Authenticating the Authenticators

This is an interesting read:

It was a question that changed his life, and changed mine, and may have changed—even saved—all of ours by calling attention to flaws in our nuclear command and control system at the height of the Cold War. It was a question that makes Maj. Hering an unsung hero of the nuclear age. A question that came from inside the system, a question that has no good answer: How can any missile crewman know that an order to twist his launch key in its slot and send a thermonuclear missile rocketing out of its silo­a nuke capable of killing millions of civilians­is lawful, legitimate, and comes from a sane president?

Any chain of authentication ultimately rests on trust; there’s no way around it.

Posted on March 25, 2011 at 12:22 PM57 Comments


Matt Drew March 25, 2011 12:33 PM

Here’s an even better question:

Would anyone who was sane ever order a nuclear attack?

Ross Patterson March 25, 2011 12:48 PM

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

HJohn March 25, 2011 12:50 PM

@Matt Drew: Would anyone who was sane ever order a nuclear attack?

No one sane, who isn’t absolutely evil, would order one first.

Unfortunately, and this is something that good people can disagree and debate forever, it seems that the main nuclear deterrent, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), only works if one sides knows for certain the other will retaliate with similar or greater force.

Refusing to respond to, say, the nuclear destruction of New York may be inviting the destruction of Chicago and Los Angeles, by not only the same enemy, but other enemies as well.

I’m not saying that is a good thing. I pray nothing like that ever happens. I’m merely saying that reality is often cruel.

Brian Page March 25, 2011 12:51 PM

Thankfully (hahaha),
military men are trained using rote learning to obey unquestioningly any superior officer.

would an order like that come in on the red phone?

mabbo March 25, 2011 1:02 PM

It is definitely possible to increase the security of such a system.

You can design mathematical encryption systems such that you need X out of Y keys before you get the final code: IE, we could say that 3 of the following 10 people must all submit their codes for it to work. Maybe make it 4 out of 11, and give the President 2 of them.

This would ensure that if the missileers have a launch order, they know that the only way this could come through is if the President, and at least 2 others in high authority had given the order. Give the missileers a quick day-course on how this math and cryptography work. Have them trust it, not just trust the order itself.

Nixon wants to get drunk at a party, and end the world? Well, he’d better convince two others on the list as well. If the President and half his staff die in an attack, then you still have others, spread out, who can together authorize an attack.

This would mean that the President is no longer above all authority, but maybe in the case of killing a billion people, that’s okay.

Arclight March 25, 2011 1:10 PM

Keep in mind that a lot of their mission is/was to degrade the enemy’s capabilities. So if a preemptive attack was detected, some of the enemy’s missiles or bombers could be destroyed before they could be launched. Or anything that wasn’t operational at the time of the attack or being held back for a “second strike” could be destroyed. It’s not irrational to want to destroy those targets as quickly as possible, regardless of your view of MAD.

Coach K March 25, 2011 1:55 PM

“Any chain of authentication ultimately rests on trust; there’s no way around it.”

Agreed. So I read through the whole article, assuming the author was going to explore the authentication issue more — and all I ended up with was the same old take.

What was the Soviet chain of authentication like? What is it like today in France or North Korea or Pakistan?

Tanuki March 25, 2011 2:02 PM

I’m reminded of the time when I was at a meeting with various types discussing requests for information-disclosure under RIPA, and how we could be certain the request was properly validated.

“Don’t worry” they said, “The highest-level request will be signed by the Home Secretary”.

My request that a specimen of the current Home Secretary’s signature be distributed to several hundred sysadmins-who-may-receive-RIPA-disclosure-requests was never actioned.

Andre LePlume March 25, 2011 2:15 PM

“height of the Cold War” would have had Kennedy as Pres, not Nixon, so no worries as long as LeMay is tranquilized.

name March 25, 2011 2:19 PM

“What was the Soviet chain of authentication like?”

Even scarier. Look up “Perimeter”, it’s basically the same as the device proposed in Dr. Strangelove.

Frank Gerlach March 25, 2011 2:48 PM

There is a very simple answer to this question:
Whenever the President of the United States orders a nuclear attack without the consent of some General Officers of the United States Air Force and the United States Navy, he must be clubbed to death by any bystanding military officer.
This is the direct logical consequence of the powers vested into the president. I Expect Every Officer To Do His or Her Duties !

Frank Gerlach

Frank Gerlach March 25, 2011 2:54 PM

Alternative methods of ending the President’s life such as sniper shot, air-to-air missile shot or immediate bombing of the president’s current location are equally required, assuming they are effective in stopping the order to be ever known.
A sharp knife could also be a useful weapon.

Frank Gerlach
Frankfurt area

HJohn March 25, 2011 3:04 PM

@Frank: “Whenever the President of the United States orders a nuclear attack without the consent of some General Officers of the United States Air Force and the United States Navy, he must be clubbed to death by any bystanding military officer.”

