Drudge Report had a headline on 12-1-2013 that claimed that the PAL security protocol was illegally bypassed from 1962 through 1977 by setting the launch code to 00000000 on all minutemen missiles.

To give you an idea of how secure the PAL system was at this time, bypassing one was once described as being “about as complex as performing a tonsillectomy while entering the patient from the wrong end.“ This system was supposed to be essentially hot-wire proof, making sure only people with the correct codes could activate the nuclear weapons and launch the missiles.

However, though the devices were supposed to be fitted on every nuclear missile after JFK issued his memorandum, the military continually dragged its heels on the matter. In fact, it was noted that a full 20 years after JFK had order PALs be fitted to every nuclear device, half of the missiles in Europe were still protected by simple mechanical locks. Most that did have the new system in place weren’t even activated until 1977.

Those in the U.S. that had been fitted with the devices, such as ones in the Minuteman Silos, were installed under the close scrutiny of Robert McNamara, JFK’s Secretary of Defence. However, The Strategic Air Command greatly resented McNamara’s presence and almost as soon as he left, the code to launch the missile’s, all 50 of them, was set to 00000000.


So to recap, for around 20 years, the Strategic Air Command went out of their way to make launching a nuclear missile as easy, and quick, as possible. To be fair, they had their reasons, such as the fact that the soldiers in the silos in the case of a real nuclear war may have needed to be able to launch the missiles without being able to contact anyone on the outside. That said, their actions were in direct violation of the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States, during a time of extreme nuclear tension. Further, not activating this safeguard and lax security ensured that with very little planning, someone with three friends who had a mind to, could have started World War III.


Is there any evidence to support this claim? Was entering the 8 Zero's all that was required to launch World War III (Or at least a missle)?

  • What would accept as evidence for or against? The article cites a first-person account from an expert but that could be considered anecdotal, I guess. – Oddthinking Dec 1 '13 at 9:54
  • Short of an "official" confirmation by the Pentagon or higher I don't think there's really anything that could confirm positively... – Shadur Dec 1 '13 at 12:25
  • I'm sure the current setup of user ID "admin" and password "1234" has everyone feeling better. :D – PoloHoleSet Aug 11 '17 at 15:08
  • Actually the new password has high entropy... MyNukesAreBiggerThanYourNukes – Chad Aug 11 '17 at 15:38

The source of the information is Bruce Blair. The New York Times has characterized him an "expert" during his time at the Brookings Institution.

He wrote in 2004,

The Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha quietly decided to set the “locks” to all zeros in order to circumvent this safeguard. During the early to mid-1970s, during my stint as a Minuteman launch officer, they still had not been changed. 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. SAC remained far less concerned about unauthorized launches than about the potential of these safeguards to interfere with the implementation of wartime launch orders. And so the “secret unlock code” during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War remained constant at 00000000.

(This is hearsay, but it's a more primary source than the source in the question. This answer can be improved by verifying Blair's testimony.)

  • 3
    note that this also isn't the launch code, it's the code that allows the warhead to be armed. Launching the weapon would rely on a coded order from the relevant command authority, decoded using a rapidly changing cypher which would give an authorisation sequence to verify that the order was authentic. – jwenting Dec 2 '13 at 7:14
  • 3
    @Jwenting - I think that if you can source that, it would be the right answer. The article above calls it the launch code, and infers that the missles could be launched by anyone simply by entering the 8 zeros – Chad Dec 2 '13 at 14:42
  • 4
    @Articuno there is no "launch code" per se. There's the PAL code required for arming the weapon, and a verification code to certify that the launch order is valid. After that, it's a matter of 2 crewmen turning their keys and maybe pressing a button (actual sequence depending on the specific weapon of course). – jwenting Dec 3 '13 at 9:32
  • 6
    I think the point of the article is that with the PAL code a crew could arm and launch a missle. There might be additional codes which were used to verify the correctness of an order, but if the crew decided that they were going to launch without orders, only the PAL code was going to be able to stop them. – DJClayworth Dec 3 '13 at 21:20
  • 3
    @DJClayworth yes, and such was of course a requirement for a retaliatory strike. Submarines for example had (unless several books I've read over the years on the topic, and NGC etc. documentaries about it were all wrong) a requirement to be able to launch on their own in case communications with central command authority were lost (and numerous retries to contact, etc. etc. of course). – jwenting Dec 5 '13 at 6:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .