The person who has his “finger on the button” has the power to launch a nuclear weapon.
The expression is used to evoke the possibility of nuclear war and to imply that the president of the United States – or his counterpart in other nuclear-powered states – has the power to set off an atomic war at any moment.
There is, of course, no actual nuclear “button” which can be pressed to launch a nuclear missile.
However, it is true that in the United States, the president has the sole authority to decide when to launch the nuclear weapon. He is not required to consult with his advisors before making that decision, and nobody can legally prevent the use of nuclear weapons once the president has issued an order.
Origin of “Finger on the Button”
This unique power may be why the “finger on the button” phrase has been used again and again over the years by politicians, especially in the heat of a presidential race.
President Lyndon Johnson, for example, told his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater, that the president had to “do anything that is honorable to avoid pulling that trigger, mashing that button that will blow up the world.
For his part, President Richard Nixon talked about exploiting the threat of nuclear weapons. He told his staff that he wanted the North Vietnamese leadership to believe that he was a “madman” who could not be held back “when he’s angry, and he has his hand on the nuclear button.”
The phrase is most often thrown around ahead of a presidential election, especially when one politician wants to attack another.
In 2008, a congressman from Kentucky called then-candidate Barack Obama a “snake oil salesman” and warned that he should not be trusted with the “button.”
A few years later, Hillary Clinton told her supporters that Donald Trump shouldn’t be trusted with his own finger on the button.
Clinton went beyond simply being concerned about nuclear weapons, to suggest that, more broadly, Donald Trump should not be trusted.
Clinton said: “The bottom line is that just like Trump shouldn’t have his finger on the button or his hands on our economy, he should not have anything to do with our children’s education and our public schools.”
Of course, activists and pundits also use the phrase.
In 2016, the former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote an editorial for the Chicago Tribune titled “Nuclear weapons: Whose finger do you want on the button?”
The piece said, in part:
Putin is something of a chest-thumper. The two leading GOP candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, are also chest-thumpers. Given that, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the world’s two leading nuclear weapon states are led by presidents who lack the temperament to handle a rapidly deteriorating confrontation…That’s a reality that we need to consider when we finally enter the voting booth in November.
Use of “Finger on the Button” in a sentence
- During the presidential election, voters had to consider who they trusted to have their finger on the button, knowing that the power to launch a nuclear strike comes with the office.
- The escalating global tensions have highlighted the grave responsibilities of world leaders who literally have their finger on the button.
- The image of a single person having their finger on the button is a chilling reminder of the incredible power and potential for destruction that lies in the hands of modern leaders.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.