Characteristic mushroom shaped cloud begins formation after the first H-Bomb explosion (US) at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

< Go to Homepage

How the Presidency Gained Control of the Nuclear Arsenal

Since President Truman, the ability to order a nuclear strike has shaped the office.

The idea of the “nuclear button” has haunted conversations about American nuclear weapons for 50 years.  There is no button, but historian Alex Wellerstein says that the button is a “metaphor for how we think about technology, simplicity and our lack of control.” The idea of some country-destroying button dates bate to a time before nuclear weapons were even invented, but then World War II mainstreamed the idea of a “push-button war.” However, since it was combined with the real threat of nuclear weapons, it hardened in the public’s mind and popular culture perpetuated the myth. At first, the ability to spearhead the call to use nuclear weapons was led by the military but over time, Truman himself, as well as his biographers, gave the impression that he explicitly ordered the dropping of the bomb. After the bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945, he realized this wasn’t something he wanted to delegate to the military. A third bomb drop had been scheduled, but then, a memo from Groves to General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army, stated that “the next bomb of the implosion type had been scheduled to be ready for delivery on the target on the first good weather after 24 August 1945.” Scrawled along the bottom of that memo, however, is a note: “It is not to be released over Japan without express authority from the President.”

Since the Truman administration, the process by which the president would order a nuclear strike has “become more robust and hardened,” according to Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University. However, the idea that the president has the unique ability to use nuclear weapons has shaped the modern presidency.

Read the full story at Smithsonian Magazine