The Fisher Protocol: Nutty Plan To Hide Launch Codes In A Human Body

Culture | July 29, 2019

Left: All hell breaks loose when the computer in 'Wargames' figures out the nuclear launch code. Right: Is this a valid deterrent? Sources: YouTube; Lepro/Getty Images

During the Cold War, when a U.S.-Soviet conflict seemed completely possible, protecting nuclear launch codes was crucial. It was a necessity you hoped you'd never have to use -- yes, the U.S. President would need access in case he needed to fire nuclear missiles at an adversary. But if it came to that, it had better be the very last option, and even then, we all might question whether it was necessary or the real thing. We'd seen movies -- Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Wargames (1983), for starters -- that told us accidental nuclear war was a real possibility, and after one wrong press of a button there would be no turning back.

The President needs to have access to the codes. But we all want to make sure there's no other option, and that the President isn't entering into nuclear war lightly. How do we make sure we can take action if needed while simultaneously doing our best to prevent that action from being taken?

The Nuclear Football

A US military Presidential aide carrying case known as the football, which contains nuclear release codes, to awaiting motorcade of President Bush following swearing-in ceremony. (Photo by Greg Mathieson/Mai/Mai/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Today, nuclear war seems unlikely, but we remain prepared with the “Football,” a briefcase capable of launching nukes that follows the President everywhere. The Football has existed since at least the Eisenhower era. In 1980, Bill Gulley, former director of the White House Military Office, described its contents at that time:

There are four things in the Football. The Black Book containing the retaliatory options, a book listing classified site locations, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Alert System, and a three-by-five-inch [7.5 × 13 cm] card with authentication codes.

What the vast majority of people likely aren’t aware of is one Harvard professor’s plan to replace the Football. We’ll give you a hint: it involves a brave volunteer, a logical warning against the dangers of nuclear war, and a dark, potentially bloody ending. 

The Havard Professor

Harvard Professor Roger Fisher Giving His Many Insights (pon.harvard.edu)

The Harvard professor was Roger Fisher and his resume reads like a Russell Crowe movie. He served in the Air Force, ended a civil war in Central America, and wrote international best-selling books. But despite Fisher’s accolades, one particularly infamous idea stands out above the others. Naturally, it’s called the Fisher Protocol and nobody ever described it better than he did. 

The Fisher Protocol

Nuclear weapon test Bravo (yield 15 Mt) on Bikini Atoll, 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In March of 1981, Fisher described his protocol:

Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being.
The President says, "George, I'm sorry but tens of millions must die." He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It's reality brought home.

Yes, The Fisher Protocol Was A Real Suggestion

What the fisher protocol might look like, as dramatized on the HBO series 'The Leftovers.' (taskandpurpose.com)

The concept may sound like a plot out of The Twilight Zone but it was a real suggestion by an incredibly smart human. The thought process behind the idea isn’t quite as complicated as the plan itself: nuclear war is incalculably horrific and shouldn’t happen.

Adding the notion of forcing the President to commit a Halloween-style murder only hammers home the point. Fisher very succinctly pointed out the sanctity of life and the disturbing lack of checks and balances surrounding nuclear power. 

The Thought Behind The Plan

Fisher thought simply pushing a button was too easy for something as destructive as nuclear war (qz.com)

Obviously, Fisher never actually thought his plan would lead to some poor navy officer getting stabbed to death by the President. He was simply pointing out the lack of connection between literal annihilation and the act of pushing a button.

The former Air Force pilot realized the disconnect, “I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question,” Fisher wrote. “He might conclude: ‘On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative. Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.’ Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.”

By hypothetically forcing the President to hack open a person’s chest, it would more closely resemble the outcome of launching a nuke. The hope would be that the act of carrying out a single violent murder would give the President pause before pushing the button that would end millions of lives. That’s the idea anyway. 

War Is Bad

The Only Building Still Standing From The Nuke Dropped On Hiroshima (forces.net)

It’s interesting to note that Fisher wasn’t the only smart person to put forth an idea of this nature. In 1986, Owen Chamberlain, the American Nobel laureate in physics, advocated placing the 200 most powerful families of Russia and the United States in each other’s countries. The idea essentially mirrored hostage exchanges, which dates back to medieval times. Choosing powerful families as opposed to a helpless hostage would add a level of security.

Yet, the best argument in favor of the Fisher protocol occurred when Fisher pitched the idea to friends at the Pentagon, “When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, 'My God, that's terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President's judgment. He might never push the button.'" 


Tags: 1980s News | Nuclear War | The Cold War

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!