A Negotiator Once Suggested Keeping the Nuclear Codes in Some Guy's Chest Cavity

Caroline Delbert
·3-min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • A negotiation and deterrence expert once posited storing nuclear codes in a volunteer's chest.

  • The goal is simple: to discourage nuclear war by placing a barrier of personal violence in the way.

  • Thought exercises like this and even Saw movies push us to ask ourselves what we're capable of.

An old philosophical exercise to store the emergency nuclear codes in a human being’s chest cavity has once again come to light. It was a plan put forward as a way to turn abstract nuclear warfare into something upsettingly real.

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Via BoingBoing, here's what a negotiation scholar wrote in the March 1981 edition of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: "On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ." Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, George, I'm sorry but tens of millions must die." He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It's reality brought home.

It’s important to note that thought experiments are extreme on purpose, and the goal of Harvard Law School’s Roger Fisher was to make the political decision to drop a nuclear weapon into a personal decision covered in viscera: “When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, ‘My God, that's terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President's judgment. He might never push the button,’” Fisher wrote.

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The goal of this idea is deterrence, plain and simple. Fisher didn’t really want anyone to do this. But what’s interesting today is that the idea of implanting important information almost as a body part has become popular in fiction and as a real idea.

When filmmakers adapted Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity, published the year before Roger Fisher’s butcher knife idea, they had Jason Bourne carry his bank account numbers on a futuristic capsule kept under his skin. Even our pets carry important information on microchips.

There’s a kind of innocence even in Fisher’s gory deterrence plan. A majority of U.S. Presidents served in the military, many in combat roles. In the early days of the U.S. government, politicians were still subject to duels like the iconic one where Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. Legislators had fistfights in the House of Representatives.

The public might recoil at an act of personal violence, but the President is also surrounded, bodily, by one of the best trained defense forces in the world. Why would the President even be the one to use the butcher knife when a former Army Ranger who spent two years training to be Secret Service is right there?

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But Fisher’s idea still has legs. It fits right into a scenario from a Saw film, where the only way to freedom is through another person’s ribcage. And this is weird to say, but it’s true: The Saw films posit a lot of thought experiments that are in line with traditional studies of ethics. They’re trolley problems where you’re the one on the tracks.

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