Trigger Narratives and the Nuclear Option

We use the phrase nuclear option rather casually as an everyday metaphor for highly consequential, irreversible and consciously triggered decisions. But chances are, you’ve never actually considered how the actual nuclear option is managed. The turning of this one little key — the picture is of an an actual nuclear trigger —  is easily the most analyzed decision in history. The design of the decision process around it is one of the greatest feats of narrative engineering every accomplished. That the trigger has  (knock on wood) not been pulled since World War II is an engineering accomplishment comparable to the Moon landing.

The nuclear option is the most extreme example of a special kind of decision narrative that I call a trigger narrative: one built around a major decision requires an explicit triggering action after all the preparation is done: things like proposing marriage, submitting a manuscript to an editor or issuing a press release. Not all major decisions are framed by trigger narratives, but for those that are, the nuclear trigger narrative has much to teach.

In Tempo I focused on narrative-driven decision-making: managing the stream of individually inconsequential, but cumulatively consequential and irreversible, decisions that make up our lives. In this stream, true “fork in the road” trigger moments are actually quite rare.

But where a trigger does exist, the challenge is to script a narrative around it that reduces it to the equivalent of a coin toss. An absolutely pure decision-fork where all relevant information has already been factored in as intelligently as possible, leaving you with only a stark leap of faith into an unknown-unknown future. When the moment comes, there should be no more arguments left to debate. No cost-benefit calculations left to make, no probabilities left to estimate. No personality issues or psychological factors left to consider. No moral or ethical issues left to ponder. Just you, a trigger and a future where the unknowable consequences are the most important ones.

So let’s talk about trigger narratives in terms of the building blocks of narrative-driven decision-making: archetypes, doctrines, tempo, key climactic events and so forth. I’ll be focusing specifically on the American trigger narrative during the Cold War.

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Perhaps the single most important factor in the design of a trigger narrative is to model the main decision-maker with an appropriate archetype. Truly consequential decisions cannot be trusted to a wildcard personality. Trigger narratives have to be designed around a specific assumed personality (or related range of personalities, from hawk to dove in this case). When multiple people occupy the role of the decision-maker over time, they must conform to that archetype as closely as possible even if it goes against their grain. What’s more, those affected by the consequences of the trigger being pulled — the Soviets in the case of the Cold War trigger — must believe in the archetype. This point has rarely been emphasized in nuclear deterrence theory: credible deterrence includes credible central archetypes.

A remarkable feature of the American nuclear trigger narrative is how contrary the central archetype is to common perceptions of Americans: loud, boastful, impatient and ready-fire-aim citizens of a violent country.

Yet, when it comes to nuclear posture, the trigger-pulling archetype that the world has come to believe is best described by Teddy Roosevelt’s uncharacteristically subtle dictum: to rule the world, one must speak softly and carry a big stick.

This archetype is evident in the nuclear decision process, and is expressed by the two critical pieces: the President who officially pulls the trigger, and the rest of the nuclear launch infrastructure, with its human and mechanical moving parts, which constitutes the gun. The President speaks softly, the nuclear infrastructure is the Big Stick.

I have been to over a dozen Air and Space museums in the US, and they are usually not shy about loudly proclaiming their presence.  You’d never mistake the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Museum, the museum at Wright-Patterson AFB or even the Strategic Air and Space museum near Omaha for anything other than what they are: huge, impressive buildings containing huge, impressive war machines. If you randomly drove by, you’d definitely notice them. They are all distinctly American in character.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site outside of Rapid City, South Dakota (very near the historic trigger-happy Wild West town of Deadwood) is very different. If you don’t know to look for it, and understand what you are looking at, as you drive by on I-90, you are likely to miss it entirely.


In fact, even to get there, you have to drive to an isolated gas station at the entrance to the Badlands National Park, just off Exit 31 on I-90, and get yourself a ticket (free) from the small, squat ugly building next to the convenience store.  The gas station has no street address. It’s easiest to get to by plugging in actual coordinates into your GPS (43.833571,-101.900441). If it weren’t for the modest sign, you’d have no idea what it was.

Once you get your ticket, you drive back up the highway, take an exit, trundle down a dirt road and come to a flimsy chain link fence.

This is the Delta 01 Launch Control Facility (LCF). The location was never a secret, but it wasn’t exactly loudly publicized either. The Soviets knew where American silos were, and vice-versa. In fact, during the Cold War, many missiles were targeted at enemy silos rather than population centers.

