The Weekly Quill — The Nuclear Optionality

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As removed as most of today’s generations are from the original Cold War, the symbolism of the red button has never wavered. New Year’s 2018 offered the perfect contemporary example. As The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur noted of how Monday, January 1st got off with a bang, as an affectionate reminder, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day speech included this forget-me-not: “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.” In a testament to his maturity and statesmanship, on January 3rd, then President Donald Trump tweeted, “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!”

The thing is, there is no button, per se. There is a series of launch codes contained in a briefcase that the president must enter to authorize a nuclear strike. Of course, such actions have been taken only twice in the history of mankind on the part of President Harry Truman. Per Calamur’s research, the earliest mention of a “button” was made by former Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson in his 1957 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in which he pled for a U.S./Soviet Union detente: “Surely the glamour has gone out of war. The thin but heroic red line of the nineteenth century is now the production line. The warrior is the man with a test tube or the one who pushes the nuclear button. This should have a salutary effect on man’s emotions. A realization of the consequences that must follow if and when he does push the button should have a salutary effect also on his reason.”


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