If there were a formal policy, I could see the next movie plot threat: a ventriloquist attack.

Bruce Schneier March 25, 2011 3:12 PM

“Alternative methods of ending the President’s life such as sniper shot, air-to-air missile shot or immediate bombing of the president’s current location are equally required, assuming they are effective in stopping the order to be ever known.”

If you people result in the FBI visiting me at home, I’m going to be pissed.

Frank Gerlach March 25, 2011 3:19 PM

Bruce, if you could please read my order precisely. I did not call for an indiscriminate assassination, but for the killing of a person out of the most basic reasons of rational thought.
I always thought you be able to think that far.

lgw March 25, 2011 3:20 PM

@ Bruce – surely it would be the secret service in this case – or would you be pissed because the government agencies got their charters wrong yet again?

Frank Gerlach March 25, 2011 3:21 PM

Bruce, did you read
“Whenever the President of the United States orders a nuclear attack without the consent of some General Officers ” ??
If not, read again.

Nobody March 25, 2011 3:41 PM

Frank – the point isn’t whether Bruce can read, it’s whether the FBI can read 😉

Swatne March 25, 2011 3:41 PM

The most striking thing to me is the response of Air Force to the individual asking the question. While I can understand that the AF would remove him from LCF duties (they must retain control after all), they utterly failed to address the very real issue that was raised. My question – has this ever been seriously answered since and has the system been re-designed with better controls?

HJohn March 25, 2011 3:42 PM

@Frank Gerlach at March 25, 2011 3:19 PM
@Frank Gerlach at March 25, 2011 3:21 PM
Re: Bruce Schneier at March 25, 2011 3:12 PM

Frank, you make the faulty assumption that they may read the post carefully before jumping to a conclusion.

averros March 25, 2011 4:12 PM

Note that Al Qaeda is immune to nuclear attack. In fact, using nuke on a predominantly Muslim city will only make them stronger.

Nukes are only useful against state actors having a definite location and large population centers, and relatively loyal population (otherwise getting rid of the enemy – which is never the population, but always a government, – would be easier done by supporting internal dissent).

The logical approach in defending ourselves from the threat of nuclear attack is to abolish our own state and make sure that everybody knows that various groups (most of whom could be friendly or neutral to the attacker) share the same territory. Drop a nuke – gain a bunch of sworn enemies spread all around the world. (In fact, build a nuke – gain a bunch of people who would seriously like to get rid of you and your dangerous toy even before you got a chance to use it).

The form the revenge takes hardly makes any difference to the person(s) who made the decision to use nukes. In fact, knife could be much less merciful than instant evaporation in a blast of heat.

(Another option – having a non-interventionist and strictly neutral foreign policy – seems to be impossible in large states. This is because the members of the ruling elite bear no significant personal risk (and can gain a lot) in limited military conflicts. So they proceed to create a series of smallish wars for personal gain, creating a lot of enemies for their subject population in the process.)

Garrett March 25, 2011 4:59 PM

There are two problems:

1) Ensuring that only reasonable people are able to issue the order, and

2) Making sure that the person who orders the launch is the person who’s allowed to.

In the USA, the President is the Commander-in-Chief. Thus, the President has the authority to launch missiles at any time. Constitutionally, there is no way to prevent the President (titular or acting) from doing so. It is possible to grant additional people the authority to launch as well, but the President cannot be stripped of that power without a constitutional amendment.

Thus we have elections to try and weed out the crazies (whatever your political viewpoints, elections in this country are a major stressor – if you can get through one without cracking, you’re probably fit for the job on that criteria alone). However, through the 25th Amendment the President can either relinquish that power or be stripped of it if the situation warrants it.

For item 2, it is a matter of authentication. From what I’ve been able to read, there’s usually a senior officer who travels with the President carrying codebooks and communications gear (The Football). It is known that special codes are required to authorize the launch of nuclear missiles. If they are stored in there (reasonable guess) and protected by the military officer, you’ve got something resembling 2-factor authentication. The officer is going to know and recognize the President personally, plus it is going to involve specific codes. If this is combined with, perhaps, a requirement to know which set of codes to use, known only to the President, you’ve managed to get 3-factor authentication, kinda/sorta. Furthermore, any reasonable system is going to have the missile command structure report back to the Pentagon/President that someone is launching missiles as well, providing an almost-immediate auditing function as well. I’m certain that it isn’t perfect, but they’ve probably managed to address the “presidential impersonator crank-calls NORAD and nukes antarctica” dealt with pretty well.

Clive Robinson March 25, 2011 5:05 PM

@ Bruce,

“If you people result in the FBI visiting me at home, I’m going to be pissed”

Not as pissed as when they tell you they have brought a colorectal surgeon and the gear…

This is due to you acknowledging being the originator of the “Butt Bomb” idea (you thought you were joking but the Feebies have always claimed they have no sense of humour…)

As they say the pigeons always come home to roost.

roenigk March 25, 2011 6:07 PM


Your point is well taken vis a vis the mutually assured destruction principal. In addition to MAD not being viable with non-state actors, it also fails with the state of Iran.

