Was the US nuclear launch code really "00000000"?

The frighteningly simple code that could have led to a nuclear holocaust.

Peter Iantorno January 28, 2015

As the story goes, between 1962 and 1977, at the height of the Cold War, the 'secret' code to launch the US nuclear arsenal, and therefore set off World War III, was "00000000".

This is a pretty serious accusation. Over the years, there have been plenty of causes for concern that pose great risks to human life on a global scale. Ebola is a recent example, with a death toll of more than 8,000 people and still no proven cure, it has the potential to kill many thousands more. However, that's nothing compared to the complete and utter devastation that would be caused if the world was to engage in nuclear war.

To put it into context, only two nuclear bombs have ever been used in warfare (both by the US on Japan towards the end of the Second World War), and they are estimated to have killed more than 200,000 people between them. Between today's nuclear-armed states of the US, UK, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea, there are an estimated 17,000 nuclear warheads, with some 4,300 of them considered operational and ready to use at a moment's notice.

If even a fraction of the world's nuclear arsenal was detonated, the damage and loss of human life would be nothing short of catastrophic, so surely the US wouldn't risk all-out war with a security system so flimsy that one airmen in a bad mood could get past it and destroy the world, would they?

Well, yes, if Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman missile launch control officer is to be believed. Writing in a 2004 column for the US's Center for Defense Information organisation, Blair claimed that the launch codes at every silo in the US were set very simply to: "00000000", and that "everyone knew the combination."

minuteman missile

This is a truly terrifying thought, that at any given time any one of a multitude of people who knew the code could simply walk into a nuclear silo and unleash hell on the world. But was that really the case? Well, what is true is that in 1962, the White House ordered the installation of "Permissive Action Link" (PAL) codes on all nuclear weapons in order to tighten security (you even even read the original letter signed by JFK himself here).

Now, according to Blair, this decision was met with strong opposition by the US Strategic Air Command, which worried that the extra layer of security would slow down its ability to respond in the event of an emergency, so the codes were intentionally set as eight zeros.

Shocking. But unbelievably, the story passed most people by until late 2013, when it was picked up by the likes of Daily Mail and the Huffington Post. Cue mass hysteria and droves of commenters declaring the US government "idiotic", "dumb" and many other far harsher names we wouldn't care to repeat.

The new wave of coverage led to the House Armed Services Committee in the US launching an investigation into the issue. At the inquest, the US military categorically denied the accusation, insisting, "A code consisting of eight zeroes has never been used to enable a MM ICBM, as claimed by Dr. Bruce Blair." But then they would say that.

Now, we're certainly no defenders of the people in power, but we also don't believe everything we read, and the fact remains that the whole story has only come from one source: Mr Blair. Incidentally (or not, depending on how you see it), Blair just so happens to be the co-founder of an organisation called Global Zero, which is dedicated to achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons, so if some scary news about how easy they were to set off were to appear, that would certainly not harm his cause.

So, almost 40 years after the alleged code was decommissioned, the whole affair is still shrouded in controversy. Was the nuclear launch code really "00000000"? Perhaps it's just too far-fetched to be true, but you know what they say: fact is often stranger than fiction...