In the 1964 presidential election, Democratic candidate Lyndon Johnson’s team released a TV ad featuring a little girl with a daisy in a field. The girl counts the petals on the flower, until she’s interrupted by a male voice counting ominously — followed by a nuclear detonation. The ad was intended to convince voters that Johnson’s opponent, conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater, was too erratic and extreme to be trusted with nuclear weapons.
The ad, called “Daisy,” is the most well-known advertisement in American political history. And now Hillary Clinton has enlisted the same actress who played that little girl, Monique Corzilius Luiz, in an anti-Trump ad with basically the same message:
In 1964, Monique was three years old and appeared in “Daisy,” a political ad about avoiding nuclear war. Here’s what she has to say today. pic.twitter.com/guKbMThlmf— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 31, 2016
You can debate the insinuation that Trump would make a nuclear war more likely. But there is one thing the ad clearly gets right: Presidents have unilateral legal authority to launch nuclear weapons, with essentially no formal checks on their authority to employ the world’s deadliest weapon.
So if you buy the Clinton team’s argument that Trump is erratic and ignorant, and thus more likely to fire off nukes or accidentally get into a nuclear conflict with a hostile power like Russia, then the ad should be quite effective — as the original “Daisy” ad was.
Because the stakes of a nuclear conflict are hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of lives.
Presidents can use nukes
In 2008, then–Vice President Dick Cheney said something pretty chilling about nuclear weapons during a Fox News appearance. According to Cheney, the president is always accompanied by a military aide carrying a briefcase, called the "nuclear football," which allows the president to launch nuclear weapons. The president can launch at whomever, whenever:
He could launch a kind of devastating attack the world's never seen. He doesn't have to check with anybody. He doesn't have to call the Congress. He doesn't have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in.
This may sound like Cheneyian hyperbole. But Ron Rosenbaum, a journalist who wrote a book about America’s nuclear weapons, looked into Cheney’s claims as part of a 2011 Slate piece. He concluded that they were basically accurate.
"No one could come up with a definitive constitutional refutation of this," Rosenbaum writes. "Any president could, on his own, leave a room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million (or more than that) would be dead."
Now, there’s a slight wrinkle: The secretary of defense is required to verify the president’s order to launch. But he or she doesn’t have veto power. If the president orders a nuclear launch, the secretary is legally obligated to do it.
"It's up to the president," Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, wrote to me via email in August. "The advisers that make up the national command authority are obliged to obey and execute the order."
Of course, the secretary of defense could theoretically choose to resign rather than carry out the order, but then it would fall to the secretary’s second-in-command to carry out the strike. Or they could choose to stage some kind of mutiny. During Watergate, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger ordered Department of Defense officials to confirm any nuclear launch orders from President Nixon with him. Schlesinger, according to nuclear expert Bruce Blair, was concerned that Nixon was drinking heavily and might end civilization as a response to the stress of the scandal.
Nixon never gave such an order, thank God, forestalling a crisis. But the point is that the only real check on the president’s nuclear launch authority is insubordination — which isn’t something you want to bet the farm on.
This may sound insane. But to understand why it works this way, you need to understand a little about how the US government thinks about nuclear weapons.
America’s nuclear system has been designed with an eye toward MAD — mutually assured destruction. That’s the idea that no country would nuke the United States first if it knew America would be able to launch a devastating response. Every US nuclear system is thus designed around establishing deterrence: making sure other countries can be certain that the US will be able to nuke them back no matter what.
The US being able to launch fast is a key part of this system. It takes roughly 30 minutes for a nuclear missile to travel between Russia and the United States; Moscow needs to know that the US can respond within that 30-minute period. Otherwise, it might be tempted to nuke Washington in an attempt to destroy the US government before anyone could order retaliation.
Hence why the system has no formal checks on the president’s authority to order nukes. Serious constraints would, according to standard nuclear deterrence theory, make a nuclear attack more likely.
At the same time, you also don’t want a rogue military officer going off and launching nukes on his own. You need a system that allows the president to launch nuclear weapons quickly, but also one that ensures the launcher has proper identification and that it is nuking the right countries (you don’t want to hit China if Russia is the one launching nukes).
The nuclear football system, developed as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is a way to accomplish both goals. The football is designed to verify the president’s identity — using a code card, called "the Biscuit," that the president carries at all times — while also allowing for near-immediate nuclear launch potential. Scientific American’s Michael Dobbs explains how:
Contrary to popular belief, the Football does not actually contain a big red button for launching a nuclear war. Its primary purpose is to confirm the president’s identity, and it allows him to communicate with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, which monitors worldwide nuclear threats and can order an instant response. The Football also provides the commander in chief with a simplified menu of nuclear strike options — allowing him to decide, for example, whether to destroy all of America’s enemies in one fell swoop or to limit himself to obliterating only Moscow or Pyongyang or Beijing.
Dobbs, a former military aide to President Clinton, described the targeting options as a "Denny’s breakfast menu," allowing presidents to pick "one [target] out of Column A and two out of Column B."
A few ISIS-held cities here, a few Chinese nuclear silos there: The president could order a nuclear strike about as easily as you or I could order a Grand Slam breakfast.
The system is, by necessity, designed around the president — with the assumption that all presidents will understand nuclear weapons, their role in US strategic doctrine, and how to avoid escalating with them. The Clinton campaign’s argument, like Johnson’s before theirs, is that their Republican opponent is something quite different.