Buttons, Butcher Knives, Hearts, and Bombs

Finger on the button

Finger on the button

Buttons make things easier, sometimes too easy, as anyone who has drafted an angry email and then accidentally clicked “send” knows all too well. (My solution is to leave the “To:” field blank until I’m ready to send it. In the meantime I get the pleasure of venting— without the consequences!)

The best example of how buttons make terrible things way too easy to accomplish is of course the buttons that release nuclear weapons. Which brings us to butcher knives, hearts, and bombs. I heard about this on a recent episode of the excellent Radiolab podcast.

Roger Fisher, a prominent Harvard Law professor and sometime political advisor, had a long interest in reducing the risk of war. During the 1960s the cold war was red hot, and there was a looming threat of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and U.S. Fisher was troubled by how easy it would be for the President to launch nuclear weapons. He was the more troubled because in the early sixties the President’s joint chiefs included belligerent, brutal generals such as “bombs away LeMay“, men who were not at all troubled by the prospect of using nuclear weapons.

Which brings us to Roger Fisher’s brilliant proposal, to be implemented in the event that the U.S. decided upon a “surprise attack”, or first strike with nuclear weapons. Fisher’s sons explain:

His idea was to get a volunteer who’d have the codes put under their heart. You’d embed the codes in some sort of capsule in the guy’s heart, surgically, and he’d carry around a briefcase with a knife in it, a butcher knife, and if the President ever felt the urge to fire the missiles he has to go to the guy and say, “Well, now is time. Give me the knife.” And then he’d have to take the knife and drive it into the guy’s chest. The President has to chop out this code from the guy’s heart.

In other words, before he can kill millions of innocent people, the President must first kill the military assistant who follows him at all times with the briefcase, butcher knife, and launch codes. As Roger Fisher wrote, “He has to look at someone and realize what death is, what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. Its reality brought home.”


Talk about a brilliant, heart-stopping solution to the problem of buttons making awful things too easy to do. And really, shouldn’t we expect a President to have at least this much courage and force of conviction before he or she launches such weapons?

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