I’ll get to what’s inside in a minute, but let’s take a quick look at the the actual big stick. When active, D-01 was the LCF for a squadron of Minuteman II missiles scattered all over South Dakota. One of these — Launch Facility Delta 09 — is another inconspicuous fenced-in compound off a few exits away. The site has no staff, just a sheaf of brochures by the gate and a number to call for a self-guided cellphone audio tour.


The compound is so chillingly understated, it feels surreal.  All around it you can see the vast American prairies, with cows and horses dotting the landscape. Nothing else.

And then you go in and look inside the glass-encased silo (I suppose the hatch was all-metal when it was operational).  This Minuteman II carried a W-56 warhead, of about 1.2 megatons. Or about a 100 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb (war history buffs, please correct me if I am wrong about the specifics).


The Doctrine of Brinkamnship

A classic idea in nuclear geopolitics is known as brinkmanship, a term coined by John Foster Dulles and perhaps best explained by Thomas Schelling, author of the Cold War classic Arms and Influence.

Brinkmanship is about presenting an opponent with a system designed to go out of control in predictable ways, with the opponent being responsible for the actions that cause the loss of control.

If that sounds irresponsible in the context of nuclear weapons, you haven’t thought it through. When practiced by irresponsible individuals like Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, it is definitely irresponsible. But when you are dealing with (relatively) responsible democracies where the trigger finger is attached to a rational archetype like a speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick President, the only responsible way to use the nuclear option at all is via brinkmanship. Otherwise you might as well retire the weapons.

One way to understand it as follows: pulling the nuclear trigger is always a crazy decision, and if you want somebody to be influenced by the thought that you might actually make that crazy decision, he has to believe that the system is capable of getting to crazy, and that he has ways to prevent it.

Signalling Crazy

When a decision is as consequential as unleashing a 1.2 megaton/100 Hiroshima level of destruction, a visibly sane person threatening to use a 0/1 switch is useless. Your opponent will either believe you’ll never pull it, or believe you absolutely will and strike pre-emptively. One of the most brilliant elements of the nuclear trigger narrative was to make the central archetype believably decisive and rational (“speak softly/big stick”), but to make the process capable of gathering runaway irrational momentum. 

If you ever suspected that the Hollywood version — ominous sirens, flashing lights, tense standoffs between hawks and doves, and stern people announcing “We’re at DEFCON 5” — was an exaggeration, think again. If anything, that’s something of an understatement. My guide — an actual retired trigger-finger officer — told me that there were not just the DEFCON levels, there was also a set of numbered Defense Posture levels from 1-9.

That graded series of threat assessment levels and posture levels are essentially about signalling levels of crazy that must be believed by both the people within the decision narrative and the people outside it.

Stand-up comics sometimes make jokes that make them look clueless to better-informed people. I recently heard one such comic joke about the threat-level color-coding used by the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11: all that Orange/Yellow stuff. His joke, what’s the point of those colors? What are we supposed to do differently? Ha ha.

That’s a perfect example of clueless humor from someone who does not really understand narrative-driven decision-making. The color coding from cooler to warmer colors serves simply to put you increasingly on edge, changing the tempo of the environment by modulating emotion. The DHS model is the doctrine of brinkmanship applied to deploying the citizenry against embedded terrorists. Faced with an unconventional terror threat, the White House needs a mechanism by which to rile up the citizenry all the way to the brink of panic, without sending it off the edge.

The nuclear trigger was designed similarly for the Cold War context. It is unique in that it is practically designed such that the only person who can cause it to be pulled is the enemy.  The human archetypes are mostly presented as sane. It is the system that can build up to crazy. As threat levels escalate and the posture gets increasingly aggressive, the probability of a single random event — like the captain of a front-line combat vessel firing at an enemy — snowballing into a pulling of the nuclear trigger should increase. In system-theoretic terms, the system gets closer to criticality. It’s pulse races, the systemic fight-flight response gathers momentum.

You’ve probably heard of the little 13th century ditty, for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. Managing the nuclear trigger is all about having an opponent believe that the nail-to-kingdom path of destruction can be traversed very fast, and that his actions affect the probability that it will happen.

Crazy Breaking Out

A central idea in Tempo is that systems and processes (or more generally what I call fields and flows) are externalized mental models. One useful way to build a coarse, top-level model of a field-flow complex is to project an archetype onto it. Only one nation in the world has actually seen this lunatic unleashed: Japan. And one of their creative responses was the Godzilla character. Godzilla is the perfect impressionistic model of the nuclear-launch process.

