HONG KONG — President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, traded threats this week about the size, location, and potency of their “nuclear buttons.”
The image of a leader with a finger on a button — a trigger capable of launching a world-ending strike — has for decades symbolized the speed with which a nuclear weapon could be launched and the unchecked power of the person doing the pushing.
There is, however, no button.
William Safire, the former New York Times columnist and presidential speechwriter, tracked the origin of the phrase “finger on the button” to panic buttons found in World War II-era bombers. A pilot could ring a bell to signal that other crew members should jump from the plane because it had been damaged extensively. But the buttons were often triggered prematurely or unnecessarily by jittery pilots.
The expression is commonly used to mean “ready to launch an atomic war,” but the writer added in “Safire’s Political Dictionary” that it is also a “scare phrase used in attacking candidates” during elections.
President Lyndon Johnson told Barry Goldwater, his Republican opponent in 1964, that a leader must “do anything that is honorable to avoid pulling that trigger, mashing that button that will blow up the world.” Richard Nixon told advisers during the Vietnam War that he wanted the North Vietnamese to believe he was an unpredictable “madman” who could not be restrained “when he’s angry, and he has his hand on the nuclear button.”
During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton said, “Trump shouldn’t have his finger on the button, or his hands on our economy.”
Each nuclear-capable country has its own system for launching a strike, but most rely on the head of government first confirming his or her identity.
Despite Trump’s tweet that he has a “much bigger & more powerful” button that Kim, the fact is, there is no button.
There is a 45-pound briefcase,which accompanies the president wherever he goes. It is carried at all times by one of five military aides, representing each branch of the US armed forces.
Inside the case is an instructional guide to carrying out a strike, including a list of locations that can be targeted by the 900 nuclear weapons that make up the US arsenal. The case also includes a radio transceiver and code authenticators.
To authorize the attack, the president must first verify his identity by providing a code he is supposed to carry on him at all times. The code, often described as a card, is nicknamed “the biscuit.”
The president does not need approval from anyone else, including Congress or the military, to authorize a strike — a decision that might have to be made at a moment’s notice.
Nevertheless, some politicians have called for more layers of approval.
The president must first verify his identity by providing a code he is supposed to carry on him at all times.
“The longer I’m in the Senate, the more I fear for a major error that somebody makes,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said in 2016. “One man, the president, is responsible. He makes an error and, who knows, it’s Armageddon.”
Much of North Korea’s nuclear program is shrouded in mystery. Kim, however, is the undisputed ruler of his isolated country. Any decision to initiate an attack would most likely be his alone.
“It’s not a mere threat but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office,” Kim said in a speech on Monday. “All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.”
It is doubtful that there really is a button on his desk. Furthermore, an intercontinental attack probably could not happen in minutes, let alone seconds. The North’s longest-range missiles are believed to be powered by liquid rocket fuel. That means the missiles must be loaded with fuel before launch, a process than can take hours.