Now you know: In one of the more "what in the actual hell were we thinking?!" moments of American history, we now know that the launch code for America's deadliest arsenal was — wait for it — 00000000.
Seriously. And it was written down in all of the checklist manuals handed out to the soldiers in case they forgot.
As Dr. Bruce G. Blair, who was once a Minuteman ICBM launch officer for the Air Force, stated:
"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.'"
The History: In 1962 President John F. Kennedy signed the National Security Action Memorandum 160, which sought to ensure that every American nuclear weapon in the U.S. and deployed abroad was fitted with a Permissive Action Link (PAL), basically a small device that ensured that the missile could only be launched with the right code and with the right authority.
Why the need for a PAL? On a political level, there was concern that the nuclear missiles the U.S. had stationed in other countries, some of which had somewhat unstable leadership — particularly West Germany and Turkey — could potentially be seized by those governments and launched. Further, on a strategic level, the U.S. realized that in the event of a Russian invasion westward into Europe, nuclear sites close to the "front line" in countries like West Germany would quickly be overwhelmed and compromised.
This map shows you who the principle players were. Red denotes the nuclear states, and orange shows the nations where U.S. nuclear arsenals were stationed)
The first PALs were simple mechanical combination locks (!) that were set into the control systems of nuclear weapons. Bypassing the PAL code was once described as being "about as complex as performing a tonsillectomy while entering the patient from the wrong end."
The 00000000 password entered into the equation because it was deemed the simplest code to use in case there was an emergency and panic set in with the nuke operators.
Karl Smallwood over at Today I Found Out further explains: "During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military put such an emphasis on a rapid response to an attack on American soil, that to minimize any foreseeable delay in launching a nuclear missile, for nearly two decades they intentionally set the launch codes at every silo in the U.S. to eight zeroes."
The 00000000 password persisted until 1977. In 1981, almost 20 years after the invention of PALs, just over half of U.S. nuclear weapons were still equipped only with mechanical locks. #Progress.
What's the new code? Based on tactical considerations and the general cleverness of the U.S. military, it's safe to assume the new nuclear launch code is "PASSWORD."
Now you know.