For people with this mindset that the final destination of the dead–hell for the infidels, and heaven for the believers– MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement.

I wonder if the Iranians have the opposite problem of authentication and launch. Perhaps a greater need than confirming a valid launch order was received from Khamenei or Ahmadinejad, they are more worried about the true believers holding the individual keys launching on their own initiative.

NZ March 25, 2011 6:58 PM

@Coach K @name
There is a legend that the soviet system was very simple (and even more dreadful). Every missile silo had some kind of connection to the general staff. If that connection went offline for some period of time (like 15 minutes), then the commanding officer at the silo had to order launch of all missiles at predefined targets.

Jon Stone March 25, 2011 7:30 PM

The British system was described in the radio documentary “The Human Button”
The programme covers the fail safe aspects which prevent a first strike knocking out the chain of command and prevent unauthorized launches.

The point made on that programme was that if the Prime Minister went mad an ordered a nuclear strike that was considered unreasonable, the Chief of the Defence Staff would see that the order wasn’t passed on to the submarine on patrol. The Prime Minister can give directions, but can’t directly order a submarine at sea to launch. The head of the UK armed forces is the Queen, not the Prime Minister.

Other interesting aspects of the British system include the letters of last resort, which tell the submarine commander what to do if the chain of command has been wiped out by a first strike.

Richard Steven Hack March 25, 2011 10:47 PM

Frank Gerlach: “I always thought you be able to think that far.”

Nobody: “Frank – the point isn’t whether Bruce can read, it’s whether the FBI can read ;-)”

No, the point is that the Secret Service can read. And the Secret Service is known for their lack of humor in this respect.

Also, the law doesn’t say “IF the President does this, you’re allowed to advocate his assassination.” It says you go to jail for advocating his assassination. Period.

When I was moved to the Federal Detention Center at FCI Dublin, the psychologist doing the intake interview tried to trick me in that way by asking with reference to some of the planning papers the FBI found in my possession, “Just what were you thinking of doing to those past Presidents?” Like I was stupid enough to respond to that question…NOT.

Now, one way around this is what Paul Krassner did during the Nixon administration. He read that Groucho Marx was asked at one point about the Watergate issue, and Groucho said, “The only thing that can save this country is the assassination of Richard Nixon.” The Secret Service did nothing.

So Krassner wrote them and asked why they did nothing. The DoJ responded that since Groucho Marx was “an alleged comedian”, it was felt that his remarks were intended as humor.

So Krassner wrote in his newsletter, “Well, some people consider me an ‘alleged’ comedian. Kill Nixon!”

Richard Steven Hack March 25, 2011 11:02 PM

Roenigk: In addition to MAD not being viable with non-state actors, it also fails with the state of Iran. For people with this mindset that the final destination of the dead–hell for the infidels, and heaven for the believers– MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement.”

Some points:

1) The Christian religion has EXACTLY the same belief system you just declared was the sole province of Iran. And the US military happens to have serious issues with Christian (and specifically anti-Muslim) proselytizing within the ranks. Look it up.

2) Once again: There is ZERO evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons development and deployment program and ALMOST ZERO evidence that Iran has EVER had a nuclear weapons development and deployment program.

3) Even Israel has admitted privately that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons it would behave as a “rational actor”.

4) Iran is in favor of a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone as an official policy.

5) Israel is not. And Israel is the only country in the Middle East which has explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons on its neighbors (threatened against Egypt’s Aswan Dam if the US did not supply Israel arms during the 1973 war.)

6) Israel is ruled by Zionists who can be credibly accused of being just as fanatical if not more so than any “mad mullah”.

Where MAD might not work is in situations where one country with greatly superior forces is attempting “regime change” on another much weaker country which nonetheless has one or several nuclear weapons. In that situation, the country being attacked may feel that since it’s rulers are going to be overthrown anyway, it might as well use its nukes to inflict as much damage on the enemy as possible.

Iran is not in that situation regardless of US threats against it. Its leaders have explicitly ruled out possession and use of nuclear weapons.

North Korea most definitely is in that situation, ruled as it is by a personality cult.

Frank Gerlach March 26, 2011 12:17 AM

Here in Germany we have a “General Fellgiebel Kaserne” and at least one “Graf Stauffenberg Gymnasium”.

The only difference being that a mad German chancellor could not effect the killing of millions in half an hour, but a mad US president could.
There is no need for any funny constitutional paper to justify the removal of a mad US president – the justification are the lives of New Yorkers, Los Angeles, Atlanta, etc residents.
They would pay the price for a nuclear attack on another nuclear power.

