The Big Red Button

A U.S. president can launch a first-strike nuclear attack at any time and, according to the law, does not need to seek advice first. Some experts think that’s too much power to put in one person’s hands. 

Play Button Pause Button
0:00 0:00
  • Gabrielle Sierra
    Director, Podcasting

Asher Ross - Supervising Producer

Markus Zakaria - Audio Producer and Sound Designer

Rafaela Siewert - Associate Podcast Producer

Episode Guests
  • Richard K. Betts
    Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
  • Alexandra Bell
    Senior Policy Director, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation
  • Abigail Stowe-Thurston
    Program Coordinator, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Show Notes

In the United States, the president has sole and unconstrained power to launch a first-strike nuclear attack. While the system is built to provide the president with as much expert advice as possible, consultation is not legally required, and some experts say that such an order could be executed in a matter of minutes. 


Today, we unpack the president’s sole authority to launch, and its implications for national and global security. Is it wise to invest so much power in the hands of one person? What are the alternatives? Gabrielle Sierra explores a system that has been overlooked for years, as she sits down with three nuclear security experts.   


From CFR


Nuclear Weapons, CFR


What the INF Treaty’s Collapse Means for Nuclear Proliferation,” Lori Esposito Murray


The Lingering Specter of Nuclear War,” Stewart M. Patrick


Read More


What is US nuclear policy, exactly?,” Abigail Stowe-Thurston


Explosion Shines New Light on ‘Secret Nuclear Cities’,” Alexandra Bell


The President and the Bomb,” Richard Betts


What Should the World Do With Its Nuclear Weapons?,” Joseph Cirincione, Atlantic


An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age,” Ron Rosenbaum, Slate


Our Apocalypses, Ourselves,” Emma Claire Foley, Inkstick


American students aren’t taught nuclear weapons policy in school. Here’s how to fix that problem.,” Erin Connolly and Kate Hewitt, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 


Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation, Center for Strategic & International Studies


Watch and Listen 


Here's how Trump's nuclear button actually works…” Vox


What If We Nuke a City,” Kurzgesagt

West Africa

West Africa is losing many of its best and brightest. Across the region, doctors, lawyers, and engineers are leaving, depriving some of the world’s youngest countries of the minds they need to develop sustainably. At the same time, coups have rocked the nearby Sahel, threatening to create a corrosive cycle of instability. Can West Africa quell the tide of emigration?

Maternal and Child Health

In the past thirty years, sixty countries have expanded access to abortion care as an underpinning of maternal health. The 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade made the United States the fourth country ever to decrease access to abortion—and the world took notice. Some countries have since reinforced protections for abortion care, while others have moved to further restrict it.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most popular man in India. On track to be elected for a third term, he has boosted the country’s global standing and propelled strong economic growth while consolidating power and galvanizing majoritarian support for his Hindu nationalist agenda—all while growing closer to the United States. How could Hindu nationalism reshape India?

Top Stories on CFR


The closely watched elections on July 28 will determine whether incumbent President Nicolás Maduro wins a third term or allows a democratic transition.

International Law

The high court’s decision could allow future U.S. presidents to commit grave abuses of power with impunity, with serious implications for U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Election 2024

The Ohio senator is Donald Trump’s choice as his running mate for the 2024 presidential election.