centimeter) card that's called "the biscuit."
Once the president validated himself and issued his orders, officers in the Pentagon's National Military Command Center would start sending out encrypted messages to the submarines, bombers and missile installations that actually would carry out a nuclear attack. From Bloomberg.com, here's more detail on what steps would precede the presidential order, and what would happen afterward.
As Sanders explained in the press briefing, Trump would know all this. So the "button" is more of a metaphor for the president's power to launch a nuclear attack, which is derived from his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief. The founding fathers, of course, never envisioned the development of weapons that could kill millions of people and perhaps wipe out human civilization altogether, and today, some wonder if it's a bad idea to give one person that much control over the world's fate. U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., actually introduced legislation in 2017 — just a few days after Trump's inauguration — that would prohibit a president from initiating a nuclear first strike without first obtaining authorization from Congress, but the bill never made it out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
A Short History of Nuclear Threats
So far, Harry Truman — who gave the go-ahead to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 — has been the only president to use that authority. Nuclear historian William Burr, senior analyst for the National Security Archive at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has documented the "nuclear taboo" — i.e., the reality that going nuclear would have terrible consequences — that has deterred presidents from Truman onward.
That's not to say that presidents haven't threatened to use nuclear weapons. "In late November 1950, after the Chinese intervention in the Korean War, Truman — inadvertently, I believe — made what some saw as a nuclear threat," Burr explains in an email. Truman also rattled the nuclear saber by deploying bombers with nuclear capabilities — but without actual nukes — to Great Britain and Guam, he says.
Burr also says that Truman's successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, and his secretary of state, George Foster Dulles, "made explicit threats during the Taiwan Strait crises in 1955 and 1958 and during the 1959 Berlin crisis. On one occasion during the Vietnam War Secretary of Defense [Robert] McNamara made what amounted to a nuclear threat."
But presidents gradually stopped talking in public about going nuclear. "As the U.S. lost nuclear superiority beginning in the 1960s and the nuclear danger increased, presidents became more cautious," Burr says. "Reagan made the famous statement during a radio sound check about "bombing" Moscow, but that was a mistake; he never made nuclear threats because he recognized the terrible danger of nuclear war and was personally committed to nuclear abolition." Since then, presidents have made less explicit threats against enemies, using terms such as "all options are on the table," he notes.
But even so, Trump's willingness to invoke the metaphorical nuclear button — and to boast of its size — sets him apart. "No president has publicly made nuclear threats to goad a foreign policy adversary in the way that the current president has," Burr says.
Hopefully, the confrontation between Trump and Kim will remain a war of words, and not one involving thermonuclear warheads.