As a child of the ’80s, the threat of nuclear annihilation felt very real.
But I and just about everyone else probably thought our leaders were doing all they could to secure those nuclear weapons that could rain instant death on the planet.
For nearly 20 years during the height of the Cold War, the secret code to launch nuclear missiles was terrifyingly simple: 00000000, as reported by Today I Found Out.
In 1962, President Kennedy, concerned about the possibility American nuclear weapons falling into the hands of an enemy, rogue state or terrorist, ordered each missile be equipped with a special lock.
Called the Permissive Action Link, or PAL, the lock was a small device attached to each missile that required an 8-digit code be entered before any launch.
The idea was to make sure no one could launch a nuclear missile without proper authority by having a separate code for each missile.
But many generals worried that looking up codes might take to long if there was ever a full nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.
So at first they dragged their feet…20 years after Kennedy’s order half of American nuclear missiles were not fitted with the device.
And because Strategic Air Command did not like JFK’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, once he left office they reset all the launch codes to 8 zeroes.
Their reasoning was that it was more important to have missiles ready in case communication with the president was disrupted than to ensure proper authorization from the commander in chief.
While presidents may not have known their orders were being ignored, the simple code was written down for those directly responsible for the missiles.
For nearly 20 years, the secret code to authorize launching U.S. nuclear missiles, and starting World War III, was terrifyingly simple and even noted down on a checklist.
From 1962, when John F Kennedy instituted PAL encoding on nuclear weapons, until 1977, the combination to fire the devastating missiles at the height of the Cold War was just 00000000.
This was chosen by Strategic Air Command in an effort to make the weapons as quick and as easy to launch as possible, as reported by Today I Found Out.
The Permissive Action Link (PAL) is a security device for nuclear weapons that it is supposed to prevent unauthorized arming or detonation of the nuclear weapon.
JFK signed the National Security Action Memorandum 160 in 1962 that required all nuclear missiles to be fitted with a PAL system.
But nuclear experts claim the military was worried about the possibility of command centers or communication lines being destroyed in real nuclear war, stopping soldiers getting the codes or authorization to launch missiles when they were actually needed.
So they simply left the security code for the weapons as eight zeros, getting around the security safeguards.
Dr. Bruce G. Blair, worked as a Minuteman launch officer between 1970 and 1974. He has written several articles about nuclear command and control systems.
In a paper called Keeping Presidents in the Nuclear Dark, he wrote that Strategic Air Command ‘remained far less concerned about unauthorized launches than about the potential of these safeguards to interfere with the implementation of wartime launch orders.’
Incredibly, he also writes that the vital combination for America’s nuclear deterrent was even helpfully noted down for the officers.
‘Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero had been inadvertently dialed into the panel,’ Dr Blair wrote.
According to Today I Found Out, Blair wrote an article in 1977 entitled The Terrorist Threat to World Nuclear Programs.
This claimed that it would take just four people working together to launch nuclear missiles from the silos he had worked in.
That very same year all the PAL systems were activated, and the nuclear codes were changed. Hopefully to something more complicated than 00000000.