Asking if the nuclear button at President Trump’s disposal is an actual button, as the president claimed on Twitter Tuesday, or merely a figurative term to describe the means by which a nuclear missile can be deployed is a bit like asking someone if they’d preferred to be shot or stabbed to death—a distinction without a difference. And yet here we are in the first week of the new year asking precisely that question.
It began Monday as Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, delivered his New Year’s Day speech, where he offered the possibility of talks with South Korea to reduce tensions caused by his nuclear-weapons and missile programs. But he also delivered an ominous warning: “The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat.”
Much of the subsequent analysis focused on what it would mean for the U.S., which has taken a tough line on North Korea in order to force it into talks, if its ally South Korea begins talks with the North with no preconditions. The U.S. wants the North to renounce its nuclear weapons before beginning any talks—a precondition viewed as unrealistic by regional experts. But it was the part about “a nuclear button” that apparently caught Trump’s attention.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Notwithstanding the puerile, schoolyard-like taunt from Trump, his tweet referred to the “nuclear football,” a series of launch codes contained in a briefcase that the president must enter in order to authorize a nuclear strike—one that no country has ordered since President Harry Truman dropped nuclear weapons on Japan to force it to surrender in World War II. (An early plan for nuclear war was codenamed “Dropkick.” According to former defense secretary Robert McNamara, the Kennedy- and Johnson-era defense secretary, you need a “football” for a “dropkick.”)