Vincent Archer March 26, 2011 6:15 AM

@Dr. John McKittrick

“This is EXACTLY why we’ve turned everything over to WOPR!”

At times, I feel my age. Because the first thing (besides Strangelove, of course) I thought was The Forbin Project

(that’s the original)

albatross March 26, 2011 9:10 AM


So far, Iran has refrained from attacking US forces in Iraq and elsewhere, and Israeli forces, probably because they have a very clear idea of how the resulting war will go for them. They appear to be subject to deterrence as much as anyone else. What evidence is there that they will stop being deterred by the threat of US and Israeli counterattack, upon attacking either us or Israel with a nuke?

Michael March 26, 2011 10:50 AM

Soviet “Perimeter” system is not that scary. It refuses to do anything until the nuclear explosion on Soviet soil at the same time as the loss of communication with multiple high command centers occurs.

Afterwards, it would be glad to wipe the Earth clean (the highest surviving officer on duty would make the decision – if every backup command center is dead, then all bets are off…). But its existence was a tool against trigger happiness: no, we do not wipe USA because of suspicions, we just raise a general alert and the Perimeter will ensure retaliation if anything hapens.

If any side wouldn’t believe in MAD, mutual paranoia would lead to an “exchange”, because no side wants to be on receiving end of a “first strike”.

moo March 26, 2011 3:35 PM


In addition to the two problems you listed, there is a third problem:

(3) Making sure that a legitimate launch order from a properly authorized authority (in this case the President) is carried out reliably and promptly.

aikimark March 26, 2011 5:09 PM

I hope they have the author on BookTV to discuss this book. Sounds like a fascinating read.

Jose March 27, 2011 10:08 AM

Unfortunately most standart EEUU citizens have the false believe, their atomic bombs will protect their houses, but look again what happened in Japan, their atomic reactor are poisoning to theirselves. The real future of weapons are not these obsolete weapons, the future are unfortunately biological warfare weapons, good please help us to protect the world from the terrorists of whole world including the terrorists from USA killing all people, with the excuse of being terrorits, but on reality they want the petroleum and oil of other countries, I hope this post not will be removed.

Dirk Praet March 27, 2011 7:39 PM

I am not familiar with existing fail-safe mechanisms of a US or other president gone mad and ordering a nuclear strike. If indeed there are parties on this planet that can single-handedly decide and order such an attack, the question IMHO also becomes which mechanisms society has in place – or should put in place – to prevent mentally unstable folks – such as known alcoholics or former cocaine addicts – to rise to such a position. See also “The Dead Zone” with Christopher Walken.

w March 27, 2011 10:11 PM

@Dirk Praet , if there is a social problem with society “unstable folks”, it could help to free up the technology to have fast development of new technology, which would minimize social problems.

If locking down nuke weapon theory and technology to only government then less branch can be followed,(say detect neturnio radiation for tracking or supersonic interceptors).

If technology is meant to be doubling ever year at present, why is most house in a country only have (entertaining,cooking,transport,a couple of tools)

Just a view point

David Lightman March 27, 2011 11:51 PM

@ Dr. John McKittrick and Vincent Archer:

A very strange game… The only winning move is not to play.

@ Averros:

Cute nick. I got it. You were plugged in Footnote 6 of the original paper linked in my sig.

BF Skinner March 28, 2011 7:33 AM

@Brian Page “trained using rote learning to obey unquestioningly any superior officer”
that’s not entirely the case; at least in the US. Here soldiers and sailors are trained
to take orders yes but they are also trained in how to think. New techologies are forcing
that on the service.

@HJohn / Matt Drew “No one sane, who isn’t absolutely evil, would order one first.”
So you’re saying Harry Truman was either insane or absolutely evil?

@Bruce Schneier “result in the FBI visiting me at home”
Oh don’t worry the Feebies are really nice. Give them tea and cookies. They’ll be happy if you
just give them Gerlach’s ip from your logs.

But is there any way for the missle commander to know the president is sane and giving a lawful order?
No. Because it is based on the premise that the commander knows enough about the president to make
a diagnosis, and besides all the preatorian guard spew listed here?, neither can anyone around the president.

Was Scott Peterson, Richard Kuklinski or Dennis Rader sane? Not based on their actions but they lived apparently ordinary
lives, raised or were part of families, were members of their church. They weren’t Leatherface raging pyschotic on top of a truck.

The incident rate of sociopathy in the US is about 1 in 25. Sociopaths (psychopaths too) are lucid, charming,
and can be very sucessful in life (since they are miserable bastards who can do anything, backstab anyone, ignore
rules and normal conventions to climb the corporate ladder.)

A candidate’s public persona is a carefully crafted representation. All gloss no warts. The US electorate could easily,
if it hasn’t yet, elect a sociopath to the Presidency. There are no competency tests I’m aware of. I can’t imagine a
sitting president entering therapy, taking a MMPPI, being prescribed anti-psychotics. At least admitting to it. The way
Bush/Rove ravaged McCain on his potential ‘insanity’ from his time as a POW it’d be political suicide.

