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Nuclear Weapons

The President's Sole Authority

by Jasmine Owens
July 13, 2020

In the United States, the President alone has the authority to launch nuclear weapons. He has no requirement to consult with anyone about the decision. How did the U.S. end up with this policy for our nuclear weapons?

The origins of this policy go all the way back to August 1945. The U.S was ready to drop atomic bombs on Japan. President Harry Truman was shown the bombing order but had never explicitly authorized the atomic bombings. The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th. The second bomb would be dropped three days later over Nagasaki.

[Truman] said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’

Excerpt from Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace’s diary

When Truman learned that a third bomb was being prepared, he ordered that no more atomic weapons be dropped without his express authority. This was the very beginning of Presidential Sole Authority. Truman believed that nuclear weapons were political weapons. Therefore they should be under the control of a political office like the presidency. In 1946, the Atomic Energy Act was passed, giving physical control of nuclear warheads to the Atomic Energy Commission. At the time, this helped to solidify the President’s position by keeping America’s nuclear arsenal out of the hands of the military. By the Eisenhower Administration, though, nuclear weapons were once again kept by the military.

Truman in the Rose Garden

President Truman in the White House Rose Garden.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Unlike Truman, Eisenhower was more willing to share nuclear authority with others. He pre-delegated authority for Air Force pilots to fire the nuclear weapons aboard their planes. Some high-level commanders had pre-delegated authority to launch even more powerful nuclear weapons. Eisenhower knew this was a risky move, considering someone could abuse their power and start a nuclear war. Knowing it would not be popular among the public, he ordered this decision to be kept a secret.

man speaks into microphone

President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Upon entering office, President Kennedy was surprised at how many people were authorized to launch nuclear weapons. Kennedy ordered that permissive action links (PALs) be installed in every nuclear weapon. PALs are electrical locks with specific codes needed to launch a nuclear weapon. This put an end to the pre-delegated authority Eisenhower gave to others.

President Kennedy was also responsible for the evolution of the Presidential Emergency Satchel (the nuclear football) after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The nuclear football is carried by a military aide, who does not leave the President’s side while he is traveling. During the crisis, Kennedy asked his advisors how he would get in contact with officials to launch a nuclear strike, and how they would verify it was actually him.

man speaks into microphone at podium

President John F. Kennedy delivers a radio and television address to the nation on November 2, 1962, regarding the dismantling of Soviet missile bases in Cuba.

Public Domain

Inside the nuclear football, there is the Black Book that contains strike options, a book with classified locations, and a folder with Emergency Broadcast System procedures. There is also a small card, about the size of a credit card, with the nuclear codes to authorize a strike. The president usually carries this card, called "the Biscuit," with him. When a president authorizes a strike, the codes are approved by the Defense Department, and orders are then carried out by two-person launch crews. It takes 30 minutes or less from the time a president orders a strike for the nuclear weapons to reach their target.

George H W Bush out for a walk

President George H. W. Bush out for a walk. The military aid with the nuclear football is seen following just behind.

Public Domain

There have been a few times when presidents have been separated from the Biscuit. During his term, President Jimmy Carter once misplaced his nuclear codes when he sent his suit jacket to the dry cleaners. And, after an attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, he was rushed to the George Washington University hospital. He was stripped of his clothes and possessions before going into surgery. This included the nuclear codes, which were later found by the FBI in a plastic bag in a trash can. It was also reported that in 2000, President Bill Clinton went several months without his nuclear codes before finally confessing that he lost them. In a similar situation, Clinton once left the entire nuclear football behind after hurriedly leaving a NATO summit in 1999.

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Our current policy of Presidential Sole Authority started developing after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Truman, in an effort to take the world's most powerful weapons out of the hands of the military, set the precedent of giving one person the power to destroy the world. Many nuclear experts think that Presidential Sole Authority is dangerous for this very reason. One way of mitigating the risk would be to declare a No First Use policy, meaning that the U.S. would commit to never again be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. 

We are long overdue for an evolution in our nuclear policies, and Presidential Sole Authority is more than ready for reconsideration.

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