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.
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 US Representative from Hebron, Kentucky called then-candidate Barack Obama a “snake oil salesman” and warned that he should not be trusted with the “button.” Davis told his audience, “I’m going to tell you something: That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button,” Davis said. “He could not make a decision in that simulation that related to a nuclear threat to this country.”
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.