So where is our protection from an functioning psychopath/sociopath? It’s not the USSS. They are patriots and will protect
the President.

The press? Well they ARE notorius busy bodies always sticking their nose in. A local Idaho paper had been investigating the alleged homosexual behavior of former Sen. Craig for years before his arrest. But they are streched a bit thin and sort of hit and miss.

Peter A. March 28, 2011 11:12 AM

@Richard Steven Hack: “Secret Service is known for their lack of humor”

Certainly. That’s their job. But they aren’t stupid either and most likely know how to allocate their resources effectively.

Remainds me of one incident from a few years ago: working at the time as a sysadmin at a university I got to handle a letter faxed from the U.S. Embassy regarding an email threatening to kill President Clinton, which originated from the university’s IP address space. From the text of the email it was clear that it was just a stupid prank. The prankster, while doing a stupid thing, was smart enough to avoid getting caught – by using a public terminal with no authentication in a public space (university library reading hall) with little oversight (an elderly lady checking students’ IDs), telneting to the SMTP server and manually issuing protocol commands (the latter evident from commands’ timing in the logs).

Whatever U.S. authorities were involved in this issue, they have their job priorities and resource allocations set just about right: the letter arrived five months after the actual incident. I am quite sure everybody in the chain realized that catching the prankster after five months is next to impossible, even if they felt they needed (or were legally obliged) to “do something”. I have responded politely that all logs have been secured etc. etc. No formal investigation or legal action followed.

HJohn March 28, 2011 11:19 AM

@BF Skinner: “So you’re saying Harry Truman was either insane or absolutely evil?”

No, of course not. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justifiable or not, but Truman didn’t push a read button that would cause both us and our enemy nation to utterly destroy one another. He finished a war started by our enemy… it could also be argued that more would have died had we not abruptly ended it, but that will never be known for sure.

I’m not morally justifying or condeming it either way, but I don’t put it on the same level as launching a nuclear attack during the cold war or now, in which case attacks and counter attacks would be massive.

BF Skinner March 28, 2011 12:01 PM

@HJohn “…finished a war started by our enemy…”
Reasonable people can disagree on whether the circumstances of the war’s start are that well defined. I’m not thinking here of the scrap metal embargo as provocation but T.Rooseveldt’s incitement of the Japanese empire and betrayal of Korea. His playing with global power politics set the stage.

But to push the button on MAD and give the finger to the world. Yeah that’s a different order. Thank you for explaining.

Sam Spade: If you kill me, how are you going get the bird? And if I know you can’t afford to kill me, how are you going to scare me into giving it to you?
Kasper Gutman: Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.

Sam Spade: Yes, that’s… That’s true. But, there’re none of them any good unless the threat of death is behind them. You see what I mean? If you start something, I’ll make it a matter of your having to kill me or call it off.
Kasper Gutman: That’s an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgment on both sides. Because, as you know, sir, in the heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.

So it’s a madman who would strike first, pre-emptive, we-fighting-them-there-so-they-won’t-fight-us-here. But would the following massive retaliation be the act of a sane or mad man? If you had your thumb on the button and saw the end of your country inbound on the radar would you launch and end the world?
(and generals calculating a win as losing only 30 million as opposed to 100 million to justify a first strike were they sane? and are we sane as a country to not renounce a first strike?)

Dave Funk March 28, 2011 2:48 PM

@swatne – they utterly failed to address the very real issue that was raised. My question – has this ever been seriously answered since and has the system been re-designed with better controls?
Who said (beside you) that they never addressed this issue. The general agreement, in this blog and amoungst the missileers that I was on crew with, is that there isn’t a good answer. Believe me, the Air Force knows there isn’t a good answer, but thinks that the problems that nuclear deterance addresses are bigger than that one poorly answered question. Essentially, it all boils down to faith, not in the military, for the military chain has a pretty good authentication system, one that Maj Hering learned and understood. The faith that these missileers have is in the American political system. Bad as it is, it is better than any other example with the possible execption of Monaco and other insignificant spots of dirt that have limited distructive capability. No these men and women really and honestly believe that America usually does the right thing. Though they tend to be conservative, they firmly believe that the most liberal American president couldn’t betray the trust of the nation. They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t believe that. That is why Maj. Hering left crew duty. He didn’t believe that. You may think that that belief is naive, perhaps it is a little bit, but that simple belief is a powerful thing. It is also a loving and forgiving thing. Maj Hering is a retired officer. What other military would have ever taken a man who so definitatively questioned authority and let him serve out to retirement? I had my hand on the key, and I understand the awful feer that Maj Hering had to overcome to ask the question. He didn’t know where it would take him, but knew that it couldn’t be good. In the end, the worst of his punishment came from inside of himself. I have the the highest respect for him for asking the question, even though his answer was different from mine.
As for “military men are trained using rote learning to obey unquestioningly any superior officer.” Sod off. you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about, but your spouting off such insulting drivel is a right I suspect that you have never earned.

