The nuclear launch process once haunted Nixon’s aides. 43 years later, is it finally time to reform the system?
The scene from the White House south lawn on August 9, 1974, is vivid in the nation’s memory. That morning, President Richard Nixon famously boarded Marine One for the final time, put on a wide grin and fired off a final double-V to the assembled crowd.
But one of the most interesting aspects of that day is what didn’t happen on the south lawn: Even though Nixon had more than two hours left in his tenure, the most critical tool of the modern presidency had already been taken away from him. He never noticed it, but the nuclear “football” didn’t travel with him as he boarded the helicopter, and later, Air Force One for his flight back to California.
In a democratic country without hereditary power, royal crowns or bejeweled thrones, the nuclear football is in some ways the only physical manifestation of our nation’s head of state.
Yet, on that August day, it had been quietly removed from Nixon’s hands—remaining behind at the White House with the incoming commander-in-chief, Gerald Ford.
Moreover, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger recalled years later that in the final days of the Nixon presidency he had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president gave any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them. Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon. Nixon himself had stoked official fears during a meeting with congressmen during which he reportedly said, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” Senator Alan Cranston had phoned Schlesinger, warning about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.”
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