The nuclear weapons infrastructure is the externalization of a single powerful mental model: keep Godzilla from breaking out. Or more precisely, make it so the only way Godzilla can break out is if the opponent chooses to break him out, and design the system to make that easier and easier as a situation escalates.

This is not inconsistent with the Big Stick metaphor. Godzilla is what you get when the Big Stick takes on a life of its own.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were exceptional in ways besides being the first and only nuclear bombings. They also lacked proper trigger narratives. This is one reason why, even though the US was arguably the moral victor in the Pacific theater in World War II, we still feel some ambivalence about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were the biggest sucker punches in history.

Deep down we realize they were not “fair” uses of nuclear weapons. The US was not really to blame. It took a couple more decades for the surreal idea of “fair” nuclear conflict to even get defined in terms of mature trigger narratives. It is hard to imagine a “fair” counterfactual for Hiroshima– perhaps the US could have removed the veil of secrecy around the Manhattan project late in the game and heavily publicized the last test explosions, signalling the start of brinkmanship; but it is unclear whether the Japanese military establishment would have known their lines in that script. You cannot dance if your partner does not know the moves.

Given that the nuclear trigger is basically pulled by a sane archetype within a narrative designed to build up to crazy, you can think of the design of systems and processes — or fields and flows — as the design of a mental asylum designed to keep a crazy systemic process in check, but not too in check. The opponent has to believe that Godzilla can escape and that he is part of the system of protections designed to keep that from happening.

Ask yourself this: when you think of nuclear weapons installations, what is your worst-case scenario? Terrorists breaking in and stealing the weapons? Enemy spies breaking in and sabotaging things, or merely stealing secrets of how the system runs?

The first scenario is not actually a very realistic one in America, but it is in other parts of the world. It would be far too complicated for a terrorist organization to actually break into a silo and get a warhead out of a live missile and escape with it.

You can call this class of scenarios, “crazy breaking in.” It is actually not that important.

The important class of scenarios is actually the other kind: “crazy breaking out.” These are the scenarios for which the system was originally designed.  So you need slippery-slope controls.

Slippery Slope Controls

Once you understand that the system is design to keep crazy in, but make it easier for the enemy to cause it to break out as a situation escalates, you look at its elements in a completely different way.

Here’s a picture of the control panel showing various stages in the launch sequence.

The apparent purpose — to prevent accidental launches or other dangerous errors — is actually secondary. The main purpose is to provide a calibrated series of steps to aid maneuvering on the brink. If that seems schizophrenic, it’s because it is.

There are (or rather, were, since this is the 1960s vintage process) multiple safety mechanisms. Launch commands had to be okayed by two geographically separated locations. There was a carefully scripted exchange of multiple encrypted messages to convey mission profile, targeting information and launch authorization. With each move, the system could be moved closer to the brink. Each side could read external signals showing how the other was moving towards or away from the brink.

When everything was ready, the two officers in the launch pod had to simultaneously turn their keys, within a few seconds of each other. The pod was designed so that if a rogue officer attempted to turn his key and then leap across the room to turn the other key, the other officer would have enough time to fight him. “Design for crazy breaking out” was evident even in the last step.

There are many other fascinating details involved in the launch process, and I am tempted to put in and comment on all the pictures I took during my visit, but I’ll stop here.

The basic point is this: the launch process is a nested set of Godzilla cages, which are unlocked one at a time.

The Trigger Narrative

If you try to frame the nuclear launch narrative using the Double Freytag model from the book, you can view the exploratory phase as the escalation of tension into the nuclear range. The cheap trick moment is the point at which the nuclear option is seriously contemplated. The sense-making part is the arraying of forces in preparation for brinkmanship rather than conventional warfare.

Then you have the tense valley, where nothing much happens, but tension increases. Surreal-normalcy descends, as everybody gets used to being in operational readiness around a nuclear decision.

And then, a threshold is crossed and steady escalation and active brinkmanship commences.  When all stages have been passed, it’s down to the President making one last decision. Two keys turn, and Godzilla steps out of his cage.

Nuclear Postures and Doctrines

Cold War nuclear posture and doctrine was entirely designed around a symmetric situation where both sides adopted similar rules for the game, with a certain level of assumed mutual visibility of brink-maneuvering.  The result, paradoxically, was four decades of tense peace, a detente. The trigger narratives were so effectively designed that things got to the brink only once.