Clive Robinson March 28, 2011 2:51 PM

@ HJohn, BF Skinner,

“So you’re saying Harry Truman was either insane or absolutely evil?”

The history behind the us of the first atomic weapons was long complex and had many many side effects that still cause significant issues today (for one the creation of the state of Israel).

The proto-idea behind the first atom bomb predates the second world war it’s self and started getting formal acceptance after the experiments at the Cavendish Labs etc.

The person who can probably claim to be the father of the bomb was Leo Szilard who had a patent issued for the bomb in 1934. Perhaps oddly he was a pacifist.

The development of the bomb started in ernest in England, with the “Tube Alloys” project. However Britain did not have the resources. to carry such a monumental project forward.

The shear sums of money involved that resulted in the first uranium bomb are mind boggling even with out correction for inflation in the intervening time.

Also the war in Europe developed from supposed stratigic bombing through carpet bombing through to the fire storm bombings where killing 40,000 people in one city in one night became acceptable had instilled in people that such casulaties where acceptable.

Thus looking at this background alone would have made the dropping of the first bombs almost a certainty without the issues arising from the Bushido code of the Samurai Warrior.

People tend to forget that even in war there is usually a limiting factor of “acceptable losses” to prevent piric victories etc. In Europe the acceptable battle losses were usually below 12.5%. However in the various campaigns to move on Japan the attrision rates were extrodinary. In one battle of thirty thousand Japanese forces only something like 200 surrendered, most prefered to make suicide charges against US and other Nations troops.

Thus for the time killing between 20 and 100 thousand civilians in one action was already acceptable using conventional energy weapons and thus acceptable. Likewise using such capability against an enemy was quite acceptable at the time especialy considering the investment involved.

Thus I would say that in those times the choice not to use the bomb would have been considered the insane option not the choice to use it.

Shane March 28, 2011 5:17 PM

IIRC there was a brilliant episode of old school “Twilight Zone” centered around precisely the same issue.

Dirk Praet March 28, 2011 6:16 PM

The shear size of estimated casualties for operation Downfall – the invasion of Japan – was what ultimately decided the use of the 1st atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Some had put forward figures of half a million dead on the allied side and even more on the Japanese side. From a strictly military point of view, it was the logical thing to do. The subsequent bombing of Nagasaki three days later even from a military perspective was totally uncalled for and to date remains an unparalleled act of pure barbarism only purpose of which was to send a political statement of force to the Soviet Union.

BF Skinner March 29, 2011 8:35 AM

@Clive Robinson “in those times the choice not to use the bomb would have been considered the insane ”

I believe Truman was told something along the lines of invade the home islands don’t drop the bomb and expect to be impeached.

Paul Tibbets never voiced any regrets and made the same point about fire bombing civilian targets. And at that point
we were past caring about war crimes, which inarguably the specific targeting civilians is. (read his autobio if you haven’t he had some interesting observations on opsec during the training of the 509th Comoposite group.)

@Dirk Praet “Nagasaki … uncalled for”
The way I understood it the Japanese Supreme Council was still willing to resist after Hiroshima unless their 4 conditions for surrender were met.

HJohn March 29, 2011 9:42 AM

@BF Skinner at March 29, 2011 8:35 AM

I always shudder when I think of all the innocent people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I’ll admit at fearing what the outcome of WWII would have been if we would not have done it. We probably wouldn’t have had the strength to fight Nazi German and fascist Japan both.

That said, I’ll admit wondering why Japan got the bomb and German didn’t. Maybe it was the fall out to our allies or neutral countries in close proximity to German.

BF Skinner March 29, 2011 11:06 AM

@HJohn “probably wouldn’t have had the strength ”

But we did. V-J day (August 14, 1945) came months after V-E day (May 8).

Given the conditions we had? At that point we’d’ve won anyway. Tired of war we were but none of the US factories or shipyards were touched, our resource supply chains were unharrassed by commerce raiders, we had troops, food to feed them, leaders to lead them.

Germany and Italy were defeated which would have allowed the shifting of resource to the Pacific.

The Japanese had lost every major engagement for 2 years. The Japanese navy was down to a handful of ships they couldn’t fuel. The airforce was gone and the Army was training civilians for home defense. The Japanese merchant fleet was either sunk or harbor bound due to mining so no resources were being brought in to the home islands.

We could have won through an invasion but at an expectedly very high rate of casualties for American troops. (and a survey at the time found 13% of Americans favored the genocide of the Japanese.)

We only had the two bombs for deployment, Little Boy wasn’t tested because of the scarcity of Uranium and Fat Man wasn’t tested at Trinity until July.

