The Biscuit and the Football


Sole Presidential Authority and Nuclear First Use

“I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Beneath the crude schoolyard bravado is a sobering truth: the President does have, if not a button, a so-called “football” that follows him at all times, allowing him to order a nuclear attack on any target at any time. And if he gave such an order, no one has the authority to stop him…the president has what is called “sole authority” to order the use of nuclear weapons. He could consult with others if he wanted but is not required to do so. Our system is set up so it is almost inevitable that any such order, once verified as coming from the president, would be carried out.

In another relic of our Cold War nuclear posture, we have never committed to not using nuclear weapons first, despite the fact that the stated mission for U.S. nuclear forces is solely to deter nuclear attack on us. We explore these anachronistic and dangerous policies with people who’ve been there. Lisa talks with someone who personally felt the pressure of this awesome decision-making power, President Bill Clinton. We also hear from two who worked in direct proximity to the nuclear chain of command, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, and former Obama deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. Lastly, we talk to someone who would have had to carry out such an order, former Air Force missile launch officer, the late Bruce Blair.

Alex Wellerstein explains that sole presidential authority began by President Truman taking back civilian control of nuclear weapons, but morphed into a process tailored for quick decisions as the Cold War progressed. Tom Collina describes the dangerous ramifications of these policies in today’s security environment. Finally, our guests examine how we can address the dangerous Cold War policies, and Representative Ted Lieu describes his legislation to limit sole authority.


Bruce Blair  

Co-founder, Global Zero; fellow, Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security; served in the Air Force as a Minuteman launch control officer (died July 19, 2020).

Bill Clinton   @BillClinton

42nd President of the United States

Tom Collina   @TomCollina

Director of Policy, Ploughshares Fund; Co-author with William J. Perry, THE BUTTON:  The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

Ted Lieu   @TedLieu   @RepTedLieu

The congressman representing California’s 33rd district; Colonel, Air Force Reserves; Rep. Lieu’s website

William Perry   @SecDef19

19th U.S. Secretary of Defense; Co-author with Tom Collina, THE BUTTON:  The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

Ben Rhodes   @brhodes

Deputy National Security Advisor for President Obama; co-host of the podcast Pod Save the World

Dr. Alex Wellerstein   @wellerstein

Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Stevens Institute of Technology; creator of NukeMap

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