The US Cold War nuclear posture derived directly from the Truman doctrine. The latter was a political rather than a military doctrine, but the nuclear option is essentially a political option, not a military one. The military doctrine was mostly a set of corollaries (involving ideas that derived from the basic containment model in the Truman doctrine, which I don’t have room to get into).

It is the only trigger so consequential that by default only the President, as Commander-in-Chief, can pull it. There is no delegation. There is no definition of a broad set of rules of engagement that allow others to pull the trigger at their discretion.

Nuclear Postures for post-Cold War Scenarios

The description in this post is mostly of historical interest. Cold War era nuclear postures and doctrines are increasingly obsolete today. They do not make sense in the cases of Iran or North Korea. They are not good frameworks to apply to a potential India-Pakistan nuclear conflict. Or even US-China for that matter.

The proliferation of smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons has also muddied a trigger narrative that is fundamental about strategic use by politicians (in the conventional military sense, not in my sense of the terms in Tempo). In a way, tactical nuclear weapons designed for contained damage are scarier than the big strategic warheads. There is a chance that they will some day be deployed for purely military reasons (such as bunker busting), but the result will be that a key psychological barrier will have been crossed, and the idea of nuclear weapons will start to seem dangerously normal. The whole world will edge a little closer to doomsday if that ever happens.

That said, we can still learn a great deal from the original example. What archetypes should the President conform to in the new era of unconventional warfare situations? Does “speak softly and carry a big stick” still work for unconventional threats? Is “caged Godzilla” a good perception to project to Al Qaeda or Iran? Is it even possible to script a trigger narrative that will work at all, or are the weapons obsolete because the narrative engineering is beyond us? What sort of “Islamic nuclear trigger narrative” is evolving in Pakistan and Iran?

We don’t really know. All indications are that these ideas haven’t been seriously updated in 30 years. I am sure the modern launch control centers are full of snazzy computers and advanced electronics, and look very different from D-01. I bet tons of intelligence is streaming into wall-sized situation room dashboard screens. But I am not convinced the narratives have been updated at all. I suspect the same old frames from the Dr. Strangelove era — mutually assured destruction, second-strike capability, launch detection, brinkmanship —  are being clumsily applied to new situations.  As a species, we have a great capacity for allowing technological advances and gloss fool us into believing that our thinking has evolved.

And so our demons slumber on.

I’ll stop here for now. One of these days, I’ll blog about other, less consequential trigger narratives, such as marriage, divorce, accepting and quitting jobs, moving to a new city or country, and so forth.  For now, I’ll leave you to ponder the surreal insanity that still lurks beneath the surface of our world.

I originally had a much lengthier and more ambitious take on nuclear trigger narratives in the works, but since I haven’t had time to research this as deeply as I’d have liked, I’ve flushed this post out in a preliminary form. If there is interest, I’ll develop these ideas more carefully.

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  1. Interesting!

    If you’ve got 2 1/2 hours to spare for a related topic, I highly recommend this Hardcore History podcast on the decision to drop the WWII bombs, and how we as a species got to that point:—(BLITZ)-Logical-Insanity/Second%20World%20War-World%20War%20Two-World%20War%20One

  2. Hi Venkatesh,

    Thanks for sharing this. I was part of the crazy machine in the 80’s/early 90’s on the navy’s submerged launched ballistic missile program. You are correct in your assessment of the highly orchestrated and regimented methods used to employ crazy—it was actually a little more detailed for the navy, if memory serves. I was the guy who served up the weapons for my Weapons Officer standing behind me, holding the literal trigger (we still use this, btw).

    If you haven’t seen this, I’ll share here and at FB:

    This provides a very good policy history of US Strategic Nuclear Policy—I watched it twice last year and plan to watch again when time permits.

    Also, I need to read TEMPO—and bought a copy last year. My Boyd inspired book is nearing completion and is only about 8 months past the original due date.

    Very good post, and once again, thanks for sharing!


  3. Extremely interesting post and a topic I hope you expand upon soon.

  4. Looking forward to more-personal-life-oriented exploration of this idea, as this seems like an awfully nasty example: HighRisk, ZeroSum.

  5. Reminded me of another “signalling crazy” post by John Hempton:

    “To get inflation you need to damage the Federal Reserve’s credibility. You need the Federal Reserve to make a credible promise to be reckless.

    And Ben Bernanke – despite the helicopter speech in which he outlined this view of the world very clearly – is not your man. Maybe it is the facial hair – but he looks – well just too responsible.”