Germany didn’t survive long enough to be a target.

Likely though every one in the government and military were already looking ahead past the Marshall plan on to the conflict with the Soviets.

HJohn March 29, 2011 11:20 AM

@BF Skinner at March 29, 2011 11:06 AM

Good point about timelines, I should have known that.

War is most definitely hell. I would imagine that looking at a long and bloody victory, then being given the possibility of ending it swiftly tomorrow, the prospect of tomorrow sounded good.

averros March 29, 2011 6:44 PM

Those who think use of A-bombs in Japan was justified should read the materials of targeting committee. The main criteria for the choice of targets wasn’t military significance of the target, it was psychological impact. They explicitly wanted to kill as many non-combatants as possible.

A hell lot of a way to send a message. Truman and his gang were psychopathic war criminals on par with Hitler & Co.

Besides, Japanese were already in talks about surrender, half a year before the bombing. Their only significant condition was to preserve the Emperor. Guess what – the psychopaths in charge of US insisted on unconditional surrender. And then agreed to what Japanese wanted – after murdering a couple hundred thousand civilians for no good reason whatsoever.

Clive Robinson March 30, 2011 6:43 AM

@ Averros,

“Guess what – the psychopaths in charge of US insisted on unconditional surrender. And then agreed to what Japanese wanted.”

Err not quite. The original call for “unconditional surrender” from all the Axis Powers came very unexpectadly from the then US President at an announcment to the press at the end of the Cassablanca Conferance.

Supposadly it goes back to Ulysses S. Grant at the American Civil War Battle of Fort Donelson in 1862. When he received a request for terms of surrendr from Simon Bolivar Buckner the forts commander, Grant’s reply was that “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” (At that time “works” was the excepted term for man made fortifications). Later it was said that General Grant’s initials “US” stood for “Unconditional Surrender” and he later got called “Good old Unconditional Surrender Grant”.

When asked afterwards about his call for “Unconditional Surrender” from all the Axis Powers US Presedent Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed it was accidental and that he had been thinking about “Good Old Unconditiona Surrender Grant” just before hand.

Accidental or not it had been said to the worlds press and gave rise to an unfortunate chain of events.

Whatever the reason for FDR saying it, it was strongly disapproved of by Churchill, Stalin and just about all other political and military leaders for very good reason.

The only other proponent for “Unconditional Surrender” position was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The reason for the disapproval was simple, it was felt that it could only lengthan the war and increase the costs to both sides. Militarily this was almost a “given” and a well known example of this was the battle of The Alamo, where William B. Travis unilaterally decided to fight to the death against Santa Anna after his call for “unconditional surrender”. Which is why it was prescribed against in international treaty atleast as far back as 1907.

Further it was known by the Allied powers that the European Axis powers were already starting to collapse under the combined efforts of the alies and importantly growing dissent from within by more rational minds within the Axis powers.

Thus it was a generaly held belife amongst Allied Commanders prior to the “unconditional Surrender” anouncment that given the correct oportunity there would be the equivalent of an uprising or Coup Detat that would quickly bring petitions for peace from the Axis Nations.

Importantly though it was felt that calls for “Unconditional Surrender” would have the effect of strengthaning the Axis powers resolve as there would be little reason for rational minds to take over.

And so it proved to be, the anouncment’s usefulness to German home propaganda was immense, it encouraged further extream resistance by the populas and armed forces against the Allied forces. It effectivly suppressed the German resistance movement since even after an attempted Coup Detat against Hitler there was now absolutly no assurance that further such action would improve the treatment meted out to their countries or themselves.

It has been estimated by many scholars and military tacticians that Roosevelt’s call for “Unconditional Surrender” whilst making him look good to some people in the US actually helped prolong the war in Europe by many months. Further and more importantly in Europe it alowed the Soviet Union to build up significantly against the Germans and thus gave rise to the fall of half of Europe to direct or indirect Soviet control and the inevitable rise of the Iron Curtain.

In Japan the effect of the call for “Unconditional Surrender” was seen over time to have a similar effect. The propaganda arising was so strong that on Saipan 10,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide rather than come under US control (Bushido “death before dishonor” mentality, and promise by Emperor Hirohito of equivalence with fallen soldiers in the afterlife).

The Japanese Emperor Hirohito, was seen by the Japanese people as a living god and leader of the Shinto religion with all the divinity that went with it. Although he was the “head of state” his earthly powers were limited by the “Constitution of the Empire of Japan” (though to what extent has always been unclear).

Prior to WWII the Japanese government which was due to constraits in the Constitution effectivly under the control of the armed forces had sanctioned the invasion of China and this had proved to be a much greater task than had been originaly presented to the Emperor. He was justafiably concerned over any further military expansion untill this was more firmly under control (he also authorised the use over three hundred times of chemical weapons against the Chinese). It appeared that his main concern would be retaliation from the Soviet Union who’s armed forces at that time were an unknown quantity.

