Deterrence against a First-Strike Nuclear Attack

(Photo: Jun Seita)

One of the greatest problems with nuclear war strategy is that nuclear attacks require very little time to carry out. At the height of the Cold War, annihilation was, hypothetically, only a few minutes away (as illustrated metaphorically by the famous Doomsday Clock on the cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.) This inspired fear by both sides that the other would launch a pre-emptive strike in order to avoid a surprise attack. The winner (or the side that would lose less badly if everything worked) would be whoever struck first.

In these tense moments, it would be essential to have national leaders who were sufficiently calm that they could make rational decisions. To a degree, they must hesitate to kill. In a 1981 issue of the Bulletin, Roger Fisher made a suggestion for how to create that condition. It’s quoted at the Nuclear Secrecy Blog:

There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.

And so this proposal was never put into practice (as far as we know).

What do you think? Would Fisher’s suggestion have been a good idea?


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What's scarier in today's world is the thought that it might be possible for someone to hack into the system and launch an attack.
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That's the point - make the code hard to get to so he's less likely to use it. It's just a thought exercise. There's so many things wrong with this 'solution' it would never work in practice. Most notably, no one would volunteer. Not because the President may kill them, but because they'd have to be at President's side 24/7. What if the volunteer is sick or injured and has to be hospitalized? No one can cover for him. The guy with the briefcase doesn't have that problem, he clocks out and the next guy carries the bag. It's an 'all your eggs in one basket' scenario.
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Pretty sure our Presidents already KNOW that a nuclear first-strike will kill millions, including many of our own, and will hesitate for that reason alone... Unless they're sociopaths, in which case, killing one more person, up-close, won't give them pause, either. But in either case, the delay could be BAD... Responding to a full-scale nuclear strike is a game of seconds, and the extra delay would make it that much harder, and give even more advantage to the aggressor.
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