It is well known that he broke with the “traditon of silence” at Imperial Confrences to call for diplomacy over war that was being proposed by the Japanese Military / Government. And that he was very much opposed for some time to alliances and treaties with Germany and Italy, only aquessing after much persuasion about how it would strengthan Japan’s position with regards to what Hiroheto regarded at that time as Japan’s greatest military threat the Soviet Union (eventually getting a “non agression” treaty with the Soviet Union).

Hirohito was seen by the Japanese government at one point as being an ardent pacifist, which caused the resignation of the Prime Minister. And it was only by repeated reassurance by the armed forces on an almost daily basis that he became steadily more in favour of warfare (to the point of being bellicose in Western eyes).

The truth probably lies somewhere between the two positions, and the view that came to be prevelant after the war appears to have been directed by Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur was very intent on keeping the Emperor after the surrender to get unity from the Japanese people. So much so that it has been said that MacArthur deliberatly made himself unavailable and thus rebuff Hirohito when he came to apologise for Japans actions including that of Pearl Harbour.

What did happen and it is believed this was more for Western eyes than Eastern was for Hiroheto to renounce his “god head” and to a certain extent his control of the Shinto religion.

But what of the much touted “Unconditional Surrender” well if you look at the Potsdam Declaration it only mentions it right at the very end along with a statment about “prompt and utter destruction” of Japan.

However the content of the declaration made no direct mention of the Emperor, which is very different from the apparent intention at the begining of the conferance, where it was belived by many world wide that the Emperor would be held fully accountable for all the crimes of war (and thus be summarily executed).

And it appears that the main point of contention for the Japanese was the section that called for the elimination,

“for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest”

Which appeared directed directly at the Emperor coupled with the dire warning issued with the Potsdam Decleration terms of surrender that the allied position was,

“We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.”

For reasons that have never become entirely clear it appears that it was the Emperor not the Government that rejected the terms of surrender.

So there are many people who can be blaimed for the root cause of the “unconditional Surrender” view point in Europe, but it certainly appears to have been almost entirely removed from the Potsdam Declaration. Thus it is difficult to fathom out the exact reasons as to why it was even included and what effect it had on the descision to drop the first atom bomb.

Historians also disagree quiet vehemently as to if the second atom bomb was required or not, some say it was a simple case of inevitability after the decision had been made to use the atomic bomb.

Others have put it down to being the result of Stalin revealing indirectly at the Potsdam conferance that Soviet espionage had obtained all the details of the bomb, and that the very obvious build up to what later became the cold war “scared the presedent” into using the bombs as a very public display to intimidate Soviet thinking.

As has frequently been said “you pays your money and you makes your choice”.

jan April 29, 2011 5:05 PM

There is a description on how the nuclear launch codes are authenticated on a nuclear submarine:,8816,101361,00.html

“The first part of the message told the Nebraska the war plan that STRATCOM wanted the sub to execute–in other words, how many nuclear weapons it wanted launched and the coordinates of the targets they were supposed to hit. The Pentagon’s strategic war plans were flexible and constantly being updated. The President could strike practically any target or combination of targets he wanted. Every conceivable option the generals could dream up was on his menu, from a single surgical strike to limited attacks to all-out nuclear war. The second part of the message spelled out the date and time window the Pentagon wanted the missiles fired. The strategic war plans were carefully choreographed. Exact times were prescribed for atomic bombs falling on targets. The war planners didn’t want the Nebraska’s warheads exploding over an area outside the window and frying Air Force B-2 bombers swooping in at the same time to drop their nuclear payload. ”

“The last two parts of the message assured both Volonino and the President of the U.S. that the two men could trust each other. They contained the combination to a safe and the codes for the cookies, the nickname for a key part of the exercise.”

“The fourth element of the message contained a row of randomly arranged numbers and letters for the Sealed Authenticator System code, one of the most closely held secrets in the U.S. government. A Trident has to have some way of being absolutely sure that the launch order radioed to it is legitimate. The crew has to be confident that the emergency-action message actually comes from the President, that a hostile country or a rogue American general or simply an impostor hasn’t broken into the defense-communications network and transmitted a phony order to start World War III. The Sealed Authenticator System code is the final step a Trident would take to verify that the order is for real.”

One of the sealed cards is placed aboard the Trident. Its twin, with the identical numbers and letters, is kept by the Strategic Command. When stratcom’s generals drafted the emergency-action message to launch nuclear weapons, they would break open the sealed card and print its authentication code in the order. At the other end, the Trident captain could break open the card he had and compare the code on it with the arrangement of numbers and letters in the message. If the two codes matched, the captain could be certain that he had a valid launch order.

What is interesting:
a) if the description is correct, the first and second part are not authenticated, so someone higher up in the chain could substitute the message while keeping the authentication codes

b) all descryption seems to be done by hand using codebooks

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